National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Byzantine Art and Painting in Italy during the 1200s and 1300s

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Many of the Gallery’s early Italian paintings were originally parts of altarpieces, a form that first appeared in Italy in the thirteenth century as new attention was focused on the altar by changes in the liturgy, church architecture, and the display of relics. Painting on wooden panels had not been common in the West, but by this time the gilded and painted panels of elaborate altarpieces had begun to join—and would eventually overshadow—fresco and mosaic as the principal forms of decoration in Italian churches. Western artists working on panel turned for inspiration to the Christian East, adapting the techniques, style, and subject matter of Byzantine icons. For Byzantine Christians—and Orthodox Christians today—the icon was a true copy of its holy model. Theologians used the analogy of a wax impression and the seal used to create it to describe the relation between an icon and its subject. Because they depict a holy and infinite presence, not the temporal physical world, icons avoid direct reference to earthly reality, to specific time or place. Instead, backgrounds are dematerialized with shimmering gold, settings are schematized, and figures often appear timeless and static.

Icons are devotional images—windows through which viewer and holy subject make contact. Church decoration was also meant to instruct the faithful, however. And in the West, this role came to foster styles that could, in effect, tell a story. Church frescoes and mosaics—and now panel painting—illustrated the lives of Christ, the Virgin, and saints. New religious orders, especially the Franciscans, who renounced their possessions to preach in villages and towns as Christ had done, stimulated interest in the human life of holy figures. Artists sought to capture the world of everyday experience with greater verisimilitude, relying less on an “ideal image in the soul” to work instead from what was seen by the eye.

Among the first and most important artists to move in this direction was Giotto. Recognized as a father of “modern” painting, he was the first Western artist since antiquity to capture the weight and mass of bodies moving in space, making them three-dimensional with light and shadow. He abandoned the decorative pattern and complicated line of Byzantine art; his forms are heavy and his shapes simple. And as if to match their convincing visual form, Giotto animated his figures with human psychology. Renaissance critics contrasted Giotto’s style, which they termed “Latin,” with the work of his Sienese contemporary Duccio, whose inspiration was Greek. Two panels from Duccio’s greatest work, the monumental Maestà altarpiece, are featured on this tour.

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