Confessions of a Cross-religion Art Lover
For the past ten years I’ve had an increasing interest with Renaissance Art: Duccio, Giotto, the Lippis, Martini, della Francesca and many others. For all of them – and for earlier wonderful painters like Cimabue – Christian iconography is central to their extraordinary art.
But for most of my life, I could not bear to look at icons, frescoes, crucifixes, diptychs, triptychs or Byzantine mosaics. It was as if, by looking at the traditionally forbidden and hated graven images, the worship of the golden calves and idols of Art, I would be instantly Christianized and become some sort of fervid, rosary-waving, anti-Semitic Catholic: everything our tradition has taught us not to be. In reality, as the frescoes in the Synagogue at Dura-Europos on the Euphrates tell us, old time Jews loved a good narrative painting (the equivalent of a blockbuster movie) as much as anyone else and aberrant tendencies also appear in Jewish Palestinian mosaics.
I knew something was special about Renaissance Christian art when I first saw Giotto in Florence 36 years ago – I still have the postcards next to my bed. But I couldn’t handle the ‘really’ Christian stuff that featured not just kind St Francis, but Jesus, Mary and angels. That is at least, not until more recently. I’ve grown fond of looking at Maestàs (an enthroned Madonna and Child) and spend hours appreciating subtle differences between artistic masters in Florence or Siena, without a shred of fear. I can spend hours on trains going to museums in Italy to see another masterwork, to come home with aching legs and a mind overwhelmed.
So what is it about my obsession with Renaissance masterworks? I think that they represent our Western ideal of beauty: everyone now knows Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his angels—but Botticelli is a secular copout compared with the real religious stuff. This magical art did not come out of the blue. It is rooted in an ancient tradition that was hidden for about 1000 years during the period of a more formalized Byzantine Art (which has its own splendours: just go to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Ravenna, or the island of Burano near Venice).
What makes Renaissance work so wonderful is its astounding and audacious development and technique. Renaissance artists knew how to capture a moment in time and milk the ‘psychological moment’ for all its worth. That moment can be one of serenity, of contemplation, suffering, love, the moment of death, adoration, resurrection, budding youth. You name it, they could paint it or sculpt it, with a few deft strokes on wet plaster, or in infinite detail, with minute brush strokes or moulding of clay, as fresh as day they were created, half a millennia or more ago. There is something eternal in their art, and that was certainly their intention, as many of these works were painted for public display to a largely illiterate audience that ‘learned’ its religion from pictures, rather than print.
It is not as if each of these works was meant to be a stand alone item either: there are thousands of examples of Madonnas and Child, manufactured for anyone with money to spare for a church or private devotion by artists and their schools and guilds – an early example of mass-reproduction of art, albeit of a very high quality. Their secular art, of Doges and Duchesses, or beautiful young men and women is equally astounding. Della Robbia’s terracottas are the most beautiful sculptures of young women as you will ever see.
Consequently, because Renaissance artists hit the magic spot with their art, it is inherently enjoyable. There are no intellectual games here. Their art is as crisp as the latest large-screen TV, only better because it is real. This is despite the fact that the ghetto is usually just down the street and even though the Jews are gone, you can still see where the mezuzot were.
And there are signs of the connection with Judaism. On the wall of the Palazzo Bocchi in Bologna is a long, beautifully engraved Hebrew inscription. In the Bologna Medieval museum there are Jewish gravestones with inscriptions that have to be from the same stonecutter. I’ve seen chapels with Hebrew inscriptions coming out of the mouths of saints, bits of Hebrew on other works of art, and the Ten Commandments in Hebrew on the side of a prelates’ huge gold throne in Venice.
So even if you are still a bit scared of the art, you can treat it as a detective story and look for connections.
* Image source: The Art Wolf