“Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin and Child” and “The Rape of Europa” (henceforth “Saint Luke” and “Europa,” respectively) are two pieces by two very different artists: the former is a piece by the Netherlandish painter Rogier van der Weyden, while the latter is a piece by the High Renaissance artist Titian. To put these two paintings in the proper context for comparison, some information is needed about their respective artists. Titian was a Venetian artist during the period that is now known as the High Renaissance, and is widely acknowledged by art historians as the master painter of this era. “The Rape of Europa” is not his most famous work, but it is a work that displays strong characteristic features of the artwork that he was responsible for in his later years as an artist in Venice. “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin and Child,” on the other hand, is a painting by the Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden, who is widely described as one of the leading Renaissance artists of Northern Europe. These two pieces very accurately depict two different trends in art at similar points in time; this is why they have been chosen for comparison, and why they make such interesting comparison pieces.
The piece “Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin and Child” is an interesting piece in terms of execution. An oil on oak painting, it is a slight break from the earlier Flemish works of art that appear very flat and smooth. Van der Weyden’s figures have depth; although they are outlined against the background, the faces are heavily contoured and there is a distinct feeling of depth to the figures. Even the robes and the cloth in the image are heavily textured, and the satin of the figures’ gowns seems to have weight against them. The attention to depth and contour seems to end in the foreground figures of the image, however; as the image recedes into the background, the people and the landscape becomes flatter and less focused on providing realism or depth. There is a very real vanishing point in the image, however, which is also a break from earlier Flemish art that seemingly remained flat and without depth. The foreground is very distinct from the middle ground, but the background and middle ground planes meld almost seamlessly into each other. The presence of the viewer in the room with the figures gives the painting a sense of intimacy, as though the viewer has stepped into a small, dark room with the mother, child, and artist, and is witnessing a special moment.
“Saint Luke” very convincingly follows the rule of thirds, with the three figures in the foreground framing the door to the gardens; these images sit in the lower two thirds of the image, as well. This gives the cursory illusion of space, although the background is, as previously stated, quite flat and seemingly a secondary issue to the three figures in the foreground of the painting. In the foreground, the figures are touched by very soft, white light, and are surrounded by heavy shadows that throw them into sharp relief; however, in the background, the lighting is very uniform and does not create drama. The surface of the painting is smooth, but does not appear smooth in the same way that oil on canvas appears; instead, it looks as though the painting has been done on wood. Some brush strokes are visible, but it is difficult to see with the museum lighting and the distance from the painting.
Titian’s “Europa” is a painting that leaves no doubt that it was created by a master. There is drama and movement in the painting, and although it is idealized in a way that is very specific to the Venetian High Renaissance, there is realism and depth to the painting, as well. This piece was done as an oil on canvas piece, and does not have the harsh outlining that “Saint Luke” has; instead, the figures are outlined against the background, but only in such a way that they appear very far from the figures and the events occurring in the background and middle ground of the piece. Like van der Weyden's piece, Titian has proportioned “Europa” using the rule of thirds, with most of the action occurring in the various thirds of the canvas.
Titian’s work is in better condition than van der Weyden’s, but that may be because the oil on canvas medium ages better than the oil on wood medium. In Titian’s piece, the brush strokes are clear; each one is considered and placed carefully based on the light and dark areas of the piece. Perhaps the thing that sets Titian’s piece apart most readily from van der Weyden’s piece is the movement of the figures. In “Europa,” Europa is in movement; she is scared, and her fear is leading her to react to Eros above her. She is waving a scarf and her position is not the traditional three-quarters pose for the viewer; it is as though the viewer is legitimately seeing a frame from the ancient myth of Europa and Zeus, rather than merely seeing a painting in a museum.
There is drama in the sky and in the water in the Titian piece that is not present in the van der Weyden piece, as well. In “Europa,” the sky is the color of sunset or sunrise, and the mountains and figures in the painting are reflected in the water. There is idealized realism in the background of the piece that is not present in van der Weyden’s piece, whose background seems to be more a cursory addition to the piece than a necessary part of it. Europa is moving from the sunlight towards the darkened, cloudy sky, a movement that is reflective of her fear and her experiences with Zeus as a white bull.
Perhaps the most striking differences between the Titian piece and the van der Weyden piece lie in the focus of the respective pieces of art. Titian’s piece was created to tell a story, and to affix a moment in time; van der Weyden’s piece is a still image of a story, one seemingly without past or future. There is no movement outside of the room that the figures are contained within, while Titian’s piece features figures in full movement outside of the foreground of the piece. Neither piece is better than the other, but there is certainly more drama in the piece by Titian. It is easy to see why, for those unfamiliar with art and with the different stylistic approaches to art in the Renaissance, the Italian Renaissance is more appealing than the art of the Northern Renaissance: there is more drama and movement in the pieces from Italy than from those in the north.