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Sunday, December 5, 2010


Artists who accept commissions, usually portraits, or perhaps a commemorative painting of some sort, tend to price their work with regard to size first, then the nature and complexity of the subject matter (how long it will take) as primary considerations, followed by how busy they are at the moment or how badly they need the money. Imagine, if you will, pricing work by what color it will be. This was typical during the Gothic period in painting which was basically a couple hundred years sandwich between Medieval times and the Renaissance. Three colors dominated most painting from this period--gold, red, and blue. The price of a painting was determined by how much gold leaf was used and by how much blue pigment would be consumed in the work.  We all know about gold of course, but most blue pigments of that time were based upon ultramarine, which even today is a semiprecious stone. Back during the thirteenth century, it seems to have been even more precious because of the three, it was the most difficult for artists to obtain and use. Reds, usually iron oxides, were relatively inexpensive. Thus there was a direct connection between the colors used in a painting and the prestige of owning it.

Maestra, 1280-85,
 The church was the primary benefactor of artists of the time and, being an institution built of the need for prestige, we see lots of gold, somewhat less blue and somewhat more red in the dozens of altarpieces dating from this time.  In terms of artists from the Gothic period, it's easy to begin and end our thinking with Giotto.  However the Florentine painter, Cimabue (pronounced CHEE-ma-BOO-ee) makes a much better point of departure in looking at Gothic painting. And while, to our eyes, his Madonna and Child enthroned Maesta (Majesty) painted in 1280-85 looks stiff and architectural,  there is at least some semblance of human warmth and emotional interaction between the two figures as compared to the mosaic qualities of Byzantine painting. Art historians usually categorize Cimabue as a Byzantine painter but in reality, he is much more a bridge between that period and Gothic art.

Cimabue was born around 1240 in Florence. His real name was Ceni di Peppi, and aside from his painted altarpieces, his other claim to fame was to have been Giotto's art teacher. Actually so many works have been attributed to him that it's quite possible what we're seeing in his painting may well have been done by a group of artists, possibly working under his direction, but perhaps working independently, but in close association. Whatever the case, we see in his work the first attempts to render a shallow perspective, a fascination with angels, and a fair degree of competence in what at the time passed for portrait painting. The massive altarpieces were totally dominated by the gold leaf over wooden, gessoed panels and only rarely is any pigment lighter than gold used. The gold, being a metal, has come down to use relatively unchanged while unfortunately, the precious blue pigments all seem to have darkened to such a degree that rarely can we now see more than very subtle gradations within them.

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