Pieter Brueghel the Elder and The Hunters in the Snow

April 20, 2010

Pieter Brueghel the Elder and The Hunters in the Snow

             Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525 – 1569) was born in Breda.  It is uncertain if it was the Dutch town of Breda or the Belgian town of Bree.  He was both a painter and printmaker. “Like Bosch Brueghel was concerned with Human folly; like Durer, he had traveled to Italy and embraced the Humanism of the Renaissance.” [Fiero 235]  His style built on the style of the Limbourg brothers.

            His genre paintings depicted everyday life of ordinary people.  It is rumored that Brueghel would disguise himself as a peasant to gain access to weddings and other celebrations to be able to accurately depict peasant life.  This practice earned him the nickname “Peasant Bruegel.  “Brueghel’s genre paintings … were not small-scale renderings but monumental transcriptions of rural activities sometimes infused with symbolic meanings.” [Fiero 235]

            One of Brueghel’s best-known and highly regarded paintings is The Hunters in the Snow (1565, oil on wood, 46” x 63 ¾”, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).  The painting is part of a series depicting different times of the year.  Only five of the original six paintings still exist.  It is speculated that an additional six paintings in the series likely existed. 

            The painting depicts two unsuccessful hunters returning to their village with their pack of dogs.  It is a winter scene with barren trees, the ground is now covered, and ponds are iced over.  People appear to be skating on the ice.  There is a great deal of depth to the painting and detail in background.


Raphael and The School of Athens

April 6, 2010

            Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (March 28, 1483 – April 6, 1520) or better known as Raphael along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo form the triumvirate of great High Renaissance artists.  His father, Giovanni Santi, was the court painter to the Duke of Urbino.  Growing up as part of the Duke’s court, he gained social skills and refinement that carried over into his art. “Raphael’s compositions are notable for their clarity, harmony and unity of design.” [Fiero 200]   

            Pope Julius II, in 1510, commissioned Raphael to paint a series of frescos for the pope’s personal library, Stanza della Segnatura.  The frescos were to represent the four domains of human knowledge, theology, philosophy, law and the arts.  Philosophy was represented by Raphael’s masterpiece, The School of Athens (1509- 1510, Fresco, 500 cm x 770 cm, Vatican City). 

In the center of the vanishing point of the painting walking towards us are the two great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. The scene is that of a Roman basilica and resembles the newly renovated Saint Peter’s Cathedral.  On both sides of the painting appear the great historical thinkers.  “In the restrained nobility of the near life-sized figures and the measured symmetry of the composition, Raphael’s School of Athens marked the culmination of a style that had begun with Giotto and Masaccio; here, Raphael gave concrete vision to a world purged of accident and emotion.” [Ferro 201]  This masterpiece “…epitomize[s] the Grand Style: spatial clarity, decorum (that is propriety and good taste), balance, unity of design, and grace.” [Ferro 201]

Works Cited

Fiero, Gloria K. Landmarks in Humanities. 2nd ed. 2006. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009. Print.

Brunelleschi vs. Ghiberti: the Fray in Firenze

March 1, 2010

The Baptistery of Battistero di San Giovanni is located in front of  Firenze’s (Florence’s) Cathedral or Duomo, the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.  It is a Romanesque octagonal structure with three sets of double bronze doors.    The commission for the first set of doors was awarded to Pisano in 1330 and they were completed in 1336.  The Pisano doors were originally located on the east side of the Baptistery.  In 1452, the doors were moved to their present location on the south side.

            In 1401, the guild of wool merchants called the Arte di Calimala announced a competition for the second set of doors.  This competition began one of the greatest artistic rivalries of all time and it fueled the creative genius of two of the Italian Renaissance’s greatest artists, Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti.  The competitors were to prepare a bronze panel depicting Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. 

            The panel created by Brunelleschi depicts the strong Abraham holding his son, Isaac, by the throat with his left hand as he is about to slash his throat with a dagger held in his right hand.  The angel reaches out and grabs Abraham’s hand before the mortal slash is rendered.  The ram stuck in the thicket lies in front of Isaac.  In addition, two servants and a donkey are at the bottom of the panel.  “Brunelleschi’s work is by far more dramatic and disturbing, all angles and movement and raw emotion, like nothing that had ever been created before ….” [Walker 22-23]

            “Ghiberti’s panel is more elegant and beautiful.” [Walker 23]  The panel shows Isaac in a classic nude stance, and Abraham appears more gentle.  The angel hovers above them and the ram and donkey appear in a natural setting.  “Whereas Brunelleschi’s piece demonstrates an artist aching to forge a new and more powerful vision of reality, Ghiberti demonstrates masterful perfection of art, as remarkable in its own way for the time and place and age of the artist as is the work of his rival.” [Walker 23]

            The judges had a very difficult time in selecting the winner between Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and the five other participants.  Ultimately, the judges declared a tie between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti, and suggested that they both work on the doors as partners.  Brunelleschi would have none of it and withdrew.  His ego so badly damaged that he did not create any other sculpture during his career.  Instead, he pursued a career in architecture, and figured out how to build the dome for Baptistery’s neighbor the Duomo.  “Today, the panels by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi hang side by side on a wall in the Bargello, originally the Palace of the People, later the city’s prison, now its [Firenze] greatest museum of sculpture.” [Walker 22]  Neither panel was ever used in the doors.  Instead, the two panels hang together as a tribute not only to two of the world’s greatest artists, but also to the Frey in Firenze.

Works Cited

Radke, Gary M., ed. The Gates of Paradise Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece. New Haven: Yale University, 2007. Print.

Robinson, George. The Florence Baptistery Doors. New York: Viking, 1980. Print.

Walker, Paul Robert. The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance. New York: HaperCollins, 2002. Print.

Jan Van Eyck and the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

February 15, 2010

           Jan Van Eyck (1390/95-1441) was born in the town of Maaseik in the Province of Limburg, located along the border of modern day Belgium, and the Netherlands.  He was the sibling of painters Hubert Van Eyck (1385/90-1426) and Margaret Van Eyck.  Van Eyck was appointed court painter by John of Bavaria, the Count of Holland in The Hague, in 1422.  After the Count’s death, in 1425, he became the painter and valet de chambre to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and the grandson of Philip the Bold. He traveled to Italy in 1425, and was part of a delegation that was sent by Philip the Good to Portugal in 1428 to negotiate an offer of marriage between Philip and Isabella, daughter of King John I of Portugal.  He settled in Bruges in 1431, and lived their until his death (Scallen 18).

            Van Eyck painted during the Northern Renaissance, a period of great prosperity for Burgundy (modern day Belgium and the Netherlands).  Burgundy’s location made it ideal as a center for trade and banking.  This prosperity increased the wealth of the middle class, broadened the patronage of the arts, and increased the social status of artists.  Merchants and bankers commissioned a portion of Van Eyck’s artwork (Kloss 94).

          The term renaissance typically refers to a renewed interest in the classical arts and culture of Rome and Greece as in the Italian Renaissance.  However, the Northern Renaissance was characterized more by “… an interest in the observable physical appearance of the world and the place of humans in that world.  This, rather than stylistic considerations or an interest in antiquity, is what justifies speaking of a Northern Renaissance” (Kloss 94-95).

            Van Eyck used oil-based paint as the medium for his artwork.  This type of paint is manufactured by adding pigment to linseed or walnut oil.  Oil based paint dries slowly allowing the painter more time to make revisions and to add detail, and it has a luminous quality that allows the artist “to capture rich jewel-like colors and subtle changes in textures and surfaces” (Stokstad 596).  Van Eyck was not the inventor of oil-based paint, but he is recognized as being one of the first to perfect its use (Kloss 95).

            One of Van Eyck’s greatest masterpieces is the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, (1434, Oil on Panel, 32 ¼” x 23 ½’, National Gallery, London).   The Painting is of a man and a women standing together in front of a bed.  The man has traditionally been identified as the Italian merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, Giovanna Cenami, but this has not been confirmed (Scallen 29).  “The room is a lit by a window at the left; light glides across the back wall to the bed at right, and the couple is lit by an unseen source” (Kloss 95).  Traditionally, it is believed that the scene is a private wedding ceremony, and the painting acts as a marriage certificate; but it has also been suggested that the painting celebrates the continuity of their married life, or the close relationship between the couple.

          “Whatever event or situation the painting depicts, the artist has juxtaposed secular and religious themes in a work that seems to have several levels of meaning” (Stokstad 600) including:

  • The chandelier has one lit candle signifying matrimony and the unity of marriage (Stokstad 600);

  • The man uses his left hand to support but does not grasp the women’s hand.  He holds his right hand up as if he is taking an oath (Kloss 95);

  • The removed shoes suggest sanctity (Crenshaw 29);


  • “The small dog may simply be a pet, but it serves also as a symbol of fidelity, and its rare breed – affenpinscher – suggest[s] wealth (Stokstad 600);


  • The spotless convex mirror on the back wall alludes to purity, and the reflection of two other individuals in the room (including the painter) infers that witnesses are present (Kloss 95);


  • The inscription on the back wall translates “Jan Van Eyck was here, 1434” suggests that the artist was a witness to the wedding (Stokstad 600);


  • “…the crystal prayer beads on the wall [and] the image of Saint Margaret protector of women in childbirth, carved on the top of a high-backed chair next to a bed … suggest the piety of the couple” (Stokstad 600); and


  • Oranges on the windowsill indicates innocence before Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, and the couple’s wealth (Stokstad 600).


            Van Eyck’s technique and attention to detail makes the painting a beautiful piece of art, but it is his ability to inject such great symbolism that makes it a masterpiece.  “This unusual, innovative, and still captivating painting makes us believe in the world the painter has created as plausible.  Whatever, the patrons and Van Eyck had in mind, they have become immortal trough art” Scallen 30).

Works Cited

Chatelet, Albert. Van Eyck. Trans. Murtha Baca. 1979. Woodbury: Barron’s, 1980. Print.

Crenshaw, Paul, Rebecca Tucker, and Alexandra Bonfante-Warren. Discovering the Great Masters – the Art LoVan Eyckr’s Guide to Understanding Symbols in Paintings. New York: UniVan Eyckrse, 2009. Print.

Dhanens, Elisabeth. Van Eyck: The Ghent Alterpiece. Ed. John Fleming and Hugh Honour. New York: Viking, 1973. Print.

Fiero, Gloria K. Landmarks in Humanities. 2nd ed. 2006. New York: McGraw Hill, 2009. Print.

Graham, Jenny. InVan Eycknting Van Eyck the Remaking of an Artist for the Modern Age. New York: Berg, 2007. Print.

Hall, Edwin. The Arnolfini Betrothal – Medieval Marriage and the Enigma of Van Eyck’s Double Portrait. Berkeley: UniVan Eyckrsity of California, 1997. Print.

Kloss, William. A History of European Art. Chantilly: Teaching, 2005. Print.

Philip, Lotte Brand. The Ghent Alterpiece and the Art of Jan Van Eyck. Princeton: Princeton UniVan Eyckrsity, 1971. Print.

Scallen, Catherine B. The Art of the Northern Renaissance. Chantilly: Teaching, 2005. Print.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. Ed. Sarah Touborg. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle RiVan Eyckr: Person Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.

Giotto and the Arena Chapel

January 31, 2010

            Giotto di Bondone (1267 – 1337) or Giotto was born at Colle di Vespignano in the Mugello valley near Florence (Girardi 8).  He studied under the Florentine painter Cenni di Pepo Cimabue (1240 – 1302), and was influenced by sculptor and architect Arnolfo di Cambio (1240 – 1300) (Girardi 16).  “Giotto’s art represents a landmark in a new era because it introduced a natural and lifelike style that anticipated Italian Renaissance picture-making” (Fiero 180).

            Giotto’s greatest masterpieces are the frescos he painted inside the Arena or Scrovegni Chapel located in Padua, a city 30 miles southwest of Venice, Italy.  Enrico Scrovegni commissioned the Chapel in 1300.  Enrico’s father, Riginaldo Scrovegni, accumulated a large amount of wealth lending money at usurious rates,  contrary to the catholic virtue of charity.  It is believed that Enrico commissioned the Chapel to expiate his father’s sins and to provide a fitting burial place for members of his family.  It was dedicated to St. Mary of Charity in 1305.  The Chapel is often referred to as the Arena Chapel because of its close proximity to a former Roman amphitheatre (Kloss 40-41).

            The Chapel has six windows located on the right side as you enter the Chapel.  The Scrovegni Palace was originally located on the left side of the building therefore no windows were constructed on that side of the Chapel.  The Chapel is in the shape of a rectangle with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and the walls are covered with plaster.  Unlike most Gothic style churches, it has no ribs, moldings, cornices or pilasters.  The design of the Chapel lent itself to Giotto’s artwork because of it large flat uninterrupted surfaces (Eimerl 112).

Giotto painted his artwork on the walls and ceiling of the Chapel using the fresco method in which water based colors are painted onto wet plaster.  Painting onto wet plaster allows the paint to be infused into the plaster creating a very durable artwork.  However, since the painter must stop when the plaster dries it requires the artist to work quickly and flawlessly (Kloss 41).

            Giotto’s paintings inside the Chapel can be divided into three sections: ceiling, top portion of the sidewalls and the front and back walls, and the bottom portion of the sidewalls.  All of the scenes on the sidewalls are separated from each other by faux marble banding.

        I.      Ceiling: The ceiling is painted in cobalt blue to give the appearance of the sky with ten medallion shaped portraits of Christ, St. John the Baptist, The Virgin and Child, Baruch, Isaiah, Daniel, Malachi and 3 unidentified prophets (Eimerl 116).

     II.      Top Portion of the Side Walls and the Front and Back Walls: These walls are composed of thirty-nine narrative scenes.  The scenes on the sidewalls can be further divided into three tiers and the scenes appear in chronological order.  The top tier is the life of Mary and her parents, Joachim and Anne.  The six scenes on the right wall are events prior to Mary’s birth and include:

  • The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple,
  • Joachim Retires to the Sheepfold,
  • The Annunciation to Anne,
  • The Sacrifice of  Joachim,
  • The Vision of  Joachim, and
  • The Meeting at the Golden Gate.

           The top tier continues on the left wall from back to front with scenes from Mary’s life prior to the birth of Jesus and includes:

  • The Birth of the Virgin,
  • The Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple,
  • The Presentation of the Rods,
  • The Watching of the Rods,
  • The Betrothal of the Virgin, and
  • The Virgin’s Return Home.

         The first tier ends at the front wall with God the Father sending the Angel Gabriel to deliver his message to Mary.  Beneath this scene is the Annunciation to Mary.  On the left side of the round arch that leads into the sanctuary is the Angel Gabriel delivering Gods message, and on the right side of the arch is Mary receiving his message.

         The middle tier continues the chronology of events beginning on the front wall beneath the scene of Mary receiving the annunciation with The Visitation. The tier continues on the right wall with the life of Jesus before his public ministry and includes:

  • The Nativity,
  • The Adoration of the Magi,
  • The Presentation of Christ in the Temple,
  • The Flight into Egypt, and
  • The Massacre of the Innocents.

The middle tier continues on the left wall with scenes from his public ministry prior to his passion, and include:

  • Christ Arguing with the Elders,
  • The Baptism of Christ,
  • The Marriage at Cana,
  • The Raising of Lazarus,
  • The Entry into Jerusalem, and
  • The Expulsion of the Merchants from the Temple.

The middle tier’s final scene is on the front wall, under the Angel Gabriel, and depicts The Pact of Judas.

         The bottom tier begins on the front right wall with:

  • The Last Supper,
  • The Washing of the Feet,
  • The Kiss of Judas,
  • Christ before Caiaphas, and
  • The Mocking of Christ.

The bottom tier continues on the left wall from back to front with:

  • The Road to Calvary,
  • The Crucifixion,
  • The Lamentation (Pieta),
  • The Angel at the Tomb (Noli Me Tangere),
  • The Ascension, and
  • Pentecost.

         The final scene, The Last Judgment, is on the back wall (Eimerl 112-129).

   III.      Bottom Portion of the Side Walls: The bottom portion of the sidewalls contains 14 scenes.  The seven scenes on the right wall depict the seven heavenly virtues of prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice, faith, charity, and hope.  The seven scenes on the left wall depict the seven vices of despair, envy, infidelity, injustice, wrath, inconstancy, and folly (Cole 70).

                “Giotto broke with the decorative formality of Byzantine painting ….  In place of the flat stylized saints of the Byzantine icon, he … gave his figures a three-dimensional presence [and] brought a new realism to his paintings” (Fiero 180).  This new realism and his depiction of humanism are dramatically expressed in the LamentationIn the background of this scene, a ridge of rock points our attention to the face of Christ.  His head held in the lap of his grief stricken mother, Mary “… their two haloed heads in intense juxtaposition, a concentration of tenderness and sorrow” (Kloss 52).  “This is not only the Virgin and Christ but a very human mother and son” (Cole 91).  On the top of the ridge is a barren tree symbolizing both death and the hope of rebirth.  In the blue sky above Jesus are ten angels who stare down with great anguish on their faces.  Holding Christ’s limp arms is Martha, and her sister Mary Magdalene holds his feet.  Behind them is St. John who throws back his arms, and to the right stands Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus. On the left stands a group additional mourners, and seated in front of Christ’s body are two individuals who sit with their backs to us staring at his body (Cole 90-91).  “… The pictorial representation of great loss and grief in this fresco has never been surpassed” (Kloss 52). Giotto’s new style of showing true human emotion in a realistic way became the precursor for the Italian Renaissance art that followed.

Works Cited

Battisti, Eugenio. Giotto. Trans. James Emmons. Cleveland: World Publishing, 1960. Print.

Cole, Bruce, and Eugenio. Giotto and Florentine Painting 1280 – 1375. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. Print.

Crenshaw, Paul, Rebecca Tucker, and Alexandra Bonfante-Warren. Discovering the Great Masters – the Art Lover’s         Guide to Understanding Symbols in Painting. New York: Universe, 2009. Print.

Eimerl, Sarel. The World of Giotto. New York: Time, 1967. Print.

Fiero, Gloria K. Landmarks in Humanities. 2nd ed. 2006. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print.

Girardi, Monica. Giotto the Founder of Renaissance Art – His Life in Paintings. Ed. Susannah Steel. Trans. Anna Bennett. 1999. New York: DK, 1999. Print.

Kloss, William. A History of European Art. Chantilly: Teaching Company, 2005. Print.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. Ed. Sarah Touborg. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008. Print.

Zbinden, Hans, ed. Giotto Frescoes. New York: Oxford, 1950. Print.