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Five Ways to Recognize Renaissance Art

In a previous article, I discussed the Madonna of the Clouds, part of the collection at the Boston MFA. As a second part to that article, I wanted to discuss how to recognize a work of art from the Renaissance. A little over simplified perhaps, but if nothing else I hope that this gives you the ability to look at a work of art with fresh eyes the next time you happen across one.

How real does the painting or relief look?

Atmospheric and linear perspectives were new techniques in the Renaissance. As compared to medieval art, the art of the Renaissance had depth and a reality to it as artists strived to depict that which they saw in nature. Giotto was one of the first to depict blue sky. For viewers today, this does not seem to be a big deal – but take a look at art in the 12th century and prior compared to art starting in the 13th and 14th centuries. There is a big difference. Donatello created the technique of rilievo schiacchiato, altering the sculpting of bas-relief works forever. Prior to that time, all works were sculpted so that the figures were in the foreground and the tablet had to be thick enough to sculpt them at different depths.

How big is the Madonna and what is she wearing?

In medieval art, the person of the most importance was often the largest one in the picture – often dwarfing everyone else. You can see this in the early depictions of Madonna and Christ where she is gigantic and every other figure in the painting is about half her size or smaller. In the Renaissance, the Madonna was ‘regular size’ and wore blue – the paint was made of lapis lazuli – an extremely expensive material. It was saved for only the most important of figures.

What do you see depicted?

Jesus? God? A disembodied hand? Prior to the Renaissance it was considered blasphemous to depict God in a work of art. The thought being that as human it was blasphemous to think you could do justice to his physical being and so outlawed by the church. As a result, the depiction of God oftentimes was a disembodied hand stretching down from the heavens or a white dove flying up into the sky.

How do you know who is in the painting or depicted in the sculpture?

Artists told stores with their paintings and sculptures that represented well-known tales familiar to the intelligencia of the time who were the patrons of such works. Often times the figures in the works would be a combination of religious and secular mythological figures and the patron or patrons who commissioned the work. After all, one never knew who would be in power from one moment to the next – best to represent both pagan and Christian imagery.

What else is in the picture besides the people?

Most figures had attributes or items that symbolized who they were. For example, depictions of Mary Magdalene often had her with the jar of oil she used to anoint Christ with. John the Baptist carried a cross. St. Jermone was always depicted with a lion.

If you look carefully at the works – these items will show themselves over and over. Pretty soon it will be obvious without reading the descriptor cards, what story the painting or sculpture is representing.

Happy viewing!

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