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Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Early Renaissance

In art, music, architecture, medicine, science, even political science, the Italian Renaissance is probably the most closely studied (and taught) period in world history. I first heard the word "Renaissance" in the third grade along with the name of every explorer who ever sailed out of Spain, Italy, or Portugal. In architecture, the names Bruneleschi, Alberti, and Bramante ring a bell. In Painting, it's Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. In sculpture--Verrochio, Donatello, and Michelangelo again. However none of these names sprung whole-bodied from the Florentine landscape without having had seeds planted and nurtured by an earlier generation of artists whoes names we don't often hear rolling off the tongues of third-graders.   

Madonna Enthroned,
1285, Cimabue
We all know that the Renaissance bloomed out of the so called "dark ages" or what we more scholarly refer to as the Medieval Period. Interestingly enough, there is a chain of artists pulling painting from the "darkness" of the fourteenth century to the glowing light of the fifteenth century and the "Early" Renaissance. At the beginning of this chain is Cimabue (pronounced Chima-BOO-ee) who lived from around 1240 to 1302. And the best illustration of this "chain" can be seen in paintings of the Madonna Enthroned. Cimabue painted the first version around 1285. The second artist in the chain is Giotto, (pronounced Ji-OT-oh) his rival, and quite possibly one of his students, who lived from 1276 to 1337.  His Madonna Enthroned was done around 1310.  The differences between these two paintings and that of the final link in the chain, Masaccio, read like a third-grade textbook on Early Renaissance painting.     

Madonna Enthroned,
1310, Giotto
The Cimabue Madonna Enthroned is seated on, or rather, sort of "hovers" over, a Roman style throne surrounded by supporting angels. In arches beneath the throne are four saints or apostles. There is little depth, the drapery is stylized, the figures are stiff, and the gold leaf background completely dominates and subdues the egg tempera colors. Yet this work was a remarkable departure from typical Medieval painting of the period. The Giotto version is more Gothic in terms of style. The throne is lighter with some indication of perspective. There is weight and a natural humanity to this work that the other lacks. Like Cimabue's painting, angels surround the throne but they are worshipful, rather than supportive, their presence holy rather than decorative.  The background is still gold leaf but there is remarkably natural color.
The Holy Trinity,
1425-28, Masaccio

And finally, a similar work by Masaccio a hundred years later entitled The Holy Trinity, is Fresco, with a trompe l'oeil use of architectural perspective. The figure of God supports a cross upon which his Son is crucified while at the foot of the cross is portrayed Mary and John. Just outside the arch are portraits of kneeling donors. Though the content in this later work is different, it is clearly an outgrowth of the two earlier, groundbreaking seeds of the Florentine painting Renaissance.


  1. Jim, I'm doing an art history blog for a class and was looking at a way to transition from the Proto-Renaissance to the Ren. I looked up Giotto's "Madonna Enthroned" when I found your blog. Your chain of three was the perfect thing I needed! Thank You.
    P.S. You can check out my art history blog at :

  2. Jeannette V--

    I'm glad my ruminations were helpful. I did check out your blog and it was quite interesting. I hope you'll sign on as a follower. Your blog dealt with Greek sculpture an architecture and mentioned the Parthenon. I've also written on the Parthenon (and visited it while in Athens a couple years ago). Use the search box at the top to find the item and any others you might be interested in.