When is an icon not an icon?


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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


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.


Going with the flow …


I’ve written before about my enthusiasm for Leonardo da Vinci as an exemplar of the fertility of bringing artistic sensibilities to science and vice versa (see “Imagined but not imaginary”).   A small exhibition at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle with ten of his drawings from the Royal Collection on display gave me an opportunity to indulge my passion, particularly as it included one drawing that is pertinent to the subject of this blog.

It is an intriguing story because it brings Leonardo together with some of the most notorious names in Renaissance Italy: Cesare Borgia and Niccolo Machiavelli.   It was at the court of Cesare Borgia that Leonardo crossed paths with Machiavelli, then the Florentine ambassador, and was later employed by the government of Florence on a grand engineering scheme.

The scheme – which truly deserves the adjective “Machiavellian” – involved diverting the River Arno downstream of Florence in order to deprive their rivals, the Pisans, of the water supply they needed to survive a siege.   Later in the same year, he was also commissioned to design a canal to help convey Florentine trade goods to the Mediterranean. The diagram above is one of the maps he drew as part of his preliminary survey of the river and shows the River Arno flowing from left to right.

What is interesting is his depiction of the damage caused by the river at two points on the bank below the weir. The impression from the map is of an artificial embankment on the right bank of the river which is being eroded by the force of the river as it emerges from the weir and then again a short distance downstream as the current describes an arc within the river channel. Called in to advise on “hard engineering”, he deftly points out the folly of working against nature.  Like many of Leonardo’s grand ideas, the diversion of the Arno never got passed the planning stages. Ironically, his plans to alter the Tuscan landscape were confounded by changes in the political landscape: the defeat of Pisa by conventional military means and, ultimately, the defeat of Florence and Machiavelli’s fall from power.

I would have noted this drawing and have moved on were it not for an article I had read the same morning in the Independent on Sunday, describing the UK Government’s belated conversion to the importance of soft engineering in the aftermath of the winter floods. Increased spending on flood defence is also a key feature of today’s budget and, whilst a large part of this will, I am sure, be directed towards old-fashioned hard engineering (and, indeed, this will be necessary to protect some towns), I am glad to see that, 500 years after Leonardo, its limitations are finally being recognised by politicians.

“Imagined but not imaginary”

One of my tasks during the UAMRICH meeting was to participate in an art-science event at the Museum of Science and Technology (MUSE) in Trento.   I had been wondering what to say at this event and, to be honest, had been so busy with preparing for other meetings and talks, that I arrived in Italy assuming that I would have to make it up as I went along. However, by a fortunate coincidence, I was in Milan at the same time as an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s work was showing at the Palazzo Reale. If one is talking about the art-science interface, what better role model can there be?

What I did not manage to do whilst in Milan, was visit the Last Supper.   Admissions are strictly limited in order to protect this delicate fresco and I left it too late to try to book.   It is, however, sufficiently well known that we barely need an illustration. I did manage to see another of his frescos: the less-well known Salla della Asse in the Castello Sforza, which he covered with depictions of intertwined vegetation. In doing this he created the impression that you were in a pergola, rather than a room inside a castle.   There was no direct link between this room and the Palazzo Reale show but there was a drawing of a lily in the Palazzo Reale that shows how large works such as the Salla delle Asse are informed by his close observation of nature.   He uses drawing as an analytical tool, supporting his observations, and building up an understanding of the interactions between form and function.


The ceiling of the Salla della Asse in Castello Sforza, Milan, June 2015.

We can make links between his anatomical drawings, preparatory drawings where he tested poses and expressions, and his finished works. In our secular age, the symbolism within a work such as The Last Supper is hard to understand, so we look at it purely as a pictorial representation of a mythical event. To unlock the picture, we need to look at it again, from the point of view of a Catholic monk who believes in the real presence of Christ during the Eucharist, and to remember that it was painted on the wall of a refectory. Suddenly, all those hours of observation start to make sense: an anatomically-and perspectively-correct portrayal that brings this most significant of meals into the centre of life in the monastery. The ‘facts’ of his detailed drawings, in other words, build up into a ‘reality’ that is more than the sum of its parts.

If had had a microscope, I am sure that he would have taken the opportunity to examine the floral structure of the lily in yet more detail because his curiosity greatly exceeded the need to inform his painting. But over a century would pass before the first microscope was invented. It means that Leonardo’s concept of ‘reality’ was confined to what he could see with naked eye which, in turn, means that he knows how all of the parts relate to one another when the time comes to reconstruct these into his finished picture.

Many of us in the sciences deal with similar problems, insofar as we have to build the data we collect into a coherent story. Those who read our accounts of this research can then test these stories against their experiences of the natural world. But that is not a luxury that those of us who deal with the microscopic world always have. The process of collecting the sample wrenches the organism from their natural habitat. The material is further distorted as we squash it onto a microscope slide in order to see what we have caught.   We also use unnaturally high light intensities and a suite of other optical tricks. For most scientists, the view down the microscope is the only reality that is available. We try to be objective, which usually involves naming and counting what we see, which is actually a step away from reality and, especially after we have applied our statistical tools, towards abstraction.   That’s okay but, unlike our colleagues who deal with the visible world, we have no mental images of the intact community to help us decode the outcomes.


“Immaginato ma non immaginario”: my contribution to AlgArt at MUSE, Trento, June-July 2015.

I make few claims for my pictures, except to say that they are my own personal view of what these microscopic underwater worlds might have looked like before I disrupted them. I say that they are “imagined but not imaginary” because the pictures are constructed from numerous components that are real. In this way, they are no different from the reconstructions of dinosaurs that we can see elsewhere in MUSE.   They are certainly not definitive descriptions of the three-dimensional structure of the microscopic world.   I invite viewers to disagree with my interpretations, if they wish. That, at least, means that I have made you think a little more about what you see when you peer down a microscope.

Postscript: I wrote this on a coach during a post-conference excursion around some twisting mountain roads. Then, 20 minutes before the event started, I abandoned it and spoke off the cuff instead.

I am only trying to teach you to see …

Reading back through my last post recalled a visit to an exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace about a year ago. The blend of art and science in these small but highly detailed drawings gains added piquancy because the motivation, albeit somewhat obliquely, was partly religious: a better understanding of anatomy fuels Leonardo’s artistic endeavours which, mostly, result in paintings with a devotional context (The Last Supper, Madonna of the Rose …). Leonardo would have been perplexed by our modern divisions between the arts and sciences (C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures etc.) and by the science and religion divide perpetuated by Dawkins and others.


A page from one of Leonardo’s notebooks, showing a human foetus in the womb, derived in part from his dissection of a cow.

The struggle I had had with the anatomy of chironomid larvae mirrored Leonardo’s own explorations of the human body. The cultural significance of these drawings is that his own observations were replacing, and sometimes challenging, the notions handed down from Galen and other classical authorities. Yet even Leonardo was not a totally dispassionate observer of the human body: the exhibition notes examples where his drawings included non-existent elements borrowed from classical books whilst his famous drawings of human embryos are based, in part, on bovine anatomy. As I tried to capture the chironomid mouthparts, I was moving between direct observation and illustrations and diagrams in textbooks. The latter informed my interpretation of the former but, at the same time, there is a real risk that I might carry any errors from these diagrams into the interpretation of my own observations.

Perhaps the fault lies with us, looking at Leonardo’s drawings with a 21st century perspective and forgetting the constraints under which he worked? These pictures are the result of close observation of unembalmed human corpses in Milan. Working in winter made the task slightly easier but the benefits were offset, to some extent, by shorter days.  Animal corpses were much more widely available, hence the occasional tendency to extrapolate from bovine to human anatomy.

Drawing is a useful reminder of how far science – even ecology – has drifted from observation, and how quantification is, too often, an abstraction of reality as anything that can’t be counted or measured falls off the agenda. I’m reminded of Ruskin’s statement about the motivation behind his drawing classes: “I am only trying to teach you to see”.