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Entries in Medieval Art (36)


Bartolo di Fredi: A Sienese Success

Bartolo di Fredi - The Annunciation to Joachim - c. 1383 - Tempera and gold on wood, 25 x 37 cm - Pinacoteca, Vatican (click photo for larger image)Bartolo di Fredi (c. 1330-c.1410) was the most successful Sienese painter of the later fourteenth century. He produced a large number of altarpieces and frescoes, and, in addition, collaborated with other artists on mural and altarpiece paintings and polychrome sculptures. He worked on many of his most important commissions with his son, Andrea di Bartolo.

The small panel featured here was one of a polyptych from the life of the Virgin. It was a commission granted to Bartolo di Fredi by the Company of Saint Peter on May 9, 1585, for the Chapel of the Annunciation in the Church of S. Francesco in Montalcino, where the artist had already painted other works. The polyptych has since been broken up, and parts of it can be seen in various museums.

The portrayal is of Saint Joachim in a mountainous setting. The angel Gabriel has come to bring him the news that his wife, Saint Anne, will bear a child. On the right side there are two shepherds near their flock, one of whom holds a bagpipe.

Joachim was the husband of Saint Anne and the father of Mary, the mother of Jesus, according to the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions. The story of Joachim and Anne first appears in the apocryphal Gospel of James. Joachim and Anne are not mentioned in the Bible.

While his work is decidedly medieval—note the very heavy-handed haloes—there are all touches of slowly emerging proto-Renaissance ideas. There is not an over-fussiness of details, and there is a fair amount of clearer space. The tendancy toward horror vacui (a tendency to fill up every inch of space with details) is also not present here.


Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and the Gothic Tradition

The Biadaiolo Master (Italian miniaturist) - Libro del Biadaiolo - 1328-30 - Illumination on parchment, 385 x 270 mm - (15.2 x 10.6 in) - Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, Florence (click photo for larger image)Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Bern with Belltower, 1935, oil on canvas, 70.5 x 80.65 cm (27.75 x 31.75 in) Minneapolis Institute of Arts (click photo for larger image)The so-called Biadaiolo codex was composed by Domenico Lenzi, a grain merchant. He annotated on it the prices of cereals for the Florentine marketplace located at Orsanmichele, together with bits of news, verses, and reflections of various sorts. The precious miniatures which decorate the codex are attributed to an anonymous artist, known as the Biadaiolo Master. On this sheet featured here, views of the city of Florence may be identified.

The charming setting as subject matter is rare in the work of German Expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1867-1956). His tendency was to deal with darker, more somber subjects. In 1917, Kirchner left Germany for Switzerland where he settled in an alpine house at Davos. He became a new influence in the Swiss art world which had been relatively untouched by Expressionism. At an age when most artists begin to settle and mellow, Kirchner found new vigor in the idolatry of Swiss students. The peaceful beauty and vast expanse of the high Alps, as well as the political stability of Switzerland, must also have contributed to the new brightness and precision evident in Bern (featured here). This new style, Kirchner's last period, began in 1925. Nothing of his expressive power is lost in the grandeur, gaiety and light.


Emil Nolde and the Medievalists

Emil Nolde - Crucifixion (The Life of Christ) - 1912 - Oil on canvas - 87x76 in. - Nolde Stiftung Seebüll  (Germany - Neukirchen) (click photo for larger image)The artists of the Modern Era were determined to shake off the dust of the Renaissance—and the canons of classical approaches that had “ruled” them for over 400 years. Perhaps ironically, many primary resources for the Moderns came from the Medievals! Modern Art draws heavily upon medieval art—in its approaches to color, line, surface imagery, abstraction and subject matter. In addition, art forms invented in the Middle Ages—such as woodcuts, wood carvings, and everyday items elevated to the status of art—were revived during the Modern period.

Emil Nolde (featured elsewhere on this site) was heavily influenced by medieval art. A restoration of specific, Christian imagery, in a new, colorful style, was not only a hallmark of his oeuvre but an important contribution to Expressionism and the northern visual arts tradition.

Unknown Master, Italian - Crucifix with the Stories of the Passion (detail) around 1200 - Tempera on wood - Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (click photo for larger image)The medieval work featured here shows one of the scenes (a Deposition) from the Stories of the Passion. It was created by one of many unknown masters of the Middle Ages. The Nolde painting featured illustrates how his compositions abstracted and exaggerated forms to delineate figures in a compressed space, bypassing the use of traditional linear perspective to relate the story.


Medieval Design: Striking Patterns of Symmetry and Color

Byzantine Egypt - Coptic - Fragment of Wall Hanging with confronted cocks and running dogs - 4th-6th century - Woven wool and linen - 12 13/16 x 24 5/16 in. - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (click photo for larger image)Medieval approaches to design tended to be quite symmetrical—and the results are colorful and rich in imagery and flourishes. Animals, both real and fantastic, occupied an important place in medieval art and thought. Artists readily employed animal motifs, along with foliate designs, as part of their decorative vocabulary. Animal forms appear in the jewelry, Bibles, and gospel books of the Middle Ages—and in utilitarian objects, as well. 

Animals carried a rich variety of symbolic associations often drawn from the past. The lamb, for example, served as an important sacrificial animal in ancient Near Eastern religious rites, including those of the Israelites. Christians adopted the lamb as a symbol of Christ, emphasizing his sacrifice for humanity. The griffin, regarded in antiquity as an attendant of Apollo and a keeper of light, retained its role as a guardian figure for the dead even in later Christian contexts.

In the fragment featured here, a pair of boldly colored cocks with red crests, heart-shaped wattles and wings, and colorful feathers face one another over a pyramid of grape clusters. All of this is set into a deep blue background. The feet of the cocks interrupt a series of grape leaves and vine tendrils. “Behind the birds two hunting dogs charge toward one another. The attention given to the roosters' claws and spurs and the inclusion of hunting dogs suggest that the birds are sporting animals, a subject entirely appropriate for a domestic textile. In the early Byzantine period, images of prosperity were favored themes for furnishings in the homes of the elite and the aspiring.”

We know the names of very few artists and designers from the Middle Ages. Artists were considered to be lowly craftspeople, and most of the work was completed in workshop environments—with many artisans participating in the completion of a single work.


Picasso and the Medieval Tradition

Romanesque Painter - Majestas Domini with Evangelists and Saints (detail) - c. 1123 - Fresco - Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (click photo for larger image)This wall-painting detail featured here originally came from the Church of San Clemente de Tahull in the lower Catalan Pyrenées. It was eventually transferred to the Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya in Barcelona for safekeeping. Pablo Picasso was particularly struck by the highly idiosyncratic and distinctive style of the San Clemente Master, and kept a poster of this image in his house at Mougins in Southern France. Picasso was a complex painter and his medieval sources have rarely been studied. But we do know that up until 1895 (when he made his first  visit to the Prado museum in Madrid) much of Picasso’s exposure to art took place in churches. In addition, as early as 1896, he was studying the Romanesque and Gothic elements of his local Barcelona architecture.

Pablo Picasso - La Visita (The Visitation) - 1902 - Oil on canvas - 152 x 100 cm. - Hermitage Museum, Saint PetersburgPicasso’s work La Visita (The Visitation) (1902) is seemingly simplistic in composition. The heavily outlined, elongated figures and exaggerated facial features evoke the flatness and abstraction that is characteristic of medieval art—and the period styled clothing enhances the reference. That the work was also done on panel (rather than canvas) also calls to mind the frescoes, altarpieces, and panel works of the Middle Ages. It’s worth noting that a number of works from Picasso’s “Blue Period” embody a medieval influence.