Masters Of Art – The Bursting Of The Bonds

WE have seen that during the latter days of the thirteenth century the angel of the Renaissance troubled the quiet waters of mediæval art. The change was slight in outward effect, but in principle it was revolutionary, and marked the dawn of a new era, the full significance of which we were to learn later. Fate willed, however, that Rome should have little part in this new era. Strange as it may seem, from the time of Dante to the time of Lorenzo, Rome did almost nothing in art. To her belonged, in theory at least, the earth and the fulness thereof. Into her coffers flowed the world’s tribute. But sorry days were at hand, days of the deepest humiliation that she had known since the time of the Goths. The empire that still called itself Roman knew nothing of Rome, save to dread and humiliate her, and that new power which had displaced the shattered authority of the emperor seemed tottering to its fall. For seventy years the pope was an exile, and during this period, Rome, robbed of both empire and pope, sank into utter stagnation. With the return of the popes, prosperity did not immediately return. The long prostration had become chronic, and the days when Italy was voicing her supreme message to the world were lost to Rome.

It was in Florence that the new light dawned. Rivals briefly disputed her supremacy, but before the first generation of the new art had passed, that supremacy was established, never again to be challenged by any Italian city.

It is difficult fully to account for this supremacy. In a general way we must associate it with the artisanship which about this time developed so amazingly in Florence as in other Italian cities. Knowing nothing of the pampering of tribute-fed Rome, her life was as naturally creative as Rome’s was parasitic. Hand artisanship, too, has always been the prompter of the brain and the educator of taste. It is certainly not an accident that the two busiest centers of hand artisanship the world ever knew, Athens and Florence, have been its leaders in creative art, while stall-fed capitals like Rome and Washington are powerless to create the art which they are privileged to buy.

We have traced in the mosaics the development of art through the long period of subsidence which intervenes like a great gulf between the art of the Greeks and that of the Renaissance. The mosaics are at once the most distinctive and the best preserved of the mediæval arts. Painting existed, however, and despite its more perishable character, is preserved to us in numerous examples. For the most part, painting served the minor purposes of church decoration. It furnished the altarpieces, that is, the pictures of saints and of episodes from their lives, which formed the backing or decoration of altars erected to them. While these altarpieces were not wall decorations, and so were not subject to quite the same requirements as the mosaics, the tendency was much the same. It was important to catch the eye and lead it to the all-important spot, and so rich color on a gold background was much prized. Even in a later day, when naturalism had made deep inroads upon decorative color, it was the custom to stipulate, in contracts for church painting, that a certain proportion of the space should be covered with ultra-marine blue, that expensive and dearly beloved color. What a light that throws upon the relative importance attached to color and to naturalness in this early art !

These altars, too, were nearly always placed in small niches or chapels surrounded with impressively symmetrical architecture. Pillared aisle and sheltering arch enclosed with impressive symmetry the altar and its decoration, which must needs be symmetrical in its turn. Simple mechanical features increased these exactions. The picture must needs be protected when not specially exhibited to the faithful, and for this purpose doors were used, which, when opened, must needs be sightly, that is, decorative in their turn. Hence arose the three-fold picture, or triptych, a larger central picture between two smaller ones, which must needs match each other, and, in turn, laid so much the more emphasis upon symmetry in the central part. After doors ceased to be used, the painting of these three-fold pictures with superb architectural frames continued, and even after the compartment frame was abandoned, the artists continued for generations to think out their picture in three parts, and the perfect bilateral symmetry of the early altarpieces long seemed to them a fundamental law of art. The Madonna and her throne occupy the exact center of the picture, and the angels or saints on either side are exact mates, man for man, woman for woman, all, even to the bowing of the head and the direction of the eye.

It is easy to see why this symmetry was desired, but equally easy to see that it was very unnatural. Living beings do not spontaneously arrange themselves in this symmetrical manner, and if we devote ourselves seriously to the representation of life, one of the first things we shall seek is the freedom and spontaneity which is its most obvious characteristic. Yet art can never quite surrender its demand for symmetry or regularity of a certain kind. Take the altarpiece down from the altar, out from under its Gothic canopy, and away from its pillared aisles, simplify the frame until it becomes a commonplace, and even so you do not quite destroy the symmetry of its setting. The simplest of picture frames, even the square card of the photographer, is still symmetrical and dictates a certain symmetry in the picture itself. The harmonies of art are not inevitable and predetermined. They are wrought out under the pressure of conflicting forces, and are necessarily of the nature of a compromise. The medieval art yielded fully to the demand for regularity, and perfect bilateral symmetry of the mosaics and the altar-pieces was the result. Some of the later realists have utterly revolted against regularity, as Andrea del Sarto in his Visit of the Magi, with the result that their art becomes careless and undignified. Continually, the battle went on, with advantage now to one principle, now to the other. Not till near the culmination of the Renaissance was a satisfactory compromise effected between symmetry and lawlessness. This compromise we may call balance.

We have all seen a pair of apothecary’s scales. Two identical pans hang from the ends of the suspended beam, the one for the commodity, the other for the weights. Each pan is exactly like the other. This is symmetry, .the principle on which the old altarpieces were constructed. And we have seen a steelyard. Here we have one pan suspended from the short end of a beam, while on the other and long end slides a weight which may be adjusted to offset the pan. This is a balance, the principle governing the construction of the newer pictures. Such a picture is Titian’s Madonna of the Pesaro Family in which the Madonna herself is balanced by a flag, not in the least like the Madonna, but a perfectly satisfactory pictorial equivalent. Since that picture was painted art has never returned to the principle of rigid bilateral symmetry. We must of course be on our guard against taking such an analogy too seriously. A steelyard would not make a good composition for a picture, but it suggests the principle on which all good pictures must be composed. It is the principle of pictorial equivalence as contrasted with the principle of complete identity. The new principle is far more difficult, but far better suited to the needs of life.

In defining our terms, we have trespassed far beyond the limits of our present subject. It is in order now to note that the mediæval art is almost always based on the principle of symmetry, while the art of the Renaissance, which we are now approaching, is based on the principle of balance. Of course the new art does not at once discover and master this difficult principle. At first we note only a restiveness under the old restraints, a revolt, sometimes very half-hearted, against symmetry, and a great deal of confusion and disorder, from which art again recoiled, returning to the old-time symmetry, with which, however, it could not remain content. Meanwhile it was, of course, struggling with other problems of sentiment and interpretation which complicated the problem of arrangement and frequently overshadowed it.

It may be well farther to recall that decoration, that is, the adaptation or subordination of art to something else, say architecture, always tends toward symmetry rather than mere balance. Pillars and arches are almost always arranged in impressive symmetry, and paintings placed within them harmonize best when absolutely symmetrical. Even an elaborate Gothic frame on a picture has much the same compelling influence toward symmetry. The old painting could therefore give a very good account of itself, and could interpose a very stout resistance to the freedom and seeming lawlessness which, under the pulsings of new life, art was striving to achieve.

In the Accademia of Florence hangs a picture attributed to Cimabue (B 49) which typifies the mediæval altarpiece. The Madonna is seated on a sumptuous throne centrally placed. The frame, though plain, has a pointed top (a very important feature). The background is perfectly flat and of figured gold, and angels are ranged symmetrically on either side. Here are the two great characteristics of the decorative medieval painting, the flat decorative background, and the symmetrical composition, symmetrical even to the tip of the angels’ heads. Sometimes this symmetry is ridiculous, as in the symmetrical position of the two knees and the folds of drapery which hang between them, at the same time that the artist has placed one foot a whole step higher than the other.

One or two minor characteristics should also be noted. The Madonna is of exaggerated size as compared with the other figures. This is an old-time convention by which the artists sought to represent symbolically the superior spiritual estate of the chief subjects of their art. This convention was conspicuous in Egyptian art and may be traced even in the Parthenon frieze, where the artist never represents a slave as quite the same size as his master. Noticeable, too, are the false highlights which spread like a cobweb of gold over the draperies of Madonna and Child, symbol, apparently, of the celestial character of the wearer, while the true highlights, or exposed surfaces of the drapery folds, are quite independently represented. In all these particulars the picture is completely representative of the late mediæval painting.

We must now wend our way to the great church of Santa Maria Novella, to which we shall have to return again and again as we trace the evolution of Florentine art. In the barren Chapel of the Ruceilai hangs the famous picture which perpetuates their powerful name, the Rucellai Ma-donna (B 50), also attributed to Cimabue, and justly famed as the beginning of the Renaissance. It is so nearly like the one just described that we at first easily confound the two Nevertheless, all that characterizes the new art is suggested in this picture and is lacking in the other. The narrow line between these two pictures is the boundary between old and new. First, symmetry is deliberately sacrificed. We have the same great Madonna, the same sumptuous throne and attendant figures, but the throne is deliberately turned sidewise so that we see athwart one side of it, while the other side is concealed. The Madonna likewise turns sidewise, one knee is placed higher than the other in proper correspondence with the feet, and the Child is thrown conspicuously out of center. Trifling but extremely significant, the conspicuous gold border upon the dark robe of the Madonna is arranged in careless irregularity across the picture. None of these things would amount to much if it were not that they are things easy to arrange symmetrically and things which always have been so arranged until now. It is not as though the artist were struggling with a new subject which refuses to conform to the old law. It is the old subject, and he is going out of his way to break with the old tradition. It will be noted, too, that we have the beginnings of perspective in the arrangement of the side of the chair, the proper location of the legs on the floor, and so forth. Finally, the cob-web of decorative high-lights is gone, the Child is significantly represented as half nude, while Madonna and Child are obviously more human.

But noting all these innovations, we must now recognize their limitations. The artist is plainly frightened and is quite unable to accept, — perhaps unable to see, — the full consequences of his new departure. For instance, he has turned the chair, and we see one side of it running somewhat diagonally across the room. But he refuses to let the front of the chair turn also. Not to have that foot-rest line with the bottom of the picture and the frame to which it is so near, would look terribly, he seems to think ; and so while the chair turns if you look at the side of it, it refuses to turn, if you look at the front of it. Worse still, when we get to the top of the picture. The frame, being a pointed one, is very exacting as regards symmetry. Now the high back posts of the throne are supposed to support a figured hanging, and the post on our left does serve as such a support. But if the other post were to serve to support the other side, the hanging would not be in the center, for it must be remembered that the chair, or at least the back part of it, has been swung round sidewise. To displace this great hanging, however, which fills the whole background of the picture, seems to our artist quite out of the question, and so he ignores the anatomy of his chair behind, as previously he had done in front, and carries the corner post round to where he needs it. The picture remains symmetrical as a whole, and we must confess, so far as present results are concerned, might better have been completely so. Art has not gained much, as yet, by its revolts and its new liberty. That is much the way with revolts and new liberties of all sorts. The first result is confusion and inconsistency which makes the new order an easy mark for criticism on the part of the partisans of the old order.

It is significant of the good soil into which, here in Florence, the new seed was to fall, that the work of Cimabue was met, not by criticism, but by enthusiastic approval. It must have been something more than ordinary insight which enabled the Florentines to recognize in this picture an epoch-making achievement, and to welcome its advent with triumphal processions and jubilation. Perhaps this story is a myth, a recognition in retrospect of the great principles which the picture embodies, but even so it has its significance. Cimabue, here, in truth “burst the bonds of mediæval tradition.”

Other peculiarities are more interesting than important. For instance, the hanging or curtain in the background is of figured stuff, but these figures are regularly disposed over the surface in spite of the fact that the curtain is supposed to hang in folds. This is due to the traditional practice of covering the surface with a thin layer of plaster and executing decorative figures upon it in relief before the painting is begun. The figures, thus executed, cannot adjust themselves to the folds which are painted on afterwards. This is fairly characteristic of the blending of old and new in incompatible union, which characterizes all Cimabue’s art.

We last find Cimabue in the glorious Church of Saint Francis at Assisi where he is so soon to be eclipsed by his great pupil. One work in the Lower Church, however, undoubtedly to be ascribed to him, deserves further note. It is again a Madonna and Child with an angel on either side, and out at one side another figure, Saint Francis. It is a fresco and differs in consequence from the tempera paintings we have been considering. But the significant difference is in the normal scale of the Madonna who now scarce exceeds in size the other figures. Cimabue was clearly tired of the artificiality of the old convention. Another seeming change is the complete non-symmetry of the picture by the addition of Saint Francis, a break with the old tradition which does not seem very subtle or fortunate. This, however, is probably unintentional. The great wall on which this picture is painted was later divided into regular panels and its decoration completed by Giotto. It looks very much as though Cimabue’s picture had once been larger than now, with another figure on the left matching the Saint Francis, probably the usual figure of Saint Clara. If so, Cimabue apparently painted his picture with little thought of other pictures to be painted later, and when Giotto came to divide the whole wall up into uniform panels, he found Cimabue’s picture too large to fit, and rather than spoil the symmetry of the whole wall, he trimmed off the end of the over-large picture. Some things in the character of the picture indicate such a trimming. If so, Cimabue never departs widely from the character of the older art. He retains its flat background, its symmetry, its general character. But he is restive under all these limitations. This is the significant thing. Art had spent a thousand years in perfecting this style with its comely symmetries and its golden splendor, and no sooner is the task achieved, as in the great mosaic of Santa Maria in Trastevere, than restless art tires of its own creation and begins to work out a new ideal. Cimabue was educated in the old order, knew the older art, long accepted it even, but finally becomes restive and strives for a new art, new principles, new ideals. But that new art was not to be his. He saw and greeted it from afar, only to resign its quest to younger and less trammeled spirits.