Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Renaissance Art - John Walford


Renaissance Art and the Mediation of Belief

by E. John Walford

In 1963, shortly after graduating from an élite English boarding school, I went to Florence, Italy, where I stayed for about six months. I enrolled in the then-well-known drawing school, Studio Simi, which was a gathering place for those interested in the visual arts, as well as those seeking professional art education. Our daily regimen was to draw in the mornings—from both classical casts and live models—visit museums and churches in the afternoons, and travel to other cities on weekends. We were lodged in an old-fashioned but elegantly furnished pensione, called the Mona Lisa. Today, we might categorize this interlude as a "gap year" experience, or scrape up some credit for it in the guise of a study-abroad program. But on the terms that I did it, it could also be seen as occurring on the tail end of a much older English tradition, that of the young gentleman on his Grand Tour, rounding out his education.
This is not an incidental matter, because it goes to the heart of why one was there, what one sought to acquire, and most of all, how one perceived the art one was exposed to. I believe that the only book packed in my suitcase, before leaving England, was a copy of Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (first published in 1860, and still-then a "must read"). To this I soon added a Random House edition of G.F. Young's The Medici, first published in 1930. It is worth pausing to consider just what kind of induction to adult life this was providing. The funding for this trip had come from my maternal grandfather, a prominent Anglo-Greek merchant banker, whose grand London house was modeled on the Florentine Palazzo Strozzi, built by the Medici's rivals. At the time, I did not fully realize the weight of symbolism embedded in these circumstances. Yet, here I was in Florence, with Burckhardt as my guide and the Medici—and my grandfather—as role models! What I did understand was that here before me were the approved models of "good taste" and inspiration for cultivating the patrician lifestyle. That we were looking at a Madonna and Child by Fra Filippo Lippi, a Venus by Sandro Botticelli, and a John the Baptist by Andrea del Sarto was paramount—that is, in terms of their power to instill "good taste." That one was made for a church altar, the other for a private bedroom, and that the third was ambiguous enough to pass in either context, was incidental. For many, even in our less élitist society, it still is.
Thus, scholars and laypersons alike typically consider such works under the rubric of Italian Renaissance art, admire them for their associations with the emergence of a secularized humanistic culture, from which derives our own, and study them predominantly in terms of stylistic evolution. Art historical writings and university courses have long presented Italian Renaissance art in this way. For instance, James Beck, in one standard survey,1 constructs a three-generational model by which to understand the evolution of style in Italian Renaissance art, dividing each generation into a lyric and a monumental current. In the twelve pages dedicated to Fra Filippo Lippi, for instance, Lippi is placed in the monumental current of the first generation, after Masaccio, and no mention is made of the religious significance of any of his works, although most were made to serve religious functions. Beck attends exclusively to formal matters, such as figure construction and the treatment of space, light, and draperies, as well as consideration of influences on the artist and the evolution of his style.
Frederick Hartt, in his widely acclaimed survey of Italian Renaissance art, sought to present individual works of art in the context of contemporary history, show how they fulfilled specific needs, and identify their intended meaning. Nevertheless, in the seven pages dedicated to Fra Filippo Lippi, the prime foci of interest are the artist's influences, stylistic development, and influence on later artists. Only one painting, the Madonna Adoring Her Child, from the late 1450s, painted for the Medici Palace chapel, is discussed in any detail in terms of its iconography, the sources and significance of its specific penitential imagery. Hartt, tacitly acknowledging Lippi's reputation for immorality, also comments on the odd choice of artist for a penitential subject. This, he supposes, Lippi accepted out of necessity. Hartt thus hints at, but does not expand on a pragmatic element in the exchange between a Renaissance artist and his worldly patron.
The discourse exemplified by Beck, Hartt, and others like them employs a methodology of stylistic analysis for which a detached objectivity has been tacitly claimed. It has, however, also been driven by humanist assumptions about Renaissance art and culture. Admired as the fountainhead from which modernity springs, Renaissance art is seen as manifesting the best of human endeavor when first liberated from the grip of medieval religion. It is at once more rational and less mystical, because no longer corrupted by the hocus pocus of religious superstition. It is not difficult, therefore, to see how and why a Marxist critique has exposed the alleged objectivity of stylistic analysis masking ideological agendas. After all, who—other than privileged white males and their decadent offspring—has either the time or money to bother themselves with the study of form and the contemplation of beauty? Besides, it takes but a second look to realize that such art was inevitably determined in myriad ways by its context—social, economic, political and religious alike. Thus, over the last decades, revisionist art historians have been looking more closely at the context, function, and meaning of art—in process often downplaying formal analysis and matters of style, but ideally integrating these concerns with the newer ones.
As soon as context, function, and meaning are taken seriously with respect to Italian Renaissance art, one is obliged to consider the relationship of art and religion, since most Renaissance art served religious functions of one sort or another. In the case of Fra Filippo Lippi, the need is all the more trenchant, since he was a Carmelite friar and a beneficed priest as well as a maker of religious images. These are the assumptions underlying Megan Holmes' scrupulously researched study, Fra Filippo Lippi: The Carmelite Painter. Her focus is the religious context of Lippi's life and art, and the range of meanings communicated through it. She notes especially that Lippi—as a friar-painter working in Florence at a time (the 1430s– 1450s) when Florentine society was undergoing significant political, religious, and economic transition—was well-placed to explore critical issues within religious representation. Indeed, as she points out, at precisely that time, "religious art was the principal site where new artistic conceptions and technologies came into collision with traditional practices and values," with two monastic artists—Fra Filippo and Fra Angelico (an Observant Dominican)—the leading protagonists of innovation.
The collision she refers to is that between the new, "Albertian" conception of pictorial space—the picture as window on the world, as seen beyond a rectangular frame—and the traditional gold-ground, pinnacled, polyptych altarpiece. In traditional altarpieces, Holmes explains, the mode of presenting the sacred was conceived in terms that were grounded, in the words of one commentator, Georges Didi-Huberman,3 in a "pictorial practice of nonverisimilitude, in opposition to every poetics or rhetoric of verisimilitude, … a pictorial practice of dissemblance." Considered as material aids to contemplation of the sacred, the compartmentalized elements of a polyptych, while together constituting a formal and symbolic entity, were not presented as a continuous whole, but rather as segregated parts, divided up according to a sacred hierarchy of meanings and values. These images existed as signs of the sacred, visible within a mundane setting yet not continuous with it.
By contrast, early in the quattrocento (the 15th century), a new mode of vision and representation developed in the artistic practice of Florentine artists such as Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, and Ghiberti. Alberti, in De pictura, written in 1434, articulated the conceptual assumptions and practical means for realizing this new mode of vision and representation. His basic premise was that a painting should be conceived as being like a window, looking onto a tangible space. Alberti also conceived of a painting as a cross-section through the base of a "visual pyramid" formed by the visual rays traveling between the eye (at the apex of the pyramid) and the objects of vision (framed at the base). As Holmes concludes, "A painting could thus display a proportioned view of objective reality equivalent to the image transmitted by the visual rays to the eye." Such a system of representation presupposes unity in the field of vision, verisimilitude, and continuity—absolutely contrary values to those embedded in a medieval, polyptych altarpiece. To engage the new visual paradigm, in this context, was necessarily to disrupt existing religious assumptions and practices.
Much has been written that pertains to this transition. Holmes, though, disregards these resources and proceeds directly to analyze how Lippi worked through the representational problems implicit in the new pictorial form. She tracks his exploration of the paradox underlying the conceptualization of religious representations in terms that were coextensive with actual profane settings, and how he renders Christian mysteries and sacred figures with a greater degree of naturalism. In so doing, she claims, Lippi—and Fra Angelico—found "ingenious means of potentially intensifying the religious experience of the devotee." However, she does not attempt to explore what this new visual language might imply in theological terms, and thus what type of religious sensibility or understanding was being substituted for the older, medieval one. Rather, she concludes, with respect to his artistic practice: "Lippi's paintings embodied artistic values that had currency within progressive cultural circles, influenced by humanists' redefinition of the arts and fostered by a patrician elite with a vested interest in fashioning a new image of themselves and their city through artistic patronage."
Does this mean that Holmes lost sight of her stated focus on the religious context of Lippi's life and art? Not at all. What she explores are the institutional structures and social practices of Florentine religious life, in which various parties have a vested interest in commissioning a range of artistic commodities. These demands comprise the artist's perfomative context. In Lippi's case, as a friar-artist, she also seeks to uncover the bearing that his institutional religious affiliations have on his artistic practice, regardless of his personal convictions, or lack thereof. In this respect, it should be born in mind that Lippi was committed to the Florentine Carmelite monastery as an orphaned child, aged eight, long before he was in a position to make a deliberate choice for himself.
While Holmes is not so convincing in adducing the specifically Carmelite influence in either his pictorial style or his iconography, which can be demonstrated as having a currency far beyond this specific order, she does nevertheless shed considerable light on how Lippi negotiated the dual worlds of religion and art. Most of all, she demonstrates how art and artists, even within the domain of Florentine religious art, were implicated in the wider negotiation of social and political power. Thus, in one of the most lucid chapters of what is a well-constructed, carefully researched, and beautifully illustrated book, Holmes focuses on a single work of Lippi's, his Madonna and Child with Sts. Francis, Damian, Cosmas, and Anthony of Padua (Florence, Uffizi). Commissioned by Cosimo de'Medici, it was painted about 1440-45 for the novitiate chapel of the monastery of Santa Croce, Florence. Holmes carefully considers this seminal work from four successive points of view: that of the patron, Cosimo de'Medici; that of the Conventual Franciscan order, for whose monastery it was made; that of the novices, who would have it as the visual focus of their daily devotions; and that of the artist. Within this context, Lippi had to negotiate the multifarious and conflicting demands of these other parties. Yet he also capitalized on this opportunity to advance his own vision of how to construct and present the diverse symbolic meanings called for, in ways consistent with a new premium placed on naturalism within quattrocento art.
Through her chosen methodology, Holmes clearly offers the reader far more than stylistic analysis by providing substantial contextual material on matters of religious practice, art patronage, and the working conditions of a Renaissance artist such as Lippi. Indeed, she integrates the analysis of artistic form into the fabric of these contexts, extrapolating the bearing of the context, content, and form of Lippi's art on one another. This makes for both engaging and illuminating reading in terms of understanding art in relation to the institutional functioning of Florentine religious life. Holmes, however, does not allow herself to speculate too far on what the new forms of art, as used by Lippi and others, offered in place of the older medieval practice, in theological terms, as visual expressions of contemporary beliefs. Nevertheless, the type of carefully grounded historical research provided by Holmes, as extended across the spectrum of the religious art of the Italian Renaissance, would provide the necessary groundwork for a further study, such as that of Hans Belting.4 Especially with respect to the medieval period, Belting has shown how to take account of the reception of religious imagery, effectively demonstrating how art mediates belief. In this respect, the images themselves, if their communicative power is to be taken seriously, provide the most potent historical documents of all. We need therefore to learn, over again, how to approach them and view them in context.
E. John Walford is professor of art history at Wheaton College and author, most recently, of Great Themes in Art (Prentice-Hall, 2002).
1. James Beck, Italian Renaissance Painting (Harper & Row, 1981).
2. Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting—Sculpture—Architecture, 1969, 4th ed., revised by David G. Wilkins (Abrams, 1994).
3. Georges Didi-Huberman, Fra Angelico: Dissemblance et Figuration (Paris, 1990); English edition, Dissemblance and Figuration (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 45, as cited by Holmes, p. 121.
4. Hans Belting, Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994).
Published in Books & Culture, July/August 2007,
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today International/Books & Culture magazine.