Wednesday, December 19, 2012


As my work continues to feature the creations of Renaissance artists, a distinction and characteristic growing with each and every book, it feels only appropriate to honor the season with some of the greatest masterpieces capturing the moment.

The most powerful philosophical and spiritual movement of the Renaissance was that of the Humanist—a rise in the importance of the individual, a desire for beauty and joy in life, intellectual conquest of physical realities, a renewal of pagan pursuits of happiness, and, most of all, an awakening consciousness of the connection of the individual to the natural world in which they exist. All that said, the art of the time was most thoroughly saturated by religious themes. The affluence of the age, however, allowed for wealthy patrons to insert themselves into these religious artistic compositions.

It would be a dishonor to begin this homage to Renaissance nativity works, were it not to begin with Leonardo da Vinci, thrillingly a main character in the current work in progress series. Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi) is not only a statement of the evolution of his technique; it is also a prime example of his inability to bring works to their full fruition. This work, oil on wood, da Vinci began in 1481 as a commission for the altarpiece of the Scopeto Monastery of San Donato. The methodology da Vinci used would mark a progression, not only in his own work, but of those of the era, most specifically in the manner in which figures are represented. There is clearly a sense of dynamic movement to the many people surrounding Mary and her son Jesus. Here we find also a method called chiaroscuro where the contrast of light and dark is manipulated to show a figure’s relative position to others and to the very ground upon which they stand or sit. Unfortunately, the painting was never completed; Leonardo abandoned the work two years later when he left for Milan and the regular income offered to him by the Duke of that province. As an aside, much is theorized on da Vinci’s inability to complete projects, many of them quite derogatory. In this author’s humble opinion it was a question of mastery; once he mastered the technique he set out to achieve for any individual work, he lost interest, having made the conquest, what then was left for him to achieve in the work. It was a symptom of his particular brand of genius. It was a blessing…and a curse.

As one of the fathers of the Renaissance, Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi also deserves mention. In this piece, created between 1304 and 1306, is a glimpse into the discovery of three-dimensional painting; a hallmark of the early Renaissance. This particular piece is a portion of a cycle of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The draping of the clothing, the emotion of the faces is so distinctly Giotto, so enrapturing for the onlooker. But one of the most intriguing figures of the composition is the Star of Bethlehem and its movement through the sky, where almost all such other depictions find it stationary. It is a conjecture that Giotto was inspired to render it as such after seeing the 1301 sighting of Haley’s Comet.

Also an artist gracing the pages of the current work in progress is Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better and more simply known as Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli’s work went through many phases, due in great part to his influences…Lorenzo ‘Il Magnifico’ de’ Medici at the start, the fiery and fanatical Savonarola near the end. In this enormously complex work (London, National Gallery), quite rightly called the Mystic Nativity, it has much of the Savonarola influence—an infusion of symbolism—and little grounding in the event as it might have happened. In it, the artist combines depictions of Christ’s birth along with indications of Christ’s Second Coming as foretold in the Book of Revelation, an event to mark the end of the world as we know it. The joyful combined with the heart wrenching can only be a product of Savonarola’s guilt ridden preaching. And yet it is a work of such mastery and intrigue that it is captivating for whatever influences and warnings it may propound.

In quiet contrast to the tumultuous scene of Botticelli, we next come to the work of Masaccio (Berlin, Staaliche Museum). In this case we find its value not only in the work itself, but in its form. Painted in oil on a wooden salver, this is the personification of a birth tray. Birth trays were common objects in Renaissance, patrician households, given to women either before or during pregnancy and were believed to encourage the healthy delivery of a baby boy. The scenes depicted were often of other births but would frequently include heraldic symbolism of each particular family. To find a birth tray, a household item, created by a master of Masaccio’s stature, gives new meaning not only to what was considered ‘household items’ but to what is considered modern day birth gifts.

While hopeful intentions were to represent the late or “High Renaissance” with a nativity by Michelangelo (yes, he too will be included in the new series, as a young man full of himself and promise as opposed to the life weary man depicted in The King’s Agent), it appears he did not paint one, at least in the formal sense. As he was to conduct himself throughout a great deal of his life, Michelangelo created a painting he called the Holy Family. In this early work, which some say is his first fully self-completed painting (completed 1504 at the age of 29, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), it leaves no doubt to his mastery as a painter. His use of line and his vision of humankind went far beyond the bounds of existing convention. The muscularity of his figures, the authenticity of their expressions breathes true and immortal life into his subjects. Of all such scenes studied in the name of research, this one, beyond all others, shows the humanity of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and, in doing so, lays bare far greater, the sacrifices they were to endure for the sake of humanity and love.


Anne Tudor said...

Wonderful blog, loved it, big Renaissance fan, beautiful portraits on the page, thank you.

Donna Russo Morin said...

So glad you enjoyed it. Thank you.

Frances said...

These are definitely great works of art! I'm glad to have stumbled upon this blog while I was searching for cars for sale by owner since it provided a nice breather for me from all those cars.

Donna Russo Morin said...

Thank you, Frances, for the great smile you put on my face. Not sure how such a search led you to my blog, but I'm so glad you enjoyed. Best of the season, and happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year to you and yours.