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Understanding Historic Styles in the Visual Arts

Warren Sanderson

To effectively understand a visual work of art of the Middle Ages, we must be aware of its style, for that is the artist's mode, consciously or subconsciously, of conveying meanings. The style of a work of art has been likened to an analytic language that we must master. It is in the style of a work of art that we find an artist's favorite descriptive and interpretive devices. Such devices include the overlapping of forms to provide a sense of crowded spaces (1), the use of very high (2) or very low horizon lines (3), the use or setting aside of perspective (4, 5), alterations to and exaggerations of perspective (6), modelling of individual shapes to lend a sense of form (7), and provision for a unified or arbitrarily arranged 1ighting in a composition (8). But these are all symptoms --the effects-- of style.

To obtain these effects --to render these devices in a coherent way - craftsmen/artists employed fundamental factors that we today call the ELEMENTS OF ART with which, certainly in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, they had become familiar since their days as very young workers in one or another master's atelier. The elements of the visual arts include a) line. b) plane, c) shape, d) form, e) color, and f) space.

Artists employ LINE at times with coldly unchanging precision (9); at other times in a sketchy, very highly variegated manner. The "cold" line is unchanged in its thickness and intensity so that it imparts a machine like, or non human, impersonal sense. Sketchiness (10), to the contrary, is usually perceived and received warmly by the observer of art, since it suggests qualities of chance, liveliness and animation that are are seen as signals of a human presence.

PLANE usua11y refers to the illusions of surfaces in a composition. But sometimes it refers instead to locations within the composition's spatial il1usion, as, for instance, in the foreground plane, the middleground plane, and/or the plane of the background. A sequence of such spaces is evident, for instance, in the three flat horizontal bands of color of many early Christian compositions (11).

SHAPE is achieved by using line to create an enclosure (12): it is essentially two dimensional. When a shape is modelled --for instance, when its edges are "shaded" to create an effect of contours, as in the figures of the Joshua Roll (13), it takes on the appearance of a FORM, a three dimensional object (14). That is an object that has or seems to have depth, whereas when it was only an unmodelled shape it was flat. When shape is modelled, whether in fact by sculptural techniques, or in simulation by the use of light against dark or by juxtapositions of color, the shape passes over into the realm of a form. Visually, it takes on a new (a third) dimension--that is, depth is added to width and length.

COLOR has to do with the visible spectrum of physical energy. Specifically,we refer to what are commonly called "colors" as hues. Color should be differentiated from light, which in fact is the presence of all colors, while dark is the absence of light, hence of any colors. Craftsmen and artists have often added to the limitations of color with which they were confronted by inventing PATTERNS or TEXTURES. Romanesque sculpture and illuminated manuscripts are rich in these (14, 15). Pattern and texture may be considered as extensions of the possibilities of color (16, 17).

From at least the tenth century some Medieval artists strove to convince
the viewer of illusions of SPACE within which recognizable forms (or, one may say, "recognizable masses") found their proper places ( 7, 18). Their attempts, however, usually fell considerably short of the mark until the 15th century. Witness, for instance, Giotto's stage-like foreground-
spaces and screen-like backdrops at Padua early in the Trecento. More than a century later, early Italian Renaissance craftsmen-artists married geometrically plotted linear dimensional schemes to representations of space to enable us to recognize the precise locations of forms within their compositions. The measured linear perspectival schemes of Italian Renaissance theorists such as Leon Battista Alberti, constituted a remarkably successful effort to achieve a throughly unified, logical, measurable illusion of space. Simultaneously with linear perspective, Renaissance Italian artists also expressed space in terms of atmospheric perspective. That is, they recognized, as their predecessors had in Classical Rome, that the air, the earthly atmosphere itself, tends to obscure our vision the farther into the background we peer. Atmospheric perspective is evident in the early 15th century frescoes of Masaccio (The Tribute Money), and it is most widely known in paintings by Leonardo da Vinci (cf. the background of his "Mona Lisa").

By understanding how the craftsman/artist has employed the fundamental
elements of art in her/his composition, we can "read" the work much more clearly and have more confidence in the accuracy of our undertanding of what the artist wanted us to see. Questions about relationships among the parts of the composition lead to a heirarchies of answers about what the artist wanted to emphasize. From that point we are in a much better position from which to study its iconography (subject matter and then some). We begin to see the work not only as art per se but as a remarkably rich source of information about its time, place and makers.

The following illustrations are numbered and enclosed in parentheses in the text. They may be found in H.W. Janson, History of Art, and Marilyn
Stokstad, Medieval Art, among others.

1. Simone Martini, Christ Carrying the Cross, c.1340.
2. Melchior Broederlam, Presntation in the Temple and Flight into Egypt,
3. Masaccio, The Holy Trinity, Sta. Maria Novella, Florence, 1425-27.
[True linear perspective].
4. Jan van Eyck, Giovanni Arnolfini and His Bride, 1434. [Simulated
5. Christ in Majesty, Gero Codex, Darmstadt, 969-76 [aperspectival].
6. Piero della Francesca, Flagellation of Christ, Urbino 1463-64.
7. Master of the Registrum Gregorii, Pop e Gregory, Reichenau/Trieer 983.
8. The Transfiguration, Monastic Church of St. Catherine, Mt. Sinai,
Egypt, mosaic, 560-565.
9. Standing Martyred Saint, Siegburg Lectionary, Cologne or Siegbert,
10. St. Mark, Ebbo Gospels, Reims or Hautvillers, 816-835.
11. Nave mosaic tabernacles of Sta. Maria Maggiore, Rome, 441.
12. The Liber Vitae of New Minster, 1020. The British Library, London.
13. Joshua and the Angel, Joshua Roll, Rome 10th century, Biblioteca
Vaticana (Byzantine).
14. Gelduinus, Christ in Glory, Church of St. Sernin at Toulouse, c.1096,
15. Trumeau with prophet and lions, south portal, Church of St. Peter,
Moissac, 1125-30.
16. Nave, Cathedral of Durham, 1093-1133.
17. Portal sculptures, west facade at Chartres Cathedral, 1145-1155.
18. Giotto, Murals of the Arena Chapel, Padua, after 1305.

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