Art History 1500 -1600

Last week I completed Module 3 of the National Gallery’s ‘Stories of Art Online: A Modular Introduction to Art History’ course. I completed Module 2, Renaissance Art 1400-1500,  before Christmas 2020.

Whilst I know I could never be an art historian (too many facts to remember!), it has been wonderful to attend this course, listen to the extremely knowledgeable presenters (in this case, Dr Richard Stemp) and be introduced to amazing work and art history, that previously I knew very little about, during this long trying period of Covid lockdown, compounded by one of the coldest winters I can remember in recent years. Plenty of other people must feel the same, since we were told in Week 1 that more than 900 people from around the world had signed up for this course. I was so pleased to hear this, as it must be a way for the National Gallery to help keep their financial heads above water, during this time which is so difficult for anything to do with the arts.

Each week we are sent a handout about the week’s content, which includes not only the outline of content for the week, but also reference to additional resources. I particularly enjoy it when we are sent links to videos that further explain the paintings/art works that we will be introduced to. Many galleries, including the National Gallery, have freely accessible videos on their websites which are well worth watching and very enjoyable to watch. A video can zoom right in to details of a painting that you probably wouldn’t be able to see in the gallery itself, particularly if the painting is very large.

Dr Richard Stemp, who like Jo Walton, presenter for Module 2, was impressively knowledgeable about this era of art history, told us in his handout that the aim of this module was:

“.. to explore the ways in which the complex political interactions and religious developments of the 16th century influence paintings in the National Gallery. Artworks will be explored in relation to patronage – the people or organisations who paid for the paintings – and their function – whether they were intended for a public audience, religious or secular, to instruct or commemorate, to delight the eye or intrigue the mind of a private viewer.’

The course was structured over 6 weeks as follows:

  • Week 1: Religion
  • Week 2: Politics and portraiture
  • Week 3: Mythology
  • Week 4: Rivalry and collaboration
  • Week 5: Women as artists and patrons
  • Week 6: Questions of style

Each lecturer brings his/her own style, but Jo Walton and Richard Stemp were equally enthusiastically passionate about their interest in art history of the period being presented. For this module there were also some invited speakers. In Week 1, Leslie Primo explored the iconography of the black king, Balthasar, in imagery of the Adoration of the Maji. I loved this presentation and might write a different post about it and save it for posting at Christmas time. In Week 2 the course was joined by Dr Caroline Campbell, who reflected on the legacy and learnings from the 2006 National Gallery exhibition “Bellini and the East’. In Week 3 the invited guest was Michael Ohajuru, who discussed how the black female image was whitewashed from Renaissance art and in the art of the following centuries. Another different feature of this module was that each weekly handout included a glossary of terms, which was extremely useful to an art history novice like me!

And now to each of the weeks in turn. Since we were shown hundreds of slides during this module, I am going to attempt to select just one from each week, something that stood out for me and made the week memorable.

Week 1: Religion/Faith

This week focussed on the influence of the Reformation on 16th century art. Focus paintings included:

Words to remember for this period are iconoclasm (the destruction of images for political and religious reasons), and indulgences, a Catholic practice in which an indulgence could be bought as a payment for sin to reduce the time spent in purgatory, or put another way, to buy your way into heaven. This was thought to be exploitative by the Protestant Reformation.  The Catholic Reformation (also known as the Counter Reformation), was a response to the Protestant Reformation. The Catholic Reformation reasserted a belief in the importance of images for worship, albeit with a change in form and content.  The Roman Catholic Church said it needed art to teach and communicate, and spending money on art demonstrated your faith. So Jan Gossaert’s amazing painting of The Adoration of the Kings survived this period of iconoclasm.

To appreciate the detail in this painting, visit it on the National Gallery’s website where you can zoom in, and from where this screenshot was taken.

Week 2: Politics and Portraiture

Art is often highly political. If you know who paid for art, you know a lot about the political landscape. One of the main ways that rulers of this period expressed their power was through portraiture. It was used to memorialise the deceased and make the absent present, representing the subject accurately in terms of appearance and their role in society. The focus paintings for this week were:

All the paintings are in the National Gallery, and the videos in the links provided are a wonderful introduction to each painting. Each painting has a story to tell; it’s difficult to choose which one to include in this post. I have decided on Christina of Denmark, even though ‘The Ambassadors’ is full of symbolism (watch the video for more information) and includes an example of ‘anamorphosis’ (a technique in which the artist presents a distorted view of an object which can only be seen if the viewer looks at the painting from a particular angle – in this case the skull in the foreground of the painting). But Christina is not only beautiful, her story is also wonderful. She was considered as a possible bride for Henry VIII, after he had divorced Catherine of Aragon and beheaded Anne Boleyn. Hans Holbein was dispatched to Brussels to meet Christina and paint her portrait for Henry to consider, given there was no photography in those days. But as you can see from her portrait she was very self-possessed and is supposed to have said “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.” In other words, there was no way she was going to marry Henry VIII.

This is a screenshot of part of the painting. The painting is a full-length portrait.

Week 3: Mythology

The Renaissance was a period when artists and thinkers returned to the myths of ancient Greece and Rome for their creative inspiration. Focus paintings for this week were:

Significant in this period is the work of Titian, in particular the series of six large paintings (poesie) he created for King Philip II of Spain, which were the focus of a National Gallery Exhibition that had to close early because of the Covid 19 pandemic. In an article about the exhibition in The Art Newspaper, Ben Luke writes:

Much is made of the erotic charge in the abundance of female flesh of the poesie, often seen to be at odds with Philip’s piousness. But as a young prince and king, his sexual appetites were well documented. Yet [Matthias] Wivel argues that the power of Titian’s series is not just sensual but sensory: they “appeal not only to our sense of sight and obviously our sense of touch but also smell and sound. He’s sort of a synaesthetic painter at this point. And the Europa [The Rape of Europa]  is a great example of it: you can feel the dampness of the air.”

There is a good BBC introduction to this exhibition – Titian Behind Closed Doors. I don’t know how long this programme will be available for. There is also an interesting short film on the National Gallery’s YouTube channel about how new frames were made for the Titian paintings.

Lucas Cranach’s work also focusses on classical narratives and mythological subjects. Here are two examples of his work.

On completing this week of the course I realised that paintings that focus on mythological imagery are not my thing, however obviously skilled and great the artist.

Week 4: Rivalry and Collaboration

This was an interesting week, which explored the collaboration between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo (see Matthias Wivel’s Introduction to the 2017 National Gallery Exhibition – Michelangelo and Sebastiano). It also explored the rivalry between them, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael.

Sebastiano was from Venice, along with Titian, but Titian was younger and, at this time, not yet established as a great artist. In Rome, where Sebastiano travelled to, Michelangelo’s position as the greatest artist was being challenged by the younger Raphael, not only because of Raphael’s charm and skill (Michelangelo was seemingly a bit of a grouch!), but also because Raphael was thought to ‘steal’ Michelangelo’s ideas and techniques, or put more politely, to be a sponge, absorbing the ideas and transforming them into his own. There is even a story that Raphael managed to get access to Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling and ‘stole’ some of the unusual figurative postures used by Michelangelo, to incorporate in his own work, which he made public before work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling was completed.

Focus paintings for this week were:

At this time most works were collaborations of one form or another. The Raising of Lazarus is an example of the collaboration between Sebastiano del Piombo and Michelangelo. Sebastiano’s strength was as a skilled oil painter and colourist. At this point Sebastiano was more skilled than Titian and Raphael. Michelangelo at this time could draw like nobody else and so realised that by collaborating with Sebastiano they could be a match for Raphael.

The Raising of Lazarus (Sebastiano del Piombo)

In this painting the drawings for the figure of Lazarus and some of the other main male figures (but not Christ) were provided by Michelangelo.

Week 5: Women as Artists and Patrons

I also enjoyed this week. It’s not hard to recognise that for women to become artists, or even patrons of the arts, would have been a real achievement in the 16th century. At the time, the role for women in society was domesticity – they should stay at home, or go into the church. If they went out at all, they should keep their eyes on the ground, or look admiringly at their husbands (shades of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and  The Testaments). But some women did manage to break through this oppression. They were either women who had been sent into convents to become nuns (fathers couldn’t afford dowries for all their daughters!), or they were daughters of artists. Women could become patrons if they were wealthy widows and had no sons in majority, or were nuns in convents.

There were a lot of lovely focus paintings for this week:

It was quite moving to think of how these amazing women managed to create enduring art in a time when women were not talked about, were frowned upon for painting self-portraits as it was considered vain, couldn’t become apprenticed to a male master artist, because it would mean going to live with him,  and couldn’t, in normal circumstances travel. But Sofonisba Anguissola did. She was one of five daughters whose father ensured that four of them could paint. She travelled to Rome on her own and met Michelangelo. Later she became an official course painter to Philip II of Spain. Here is a painting of hers of her sisters playing chess.

Week 6: A Question of Style

In this final week I learned three new terms in relation to the question of style.

1. Contrapposto – ‘an asymmetrical arrangement of the human figure in which the line of the arms and shoulders contrasts with, while balancing, those of the hips and legs’.

2. Mannerism – ‘Where High Renaissance art emphasizes proportion, balance, and ideal beauty. Mannerism exaggerates such qualities, often resulting in compositions that are asymmetrical or unnaturally elegant. The style is notable for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial (as opposed to naturalistic) qualities. This artistic style privileges compositional tension and instability rather than the balance and clarity of earlier Renaissance painting.’

3. Sprezzatura – studied carelessness so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it

Focus paintings for this week were:

Bronzino’s ‘The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” is an example of ‘mannerism’. You can see it in the dramatic convoluted postures. The content is also convoluted.

Mannerism is all about exaggeration. It takes art out of the everyday. It is not naturalistic. Once you become aware of it, you can see that a number of recognised artists have used this style, including Michelangelo.

I am now looking forward to Module 4, which will start on February 24th. The tutor for this module will be Lucrezia Walker, who will introduce us to the work of Caravaggio, Velázquez and Vermeer.