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2022 - 2023: Late Middle Ages and the Birth of Renaissance Art

Conventions date the start of the Western painting tradition to the years around 1300 and date the start of Renaissance art to the beginning of the 15th century. In between was a transition period, during which time older artistic qualities characteristic of the Middle Ages continued to be popular. Innovations trending in the directions of greater naturalism and greater interest in real life had their ups and downs, while much art instead prioritised imagination and beauty.

Giotto di Bondone of Florence is often called the Father of Western Painting and his work is best seen in the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel (c.1305, left) in Padua. The panels on the walls depict Christian stories in a style innovative in its fresh realism, more relevant to people’s lived experiences. On the end wall is a representation of the Last Judgement, of which the detail (right) shows the patron, Enrico Scrovegni, presenting a model of the chapel to the Virgin Mary. The depiction of her as accepting the gift expressed his belief that paying for the building had bought him forgiveness for violating the rules of the Church in the banking business that had made him wealthy.

Meanwhile in Siena a different Italian artistic tradition was becoming established by Duccio di Buoninsegna, strongly influenced by French Gothic painting. The 13-foot wide central panel of his huge double-sided altarpiece, the Maestà (c.1311, left), features the Virgin Mary enthroned with the infant Jesus, surrounded by saints and angels. It was designed as a spectacularly beautiful focus for worshippers in the city’s cathedral, while over 40 smaller panels, now separated from it, depict scenes from the New Testament. That on the right, telling the story of Jesus healing a blind man, is notable for its townscape setting, its crowd of onlookers and the naturalism of its figures.

The Annunciation (1333) is the subject of another large altarpiece made for Siena Cathedral, with Duccio’s pupil Simone Martini as its principal artist, continuing the emphasis on decorative beauty with much gold. The encounter between the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary seems to be taking place as if in a theatrical performance on a stage. The Last Supper (c.1320), a fresco panel at Assisi by another Sienese artist, Pietro Lorenzetti, creates a convincing sense of a three-dimensional room inside which the participants gather around a table. To view the scene, we look over the shoulders of the foreground figures, while in the adjacent kitchen the washing up is being done.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Pietro's brother, was commissioned to fresco the walls of the Sala dei Nove in Siena' city hall. This detail (c.1339) depicts city life as it should be, with people going peacefully about their business and a group of dancers symbolising a harmonious society, while an opposite wall shows the consequences of bad government. In the following few decades, Europe was afflicted by the Black Death as well as by wars. On the right is a detail of the Apocalypse tapestry (c.1380) made for the Duke of Angers in France. A city is attacked by a seven-headed dragon emerging from the wide-open mouth of a monstrous disembodied head and supported by a group of armed men, representing forces of evil.

Le Roman de la Rose (c.1353) illustrates in a French manuscript the story of a love affair. Successive scenes show the narrator awaking from a dream vision, putting on his shoes, walking in a garden and entering a gateway into a walled orchard where he will fall in love with a lady he meets. The detail on the right (c.1390) is from the story of the Lady of Vergi, illustrated in a frescoed frieze in the Palazzo Davanzati in Florence. The game of chess is between a Duchess and a young knight in the service of her husband the Duke and the second depiction of the same two depicts her attempting to seduce him. The story continues in strip cartoon fashion all the way around the walls.

The combination in one composition of the Annunciation and Visitation stories (c.1399) is a detail from an altarpiece panel by the Flemish painter Melchior Broederlam. His fresh colourful approach exemplifies the International Gothic style typical of art of the time for royal and aristocratic patrons, here the Duke of Burgundy. In the detail on the right (c.1405), his portrait is said to have been used to represent the prophet Jeremiah, the figure holding an open book. It’s part of the so-called Well of Moses, the surviving base of a large sculptural complex commissioned by him. The survival of blue paint on the figure representing King David is a reminder that, until the Renaissance, statues were usually painted.

The Wilton Diptych (1395-99) depicts three saints presenting the kneeling King Richard II of England to the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, who are supported by angels standing in a flowery meadow. It’s a small portable altarpiece and a highlight of the International Gothic style, as is the illuminated manuscript Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413-16) with paintings by three Dutch artists, the Limbourg brothers. The detail on the right shows the Duke entertaining guests at a lavish New Year Feast, the circular fire-screen behind him acting as a halo. The colourful tapestry in the background, the huge fire-place and the expensive tableware attest to his wealth and taste.

The Adoration of the Magi (1423), painted by the Italian Gentile da Fabriano in a highly decorative Gothic style, tells the story of the wise men’s journey to Bethlehem. Successive scenes, full of human details, begin in deep space at the top, continue in fluid curves to the right of the picture, then come towards us to culminate in the foreground. The Feast of Herod (c.1427) is a bronze sculptural relief by Donatello, the first great sculptor of the Italian Renaissance. The main scene in the foreground is notable for the expressiveness of the figures, shocked by the sight of John’s head on a platter. Earlier scenes in the story are shown in different rooms in the background, their distances from us represented in single point perspective.

The Garden of Paradise (c.1420), painted by an anonymous artist of the Upper Rhineland, depicts a number of religious figures relaxing in an enclosed garden as if they were courtly aristocrats at leisure. Notice the different perspectives for different parts of the picture. What is special about the painting is the realistic depiction of a wide ranges of birds and flowers. On the right is a detail of the background in The Nativity (c.1425) by Robert Campin, the first in a series of painters who will come to dominate 15th century art in Northern Europe, centred on Flanders. The subtle realism of the extended landscape receding into the remote distance was made possible by a key innovation, an improved oil painting technique.

The Tribute Money (1425-27), a fresco by the Florentine artist Masaccio, embodies the key Italian Renaissance concept of a painting as a window behind which a continuation of the real world is to be found, with the same laws of space, light, form, and perspective that obtain in reality. Gestures and expressions help to tell the story. Meanwhile and independently, the rather different Northern Renaissance was emerging in Flanders, a prime example being the Arnolfini Double Portrait (1434), by Jan van Eyck using the oil painting technique pioneered by Campin. This depiction of contemporary life in an interior space, utterly convincing in its naturalism, was the first of such a kind since antiquity.