Research Paper: Classical Art

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Middle Ages Art Comparison

During the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, many scholars and artists turned back to Greece and Rome to develop new views of the State, of individuals, and themes for art and literature. Traditionally, the term "Middle Ages" means the stretch of European history that lasted roughly from the 5th to the 15th centuries -- from the collapse of the Western Roman Empire through the Age of Discovery. There is still scholarly debate on whether the Middle Ages includes the Renaissance of the 13th-15th centuries, but most modern scholars find it more useful to divide the period into Early, High, and Late Middle Ages. In art and literature we also often come across the term "Dark Ages," which implies that there was very little innovation or technological improvement, and is certainly not true (Sharma).

The Early Middle Ages, roughly 450-1000 AD, were characterized by barbarian invasions from northern Europe, deurbanization of the Roman cities, the rise of Byzantium and Islam, and the collapse of the Carolingian Empire (Charlemagne) and resulting chaos. The High Middle Ages, beginning roughly after 1000 AD saw a great deal of technological and social change. Trade increased, bringing new ideas into Europe, feudalism became the economic system, and the Crusades attempted to unify Europe against Islam, but also increased trade, the flow of ideas, and influences on art. Higher learning and the university system evolved, and the strict religiosity of the past was tempered with scholasticism, or using reason as well to understand the human condition. The Late Middle Ages, after the early 1300s, were marked with war, famine, and plague. The Church was once again the center of controversy and as cultural and technological innovations developed, art, architecture, and music became more of an expression of society. It was during the High and Late Middle Ages particularly that artists and scholars began to look to the past -- to Ancient Greece and Rome, for inspiration and precedent, often incorporating those ideas and styles in their work (The Middle Ages; Feudal Life).

There were several major artistic trends during the Middle Ages, all which reflected some of the rapid changes in culture, mindset, religion, and technology. Throughout the period, though, one of the primary conflicts was between reason and religiosity, often expressing itself in art, literature, and philosophical writing. European society inherited a religion based on revelation and the struggles of early Christians. However, they also inherited a rich and complex tradition passed from Ancient Greece to Rome Janson and Janson, p. 156). In a sense, this dichotomy of reason vs. faith was at the heart of many of the debates during the historical period. Central to the debate was also the type of person (intellectual, learned) who had been trained in Classical Philosophy and also wished to understand and combine their Christian beliefs with Ancient texts -- often people who turned to art and literature to find a way to make these two ideas coexist (Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages). Trends changed drastically during the period, but three of the major artistic styles were using art to comment on reason vs. revelation, the Gothic Cathedral, and changes in architecture that reflected more symbolism and reverence for the past.

One prominent artist, Giotto di Bondone, captured the humanity of individuals with classical features, sometimes sacred, sometimes secular, but most with the duality of reason (the classical period) and revelation (Christianity) as the prominent themes. Giotto used stylized themes (e.g. The halo behind sacred figures), but alo brought reason and realism to other characters (the frumpy serving girl, the portly friar), and classical implications (pillars, classical sculptures, etc.) to form four major artistic techniques. We can see this in the Marriage at Cana (1317) and the Ascension of St. John (1320) as shown below. In these works, we see: 1) A clear, uncluttered style that focuses on the scene using primary colors. The subject is central to the theme, but not necessarily placed centrally. There are interesting people and events happening on the sidelines that "teach" some of the themes -- perhaps because many people could not read during this time, and art had to serve as a teaching function; 2) A movement from flatness of characters to a more realistic dimmensional approach, one which often used classical art and architecutre as a basis for the piece; 3) The drama of the art -- using a classical theme in interpretation of a Christian or modern idea; and, 4) The use of space and volume to draw the viewer into the subject (size of the windows, doors, chairs, etc.) and make the depiction more real (Derbes and Sandona, eds.)

From about the end of the 12th century and 200 years forward, architecture was revolutionized with the combining of classical trends with new innovations in building structures, materials, forms (improvements on the arch, buttresses, etc.). Many see this as a parallel to the changes made in intellectual life (Janson, pp. 163-5). This historical style seems to have originated near Paris at the Abbey Church of Saint Denis, consecrated in 1144 AD. The structure differed from previous architectural formats in many ways: wooden rafters replaced with stone vaults, not with pointed arches and ribbed vaults. This allowed the walls to be built much higher and focusing more on bringing light into the Church. The style felt more weightless and large, stained glass windows allowed even more light inside as well as more storytelling through art (Fitchen) (See Figure 3):

In fact, Gothic looks to Rome and Greece for its two major characteristics: open spaces filled with light and verticality. Height was used to appeal to reason in construction and faith in movement towards God and heaven. The weight of the building had to be placed on the outside walls, though, in order to hold the weight of such high structures, much like the columns used in the Greek Parthenon supported stone roofing. Since the walls of these churches did not have to bear the entire weight of the structure, there could be large openings in which artists placed sculptures, stained glass, and paintings. In addition, while modern viewers tend to think of the shape of the cross as a Christian symbol, it was in fact used in pagan times and in the classical era. Thus, the shape of the Gothic Cathedral resembles the shape of the cross (See Fig. 4):

Finally, we find that many of the Middle Age Architects used their humanist views of the classical world to use columns and arches of Rome, the domes of Byzantium, and even the Romanesque style to integrate more modern approaches to their work. Fillippo Brunelleschi, for instance, worked in the late 1300s and early 1400s. He was trained in classical style, particularly that of Roman and Greek architecture. One of his major contributions was a revival of the classical, particularly Roman, technique of using perspective (linear) to frame his painting and architectural works. Brunelleschi used Euclidian geometry (Greek) and Roman architecture to ensure that the images would not appear as flat 2-Dimmensional shapes, but have a more realistic, 3-Dimmensional structure. He calculated lengths and widths using Ancient Roman and Greek buildings, and believed that because the classical artists had used sound principles of balance and design, his structures would come alive. Using this principle with the dome, the raised the center point and designed the dome around a pointed arch section to reduce the outward push and emulate more classical beauty (King; Kleiner). Part of this was also using symbolism to convey meaning across the type of art: sculpture, painting, architecture, etc.

Brunelleschi used his knowledge of the classics, as well as Biblical references, to use art to enlighten the masses. Colors, objects, and animals all had deeper symbolic meaning. For example, he used mythological characters from Greece and Rome to tell stories and project moral values. Symbols, then, could be interpreted not just by a literate person from that country, but by anyone who had even a passing knowledge of myth and the classics (The Meaning of Sacred Symbols) (See Figure 9). Thus for most of the art produced during the Middle Ages, the idea of a reverse look at the Classical World was essential to their view of the present. This was not looking back as conservatism and a return to the past, but instead, a combination of classical reasoning and innovation and Medieval spirituality (Janson, p. 153).

Works Cited

Craven, J. "What is a "Corinthian Column"?" 2012. About.com Architecture. March 2013. .

Derbes and Sandona, eds. The Cambridge Compaion to Giotto. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

"Feudal Life." March 2011. Learner.otg. February 2013. .

Fitchen, J. The Construction of Gothic Cathedrals. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Janson, H. And A. Janson. A Basic History of Western Art. New York: Pearson Education, 2005.

King, R. Brunelleschi's Dome. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Kleiner, F. Gardener's Art Through the Ages. Boston, MA: Thompson Higher Education, 2009.

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