Art In History Art Blog
I decided that, before leaving the topic of the Renaissance, there was more to say about the mastery of the depiction of solid form and three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. This was a major thread in my last blog, the Annunciation of the Renaissance, as part of an exploration of the birth of Humanism. But the rendering of solid form and space is fascinating on its own.
The work I am leading off with is clearly not the seminal moment; rather it represents the culmination of three centuries of trial and exploration. I start with it because it is one of my alltime favorite works, and arguably the most complex and subtle exploration of spatial ideas of the period.
In "Las Meninas" (The Maids in Waiting) Velazquez is first of all totally confident in his placement of solid figures in a real space. Though as befits a portrait the major action is close to the front of the space, he also titillates us with many othe spatial overtones. It is only through the awareness of these subtle spatial clues that we come to understand the full meaning of the scene.
We see that the Infanta has come to observe a sitting by the spanish court painter, Velazquez, accompanied by her retinue of maids. Velasquez himself is off to the left, in shadow and not immediately noticed, patially hidden by the enormous canvas on which he is working. However, once we notice him, we become aware of the intensity of his gaze at us (at whom the Infanta is also looking) and we realize that we are the subject of this portrait. Only after more study do we realize that we can see ourselves in the mirror on the distant back wall, and that we are in fact the Infanta's parents, the King and Queen of Spain.
Where did this total mastery of space, both physical and psychological, come from? One of the commonly acknowledged beginning points is with the depiction of solid figures in the work of Giotto. If we compare Giotto's "Adoration of the Kings" with a similar contemporary work, we can see that his careful sculpting of the figures in light and shadow - and indeed of the rocks as well - makes us believe in them as solid forms in a new way. These figures do not have an independent space to inhabit, but they imply the presence of space by their solidity.
In the next century artists are toying with space as an independent element of their compositions, at first with no uniform system for describing its depth. In these works, the important figures tend to be in front of the space, not in it, the artists having no confident way to place them in it. Van Eyke's "Madonna and Child with Chancellor Rollin" is a good example of the Northern Renaissance tradition of lovingly described spaces as a backdrop to foreground action. Mantegna's "Saint Sebastian" is a comparable Italian example.
The key invention which brought about an explosion in spatial experimentation was Alberti's system of mechanical perspective, which allowed artists to describe a three -dimensional space accurately as seen from a single viewpoint. Artists began creating stage-like spaces (indeed, stage sets were a major early beneficiary) and then trying to get their figures to occupy them. The two works here by Raimondi and Piero della Francesca show steps in this continuum of experimentation. In each case the space itself seems to overshadow the religious theme in the overall impact of the work.
If we think of the High Renaissance of Raphael and Michelangelo as the moment of resolution, stating solutions to the problems posed by artists in the previous century, this is certainly true in the realm of the conquest of space. Raphael's fresco, "The School of Athens" is a work of perfect balance on many levels, and one of these is the harmony between the space and the figures inhabiting it. The powerful focus of the architectural perspective is now harnessed to bring attention to the point of greatest significance - Plato and Aristotle - and the distribution of figures within the space echoes and reinforces the impact of the architecture.
A century later, with the high Baroque, we have the moment of total mastery; we saw it in our opening look at Velazquez. Two other examples show this mastery used in very different ways. Caravaggio's "Conversion of St. Paul" uses a deliberate denial of space behind the picture plane to inject the action into our own space. The figure of the horse fills the frame and locks into it, forcing the radically foreshortened figure of St. Paul to come crashing down at our feet, all enhanced by his signature dramatic lighting. In Rubens' "Raising of the Cross", the partially elevated cross creates a dramatic diagonal which generates powerful movement both toward us and into depth, its weight and precariousness dramatizes by the straining of bulging muscles.
One final note on the conquest of space: its full flowering comes in the developemnt of the landscape tradition. This is subject matter for a post of its own, at the very least. Here I will just give a taste, with two examples. The Ruisdael landscape, with its manipulation of light and dramatic clouds, makes the landscape come alive as the protagonist of the work, not needing myth or story to give it interest. In Constable's "Cornfield", we see the use of human figures as an accessory to bring us into the landscape and to comment on its meaning. In both of them, the space has become place, and is what we are asked to care about.