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Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Painters' Guild

We talk about artistic license today and joke that it is a license to practice art, never realizing that in fifteenth century Florence it was necessary for an artist to literally pass a test to become a licensed practitioner. If he and his skills were sufficiently mature to satisfy the examiners, he was admitted to the Guild of St. Luke, which was primarily a sort of labor union for doctors. Just why artist and doctors should belong to the same guild seems to be a mystery other than the fact it was probably the most prestigious of all the guilds and the artists decided they needed all the prestige they could get. At any rate, the guilds demanded of their members only the highest standards of competence and workmanship. Beyond that, they also guaranteed the work of their members. Believe it or not, they also celebrated religious rituals and, as the name implies, each had a patron saint. These guilds controlled all branches of labor from butchers to plumbers and all the skills in between. Today, the Masonic Order is a throw-back to such medieval guilds.

About the age of twelve, boys and their families made a decision as to the trade he would follow. In most cases it was an irrevocable decision. The boy would then be apprenticed to a master craftsman, be it a painter, a sculptor, jeweler, or whatever. The daily life of a junior painting apprentice was not pleasant. He learned such skills as sweeping out the studio, taking out the garbage, feeding the dog,  cleaning the fireplace, the front steps, even the toilets (such as they were). And every day he drew, for at least an hour a day he drew, usually from a live model, and from the back of the room, lucky to merit even a passing glance from the master. Day by day he honed his skills, hoping that one day he might become an assistant to the master. Only after several years of menial tasks did the young apprentice begin learning tasks and techniques associated with his chosen trade. Such chores might include finding and grinding pigments, making and cleaning brushes, mixing plaster, punching holes in cartoons used in fresco, and transferring them to wet plaster. It the painting master worked in oils, the apprentice might find himself preparing panels or stretching and sizing canvases.

In becoming a senior apprentice, the talented would-be artist found himself working intimately with the master and actually getting paid for his efforts (what we would today call "slave wages"). In many studios, the senior apprentices and assistants (sort of senior, senior apprentices) actually worked on the various commissions obtained by the studio with the master artist primarily concerned with the initial conception and beginning composition. Under the watchful eye of the master, assistants would then complete most of the painting except for faces and perhaps areas involving the human anatomy. The master was left to do these and also complete minor finishing touches or corrections before signing the work and claiming all the credit for himself. This educational system developed as early as Roman times and continued until the eighteenth century when the various national art academies grew to prominence in European cities.  The guilds actually continued even long after that.

Recent note: Since writing this article more than ten years ago, I've discovered that St. Luke was said to have been an artist as well as a physician (as described in the book of Acts).  A cathedral in the "city" of Mdina on the island of Malta boasts of having a portrait of the Virgin Mary done by Luke.  I've seen it from some distance (it hangs over the altar). It's so dark and dirty, the features are barely discernible. In any case, quite a number of artists (El Greco, Gossaert, Cresti, Van Der Weyden, and Vasari)  have depicted St. Luke painting the mother of Christ, which would explain the "mystery" of artists belonging to the physcians' Guild of St. Luke.

Portrait of the Virgin Mary,
attributed to St. Luke,
Mdina Cathedral, Malta
(author's photo)
St. Luke Painting the Virgin,
1520, Jan Gossaert

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