Ashes to Flames
The Dark Ages were dark on principle. There have been many apologists over the years who have striven to present that era as if it were accidental, or only co-incidental - that the period of history embracing Christiandom need not have been that way. But ideas have consequences, and philosophical ideas, of which religions are variants, which espouse the "virtues" of the taking/tribal syndrome, which espouse a cry of justification, in its raw-naked essence, of acting like human-styled animals, on principle deliver that kind of consequence. A doctrine which viewed the world as a terrible place to be in; a doctrine which claimed that the joys of the world, such as they were obtainable, constituted glorifying the imperfect and thus depraved, at the expense of the spirit; a doctrine which conjured all manner of horrifying consequences to choosing material pleasures over spiritual ones, and then claimed that the spiritual pertained to another world, a hereafter; a doctrine which then proceeded to implement those horrors through coercions in this world, not content to let their god take care of the matter; a doctrine which then also claimed that this hereafter was at the grace of this God, a being which had damned humanity for even existing, under the cry of Original Sin - such a doctrine could have had no other consequence than the viciousness of stifling human growth.
In the realm of Art, this was as much a case of devastation as elsewhere. Where once there were concerns with the complexities of the world around, the intricacies of details, from the crevices of the flesh of old people, the dimpling of the flesh of the young, or the shimmering folds of windblown cloth - no more, only phantasms with barely human faces, all much alike, like peas in pods, shrouded to cover formless bodies. Where once attention had been given to types of the plants and animals, seeking to depicting them as specifics sufficient to fool birds and people, or just to delight in the images - no more, just vague shapes, if even that at all. It was not just that there were no longer any interests in realism [tho the religious fervor was so overwhelming that indeed there seemed little if any such interests], but that whereas what interests remained, such became forbidden, and very coercively so - an affront [or threat ?] to the stated doctrine.
Yet - tho this pestilence of anti-life virulently rumbled across the face of the European lands, it didn't do so with equal effects, especially along its edges of influence. There were, here and there, always a few humans who differed in the extent of the despair imparted on the view of the world. While a lot of the ancient writings had been lost during this upheaval, there were still a number of ancient works scattered among the landscape which kept some memory of old time to persist. What remained visible, however, were throwbacks -the intellectual level of the Arts had reverted to the decorative level, skills reduced to the geometrics of design. True, tho there were some collectors of antiquity [Charlemagne was far and away the most important, even seeking to revive the old with a blending of Christianity with his Holy Roman Empire], these were alpha-male figures seeking to aggrandize their positions with authoritative symbols, and thus were acquiring already done works. The skills required of making more like them were largely lost and needing to be rediscovered. Throughout Europe, what aesthetic works were still being done were being done for the glory of the church, in large part in the building of cathedrals and monasteries, sculpture largely being confined to base reliefs. It was one thing, however, to be able to project images in base relief - quite another to be able to bring them out from the walls, to "release" them as it were, and still another level of expertise to be able to carve "in the round". In any case, whatever works were done were also done anonymously, part of group efforts, as "slaves of God".
Indeed, it would not be until the thirteenth century when some of the figures would "step out" from the cathedral walls - and it was also around that time that recognition of individual sculptors began to be granted. Even there, tho, in these outstepping figures, the emphasis was on the frontal view, and the figures displayed little of any knowledge of anatomy [no surprise - it was a forbidden subject] beneath the swathing robes. It would actually not be until the fifteenth century that the first life sized sculpture in Western Europe meant to be seen in the round was created - Donatello's David.
What caused the transformation? What began breaking up the sickness that was Christiandom? Several reasons. For one, the peak of religiousness came at the millenium and, when nothing happened, when no last judgment took place, a number began asking about the possibility of life becoming better than it was, if one had, after all, to live it. Another reason, in line with the first, was that in the course of the pestilence rolling across the lands, quite a number of people died from one cause or another, crops failed, and the petty local governments began losing their hold upon the locals. There was, as consequence, a shortage of labor and food. In line with this, was the fact that traders still abounded the landscape, tho often under cover of some sort or another, operating minimally or in different areas than before. With the breakdown of the totalitarian authority of the churches amidst much internal bickering of doctrinal interpretations, and the isolationism of the countryside, those who traded began to perceive that they had a better chance than before of enlarging their sphere of influence, especially with discoveries of new foods and ways of cultivating the lands, as well as other assorted products to sell.
It was, indeed, the rise of the merchant guilds that fostered in large part this renewal of a sense of positive living, of life being made more worthwhile. As they accumulated their wealth, they reimbibed the sense of of individualism among the talented by way of commissions – at first to help improve their local churches, then secular buildings, including their own. This individualizing of talent in turn spread to among the populace at large in a myriad of ways, much to the consternation of authorities everywhere [including, eventually, themselves]. Along with this, it was, oddly enough, Francis of Assisi who helped shift the non-worldly attitude of the church to recognising the benevolence of the world – fostering a renewal interest among many in depicting natural objects once again, the birds, flowers, trees, the little creatures.
Not only that, a number of the ancient texts were rediscovered, the works of Aristotle among them. Thomas Aquinas, in his scholarly study of Aristotle's writings, acknowledged that the ancient Greek was right about reason – it wasn't a handmaiden of faith, but an autonomous faculty which humans possess and which humans must learn to use, because it wasn't an automatic faculty. He also pointed out that the world was indeed real, not a simulation, not a terrible phantasm as many had mistakenly believed. Moreover, life need not be a cursed thing, but be lived and enjoyed, and that it could be virtuous to do so.
What effect did this have on the Arts? For one thing, while the subject matters, of course, remained religious, the presentations shifted dramatically. From the flat, highly decorative works of the earlier times, in many cases complete turnarounds became evident. In sculpture, this meant greater understanding of anatomy [most often surreptitiously acquired], which thus allowed for greater realism in such matters as the turning of heads, placements of hands, overlays of cloth folds across the bodies – and the ability to convincingly push out the figures from the recesses of the base reliefs. Along with this was the development of individualized expressions, which then permitted 'dialogues' between the various figures. This, in effect, opened up a flowing of expressed emotions not seen in many centuries. Individualization also went in another way – in the qualitative differences as noted among specific sculptors. Consequently, their respective names became allowed to be recognised and recorded. Before this time, the works were predominantly anonymous, as the efforts were a part of tribal endeavors, to the glories of the group – the cities, communities, or nation/states.
Where did much of the initial transformation take place? It was where,actually, it would have had to take place – among an area in which trading of some sort had been retained, the Tuscany city/states of especially Pisa, Siena, and Florence. Nicoli Pisano, who worked in the latter half of the thirteenth century, seems to be about the earliest mentioned. He was a founder of a very influential school of sculptors, and became famous for his carved pulpits. His son, Giovanni Pisano, became even more famous, taking sculpture much further than his father.
While Nicoli's carvings had recognisable human figures ennobled and idealized, the first since Roman times, it was Giovanni who liberated the figures in the cathedrals, especially Siena's, giving them agitated and passionate personalities, each possessing different character and moods. The works of these two were tremendously influential, as they made much usage of ancient poses and models couples with their own individual experiences.
Whereas sculpture seemed to have gotten its restarting in Siena, it was in Florence that painting revived. A painter named Cimabue was the earliest noted. His “Crucifix” for the Franciscan church of Santa Crose shows a radical departure from earlier anonymous crucifixes.
Before Cimabue, Christ had been depicted as a hierarchal immortal presence, dominating and unscathed by the crucifixion.In contrast, Cimabue portrayed Christ as dead, the body hanging quite limply on the cross, with no sign of life. In effect, he humanized Christ, showing a being who had lived and died, but who would come alive again – a direct reflection of Saint Francis and the Franciscan teachings. Giotto, living about the same time as Cimabue, carried the break from the past much further.
His renderings of figures projected weight – they had a sense of volume, of having bones and flesh beneath the robes, earthly realism that made the images as if living presences that existed in the world of the observer, not in some symbolic space “elsewhere”. Others followed. There were Duccio and Lorenzetti in Siena, for instance, making painting and sculpture once more concerned with the issues of beauty and the human figure, drawing the viewers into the works, creating a sort of contemplative “dialogue” between the spectators and the works of Art.
But the feats of Giotto, however, should not be underrated. Almost singlehandedly he revived painting as re-presentational efforts. This was not just with regards to the figures, but in establishing earthly backgrounds, attention to details of plants and birds and insects – and establishing [or rather, re-establishing] illusionism as an art form in the clever usage of drapes and “sense of interiors” of rooms and alcoves. True, the specific artifacts presented were heavily symbolic of one thing or another, a direct and imperiated influence of religion. Still, they were presented as if they really were there to see, and this was a remarkable transformation of religious interpretation.
I emphasize this. Furthermore, I note that this transformation was, like the first renaissance of ancient Greece, being done under the eagus of religious fervor. It was not a case of discovering, fresh, the trader syndrome aspect of viewing the world and then displaying contemplatives of it. It was something almost as much a feat, and, under the circumstances of the heavy influence of religion, the only probable way. It was instead a form of wrangling out from under the taking/tribal syndrome view of existence which was the essence of religion – a means to assert, as much as possible, a this-earth view of the world, even if still tainted with the strappings which had made this new view so impossible to see and be for the longest of times.
Make no mistake, re-interpreting religion was the only way to go. In terms of a moral code, none knew of any other, only differing versions or ways of seeking to uphold the only one they knew of – in light of obviously changing times and circumstances. Even the pagan writings of Plato were simply incorporated – the central themes were recognised as being essentially the same, only the details differing. As for Aristotle, Aquinas just took the issue of the “prime mover” as meaning the acceptance of a Creator, even as the issue of “A is A” and “existence exists” meant no such dualism of worlds as Plato held [tho, as mentioned earlier, Aristotle did indeed harbor a number of Platonic influences which contradicted his major understandings regarding reason and reality].
True, the essence of the trader syndrome was around, tho there doesn't seem to have been anyone who actually compiled those virtues as a separateness. At best, there were only attempts at trying to reconcile some of them to church teachings, somewhere, anywhere, to justify them, somehow, under what must have seemed to have been at time almost impossible situations – especially when these different notions, being claimed as supportive by scripture, as if of “the Devil's quoting”. Nonetheless, the cornerstone had in effect been set, thanks to Aquinas. With the issue of reason being established as a necessity of human life, it also established, however covertly, a support of individualism – for only the individual reasons and forms judgments, as it is not a tribal thing, and it is the absolute of reality that establishes which individual's judgments are correct, not group consensus. This was very apparently so with regards to trading affairs, wherein the wrong judgment often meant ruin or at the least noticeable setbacks.
Moreover, this time around, trading was also beginning to be recognised as dealing in some manner with a “sum-plus” view of the world, in that, at least to some extent, there was a gain without a loss for others. This was so even tho the merchants, like most all the other occupational skills, were enclosed in guilds, coercive groups that forceably limited competition within each sphere of specialized endeavor – with the view that if there were these gains on both ends of the tradings, there could not be enough “newness” go go around if left unchecked.
Still, this curtailing of “spreading the riches” did allow the guilds to be able to display their “social” worth be becoming patrons of the Arts of their respective city/states – it was a matter of community pride. In Florence, for example, the merchants guilds held what has generally come to be known as the most famous competition in the history of Art – doing the bronze doors of the Florentine baptistery, won by Lorenzo Ghiberti, and gaining for him immortal fame for the imaginative quality of his work. The competition and the results helped make Florence the most preeminent of the city/states, and home of one of the greatest aggregation of creative personalities ever gathered in one area – architects, sculptors, painters, writers, imaginative leaders and inventive thinkers – all who saw themselves as at the vanguard of a new age.
Ghiberti was followed by Donatello, who, as mentioned,was the first of those times to create, in his “David”, a life-sized statue meant, for the first time since ancient times, to be seen in the round. There are actually several firsts about this work. Unlike Ghiberti's doors, which were for a part of a church, or Pisano's sculptures, again for churches, Donatello's “David” was a privately commissioned work – that is, it was for the personal enjoyment of Cosimo de'Medici.
Not only that, the figure was the first unabashedly nude figure since antiquity. Indeed, it was not merely nude, it was naked, with no residue of sin or shame being associated with the human figure. Furthermore, a figure in the round is a sculptural study different from one meant to be seen from one angle, the front. Compositionally, there is a need of knowing the figure from all angles, so that there is interest from whichever side the viewing is. Moreover, making “David” did not remove the religious element from the work – but it gave it the ultimate in the Franciscan sense. “David”'s nudity, in effect, underscored his moral victory – naked and thus vulnerable, he won over Goliath because God was on his side, and by setting him as a reflection of this, Donatello had the statue's meditative state engage the viewers' thoughts of transiency and mortality. While the statue was therefore [as all statues actually are] symbolic, it was also highly individualistic. Indeed, it was in the area of sculptures that the most direct communication of the interests in the individual first excelled – portraiture – and it created quite an industry in busts which reflected not just the physical likenesses [as was also so in the Roman examples], but the “inner person”, the “character of the mind” - totally devoid of religious association, the first truly complete break from otherworldliness, the first truly secular Art.
Painting, too, took a turn to portraiture in this “character study” way, shifting from the impersonal profile to three-quarter views disclosing much expression. Not only that, the eyes of the portraited were turned to looking right at the viewer, thereby drawing in the viewer with that eye-to-eye contact. Where once used to indicate power and position, by way of the articles of clothing and decorations and such wrapped around the figure, the portrait changed to expressing senses of life and relationships within the world – and to the world, as the backgrounds and views often showed.
But when it was not portraiture, the the influence of religion was felt in some way or manner, Mythology was utilized – for instance, Botticelli's “Birth of Venus” was one of the earliest Renaissance treatments of the female nude in painting, and the nudity was allowed precisely because of it being about a paganism.
Since the ancient texts were not forbidden, indeed were poured over and studied with great attention, so, too, were the visualizations of those texts, often contemporized to draw parallels, where possible, thus allowing contemporary subjects to be “immortalized” in a manner that never would have otherwise been attained. Like the portraits, too, these were utilized on the walls of the polazzos, buildings which in addition to being homes, were also the seats of family businesses – with the families themselves being extended ones, clans whose members were associated with the businesses. Thus not only was the manner very secular, but there were a lot of walls to cover and fill, and a number of patrons to issue commissions.
This is not to say that religious paintings and sculptures themselves wained – far from it. Most works still were for alters and other enclosures of churches scattered across the land. But the total hold of the churches as the only expressions for a God devotion was gone, and there were a number of artists willing to take the risks in stretching the non-churchness as far as possible without actually being excommunicated. And it was not enough to say that these painting works had backgrounds to them, thereby setting the performers on the world – but that the backgrounds presented an ordered, calm world, with contemporary dwellings, cultured scapes, and bright sunlit skies. This was a pro-life, invigorating view of the world it there ever was one. Furthermore, these were being rendered in as crisp and unfuzzy a manner as it was possible with the materials at hand, especially fresco types where the pigments were mixed with the plaster and applied to a prepared wall – much the same as it had been since before the Dark Ages period, in those days of antiquity. Mixing pigments in oil had been known for about a hundred years, but very rarely used until now. It would be in the north countries of Flemish cities that the superior usability of this medium would be discovered as its usage spread across the European lands.