I've written a little before about my dawning love affair with painting. In due time, I took an A level in History of Art and went on to do a degree in the subject at the University of Warwick.
It was, as everyone warned me, completely useless as a job qualification. Much like a BA in English, it opens doors to not very much. This is unfair. Any academically rigorous degree should really carry the same weight as they tend to hone the same skills. Whinging aside, I don't regret my degree choice at all. In fact, I adored it.
People are often quite confused about History of Art as a subject. It suffers from being seen as a soft option, requiring an ability to draw and little mental rigour. Neither is true. While I know some art historians who can paint and draw (often very well), it is far from compulsory. What I find less forgiveable is the pitying looks I get when I reveal that my degree is in this supposedly soft option subject.
Consider this for a moment. If analytical skills are required, you could do a lot worse than consult an art historian. Most of us have spent long hours analysing very small samples in a lot of detail. Take a look at this:
|Detail of the Adoration of the Magi by Giotto. Part of the cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel|
Note that from this detail you can tell an enormous amount. The figures are solidly placed in space and have depth to them. The shading and colour take advantage of fresco (wet paint on three layers of plaster - sinking in and giving a virtually indestructable painted surface. Only applicable in dry climates). Giotto may not have seen a real camel, but he knows enough about anatomy to create something believeable. Notice how the halos are in slight perspective. Look at the solid anatomy in the figure of that reaching man.
The artist is living in a time and place where curiosity and innovation are encouraged. He's living in a world where stories matter and painting is the main medium for that. He's living in a place where fresco survives well and he's been given carte blanche to create a story cycle. We know this must be so from the arrangement of the figures and from the style and colour of the painting. It is part of something much larger.
That something larger is a whole chapel. This chapel:
|Scrovegni Chapel facing the altar|
This is a building commissioned by the very wealthy Enrico Scrovegni. Enrico and his whole family were money lenders. At the time, usury was a deadly sin and the chapel is a plea for absolution for the sins of the father, as well a pre-emptive plea on the part of Enrico himself. It tells the whole story of Christ and the Virgin Mary in a series of panels running down both walls. The whole astonishing building was completed in around 1305 and has survived intact ever since. Even when Padua was bombed in the war, the chapel somehow survived untouched.
In 1305, the artistic tradition was still firmly rooted in Byzantine art. Cimabue and Duccio were evolving the style from the extreme formality of the icon to something warmer and more approachable, but Giotto (one of Cimabue's pupils) brought about a complete revolution. It is possibly fair to say that without Giotto there would have been no Renaissance.
Take a look at the Cimabue altarpiece below and while you can see the very strong Byzantine influence in the gold background, the elongated anatomy and the relative sizes of the figures, there is a real sense of humanity in the relationship between the mother and child. There is even a slight sense of depth emerging, rather than the Byzantine focus on surface decoration.
Returning now to the Scrovegni Chapel, there is a fascinating Last Judgement on the wall opposite the altar.
|Last Judgement in the Scrovegni Chapel|
Ugh. So annoyed I can't find bigger images, particularly of the last one.
What you're seeing here is the crossover moment in western artistic tradition. That Last Judgement is formal and Byzantine in construction (note Christ in the mandorla and the linear representation of the souls of the dead. Note as well the geometric arrangement of the risen Christ above the crucifixion at the bottom. Also Byzantine is the size difference between Christ and everyone else. He's bigger, so he must be more important.
But ... look closer:
Despite the gold background, flat decorated halo and the large size, this Christ is a solid body in space. He is definitely sitting on that throne, not pasted across it (as Cimabue's Madonna is doing). The drapery follows his body and gives definition to the shape of the limbs, adding to the illusion of solidity. Here is where the path branches.
Art History is entirely about how people percieve the world in different places and at different times. Look closely at those paintings and a whole way of seeing opens up. I've never got over the shock of it.