When is an icon not an icon?

Florence_from_Fiasole_May19

Yet another change in location, this time to Florence for a wedding, but with some time set aside to gorge myself on early Renaissance painting.   That means traipsing around a lot of churches (because much of the best Italian art remains in situ) and a long queue to get into the Ufizzi gallery (because some of it doesn’t), emerging at the end footsore and with more questions than answers.

Having immersed myself in Eastern Orthodox imagery earlier this year (see “Secular icons?”) my first response on looking at the earliest works by Giotto and Cimabue was “those are icons”.  Stylistically and in subject matter, there is nothing to distinguish them from contemporary Eastern Orthodox icons: the flat, gilded backgrounds, the poses of the Madonna and child, and the saints, are all identical.  That made me wonder if the Medieval believers had approached these images in the same way that an Orthodox Christian would have done, in which case we need to think of the Renaissance not just in the conventional art-historical terms (epitomised by Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation) but also in terms of a change in belief.    This is important because, in most cases the artists would have been working to strict instructions from their clerical paymasters and would not have had much latitude to experiment with new designs.

A case in point is Giotto’s Madonna and Child with four saints, which looks very much like a row of icons on an Orthodox iconostasis. Except that this was originally altarpiece and that, itself, tells a story.   The Orthodox iconostasis stands between the priest who conducts the eucharist and the congregation whereas a Catholic altarpiece sits behind the altar, so that the congregation (that part beyond the rood screen at least) can see the ceremony and, in particular, the part when the priest elevates the host.   Theological developments in the 13thcentury, therefore, drove changes in the arrangement of church furniture and, in turn, led to some of the changes that we see in art during this period.

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Giotto: Madonna and Child with St Nicholas, St John the Evangelist, St Peter and St Benedict the Redeemer.  Tempera on wood, 1337.   Ufizzi Gallery, Florence.

It is not just the position of the image that changed in Catholic churches during Medieval times: subject matter also changes from schematic images painted to prescribed formulae to styles that demanded more mental engagement by the viewer.  Look at Gentile da Fabriano’s altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi, painted about a century after Giotto’s Madonna and Child.   The Madonna and child are still present but are now set in a context that would allow the viewers to imagine that they were participants at the original event.   Note, too, how the subjects in the picture are dressed in contemporary attire and original audiences might also have recognised the patron and members of his family painted into the front of the crowd.   At one level, these altarpieces function as a “poor man’s bible”, bringing elements of the Gospel to the largely illiterate congregations but, at the same time, they are also drawing the viewers into the story, ensuring that they are not just passive observers and, in turn, demanding a response.

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Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi.  Tempera on wood, 1420. Ufizzi Gallery, Florence.

As the fifteenth century progresses, we see the influence of the Renaissance in the images growing. In particular, a better understanding of linear perspective allowed artists to place the characters in their paintings in more plausible settings, drawing the viewer into the pictorial space.   Fra. Angelico’s Annunciation is painted onto a wall at the top of a staircase leading to monk’s cells in the Convent of San Marco, so the engagement with the viewer would be brief: no more than a short pause and a prayer before moving on.   The quiet scene depicted here is, perhaps, better suited to a monastery’s cloisters than the busy-ness that we saw in the Adoration of the Magi but, by focussing on just two people, pictures of the Annunciation create spaces that need to be filled if the illusion of pictorial depth is to be maintained.   And so we see, in the background of both Fra. Angelico’s and Leonardo’s Annunciations, the first tentative steps at depicting landscapes.

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Fra. Angelico’s Annunciation at the Convent of San Marco, Florence.  Fresco, 1437-1446.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation. Oil and tempera on wood, 1472-1474.  Ufizzi Gallery, Florence.

The painting style may have developed through the early Renaissance but one feature that all these pictures still share with their Gothic predecessors, and with Byzantine icons, is that they are still “applied art”: each was painted with a particular purpose in mind, whether for a church or a monastery, and 21stcentury notions of aesthetics have to bear this in mind.   On our trip to Florence this aspect was exemplified by Ghirlandaio’s The Last Supper, also at the Convent of San Marco.  This is in rather better condition than Leonardo’s depiction of the same scene in Milan (which is about a decade younger) but is similar in other ways (some think that Leonardo may have been inspired by Ghirlandaio’s treatment of the subject) and, significantly, was also painted life-size onto the wall of a refectory.   Once again, we can see clever use of linear perspective to create an illusion of depth and, in the background, trees that suggest that, instead of looking at a flat wall we are, in fact, looking into an extension of the room that we are in which, in turn, has windows that look out onto a garden.   That gives us an important clue to unlocking the meaning of the image.

The Refectory where we find The Last Supper is now the gift shop for the San Marco museum, but there are wooden benches along two of the walls where you can sit down and try and put yourself into the place of the monks and their visitors who would have eaten their meals here.   The painting creates the illusion that they were eating in a room that seemed bigger than it really is, and where there were a dozen or so extra guests whose presence was a constant reminder of one of the most important events in the Gospels.  This is the acme of Renaissance thinking: scientific and mathematical principles being utilised to create a work of art that, in turn, synergised man’s relationship with God.   C.P. Snow described what he saw as a profound gulf between arts and sciences in the Two Cultures, written in 1959.  Even then he could conceivably have extended this observation to three cultures by including religion too.  That would have been an anathema in the fifteenth century, when the boundaries between art, science and spirituality were much more fluid.  We’ve learned a lot in the intervening five hundred years but, at the same time, there is much that we have forgotten to remember.

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Domenico Ghirlandaio’s The Last Supper in the Small Refectory at the Convent of San Marco, Florence.  Fresco, 1486.

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The church of Santa Croce rising above the rooftops of central Florence in May 2019.    The photograph at the top of the post shows a view of Florence from Fiesole.

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