Sunday, September 29, 2013

Art History's Top 100 -- The Middle Ages and the Renaissance

It's official -- I love my art appreciation class.   There was a definite spring in my step when I went to the Visual Arts Center last Wednesday night to find out what Rosalie Mack had culled from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to share with her students.   Here are a few highlights from her highlights:

Mother-in-law gargoyle
Gargoyles  --  Who doesn't love a good gargoyle?  This creature (known as the "mother-in-law gargoyle") graces the exterior of the gothic cathedral Notre Dame in Paris.  It probably won't come as a surprise to hear that the creator of this sculpture wasn't exactly enamored of his in-laws.  And I'm betting that this homage didn't do much to endear him to them either.  In addition to being totally cool looking, gargoyles often function as rain spouts.   
Holy Trinity by Masaccio

Masaccio's Holy Trinity --  While religious art isn't really my cup of tea, I have been thinking about this painting all week.   Masaccio's rendition of the Holy Trinity is noteworthy because it was the first painting to use perspective.  Many wealthy members of the community had chapels built in their honor.  These patrons (pictured on the far sides of the work) commissioned a painting that looked like a chapel instead.  Legend has it that when the work was first unveiled, viewers fled the church in fear because it was so realistic looking.   Perhaps the words "I once was what you are and what I am you also will be" written above the skeleton in the open coffin had a bit to do with the impact as well.    

Mack's example of linear perspective
One of the many fun things about Mack's class is that she breaks up the session about halfway through with an arts activity.  This week she showed us how to incorporate perspective into a drawing by using a vanishing point.  She quickly sketched out three different versions:  eye level, worm's view, and aerial.  (This is the eye level view.)  It was astonishing to watch her drawing transition from being totally flat to having depth with a few well placed strokes.   Then it was our turn.  And while I am nearly paralyzed at the thought of putting pencil to paper to do anything other than write, I created a reasonable facsimile of her drawing.  It was seriously exciting.   

Michelangelo's David
David -- There's little doubt in my mind that Michelangelo's David is the most beautiful sculpture of all time.  I have had the pleasure of visiting the David at the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence on two different trips, and it was hard each time to pull myself away.   Michelangelo's attention to detail is incredible.  You can see the veins in his hands (not to mention his incredible six pack).  The David was sculpted from a 14' piece of Carrara marble, and it was Michelangelo's intention to have the work mounted on a pedestal.  Consequently, he purposefully made the dimensions of the statue disproportionate, with the head and shoulders larger than the lower half of the body.   Truly a stunning piece of art.

Michelangelo was a painter as well, with the Sistine Chapel being his most famous work.  I can hear you saying, "Tell me something I don't know!"  Well, what you might not know is that Michelangelo was also a poet, and that he wrote a poem about how physically demanding painting the Sistine Chapel was.  I haven't found an official translation of the poem, but I like this version (also endorsed by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky).

If reading about this class is giving you the yen to study a little art history yourself, check out the Khan Academy website   It is an incredible resource.  (Thanks to Rosalie for sharing!)

Next week's class will cover art from the 1600s - early 1800s.   I can't wait.

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