Shocking Art: Comparing “I and the Village” (1911) and “Adoration of the Magi” (1475)
I would like to compare two works: Marc Chagall’s “I and the Village” and Sandro Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi.” “I and the Village” is from 1911; “Adoration of the Magi” is from 1475. With approximately 450 years between these paintings, what surprised me most was not how different these works are, but how similar.
The first parallel that struck me was the use of geometric shapes. “Adoration of the Magi” has six (or possibly even more) triangles that are formed from the placement of the people, as well as of the crumbling building behind them. “I and the Village” also uses triangles, although the triangles within it are at times spun so that the top may be at the bottom or at the side, as opposed to being the highly structured pyramid used by Boticelli. Both artists use color extremely well. The vibrant reds and blues in Boticelli’s work are obvious even in the textbook reproduction. Reviewing the Chagall on the Internet after seeing it in person calls to mind how truly colorful it was, and how it stood out, even from the other end of the room. The colors are intense, and like Boticelli, he also uses reds and blues that catch and draw the eye. Another point of interest is the use of religious iconography and secular people. Boticelli inserts both himself and the Medici family, blending together the religious and the everyday. Chagall does the opposite, inserting a small cross worn as a necklace into a picture that appears to be about daily life and strife of Russians at the turn of the century.
While most of the differences cannot be explained away by the time passing between them, at least one can. The lack of religious imagery can be attributed to the fact that artists no longer needed to please the church, and they had broken free from painting just religious works. Even in the Northern Renaissance, we began to see works that were done not for the benefit of the church, or even of a particular sponsor, but art for art’s sake. Chagall’s work is obviously descended from this school of thought, as it would be impossible to recognize anyone from his painting as being a sponsor.
Boticelli’s piece is obvious in theme – just by looking you can tell that it is an adoration of the Magi piece; all of the adoration of the Magi pieces have enough similarities to make them recognizable as the same. Chagall’s work, however, is confusing to the average layperson. Just what does the tree in the center, bottom triangle symbolize? Is it, as it looks, being fed to the horse that stands opposite the person holding it? Who is the person with their back towards us, milking the cow? Who are the peasants toiling in the field? What is the meaning of the painting when it is taken as a whole? Is a story being told? There is no clear connection that can be made. Chagall, in fact, may have meant it to be something completely different. Personal feelings, meaning, and emotions can be taken from the piece, and the very fact that the messages within it may be accidentally telling another story than was intended, in no way ruins the piece or takes away from its beauty.
Similarly, the messages within Boticelli’s painting may also be somewhat hidden. Inserting the patron of the piece into the piece itself was general practice, but was it done to show that the patron did not bow before any other but God? Or was the painting actually meant to show the patron’s devotion to God, and adding themselves to the picture was merely their way of feeling closer to God and His miracles? Were there any hidden insults or meanings in the way people were placed, how they were dressed, or even in their delicate facial expressions?
Art over the centuries has endured many changes and seen the passing of different styles and tastes. What was considered beautiful at one time may no longer, and what we consider beautiful now might have been considered awful if it had been seen long ago. Both these pieces are products of their times, and that is not a bad thing.