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Early civilizations
6th - 11th century
Medieval Europe
     The Scrovegni Chapel
     The genius of Giotto
     Duccio and the Maestà
     International Gothic

Works on paper
Renaissance in Europe
The High Renaissance
16th century in Europe
17th century in Europe
18th century in Europe
To be completed

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European frescoes: 10th - 13th century

Although the grandest style of medieval church decoration is mosaic, the classical tradition of painted murals (as at Pompeii or in the catacombs) continues to be used. A surviving example is the 10th-century church of St George at Oberzell, on the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance.

The frescoes here, depicting the miracles of Christ, are painted in a strip high above the rows of columns and rounded arches which flank the nave. The rather remote position of the images is exactly that of the Old Testament scenes depicted in mosaic five centuries earlier in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.


Frescoes are more vulnerable than mosaic, and many more fresco cycles were painted in the Middle Ages than have survived. But the preferred medium for important church interiors continues to be mosaic in the Byzantine style - even as late as the end of the 13th century, when the gilded narrative panels are set into the dome of the baptistery in Florence.

But at exactly the same period elsewhere in central Italy, at Assisi, an important new building is being decorated entirely in fresco. It is the convent church of St Francis. Built on a hillside, and consisting of two basilicas one above the other, its construction begins soon after the saint's death in 1226.


Assisi attracts thousands of pilgrims. The frescoes depicting the life of St Francis are for their edification. Instead of being high in the air above the arches of the nave, these images are now close to ground level. Unlike the earlier Romanesque interiors, the pointed Gothic arches reach right up to the vaulting of the roof. The top half of the arch can become the window, while the lower part is closed in to provide a flat wall for the painted images.

In this design of church the frescoes are close enough to the onlooker for the painter to be able to tell a detailed story.


Work on the Assisi frescoes begins in about 1280, probably under the supervision of Cimabue - considered by his contemporaries the greatest Italian master.

The scenes of the life of St Francis in the upper church are painted with a much greater sense of realism and drama than has been the case with Byzantine mosaics. Some of these scenes are almost certainly the work, during the 1290s, of the first great genius to use the medium of fresco - Giotto. In the next decade Giotto decorates almost entirely with his own hand an entire chapel in Padua.


The Scrovegni Chapel: 1300-1310

In 1300 Enrico degli Scrovegni, son of a rich banker, buys the derelict site of an old Roman arena in Padua. On it he builds a house for himself and a chapel. Variously known now as the Scrovegni Chapel or Arena Chapel (from its site), this little building is the first great milestone in Italian art and an early pointer in the direction of the Renaissance.

The reason is that the frescoes on its walls are the chief masterpiece of Giotto. The artist is already working in a Franciscan church in Padua, probably in about 1305, when Scrovegni employs him for his arena project.


Giotto undoubtedly uses assistants, for the sequence of frescoes - covering every inch of the interior walls - is completed in about two years. But the detailed schematic arrangement is entirely his, together with the greater part of the painting.

The brilliance of the scheme is that the entire gospel story of the Holy Family, spanning three generations (the Virgin's parents, the Virgin herself and Jesus) is told with great clarity and drama in the panels which run, like a strip cartoon, in three rows along the walls. The Annunciation has the central position at the top of the east wall, but this is also its correct place in the narrative sequence.


The genius of Giotto

The elegance of the chapel's overall scheme would be nothing without the power of the paintings themselves. Giotto's genius is revealed both in his way of dramatising each moment and in his treatment of the figures. Each panel is like a small stage on which the artist arranges the players to reveal the drama, just as a director would in the theatre.

But these are painted people, unable to move. In the earlier Byzantine tradition a virtue is made of this limitation. Byzantine figures are richly static, as if selecting and holding a significant expression or gesture. Giotto loses none of the solemnity of Byzantine art, but he adds solidity.


Giotto achieves a three-dimensional quality, a sense of depth and space, by his unprecedented use of modelling, shadow and perspective. These skills in themselves makes his people appear more real, but Giotto's sturdy approach to the human face and body adds another new element.

His people are more than real. They have a heroic stillness, a superhuman quality which becomes a characteristic of Italian Renaissance art - seen over the next 250 years in artists such as Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and Michelangelo.


The final magical ingredient of these frescoes is an implied sense of movement. Artists have often found ways of depicting limbs in action, as far back as the bullfighting acrobat in Minoan Crete. But Giotto's secret is different. His hint of movement is that of a coiled watch spring. He freezes his figures just when the energy is already in place for the next moment.

Numerous good examples could be found in the Scrovegni Chapel. My own favourite, perhaps, would be the mother of the Virgin gently pushing the young girl up the steps for her presentation in the temple.


In addition to the originality of Giotto's work, the chapel points to the future in another way. Scrovegni himself is painted by Giotto, at the base of the Last Judgement on the west wall, presenting his chapel to three female saints. Rich private donors, keeping company with saints, will become a feature of Renaissance art. Scrovegni is one of the first.

He has good reason to wish to be seen in holy company, for his wealth derives from his father's sin of usury. The chapel is an expiation for that sin. Scrovegni would surely be astonished to know how much credit has accrued to his family name over the centuries, thanks to his father's tainted money and his own immaculate taste.


Duccio and the Maestà in Siena: 1308-1311

In the same decade as Giotto's chapel in Padua, another masterpiece of Christian narrative is created in Siena. In 1308 the cathedral authorities commission from Duccio the great altarpiece now known as the Maestà ('Majesty').

The tradition of the altarpiece, with panels depicting holy figures, goes back many centuries to the lavish blend of gold and jewels and enamelled scenes favoured by Byzantine emperors for the altars of their churches. In those cases the scenes depicted are simple. But Duccio, like Giotto in Padua, undertakes something much more ambitious - an account, in narrative scenes, of the whole Christian story.


Duccio has only two sides of a great screen to decorate (the development of the ambulatory behind the altar means that pilgrims can marvel at both back and front), whereas Giotto has all the walls of a chapel. But the Sienese painter boldly undertakes even more scenes than his rival. There are about 40 narrative panels in Padua and nearly 60 in Siena, reinforcing the great central scene of the Virgin and Child enthroned.

Duccio and his assistants work as fast as the team in Padua in their creation of this marvellous object. The documents reveal that on 9 June 1311 it is carried in a joyous musical procession from Duccio's studio to the cathedral - where it remains on show nowadays in a specially built museum.


Duccio's treatment of the people in the gospel story shares the new realism of Giotto, though the overall style of these panels with their gilded backgrounds has elements of the Byzantine tradition of Christian art.

With these masterpieces in Padua and Siena, Italian painters bring to a new peak two great traditions of Christian art - the fresco cycle and the altarpiece. The panels in later frescoes become larger, eventually filling the whole wall (as, for example, in Raphael's Stanze in Rome). In altarpieces, by contrast, the narrative subsequently shrinks to a few incidents in the predella, allowing maximum emphasis on the central scene of the Virgin and Child or of the Crucifixion.


Duccio's work contains elements of two styles which will later go their separate ways, each bringing results of great beauty. The chunky realistic quality which he shares (to a lesser degree) with Giotto reappears a century later in the work of Masaccio, leading to a strong native Italian tradition. Meanwhile a more refined and slender quality in some of Duccio's figures is developed by Simone Martini, the greatest Sienese painter of the next generation and possibly trained in Duccio's studio.

Simone's Annunciation in the Uffizi is a good example of this refined style, which by the end of the 14th century is popular throughout Europe - becoming known later as International Gothic.


International Gothic: 14th - 15th century

The Europe of the Middle Ages, dominated by a powerful church and criss-crossed by pilgrim routes, has enjoyed a culture which largely transcends geographical regions. It is appropriate therefore that the final style of medieval art should also be common to much of the continent.

This style, flourishing between about 1375 and 1425, is known to art historians as International Gothic - or sometimes simply the International Style. It is characterized by figures of a slender and even winsome elegance, painted with great confidence but looking somewhat ill-equipped for the hurly-burly of everyday life.


The style can be traced back to Italian artists of the early 14th century, such as Simone Martini. It reaches its mature form at the end of the century. The Wilton Diptych, painted in about 1395-9 and now in London's National Gallery, is often quoted as an outstanding example. Against gilded backgrounds a kneeling king, Richard II, is presented by three saints to the Virgin and Child and a host of blue-robed angels.

The stillness of the scene, and the beauty of the robes and the angels' wings, makes this a glimpse of an ideal world. Its international quality is attested by the inability of the experts to decide whether it was painted in England, France, Italy or Bohemia.


This international style features in a more relaxed and secular form (though still with the same slender decorative figures) in the prayer books or 'books of hours' illustrated in the early 15th century for the duke of Berry, a member of the French royal family. The most famous of them is the Très Riches Heures (Very Rich Hours), illustrated between about 1411 and 1416 by the three Limburg brothers.

The artists, from the border region between modern Germany and Belgium, provide beautiful images of the duke's many castles and of his peasants working in the fields, as well as scenes from the gospel story.


In their confident control of space within each picture, and in the natural ease of their human figures, the Limburg brothers have something in common with other artists of their generation who are the founding figures of the Renaissance. But a certain decorative quality, a prettiness, a lack of emotional conviction, makes the painters of International Gothic a transitional group between medieval and Renaissance.

In the decades after the Très Riches Heures, in Flanders to the north and in Italy to the south, images of a new kind are created. These Flemish and Italian artists are very different from each other, but they share a solidity and a solemnity lacking in International Gothic.


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