Bringing The Dead Christ To The Patron

In The Christian Tradition Essay, Research Paper

Art during the Christian tradition was produced to enhance the worship of saintly figures by church patrons. Paintings were not only used to tell a biblical story but also to form emotional connections between the patrons and the principles of the church. Artists in the Christian tradition strived to portray events of religious importance with maximum drama to make a lasting impression. They did this by applying artistic advances in ways that draw the patron into the painting. One such event was the death of Christ.

While the artists in Florence were starting to practice the potential maximization of the individual, very different things were happening up in Flanders. The region, fresh out of the dark ages, was very centered on religion. Thomas a Kempis taught in his Imitatio Christi that the individual should devote their lives to living a more Christian life and should rid themselves of all secular things. People in this region were also interested in the philosophies of Aristotle and nominalism rather than in Plato as were the people of Florence, who would again search for the perfect ideal during the renaissance.

The lack of interest in secular knowledge can be seen in Rogier Van Der Weyden?s Deposition (1435, see figure 1). The artists of Flanders had no interest in the study of the nude; therefore the figures in Deposition have oblong proportions and unnatural balance. However, the Flanders artisans had developed certain techniques, which made their works advanced in certain aspects. For centuries, monks in the area had been illuminating their manuscripts with extreme precision. This focus on detail is seen in Deposition. Every last hair is individualized and patterns on the drapery are painted to the very thread. The faces are no longer stylized but individualized so that you might recognize one of them if you saw them on the street.

The advent of oil paint made the scene much more vibrant and allowed artists to paint and repaint over an area, being able to visualize the exact color before it was applied. This new technique far surpassed the limitations of tempera that was being used in Italy.

The most important aspect of Deposition is the symbolic tie it makes between the patron and the church. It portrays the sorrow of Christ?s death at the agony of His loss. This work also teaches the Catholic worship of St. Mary and the belief that she suffered just as Christ did. Van Der Weyden does this by painting Christ and Mary in similar poses so that the patron will have little trouble seeing the likeness.

Deposition was the center panel of a triptych, which was placed before the altarpiece. The dead Christ at the alter symbolized the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, that when taking the Eucharist you were in reality eating the flesh of Christ. This symbolism of art at the altarpiece was also used by Caravaggio during the formation of the International Baroque style in his Entombment (1603, see figure 3).

The birth of the Renaissance led to the use of more new techniques to create emotion and power in art. Unlike the people of Flanders, artists and others in Florence became interested in the classic tradition of the Greeks. They had access to the ancient sculptures and other works that embodied the perfect human form. Thanks to the translation of ancient texts people could now read the works of Greek philosophers and their interest began to grow in secular study. Artists became more than just painters, they also studied arithmetic and anatomy. With the study of Plato?s work the philosophy of Humanism arose, and it became important that the artist seek to maximize their individual potential.

The use of mathematics to portray linear perspective became widespread in the Renaissance and paintings were now more realistic than ever before. In Andrea Mantegna?s the Dead Christ (1501, see figure 2) all the orthogonal lines of the alter vanish backward drawing your attention to Christ?s head. As seen in the Dead Christ, artists had learned how to use foreshortening to make their works more realistic and create a truly three-dimensional space in their work. Now paintings weren?t flat idealized forms as in Deposition, but alive, real figures that give the viewer a window on the world. However, in this piece, Mantegna made the feet smaller than they should be realistically so they wouldn?t cover up the bulk of the subject.

One of the most moving features of this work is seen in Mantegna?s modeling of Christ?s wounds. The skin comes out and the wound protrudes into the body convincing you that He has been pierced through. The cross isn?t needed to portray the suffering that Christ went through as these wounds testify to the viewer of the pain and agony of the crucifixion. The body of Christ is anatomical and proportional thanks to the renewed interest in the nude and the study of the human body by the Renaissance artists. The contrasting light and detailed modeling of the body and cloth give you the sense that this really is a form that occupies the space atop the alter, not just an idealized figure on a flat surface. The study of contrapostto is evidenced in the Dead Christ as the alter now supports the weight of the subject.

However, realistic Christian subjects in art were no longer enough to keep patrons in the Church. Catholicism, having previously suffered through the Great Schism, was now being attacked by the Reformation and the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin. These Protestant leaders taught that the Church had fallen, that indulgences were wrong, that art in the Church was idol worship and that transubstantiation wasn?t real. Luther wrote an open letter to the Church denouncing these practices and posted it wherever he could, quickly gaining a loyal following.

The Catholic Church was starting to lose its patrons and had to resort to the inquisition to teach the masses that heretics would not be tolerated. The Church held the Council of Trent to start their own counter-reformation to bring people back to Catholicism and believe in the doctrines of saint worship and transubstantiation. These efforts ultimately led to a reemphasis on art in the Church.

Dramatic works in the Church were needed more now than ever before. Art needed to be more personal to give the patron the sense of involvement and reality of the Church?s doctrines. Such high drama was achieved by Caravaggio in his Entombment (1603 see figure 3). Caravaggio placed the figures on a stone slab with the corner coming right at you into your space. As the patron stands in front of this work at the church alter, the body of Christ is being placed before them on the very same. This lets the patron know that they are partaking of the literal body of Christ when they come to take the Eucharist.

Oil paints had now made their way from Van Der Weyden and Flanders to Italy, allowing Caravaggio to achieve superior modeling and brilliant contrast of color. He also applies the use of tenebrism to create a dramatic lighting effect and focus the viewer on the foreground of the painting, thus enhancing the effect of the figures being in your space.

The character Nicodemus (in orange) stares right at you, appearing say, ?Here He is. He died for you. Now take Him.? All while he sets the body down right in front of you. This was undoubtedly the dramatic effect the Church council was looking for. The foreshortening from Mantegna is now perfect and seamless, but instrumental in extending the forms into your space. The culmination of these artistic elements, contribute to make the Baroque style one of the most powerful seen in art.

Works like Mantegna?s Entombment were instrumental in securing the strength of Catholicism in southern Europe. All of the advancements in the elements of art through the ages, allowed the artist to emotionally involve the Christian worshipper more and more with each new advancement in technique. Such high drama brought people to the Church and made the Church?s doctrines real and personal, involving them directly with the events of the past and the worship of the saints.


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