If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:6:56

Painting in central Italy

Video transcript

[Music] we're in the National Gallery in London looking at masaccio's the Virgin and Child when we're looking at the paintings that are centuries old a lot can have changed and in the case of so many paintings from the Middle Ages and from the Renaissance we're looking at paintings that were parts of altar pieces that had often many many panels you can have a single panel painting if you have two panels that are hinged together in the middle we call it a diptych if you have three panels it's a triptych and anything more than that we give up and we simply call it a political and that's because the prefix poly means many scholars have reconstructed what this Pullip dick might have originally looked like based on those panels that have survived often panels for large political I kiss end up in different museums what happened over the centuries is that the paintings were not particularly valued they were taken apart and when they're sold on the market you can get more money by selling them individually now we have documents that tell us that this panel was originally part of a flipped ik that was for a church in the city of Pisa in Italy and we know that the patron was a wealthy notary but although we have so much documentation about this commission sadly there are still 10 panels that are unknown to us that may be lost permanently but even when we look at this panel which was featured as the central panel in the original Pullip tick even here there are losses this was intended for a church and churches were illuminated with candles and lanterns that threw off a lot of soot which meant that people would periodically clean the paintings and do so not with the care of a moderate conservator and that's evident if we look at the drapery of the angels we can see areas of each loss we see that also in Christ's feet and in the Virgin Mary's left hand but we're still so lucky to have what survives here and there still is so much see the largest figure by far is the Virgin Mary she wears this beautiful brilliant blue cloak with this red undergarment which originally would have had silver underpainting that would have been quite luminous and there are other areas that were probably brightly painted in very decorative that are lost to us for example if we look at the wings of the two standing angels look at the Christ child this is such a difference from the way in which he had been represented in earlier Italian paintings by Giotto or even earlier by G la boue here we see an infant that has baby fat whose head is appropriately large in proportion to his body this feels like a real child look at the way that he eats the grapes out of his mother's hand as he eats them he keeps two fingers in his mouth which just seems so characteristically childlike to me the grapes have more somber symbolic meaning when we see grapes and Christian paintings they almost always refer to wine and in Christian theology the wine is during the mass during the Eucharist the blood of Christ so this is a reference to Christ's future death on the cross which makes possible according to Christian theology the salvation of mankind and this perhaps explains Mary's sombre expression Masaccio the artist seems to almost be suggesting that Mary is seeing into the future understanding her child's fate there's something I think important about the way that she holds him in earlier paintings Christ looks older but he's also held in a way that seems very formal as though Mary were holding up Christ to the viewer but here she's got her left arm under his bottom and his thigh and there's something very maternal and natural we associate this artist with the development of naturalism in the early Renaissance clearly learning lessons that had originally been put forward by artists like Giotto a century earlier we only need to look for instance at the masterful use of light and shadow of Buda sciutto the folds of the blue outer garment that is worn by the Virgin Mary and you can see very clearly that the light is coming from the left illuminating those draperies casting them in shadows on the right and that drapery is also helping to reveal the form of the body underneath this is such an important part of the early Renaissance this interest in the human body even when we're depicting divine figures the word Renaissance refers to a rebirth of interest in the classical world in ancient Greece and Rome and for Renaissance painters that meant naturalistic depictions representing the world that we see now you could say that masaccio isn't doing that because we have a gold background we don't have an earthly setting for these figures but we have to remember this is made for a chapel the way that it's painted is dictated by the patron who may very well have specified the gold background which would have shown off the patrons generosity toward the church and his own wealth the Masaccio has minimized the gold by creating a high-back for the throne on which the Virgin sits and if you look closely at that throne you'll see classicizing columns a clear reference to the interest at this moment in antiquity and there's yet something else we might not notice at first when we think about the influence of the classical world that pattern of wavy lines we see along the bottom this pattern is called a striated motif and we think that Masaccio was borrowing it from ancient Roman sarcophagi also a reference to Christ eventual death and entombment the angels clearly stand behind the throne and the other angels are in front of the throne and there's that very characteristic interest that masaccio has in creating an illusion of space something that was key for the artists of the Renaissance well look at the angels at the front step they're both holding lutes at extreme angles from our perspective we call this foreshortening and it helps to create an illusion of depth there in the front it's so believable once we approach this painting with the understanding that it's part of a larger altarpiece and was likely cut down we begin to be able to see that as we look closer those angels we can see that they were cut off at the bottom art historians believe as much as 25 centimeters has been lost from the bottom of this painting and look at this space on which the angels in the foreground sit if you look very carefully you can see a shadow that does not belong to either angel and we think was cast by one of the figures that was cut off that had originally stood at the and there are other shadows here for example we can see that the Madonna herself casts a shadow what better to convince us of the reality of these forms it helps make this seem so believable and so real and will have a profound impact on the development of Renaissance art when we think of the Masters of the high Renaissance Michelangelo Raphael they are all indebted to the work done by earlier masters like Masaccio [Music]