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Friday, June 24, 2011

Saint Matthew

Unlike some of the arts, such as sculpture or architecture, which survive, even in a state of ruin, to some degree reflecting the artist's original intent, painting is not so fortunate. A few Roman fresco and mosaic murals date back a couple thousand years, and there is surviving evidence of a little Egyptian painting perhaps somewhat older than that, but for the most part, a painting dating back to the Renaissance is an "old" painting, and anything painted more than a thousand years ago we class as "ancient."    
St. Matthew c.800 AD,
Coronation Gospel
In this realm, there survive two quite interesting "paintings" in the form of illustrated manuscripts, one dating from around 795-810 A.D. the other from somewhere around 816-841 A.D. They don't call them "ancient manuscripts" for nothing! What makes them most interesting is that they are of the same subject--St. Matthew at work writing his best-selling gospel. The older of these paintings is from Charlemagne's Coronation Gospels. The latter is from The Gospel Book of Archbishop Ebbo of Reims. Both are from what art historians call the Carolingian era (pronounced Caro-LIN-ian). Though both from the same era, this is largely where their similarities end. The figure from the Coronation Gospel is shown seated in profile before a tilted writing desk in a classical painting style wearing flowing Roman dress. A large golden halo disk surrounds his head in what could also pass for the sun about to set in the distant landscape. The figure seems relaxed and to be drawing from within himself in recording holy writ.   

St. Matthew, 816-841 AD
The figure of St. Matthew from the Ebbo book seems somewhat influenced by the slightly earlier work in terms of the pose, but the style is totally different--heavily based upon Romanesque art. The figure seems to be taking dictation from a tiny angel in the upper right corner of the painting. His face is distorted, his body and hands cramped unnaturally. The effect is almost humorous, as if he could barely keep up with the dictated words of God being passed down to him. Unlike the earlier work, his white garment is not flowing but gossamer thin and extremely wrinkled. Also, unlike the earlier figure, the color is unnatural, dominated by various shades of sienas and umbers. The result is an emotionally charged, dramatic air of frantic energy. And, although it seems fussy and contrived to our eyes, it is this style of painting that will dominate art for the next six or seven hundred years until the dawn of the early Renaissance.

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