Week 2 October 15 2010
Space and Time in the Renaissance - a Visit to the National Gallery, London


A report from Sara Scalzotto and Jan Timms on the tour with Karly Allen

On the 15th of October we went at the national Gallery (London) for a walk in the museum entitled ‘The invention of dimension: space and time from the medieval to the Renaissance’. Guided by Karly Allen we analysed three painting from early to late renaissance in order to grasp the evolution of spacial-time representation during that particular period of history.

Pinturicchio ‘Penelope with the suitors’ 1509, 125x152 cm. Frescos
Pinturicchio ‘Penelope with the suitors’ 1509, 125x152 cm. Frescos


The first painting we looked at was Pinturicchio’s ‘Penelope and the Suitors’ (1509). Originally a fresco, painted on the wall in Sienna’s Palace, was later removed and framed in 1843. The painting depicts several layers of narrative telling the story of Penelope, faithful wife of Odysseus, who’s husband had been away for 20 years at the battle of Troy. The scene is articulated inside a room, the prospective depth is shown by the grid-like tiling on the floor and the wooden frame of the loom. In the foreground we see Penelope weaving at her loom, her slow gesture recalling the slosh of the waves, whilst several gaily clad suitors keenly queue for her hand in marriage. Since Odysseus had been long gone, Penelope was under pressure to remarry, she devised a trick to keep her suitors at bay: she would remarry only when she had completed weaving the shroud she was working on, the intrigue being, she would weave by day and unpick it by night. In the background of the painting we see two adventure of Odysseus depicted in a large frame which could be a wall size window or canvas. Uninterrupted views into the distance was a frequent feature in antique frescos, and by doing so Pinturicchio provides a second plane of action. On the left we see the island of Circe where the sorceress lived, who had stalled Odysseus by turning the crewmembers into pigs whilst taking Odysseus as her lover. On the right is a ship, with the shape of Odysseus just visible, and tied up, so he could listen to the mermaid song without succumbing to their enchanting power and throwing himself overboard which was the custom. Eventually Penelope’s ruse was discovered so she made a second condition which was that she would only wed the man who could fire Odysseus’s bow, which in the painting is hanging above her head. Midground right, a figure is entering in the doorway: It is Odysseus, disguised as an old man, who has returned. In Homer’ s poem Odysseus then goes on to fire the bow killing all those he considers to be a traitors, Pinturicchio, on the other hand leaves us with a wonderful image, that sits between Gothic and Renaissance in style, where an antique poem is refashioned and the complex narrative becomes a metaphor for fidelity, heroism and justice.

Giovanni Bellini ‘The agony in the garden’, 1465, 81x127cm, egg tempera on panel
Giovanni Bellini ‘The agony in the garden’, 1465, 81x127cm, egg tempera on panel

Giovanni Bellini ‘The agony in the garden’, 1465, 81x127cm, egg tempera on panel
The second painting we looked at was an earlier example of when a narrative is translated in imagery on the single, flat plane of the painting surface: ‘The agony in the garden’ by Giovanni Bellini (1465). The small painting shows us Jesus in the Mount of Olives, aware of his coming fate, lonely praying on a rocks while Peter, James and John, the apostles who were meant to remain awake, are fast asleep. In the background of such a peculiar landscape we see Judas arriving with the roman soldier to arrest him. Particular in this painting is the representation of the landscape, which looks like different flat planes on top of the other, the setting goes from rocky and deserted in the foreground (Jesus commotion and fear for his destiny) to a greener and hilly background, where the particular Bellini’s sky is softly tinted pink and an angel appears to give strength to Jesus in his loneliness. The scene appears divided : one full of anguish and sadness, with the approaching army and the unfaithful disciples sleeping, while on the other side, Jesus seems to be lifted from human pains towards faith and goodness. It was interesting to notice how the not necessarily perfect perspective did not decrease the value of the image, creating instead a rich and evocative atmosphere for the dramatic narration to take place.

Hans Holbein the Younger ‘The Ambassador’ 1533, 207x209.5 cm. oil on oak
Hans Holbein the Younger ‘The Ambassador’ 1533, 207x209.5 cm. oil on oak

The last painting we approached was ‘The ambassador’ by Hans Holbein the Younger, a life-size, double portrait of the French ambassador Jean de Dinteville and his friend, the bishop George the Selve. The painting was made while Jan stayed in London, sent there by the King of France during the hard time of the scission between Lutherans and Catholicism. This amazing picture immortalizes two powerful, wealthy educated young men; Jean himself is the archetype of the high Renaissance man: well dressed and surrounded by objects which relates to the new Quadrivium of mathematical science (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) based on direct application is the two shelves. The two shelves of the cupboard serve as a horizon between the lower terrestrial realm ( a globe, music instrument, books..) to the upper celestial realm (with the astronomical instruments). The two young men, standing at opposite sides of the cupboard form a sort of vertical link between hearty matter and celestial aspiration which recalls the unique position of man in the Renaissance conceptions of creation. Great speculation has been made about every tiny detail of this painting, each of them a carrier of meaning, but the most striking feature is the grey shape in the foreground, which turns out to be (once looked at from the right angle) an anamorphic skull, the ‘Memento Mori’ omnipresent symbol of the transience of life. Few other details, like the lute broken string and the melancholic expression of the protagonist disrupt the harmonious composition and let us intend that knowledge and wealth might not be everything, life is just a passage and death always lay behind the surface, only with faith (the crucifix in the right hand corner) man can aspire to an eternal life. Even the fact that we can only view either the painting (life) or the skull (death) in the same time, highlight the limitation of human nature and the presence of the ‘Divine Vision’, superior transience of space and time. From a 21th Century point of view the simple fact that the painter can impose his will over the public and can lead him the merry run around from the front to the side observing the skull ( in the same visual field of the painting) creates an exciting overlap of experience which is relevant even today.
At the and of the day we are richer having had the opportunity to discover the underling meaning, the multiple references and the metaphorical relevance these painting have had in their own time and as silent witnesses have, through history, carried through until today.
Sara Scalzotto and Jan Timms October 22, 2010






A report from Adrian Holme on the tour with Colin Wiggins
We visited the National Gallery where art historians Colin Wiggins and Karly Allen talked to us, in two groups, about a selection of paintings in the Sainsbury Wing, selected around the theme of Space and Time in the Renaissance - and the way understanding of, and representation of, space and time shift between the Mediaeval and the Renaissance.

Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano (1502-4) The incredulity of Saint Thomas. Oil Painting. National Gallery, London
Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano (1502-4) The incredulity of Saint Thomas. Oil Painting. National Gallery, London


Colin began his tour with The incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, c1502-4. He observed the connection of the painting with the architecture of the church in which it was first installed - the frame duplicates architectural features of the site from it was removed - it was originally part of an altar piece. Colin also pointed out that, at the building of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, which opened in 1991, the architects were asked, in postmodern fashion, to take account in their plans of particular paintings, including this one. Cima da Conegliano's painting is visible in a sight-line that runs along the gallery at the top of the stairs. It is one of the first sites one sees - looking left down a gallery lined with columns.

Surprisingly, as Collin demonstrated, the succession of columns as one approaches the painting actually diminish in height, thereby accentuating the effect of perspective. On looking closely at the painting itself, the perspectival grid - clearly marked by the chequer-board tiled floor - leads to a grey wall behind Christ and his disciples. This wall appears too close. But there is a point some feet away in which the painting looks 'right' in terms of perspective. It has a 'right' viewing point, from which the artist intended the painting to be viewed.

The painting is of course really a painted surface. But, you do not look at this surface, so much as through it. Behind the surface of the painting is the pictorial space. But what this demonstration showed so clearly was the way in which the painting projects outward into our space and enmeshes us within it. A great illusion achieved by the application of Brunelleschi and Alberti's (both architects) fifteenth century invention - fixed point perspective.

Jacopo di Cione 1370-1, Paint on panel, National Gallery London
Jacopo di Cione 1370-1, Paint on panel, National Gallery London


This central panel from a 12 panel altarpiece attributed to the studio of Jacopo di Cione was completed in around 1371. Originally hung high in a church of San Pier Maggiore, it would have been illuminated by candal light. It depicts Christ as King of Heaven crowning the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven, together with a choir of angels.

As Colin pointed out, unlike the Cima da Conegliano painting 130 years later, this is very much a painting to be looked at, rather than looked through. The gold leaf integrated into the surface would have shimmered in the candle light. There is little sense of perspective and certainly no systematic fixed point perspective. The general impression is of a flattened and sumptuously decorative surface.

Raphael, (1505) Ansidei Madonna, National Gallery, London
Raphael, (1505) Ansidei Madonna, National Gallery, London

Raphael's painting incorporates linear perspective. It originally sited in the Church of San Fiorenzo, Perugia, in such a way as to create the illusion of a continuity of space between the space in the church and the painting - it is a window into which we look, with the illusion that we somehow share this space with the Virgin, Jesus, John the Baptist and Saint Nicholas. The presence of these figures, taken out of time - John the Baptist was little older than his cousin Jesus, and Saint Nicholas lived centuries after - tells us that, despite the naturalistic setting, we are looking into Heaven.

Colin pointed out that there is a symbolism in which perspective itself is employed. All the parallel lines that retreat into the picture plane converge at the vanishing point at the womb of the Virgin - the origin of God. Hence, God has created a rational cosmos, a rational space, with its divine geometry.

See the National Gallery site for further information

(Note also the prevalence of the book - they appear to be printed books? Christ himself holds a small volume. The Virgin and Saint Nicholas also. The relationship between perspective and the book is explored at length in Marshall McLuhan's (1962)Gutenberg Galaxy. McLuhan believed that the typeset book, like the perspectival image was something to be seen through rather than looked at, and encouraged a culture of distance, a 'sense of perspective' and a 'point of view.')

We also viewed Raphael's (1507) Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Masaccio's (1426) Virgin and Child, which, despite its poor state, is a painting of great significance in art historical terms especially in the development of fixed point perspective.

Bibliography
McLuhan, Marshall. Gutenberg Galaxy: the making of typographic man. Toronto: Univ Toronto Press
Panofsky E. (1997). Perspective as symbolic form. New York: Zone Books