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The Early Renaissance: Italy vs. Northern Europe

Updated on October 1, 2009

The Bardi Chapel

Stigmatisation of Saint Francis
Stigmatisation of Saint Francis
Renunciation of Worldly Goods
Renunciation of Worldly Goods
Apparition at Arles
Apparition at Arles
Death and Ascension of Saint Francis
Death and Ascension of Saint Francis
Confirmation of the Rule
Confirmation of the Rule
Saint Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire)
Saint Francis before the Sultan (Trial by Fire)
Vision of the Ascension of Saint Francis
Vision of the Ascension of Saint Francis

Isenheim Altarpiece

Closed Isenheim Altarpiece
Closed Isenheim Altarpiece
Open Isenheim Altarpiece
Open Isenheim Altarpiece

The Bardi Chapel vs. The Isenheim Altarpiece

The frescos in The Bardi Chapel of Santa Croce in Florence, created by Giotto di Bondone in 1325 will be compared and contrasted with The Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald between 1512-1516. The areas of comparison include artist’s personal reflection, style, and the religious impact of each piece.

The church of Santa Croce had a series of frescos painted in the 14th-century as leading merchant families competed with each other to commission prominent artists to embellish their chapels. The Bardi Chapel includes several frescos surrounding the life of Saint Francis ranging from the appearance of Christ’s stigmata to renouncing worldly materials to his death. Each depicted scene glorifies the life of Saint Francis and reinforces his status as a saint. He is the patron saint of animals, the environment and Italy; so as Giotto glorifies his life, he also indirectly glorifies his home country, Italy.

Stylistically, Giotto attempts to represent three dimensional characters on a two dimensional surface. The effect causes the figures to come out looking flat with no depth and almost every individual is in profile. The colors are dull, possibly due to aging or fading from the plaster walls. Perspective is non-existent as is foreshortening and correct proportions between the buildings and the people.

Since Saint Francis founded the Order of Friars Minor, his entire life has a religious impact. The Franciscans were passionate preachers who used words to target the emotions of the faithful. Giotto holds a contemporary view of the Franciscans and uses softer and warmer scenes in his paintings. His more realistic representations make the public feel like a participant. The hope and sense of belonging found in his artwork brought about a transformation in the spiritual life of Europe; instead of focusing on the rules and regulations of Christianity, the general public was able have a personal connection with their faith.

The Isenheim Altarpiece was painted for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. The Antonine monks were noted for their treatments of skin diseases. Grünewald incorporates some symptoms of ergotism displayed on the figures, including Christ, on the altarpiece as his way of honoring the dedicated work done by the monks. Grünewald was given free reign on his creativity and imagination when expressing the mysteries of the Christian faith reaching from agony with horrific detail to ecstasy. It was the ultimate painting of Christian art that was the last and boldest statement.

Stylistically, the figures in this painting on all three levels are visually appealing. The characters have a three dimensional quality created by perspective, shading, foreshortening, correct proportions, and a realistic scale. The human figures are not distorted or disproportional to themselves or their surroundings. The demonic figures could be considered distorted simply because of their fictitious origins and/or to reinforce their hideousness. Shading and shadows enhance the contour lines of the illustrated objects and gives life to the unusual textures. The colors are vibrant in the first two levels of the polyptych with a slightly darker medieval influence in the third level, making the two scenes depicted seem more realistic.

The golden sculptures in the middle panel of the third level give the entire altarpiece a more dramatic effect. This piece of artwork was terrifyingly beautiful, imaginative, and unorthodox. Both the Protestants and Catholics placed restrictions on what was considered acceptable portrayals of religious scenes. The artists were no longer free to indulge in their fantasies for religious depictions.

Brunelleschi's Dome

Architectural drawing of Brunelleschi's Dome
Architectural drawing of Brunelleschi's Dome

The Well of Moses

Brunelleschi's Dome vs. The Well of Moses

Brunelleschi’s dome of Santa Maria del Fiore (cathedral) in Florence, commissioned by Filippo Brunelleschi in the 15th-century will be compared and contrasted with the Well of Moses carved by Claus Sluter from 1395-1403. The areas of comparison include style, religious impact, and the artist’s personal reflection of each piece.

Brunelleschi toured Rome to analyze the ancient building techniques and the scale of the Roman ruins. His findings gave inspiration on how to complete the cathedral being built in Florence. The dome roof was the greatest engineering and architectural challenge, and had been giving architects problems for 50 years. Brunelleschi could not start construction of the dome until he designed a new scaffolding that would hang from the walls and ceiling. He also designed a new hoisting machine, inspired by Roman hoisting machines used to build the Pantheon, which would transport masonry from the ground floor. The cupola was designed to be self-supporting, with spiraled horizontal rows intermixed with vertical support rows (herringbone brickwork) creating an internal skeleton. Brunelleschi then proposed a double shell copula, one stone and one brick with ribs binding both to ensure additional strength and firm structurability. The Gothic architecture complimented the precise and pre-planned Renaissance theme. Florentines prided themselves on their perceived economic and cultural superiority which was translated into landmark buildings such as Florence Cathedral. The building’s outer surfaces were fashioned in old Tuscany style with geometric marble-encrusted designs. The style for the dome was fashioned from necessity for utilitarian purposes. Brunelleschi’s technical and mathematical genius allowed Florence to outstrip Siena and Pisa in architectural prowess. The religious power was also increased with the completion of the dome, as no one else had such a structure or was capable of building one.

Sluter was commissioned by Phillip the Bold to construct a large sculptural fountain for the cloister of Chartreuse of Champmol. The Well of Moses is constructed from limestone and shows Moses, David and four other prophets surrounding a base that once supported a crucifix. Sluter was able to accurately depict the natural appearance to create realistic figures in minute detail. His style consisted of heavy draperies with capacious folds enveloping the life-size figures. The realistic effect was further enhanced by differentiating textures in the clothes, hair and skin. Unlike Brunelleschi’s dome, the style of the fountain was for artistic pleasure and not for functional purposes. In respect of the monastery and its daily rituals, the fountain probably did not emit water because of the commitment to silence and prayer excluded anything that produced sound. The structure served as a symbolic fountain of life, with Jesus’ blood flowing down onto the prophets washing away their sins, and represented the promise of everlasting life. Sluter has the blood of Jesus metaphorically flowing into the well beneath the sculpture, giving that promise of eternal life with Him to all those who drink from the well; he created his own original Fountain of Youth.

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