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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Architecture and Painting

While architecture serves to preserve
painting, the reverse is also true as
seen here in a fresco from the
Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor,
Boscoreale, Italy, ca. 50–40 BCE
Being a painter, I suppose I'm more prone to writing about painting than any other art form. However, as my regular readers will attest, I also like motion pictures, sculpture, interior design, photography, and architecture. The other day it occurred to me that without architecture, we would have little in the way of painting (or most other art forms, for that matter). It's true. Did you ever wonder why we have very little painting still surviving that is more than 1,000 years old? That's because there's little in the way of usable architecture surviving today that is more than a thousand years old. And inasmuch as painting was almost solely a means of decorating interior architectural surfaces until about the time of the Early Renaissance, it's plain to see the connection between the two. Moreover, whether painted on walls or merely hung on them, paintings need architecture to preserve, perfect, and define their being.

St. Withburga, 654 AD, St. Nicholas Church,
Dereham, England. Though obviously
in poor condition, the art survived
because the church survived.
This fact also accounts for why so much surviving art from earliest times is religious. For the most part, only religious architecture survived wars and political upheavals while at the same time being seen as worthy of the tremendous efforts needed to preserve it from the ravages of time. And in preserving the outer shell, the inner worth is also preserved. One has to wonder how many churches, chapels, even cathedrals have been preserved as much for the great art they contained as for their religious worth. And if this is true in the religious realm, think how it must be doubly true in secular architecture where the initial purpose of a structure's being built, its style, and its practical features, are often outdated in less than a century. Many such structures, from the outside at least, appear to us as architectural monstrosities, yet because of the art housed within them, they still stand, now museums, inns, restaurants, and other tourist destinations.

The Sistine Chapel which Michelangelo, Bramante, and others considered demolishing.
In at least one case, the painters' art even saved an architectural structure. Around 1508, the initial architect of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, Donato Bramante, wanted to tear down the Sistine Chapel and build a new, and no doubt better, private chapel for His Holiness Pope Julius II. They consulted Michelangelo, in Rome working on the Pope's tomb at the time. Even he conceded that the poorly proportioned structure, built just a generation before as much as a fortress as a chapel (the walls at the base are some six feet thick), had no redeeming architectural qualities whatsoever demanding its preservation. And what art there was on its walls at the time was mediocre at best (by Renaissance standards) and in relatively poor condition.

The Sistine Chapel today--did Michelangelo "fix" its architectural problems?

However, in the midst of starting a new cathedral and facing the upcoming demolition of the old St. Peter's Basilica as the new one literally rose around it, the Pope had neither the stomach for tearing down such a perfectly good church (built by his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV) nor the money for putting up a replacement. So instead, much to Michelangelo's dismay and distress, the Pope commissioned (indeed demanded) that he "fix" the errors of the chapel's original architects by decorating the ceiling in such a manner as to minimize, if not totally conceal, them. It was a fortuitous decision for painting, if not architecture, and a much cheaper alternative given the little Michelangelo was paid for the task. Though he got off to a very reluctant, rocky start, over the next four years, the Renaissance sculptor turned painter rose to the occasion and succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams (perhaps even his own).
From the outside, the fortress-like architecture of the Sistine Chapel masks any hint
of the art masterpieces inside.


  1. I think he did a pretty good job of fixing the place up.

    1. Jaez--

      I've been there and I'd have to agree. I think the millions of tourists trouping through the Sistine chapel each year would too. the Catholics seem to have no plans to raze the place any time soon.