Italy

European religious edifice after the waning of the Roman empire

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe found itself trapped in a downward spiral in terms of the Humanities and civil order. This was a long period of ruling warlords, transient warriors and various cultures attempting to exact their dominance in their respective areas. Some of these efforts were unique and original to the world stage and others harked back to times of familiar but forgotten order. Through this time of uncertainty and weariness many of these cultures established their influence and weaved their tale into the collective story of European history as displayed through their constructions. I will preview some noteworthy examples from Germany, Italy, and France to attempt to clarify their cultural contexts and meanings in this new age for Europe. 

Germany 

Inside Charlegmanes' chapel at Aachen, Germany

“The Palace Chapel at Aachen”  

was the primary residence of Charlemagne. Emperor Charlemagne had attempted to steer Europe back onto the path of civil and human normality which was expressed under the earlier Roman Empire for over a millennia. He had adopted the Catholic Church and ordained it as the religion of his land which was to follow and convert as he did. Charlemagne constructed his palatial retreat in the Carolingian style of Roman, Christian, and Byzantine architectural treatises. The palace reflects his deep-rooted belief in the Christian faith and simultaneously adopts the Roman Basilica style as seen in the Church at san Vitale which was reported to have a great effect on the Emperor. The interior has columns and arches that recall the Byzantine ethos which also heavily influenced the San Vitale Church. The Palace also contained a great audience hall that emulated a classic Roman forum as well. In all, the palace chapel at Aachen was trying to revitalize the late Roman Empire by highlighting the virtuous aspects of creative and varied ability while combining new emerging religious fervor and merging them into a unique blend that defines a large part of historical timeline In Europe. 

Italy 

In Tuscany, the “Cathedral Complex at Pisa, Pisan artists began work on a complex that would attempt to channel past Roman greatness to an extent as seen in the previous example of Aachen. Here the decorum was decidedly more Roman with the facades being clothed in various marbles and richly decorated in tiered columns and decoration. The Cathedral proper is designed in the classic Roman Cruciform-Basilica style and is accented on its exterior in a way that suggests the styles seen on the Parthenon or Coliseum. Multi leveled expanses of the outside facades offer their own unique differentiations in exterior layouts that include the external portions of all the buildings within the complex. The grand presentation of these worship places are highly vested in their Imperial past and offer a true recalling of Romanesque history that their culture is responsible for. 

France 

Amiens Cathedral, France

“The Amiens Cathedral” represents another distinct movement in European religious/artistic history. Here concept of  Christianity has been taken on as a high art. The churches and cathedrals of this time have become a more centralized and an integral part to community life in a way that makes them major economic and civic epicenters to the villages and towns they serve. A movement to bring praise and glory to the religion was to adopt a style of construction called Gothic which was simply a new and decidedly French style that countered the more traditional Romanesque ethos. Here this new style was used to promote the greatness of God through ornate and architectural excellence. These large cathedrals were extremely costly and highly avant-garde in their construction methods.  Every available exterior surface seems to be covered in a symbolic pictorial homage to a teaching or parable from Christ and the Bible. At a time when illiteracy was rampant, these illustrations no doubt helped reinforce the sermons delivered in the pulpit and warned of the revenges and rewards the pious and sinister would befall in their final judgment. The exteriors generally revealed more of a skeletal framework from which windows and ornamentation where displayed rather than merely impressing the overwhelming scale and heavy presence that was custom until this point. Light was now a more valued commodity and with the usage of stained glass the desired mood of salvation was better achieved and appreciated. Also new techniques had to be used to cope with the drastic architectural changes. The walls where now higher, thinner and topped by sharply (and large) inclined spires and roof systems. Accordingly, new buttressing techniques were developed (flying buttresses) to ease the pressing forces of natural physics that were in opposition to these lofty and ornately delicate structures. Also important to note is the perfection of various vault types and styles that carry the weight of the megalithic creations.  In summation, the art of religion and human ingenuity peaked at the same time in France in the middle ages. This style was a clean break from tradition and placed new value towards functionality and art in the sphere of everyday use. 

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Giotto di Bondone’s fresco: “Lamentation”

   

"Lamentation" by Giotto do Bondone (1304-06). Image courtesy of http://www.giottodibondone.org

 

Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337) was a highly skilled Italian painter who is considered to be a founding contributor to the renaissance in Europe. He was known for his masterful rendering of his subject’s faces denoting their expression and intent but also he favored to paint his subjects in more naturalistic poses which was not common for commissioned artists to indulge in. His magnum opus was his ornamentation of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua Italy of which this choice comes from.  

     Giotto certainly lived in a very turbulent time for the arts in Italy. It must have been a time of great longing for the traditionalism of past styles and the uncertainty and anticipation of the newer, then, avant-garde styles emerging from the minds of these young artists. Artists who recreated these religious themes must have felt pressure from their benefactors to produce works that respectfully displayed those sacred events in a safe and familiar way, but still yearned to make a personal statement and add dimensions that had never been fully explored to their pieces. The painting of these religious appointments was an honored task among the artisans of the day. The measure of a prominent artist in this time was reflected on his demand by the church (which often had the funding to dispense for such commissions). And in his day, few were able to take their visions in the same direction as Giotto.  

     As stated earlier, the environment Giotto lived in must have teemed with creativity in all aspects of life. It was the beginnings of a new era where the reemergence of old customs and forgotten knowledge seemed to have no end. Italy was the epicenter for the “rebirth” of humanity in the western world and with all the remembrance of civilizations past came a new inflexion of modern ideas that stood in conflict with the older ways. Society in this time was recovering from the notions of serfdom and fiefdom and was heavily exploring the limits of its new circumstances. Art was now being produced in new and creative styles, styles that suited the creator of the piece and served not merely for institutional purposes but for art’s purposes. People again had the time to devote their lives to the pursuit of such artistic creation and expression.  

     This work itself embodies all the markers for the Italian renaissance from which it was created. The fresco method is a firmly rooted in Italian religious artistry. A frescoist uses the medium of semi dried lime mortar or plaster that acts as a binder to secure the desired pigment (the pigments were only mixed only with water to dilute them) and applied directly to the binding medium. The subject (the lamentation of Christ) was a popular image at the time that conveyed the pain, anguish, and confusion in that pivotal moment in Christianity. These scenes may well have been meant to “center” and reaffirm the believer with the use of such clear and striking presentations as enabled by their technique. The interior of the chapel was completely engrossed in these Christian scenes making these images widely viewable and vividly emblazoned on the minds of the patrons of the church.  

     The images (characters, environment, etc.) are rendered in a solid color and then either highlighted or low lighted in the same base color (only making hue changes to show darker or lighter areas). This suggests that the availability of quality pigments or specific pigments must have been bountiful then. The technical use of the elongated Christ depiction was a standard practice to denote his prominence in the scene and was certainly not a Giotto innovation but a collective tradition in painting and sculpting that harked from the Egyptian method of modeling important figures in scenes. Also the folding of cloth as fabric does when worn is a possible skill learned from Classical/Hellenistic Greek art where motion, light, and action were important to capture. The sharp usage of space and line to draw attention to the center are virtues common to renaissance art as well as the sharp usage of the fore, middle, and background in the painting. For example, in one corner of the work there is a dry tree perched on an up sloped hill diagonally bisecting the painting that (in this native region) represented death and drew the eye towards the main scene. This technique would have been a universally understood visual cue for the viewers to follow. The heads of all important Christian figures were highlighted with a golden halo to name them to the viewer as the expression of their faces seem to have so much to say to the viewer. The clarity with which one can derive the emotion and reaction on any of the faces within say much for the ability of the artist and what was important culturally at this point in time for Italian society. Giotto did add his own unique perspectives to the piece with the angelic figures in the sky above the crowd. He masterfully painted them flying in varying directions with each one having their own perspective and horizon point.  

     The solemn and excited nature of this artwork that combined with the fervor in which Christianity was spreading during this time was surely able to help drive the point “home” to the common people of the time. Reading was not a normal ability at that time yet (especially for common people) and the best way to reinforce the verbal teachings which were being delivered from the pulpit was to have visual examples for believers to contemplate about. There is no doubt in my mind that all who looked on the lamentation walked away with all the intent and energy that Giotto had envisioned his work would generate.