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:7:29

Video transcript

(piano music) Man: We're in the first room of the Uffizi. And we're looking at the absolutely monumental painting by Cimabue of the Madonna Enthroned originally for Santa Trinita. Woman: Right, here in Florence. It's about twelve feet high. Man: It's huge and it's so big because that's a big church, Santa Trinita. It would have needed to be able to be seen from the back of the church. Woman: And it's important to remember that it would have been behind an altar raised up from the ground in the space of a church. Very different than the space that we see it in today. So all of that gold would have glistened in a very different way. Man: And kind of important because the churches are relatively dark, so that gold would have been really wonderful and luminous. Of course it also has an important symbolic value and that is the light of heaven. Woman: One of the things that we look at when we think of Cimabue I think going back to Vasari, who really starts his history with the Renaissance with Cimabue is some hints at the beginnings of the Renaissance. And so when we look at this, we begin to see some of that illusionism that we think about with the Renaissance. Man: Right now of course this is 20/20 hindsight. Woman: Exactly. Man: Vasari was certainly not a careful art historian but I think that there is a space that she can sit in. It's not a rational space. Woman: No. Man: You had mentioned that this is the space of heaven. So I think this is a certain degree of license. Now this is a painting that would have been hung fairly high and yet somehow we're looking down at the step on which the virgin's feet rest. We're looking actually down on the seat but we're looking across at the Old Testament prophets down below. Woman: And up at Mary herself. Man: And so there's all kinds of contradictions here. Woman: Right and yet we can read that the sides of her throne are closer to us that the parts of the throne by her shoulders are set back into space. Man: And there's even a kind of velocity that moves our eye back into space. If you look at the lines that are painted on the steps, for instance, where the virgin's feet rest, it does bring us back into space and creates a kind of visual pathway. Woman: And those figures of the prophets in the foreground are even closer still. Man: Let's start down with them because this is curious. They're in a kind of impossible space in the basement under the throne. I mean what is that? (laughs) Woman: They did predict the coming of Christ. Man: Okay so this is very much a Christian perspective and the Christians are looking back to the Old Testament, laying literally the foundation upon which Christianity is built. Woman: So I guess it makes sense that they are below. Man: They're holding scrolls as opposed to books, and that's how we can recognize instantly that they are not the evangelists, that they are actually from the Old Testament. Mary was an enormously important figure at this time. Christ was a little terrifying to the medievel mind. Mary grew in importance what is known as the cult of the Madonna, the cult of the virgin, as an intercessor to her son. That is, people would pray to the Virgin Mary, and hopefully she would speak maybe to God on your behalf. Woman: That's right and that's exactly how Cimabue shows Mary to us here. She's pointing to Christ, in a way addressing the viewer, and then pointing to the Christ child, her son, and saying, "This is the pathway to God. "The pathway to salvation is through Christ." Man: Now Christ, for his part, is looking back to us. You're absolutely right. His two fingers are raised as if he is blessing us. Now the rendering of Christ is really interesting because of course compared to Mary he is quite small and he is the appropriate scale. The problem is, at least to our modern eyes, is that he doesn't look like an infant. His head is small in relationship to his body and he kind of has the features of a grown man except in a little baby and one of the ways our historians have acknowledged this is that this is a symbolic rendering, that Christ is shown as a man of wisdom and age is sometimes a way of expressing that. Symbolically then, here is an all-knowing God. But here is God as a child, although later in the Renaissance that convention will dissipate and we'll see a chubby baby in its place. Woman: So I'm noticing the elongated features of Mary, her long nose, the sort of stylization around her eyes is almond shaped, her very elongated hand, and that's coming from Byzantine tradition that Cimabue is painting in. Man: What's interesting is Byzantium, which had been a source of power and culture in the East, actually a lot of the artists and intellectuals had come to Italy in part because of invasions. So at this moment, at the end of the 1200s, at the beginning of the 1300s, there is this infusion of intellectual capital of artistic tradition that comes into Italy and really revitalizes the traditions here. Woman: So sometimes our historians refer to this period as the Italo-Byzantine. On the other hand Cimabue is doing things that point toward the Renaissance. He is using gold lines to articulate the folds of drapery but those lines instead of just sort of being flat and decorative really begin to describe a sense of the three-dimensional folds of drapery and Mary herself begins to sort of fill out and be a little bit less of that thin elongated figure without any mask that we see before this. Man: We do have a sense of Mary actually holding the Christ child to some extent. Woman: He's a little weightless. Man: Yeah but the figures are weightless. The striations, those gold lines that you were speaking about, help to emphasize that almost two-dimensionality of those figures, but there are trace of chiaroscuro in the neck, in the nose, perhaps in the faces of the angels. You know, these are hints, they are subtle, but of course we can look back now and see this as the beginning of the long development of increasing naturalism, which people like Vasari will look back to Cimabue as the root of. Woman: Look for example the two foreground angels on either side of the throne. Half of their body is behind the throne, giving us the real illusion of space, and their foot comes forward and on the left the angel's foot comes even a little off the throne. Man: But they are still very decorative and one could only imagine what those angels in the background are actually standing on. Woman: And you know, the throne itself is so decorative. Maybe we should just take one moment and talk about the fact that this is on wood. That this is painted with tempera. That the artist is using very thin gold leaf. That's real gold there that has been attached to the wood surface. Man: And we shouldn't underestimate the effort that it takes to create a panel of wood that can survive for so many hundreds of years without warping, without cracking significantly. Woman: And so there's a lot of workmanship here that sometimes I think in the era of the 21st century go to the art store and buy your supplies, we kind of forget about this handmade-ness here, that we have here in all aspects of the materials. Man: I think that's an important point. There was not so much the separation between the art and the craft as we understand it now. You know he is painter and craftsman. Woman: Mixing his paints, working on the wood panel, preparing it and painting it. (piano music)