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Introduction to Late Gothic art

Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) or The Canon, c. 450-40 B.C.E., ancient Roman marble copy of a lost Greek bronze, 211 cm, found in Pompeii (Archaeological Museum, Naples)
Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) or The Canon, c. 450-40 B.C.E., ancient Roman marble copy of a lost Greek bronze, 211 cm, found in Pompeii (Archaeological Museum, Naples)

The Human Body

We have bodies that exist in space, and this has been a fundamental challenge for artists through history.

The figure

In ancient Greece and Rome, artists embraced the realities of the human body and the way that our bodies move in space (naturalism). For the next thousand years though, after Europe transitioned from a pagan culture to a Christian one in the middle ages, the physical was largely ignored in favor of the heavenly, spiritual realm.  Medieval human figures were still rendered, but they were elongated, flattened and static—in other words, they were made to function symbolically.

Space

Bonaventura Berlinghieri, Altarpiece of St. Francis, c. 1235 (Church of San Francesco, Pescia, Italy)
Bonaventura Berlinghieri, Altarpiece of St. Francis, c. 1235 (Church of San Francesco, Pescia, Italy)
Instead of earthly settings, we often see flat, gold backgrounds. There were some exceptions along the way, but it’s not until the end of the 13th century in Italy that artists began to (re)explore the physical realities of the human figure in space. Here, they begin the long process of figuring out how space can become a rational, measurable environment in which their newly naturalistic figures can sit, stand and move.
Florence & Siena
In Italy, there were two city-states where we can see this renewed interest in the human figure and space: Florence and Siena. The primary artists in Siena were Duccio, the Lorenzetti Brothers, and Simone Martini. And in Florence, we look to the art of Cimabue and Giotto.
Giotto, Lamentation, c. 1305, fresco (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)
Giotto, Lamentation, c. 1305, fresco (Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)
Whereas medieval artists often preferred a flat, gold background, these artists began to construct earthly environments for their figures to inhabit. We see landscapes and architecture in their paintings, though these are often represented schematically. These Florentine and Sienese artists employed diagonal lines that appear to recede and in this way convey a simple illusion of space, though that space is far from rational to our eyes. When we look closely, we can see that the space would be impossible to move through, and that the scale of the architecture often doesn’t match the size of the figures.

A Word of Caution

Be careful here! While it is tempting to think of this movement toward naturalism as “progress” it is important to remember that this art is not less good, nor even less “advanced” than what comes later in the Renaissance (you might think of Leonardo or Michelangelo). Art is always a response to the needs of the moment and for the late 13th and early 14th century, symbols of the spiritual remained potent systems for understanding.
Essay by Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

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  • leaf grey style avatar for user Edward M. Van Court
    "While it is tempting to think of this movement toward naturalism as “progress” it is important to remember that this art is not less good, nor even less “advanced” than what comes later in the Renaissance"

    But doesn't improved techniques, greater rigor in the training and education of artists, and improved material constitute 'progress'?
    Art should always be considered in the context of the social mores of the period, the tools and techniques available, etc. but, if I understand you correctly, students shouldn't consider technical and practical advances in looking at art?
    (21 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Steven Zucker
      From the author:The more we learn about the medieval era, the more we find quite advanced technique so I am not sure this is the best avenue for this argument. The point we were making is that the return to classical naturalism in the renaissance was not primarily a matter of technique since first there has to be a reason to need it. Medieval artists could have begun to explore classicism much earlier and likely would have done so if it was culturally important. There were of course several brief classical revivals, the 8th and 9th century Carolingian revival being the most obvious in the West. But mostly this era was content to eschew the classical and its naturalism because it was not important culturally. Political and economic issues also play a large role here. There are isolated instances when classical elements are revived in the middle ages. They do not have much impact and do not carry forward because they are not needed. These are often culturally determined issues and not always about technical knowledge.
      (48 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Katie Chamberlain
    I don't get why the ancient statues have no clothes on. Any ideas?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Peterson
      There are many reasons why the ancient artists portrayed their humans without any clothing. The past civilizations - in particular the Greeks - thought the human form was the epitome of nature, and thus to detract from it by hiding it with clothing was quite unthinkable. When they wanted to focus on the humanist elements of their art, they portrayed their subjects without clothing, as it was considered ideal and could show the entire perfections of the human form.
      (15 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Triniti LaBoard
    Why was the medevial art mostly made with bronze and gold
    (3 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user S1lv44l3x
    was the meaning of life important at this time for artists
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Melissa Finch
    In the "Late Gothic Art in Italy" section, what is the name and artist of the painting with the blue hooded tan skinned man holding a book?
    (2 votes)
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  • winston default style avatar for user da boi
    How come in art they use marble for statues is marble a sign your rich?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Nicole White
    is there really a thing called progress?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user Qaf
    What distinct us as human beings is we are collective learners ,
    Leonardo and Michelangelo wouldn't achieve what they achieved without learning from the people who came before them.
    (2 votes)
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  • female robot grace style avatar for user Marley Wright
    "Medieval human figures were still rendered, but they were elongated, flattened and static—in other words, they were made to function symbolically."
    How is elongating, flattening, and making something static making it symbolic?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Sydney Lehrer
    So does any of this have to do with the actual time period that the Renaissance was within?
    (1 vote)
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