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The Renaissance in Spain, The Morata Master

The Morata Master, Virgin and Child Enthroned with Scenes from the Life of the Virgin, late fifteenth century, tempera and gold on wood, central panel, below 132.1 x 87.9 cm; central panel, above, 111.1 x 87.6 cm; each side panel 214.6 x 57.8 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art), this video is part of Smarthistory's Expanded Renaissance Initiative Speakers: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(lively jazz music) - [Lauren] We're in the Metropolitan Museum standing in front of a Spanish altarpiece from the 15th century by the Master Morata. - [Beth] We're calling him the Master of Morata. because we don't know his exact name, the artist. - [Lauren] This particular altarpiece, or what's called the retablo in Spanish, is devoted to the Virgin Mary, but it also focuses on scenes from the life of Christ. - [Beth] So we have six different scenes here, on the upper left, the Nativity, on the lower left, the Annunciation, the bottom center, the Madonna and Child, above that, the Coronation of the Virgin, the crowning of the Virgin in heaven, on the bottom right, the Adoration of the Magi, and above that, the Resurrection of Christ. This may at first seem like a lot of very different subjects, but theologically speaking, they make a lot of sense together. - [Lauren] If you think about the Resurrection, it's paired across the other side of the retablo with the Nativity and so this idea of the birth of Jesus and his death and resurrection are paired, and similarly on the bottom where we have the Annunciation where Mary learns that she'll bear the son of God, is paired, then, with the Magi coming to worship the Christ child, so this idea of the incarnation and this focus on the moment, when God is made flesh. - [Beth] At the very top, this celebration of Mary's divinity as she's crowned in Heaven as the Queen of Heaven, which is possible only because she is the mother of God. - [Lauren] It's focusing on her role as the co-Redeemer, she's the co-Redemtrix. And we see how the artist has visually tried to tile this together, using particular techniques. We see that the Virgin Mary is wearing the same clothing, her red dress, the blue mantle, that has embossed gold on the edges, she has a circular halo that is also embossed with gold, and likewise we see other figures, who are repeated across the different scenes. Saint Joseph has a very particular scalloped halo and we see him in two different scenes. All the halos across this composition, they've been raised with the use of gesso and then gilded. They have a relief quality to them, and when we're standing up close to this painting, they have this three-dimensional quality. Imagine with flickering candle light how this would have led your eye to the most important figures in the painting. This embossed and gilded technique we typically call pastiglia in Italian, but in Spanish is called embutido and it is a prominent feature of 15th century Spanish painting. This particular artist Master Morata is well known for these concentric circles that we find here on the halos. Although this is something you do see in the artworks of other Spanish painters of the time. - [Beth] What we're talking about is the way that an altarpiece function to help educate the laity, to educate people who are in the church looking toward the altar. - [Lauren] The artist here has done this remarkably well. Beyond repeating some of these motifs to help identify particular figures, he also has prominent inscriptions underneath each scene that are telling us what's happening in that scene. For instance, in the top scene of the Coronation the inscription says, "The Coronation of Our Lady the Virgin Mary." - [Beth] The other thing, I think, that the artist is doing to make everything legible and readable by the people who would be in the church looking toward the altar, is that he's enlarged the heads and also the hands, so that the gestures are very easy to read, the narrative, the stories that are being told here, at least in the five surrounding panels, are easy to read. - [Lauren] He's also made the compositions very readable. We do not have a lot of extraneous objects, we have chest key elements that we need to be able to identify each scene or each figure. Something that is visually very striking to me about this altarpiece are the projections off the side and the top. Essentially, what looks like a framing device, they have all of these decorative patterns, these are actually patterns from textiles. It's a pomegranate (mumbles) motif, that would have come from Islamic textile designs. And then we also have a coat of arms. Unfortunately we're not able to identify which family this is relating to, but it was most likely the patron, the person who commissioned this altarpiece. We also see some of those textile elements are included in the background on the top portion of the altarpiece as well, but instead of in red we have blue textile designs. - [Beth] And there are several other figures here, that are wearing what looked like very expensive fabrics. It's impossible for me to think about the trade in textiles that was going on across Europe in the 15th century. - [Lauren] There's a long history of Muslims in Spain, where you might have the influence of these textiles as well. We have a lot of other types of influences that are clear in this painting. - [Beth] I'm seeing the Northern Renaissance in this exaggerated perspective of the floors, the way that we have this intuitive perspective where the floor looks like it tilts upward but we do have a real sense of an illusion of space with diagonal lines that recede into a background, but we don't have perfect linear mathematical perspective. - [Lauren] The interest in all of these naturalistic details and the material splendor of things like textiles reminds me so much of Northern painting. But I also see Italy here, particularly in the central panel of the Virgin and Child. I mean I think of Giotto or Duccio here with the Virgin seated on this throne, that's heavily foreshortened and receding into space behind her. - [Beth] And I think about Masaccio and Giotto, where the Virgin Mary's body is monumental and takes up space on this thrown. She sits back into that thrown in a way that is very real and gives us a palpable sense of her weight of gravity and of space. These are things that were really important to the artists of the Italian Renaissance. - [Lauren] We have influences that are very local to Spain. I look at these tiled floors, and they remind me of Islamic tiles that you would find in Spain. - [Beth] Let's focus on the Annunciation panel. We have typical Annunciation iconography here, we have the angel Gabriel on the left, he's coming and announcing to Mary that she will bear the Son of God, Mary is surprised to see the angel Gabriel, the Holy Spirit takes the form of a dove, we have that vase of lilies that symbolizes Mary's virginity, Mary is seated at a little prayer table and she's been in her humility and piety, she's been reading the Bible. - [Lauren] Behind her we have a double window that's split by a column that allows us to look out into this landscape, and it recedes far off into the distance, which is once again something that we typically associate with Flemish painting. - [Beth] And we are also seeing that tilted up floor and that exaggerated perspective. Look how prominent the gestures are, the angel Gabriel who points up to God, and Mary whose hands are enlarged, and she spreads them in surprise at the words of the angel Gabriel, which are actually written on that little banner that comes between them. At this point in history, Spain is not a unified country the way we think of it today. - [Lauren] Spain has a very complicated history at this point in time, there were different crowns, you have the crown of Castile, the crown of Aragon, - [Beth] Crown refers to a monarch, who might rule over several kingdoms. - [Lauren] This particular artist is from Aragon. We see some typical Aragonese features here. This painting is most likely from the late 15th century, we have those Netherlandish influences, Aragon was one of the earliest places where we see artists adopting these Flemish techniques, but in the later 15th century in the crown of Aragon is also when we begin to see these characteristics that we associate with Italian Renaissance Art of the trecento and the quattrocento. - [Beth] Well, and it makes me wonder how much of the Art of the Renaissance that we look at, is a mixture of the Renaissance, especially as we move into the latter part of the 15th century and into the 16th century, when there was more movement and trade across Europe. - [Lauren] Spanish art of this time has often been omitted from discussions of Renaissance Art, and I think part of that reason is because it has been challenging to use our historical terminology that is so ingrained in this field, because it doesn't accurately describe what we're seeing here: we have these Italianizing qualities, we have these Netherlandish or Flemish qualities, we have the Spanish qualities and how does one talk about that? Typically, people have called this Hispano-Flemish, but I find that to be a problematic term for a lot of reasons. - [Beth] I think, any time that we make very broad generalizations about a style being related to a country or region, we're ignoring the incredible amount of movement and exchange that happened in places. - [Lauren] Spain at this time had lots of movement in the form of trade and commercial activity, but also of artists. You have artists from Spain going to other parts of Europe and you have other artists from around Europe coming to Spain. You also have things like textiles and ceramics and metalwork and paintings that are being collected and traded across vast distances. We tend to forget in the Renaissance, that things and people and ideas were constantly on the move. An altarpiece like this does highlight some of the challenges we face in the field of art history at trying to develop more accurate terminology to describe artworks like this. (lively jazz music)