Over the course of the 13th century in Italy, there was a big move towards naturalism in the art, particularly religious art, which attempted to free itself of the conservative, limited scope of Byzantine art into a new realm of realism. This gradual change in art is very indicative of the shift in society itself that Italy was experiencing at the time, as it was slowly but inexorably moving towards the Renaissance. Painters were struggling to express the new attitudes that were being expressed by the people and those in power, which were different from strict religious iconography, opting instead to place more expression into their works. In this essay, we will examine three paintings of the time – Berlinghieri’s St. Francis of Assisi, Cavallini’s The Last Judgement, and Giotto’s Meeting at the Golden Gate – and explore just how the changes in style were influenced by the pervading cultural changes that were occurring.
Before we start, we must look into the basic attributes of strict Byzantine art, so that we can understand the changes that are happening over the course of the century. Byzantine art places a great emphasis on iconography, eschewing artistic expression for a substantial reverence for the person or event that was being depicted. (Cunningham, 167) Figures in it would have a strange, detached alienation to them, as they are meant to be portrayed as being above the normal and physical. The sacred nature of the content was placed at the forefront, its roots firmly in Christian Orthodox forms of worship. (Cunningham, 169) Byzantine painters would strive to create a portrait that, more than anything else, showcased the spirituality and reverence that should be associated with the subject of the painting. As a result, these artists would attempt to infuse their own small nuances on their work, but they would more or less follow the same formula – flat, two dimensional paintings that were more abstract and presentational than representational, of which the first painting we will discuss is a perfect example.
In Berlinghieri’s painting St. Francis of Assisi, we see a classic example of the Byzantine style of art – the entire painting is one enormous symbol of the man himself and what he stands for, as opposed to a more realistic approach. St. Francis takes up the center of the painting, his visage more stylized than detailed; the golden skin and odd proportions of his fingers make him seem alien, heightened somehow. Surrounding him are six small vignettes, all of St. Francis performing certain acts within his life (helping others, receiving messages from the angels, etc.), as well as a pair of angels hovering above his shoulders in the central panel. Francis himself is an abstract figure in the middle, not part of the surrounding panel, but they all tell stories about him. The painting is less about a specific event than about the man himself, presenting a mosaic of his life and the good deeds that he has done. While this takes away from a sense of narrative about the painting, it allows for a greater sense of worship and piety in regards to St. Francis, as we are given an impression of the kind of man he is, rather than see the story of his life in any sort of sequence or detail.
In the early part of the thirteenth century, Italy’s economic status was greatly improving, with the European network economy becoming established more strongly due to the establishment of ports along the Mediterranean. Infrastructure was starting to form within Italy during this time, as banking and foreign exchange became more centralized and organized. (Burke, p. 232) International trade was booming, making Italy a greater power in Europe, and a presence on the global marketplace. On the religious front, Italian city states were given the power to separate themselves completely from the Holy Roman Empire. All the same, there was still a great deal of religious piety, and the Byzantine style of art was a very big influence on the painters of the time.
Cavallini’s The Last Judgement was an attempt to break out of the Byzantine mold in Italian art and shift it towards a more naturalistic vein. The painting depicts seven figures, all sitting in chairs on the same plane, but for the rightmost one, which is standing and praying in the direction of four angels (presumable the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse), all clustered in the far right of the fresco, and all turned away from the seven figures. The figures are painted in a more naturalistic way – their skin tones and body proportions are all much more consistent with what could be considered realism than Berlinghieri’s stiff, alien St. Francis. While all of the people seem to be sitting in a single file line, the Horsemen on the right are all clustered from top to bottom, in front of and behind each other, indicating a three-dimensional look that was not present in strictly Byzantine art. Faces and clothing are more detailed, with a greater emphasis on subtle colors and shading, and postures and positioning appears more fluid and natural.
This painting is often referred to as being in the style of Roman naturalism, as it has this sense of greater realism than Byzantine religious art, but still feeling like religious iconography to an extent, with everyone still being on the same plane. In this way, Cavallini makes it clear that it is still meant to instill a deep sense of spirituality in the viewer, while still creating more relatable figures in the work. This humanizing of these religious figures can be indicative of the events happening in Italy near the end of the thirteenth century; feudalism was on the decline, as trade was increasing between foreign countries to the level where merchants were becoming very wealthy. What’s more, landed nobility were beginning to lose power as well, as this new way of living allowed urban patriarchs to surpass them as the wealthier class in Italy. (Burke, 93) Consequently, the art of the time moved toward a more communicative, democractic style that attempted to depict these changes, especially where religious art was concerned.
In Giotto’s Meeting at the Golden Gate, we see the Golden Gate in Jerusalem, where Joachim and Anna are reunited after a long time apart. They are huddled together in the left half of the painting, while other people happily pass through the gate from the right. The only person who appears unhappy is a mysterious woman in a black cloak, who is facing the opposite direction of everyone else entering through the gate. This painting showcases a further departure from Byzantine art styles, as there is a greater sense of realism than before, depicting fully realized people with detailed clothing and a wide variety of facial expressions, which is a real change from the stoicism seen in the previous two paintings. The entire image is also presented from an angle, rather than straight on at the audience (like St. Francis) or along a horizontal plane (like the Last Judgement). This allows the picture to place greater emphasis on the characters in the foreground (Anna and Joachim), and allow the background characters, including the woman in black, to be part of the background, giving context to their reunion without taking away focus.
As the fourteenth century began, the Renaissance was beginning to rear its head, allowing for much greater innovation of art, including a near-complete departure from the flat style of Byzantine art and allowing for much greater expression in religious iconography, as the Giotto’s Golden Gate demonstrates. All the same, Medieval influences were still deeply entrenched in the style of painters, as that sense of grandeur and scale provided in the works were very much alive. Gothic influences were beginning to crop up more and more in religious art, Giotto being one of the artists working at the forefront of that movement to provide greater animation and expression to the faces and gestures of the figures in these paintings.
With these three paintings, it is easy to see the progression of art from Byzantine abstraction to romantic realism through the course of the thirteenth century in Italy. With the shift in priorities to finances and capitalism taking away from the greater emphasis on religious piety and Christian worship, the art forms of Christian mosaics were toned down and naturalized, thereby humanizing the figures within them and creating a more innovative, dynamic atmosphere within the paintings. Instead of focusing on a specific person and all the events that surround them (like St. Francis), a specific event would be depicted, focusing on the emotions and the importance of the event itself, rather than the players that take part within it. As the Renaissance was not far from beginning, these small but important changes were the impetus for real change to happen to culture and art in Italy.
Berlinghieri, Bonaventura. St. Francis of Assisi. 1235. Tempera on wood. Church of San Francisco, Pescia.
Burke, Peter. The Italian Renaissance: Culture and Society in Italy. Princeton UP, 1999. Print.
Cavallini, Pietro. Last Judgement. 1293. Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome.
Cunningham, Lawrence, and John J. Reich. Culture and Values: a Survey of the Humanities. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2006. Print.
Giotto. The Meeting at the Golden Gate. 1305. Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy.