Italian Painting -
Early Christian and Medieval Period
January 11, 2016
RISE OF CHRISTIANITY: Out of the decaying civilization of Rome sprang into life that remarkable growth known as Christianity. It was not welcomed by the Romans. It was scoffed at, scourged, persecuted, and, at one time, nearly exterminated. But its vitality was stronger than that of its persecutor, and when Rome declined, Christianity utilized the things that were Roman, while striving to live for ideas that were Christian.
There was no revolt, no sudden change. The Christian idea made haste slowly, and at the start it was weighed down with many paganisms. The Christians themselves in all save religious faith, were Romans, and inherited Roman tastes, manners, and methods. But the Roman world, with all its classicism and learning, was dying. The decline socially and intellectually was with the Christians as well as the Romans. There was good reason for it. The times were out of joint, and almost everything was disorganized, worn out, decadent. The military life of the Empire had begun to give way to the monastic and feudal life of the Church. Quarrels and wars between the powers kept life at fever heat. In the fifth century came the inpouring of the Goths and Huns, and with them the sacking and plunder of the land. Misery and squalor, with intellectual blackness, succeeded. Art, science, literature, and learning degenerated to mere shadows of their former selves, and a semi-barbarism reigned for five centuries. During all this dark period Christian painting struggled on in a feeble way, seeking to express itself. It started Roman in form, method, and even, at times, in subject; it ended Christian, but not without a long period of gradual transition, during which it was influenced from many sources and underwent many changes.
ART MOTIVES: As in the ancient world, there were two principal motives for painting in early Christian times—religion and decoration. Religion was the chief motive, but Christianity was a very different religion from that of the Greeks and Romans. The Hellenistic faith was a worship of nature, a glorification of humanity, an exaltation of physical and moral perfections. It dealt with the material and the tangible, and Greek art appealed directly to the sensuous and earthly nature of mankind. The Hebraic faith or Christianity was just the opposite of this. It decried the human, the flesh, and the worldly. It would have nothing to do with the beauty of this earth. Its hopes were centred upon the life hereafter. The teaching of Christ was the humility and the abasement of the human in favor of the spiritual and the divine. Where Hellenism appealed to the senses, Hebraism appealed to the spirit. In art the fine athletic figure, or, for that matter, any figure, was an abomination. The early Church fathers opposed it. It was forbidden by the Mosaic decalogue and savored of idolatry.
But what should take its place in art? How could the new Christian ideas be expressed without form? Symbolism came in, but it was insufficient. A party in the Church rose up in favor of more direct representation. Art should be used as an engine of the Church to teach the Bible to those who could not read. This argument held good, and notwithstanding the opposition of the Iconoclastic party painting grew in favor. It lent itself to teaching and came under ecclesiastical domination. As it left the nature of the classic world and loosened its grasp on things tangible it became feeble and decrepit in its form. While it grew in sentiment and religious fervor it lost in bodily vigor and technical ability.
For many centuries the religious motive held strong, and art was the servant of the Church. It taught the Bible truths, but it also embellished and adorned the interiors of the churches. All the frescos, mosaics, and altar-pieces had a decorative motive in their coloring and setting. The church building was a house of refuge for the oppressed, and it was made attractive not only in its lines and proportions but in its ornamentation. Hence the two motives of the early work—religious teaching and decoration.
SUBJECTS AND TECHNICAL METHODS: There was no distinct Judaic or Christian type used in the very early art. The painters took their models directly from the Roman frescos and marbles. It was the classic figure and the classic cos tume, and those who produced the painting of the early period were the degenerate painters of the classic world. The figure was rather short and squat, coarse in the joints, hands, and feet, and almost expressionless in the face. Christian life at that time was passion-strung, but the faces in art do not show it, for the reason that the Roman frescos were the painter’s model, not the people of the Christian community about him. There was nothing like a realistic presentation at this time. The type alone was given.
In the drawing it was not so good as that shown in the Roman and Pompeian frescos. There was a mechanism about its production, a copying by unskilled hands, a negligence or an ignorance of form that showed everywhere. The coloring, again, was a conventional scheme of flat tints in reddish-browns and bluish-greens, with heavy outline bands of brown. There was little perspective or background, and the figures in panels were separated by vines, leaves, or other ornamental division lines. Some relief was given to the figure by the brown outlines. Light-and-shade was not well rendered, and composition was formal. The great part of this early work was done in fresco after the Roman formula, and was executed on the walls of the Catacombs. Other forms of art showed in the gilded glasses, in manuscript illumination, and, later, in the mosaics.
Technically the work begins to decline from the beginning in proportion as painting was removed from the knowledge of the ancient world. About the fifth century the figure grew heavy and stiff. A new type began to show itself. The Roman toga was exchanged for the long liturgical garment which hid the proportions of the body, the lines grew hard and dark, a golden nimbus appeared about the head, and the patriarchal in appearance came into art. The youthful Orphic face of Christ changed to a solemn visage, with large, round eyes, saint-like beard, and melancholy air. The classic qualities were fast disappearing. Eastern types and elements were being introduced through Byzantium. Oriental ornamentation, gold embossing, rich color were doing away with form, perspective, light-and-shade, and background.
The color was rich and the mechanical workmanship fair for the time, but the figure had become paralytic. It shrouded itself in a sack-like brocaded gown, had no feet at times, and instead of standing on the ground hung in the air. Facial expression ran to contorted features, holiness became moroseness, and sadness sulkiness. The flesh was brown, the shadows green-tinted, giving an unhealthy look to the faces. Add to this the gold ground (a Persian inheritance), the gilded high lights, the absence of perspective, and the composing of groups so that the figures looked piled one upon another instead of receding, and we have the style of painting that prevailed in Byzantium and Italy from about the ninth to the thirteenth century. Nothing of a technical nature was in its favor except the rich coloring and the mechanical adroitness of the fitting.
EARLY CHRISTIAN PAINTING: The earliest Christian painting appeared on the walls of the Catacombs in Rome. These were decorated with panels and within the panels were representations of trailing vines, leaves, fruits, flowers, with birds and little genii or cupids. It was painting similar to the Roman work, and had no Christian significance though in a Christian place. Not long after, however, the desire to express something of the faith began to show itself in a symbolic way. The cups and the vases became marked with the fish, because the Greek spelling of the word “icthus” gave the initials of the Christian confession of faith. The paintings of the shepherd bearing a sheep symbolized Christ and his flock; the anchor meant the Christian hope; the phœnix immortality; the ship the Church; the cock watchfulness, and so on. And at this time the decorations began to have a double meaning. The vine came to represent the “I am the vine” and the birds grew longer wings and became doves, symbolizing pure Christian souls.
It has been said this form of art came about through fear of persecution, that the Christians hid their ideas in symbols because open representation would be followed by violence and desecration. Such was hardly the case. The emperors persecuted the living, but the dead and their sepulchres were exempt from sacrilege by Roman law. They probably used the symbol because they feared the Roman figure and knew no other form to take its place. But symbolism did not supply the popular need; it was impossible to originate an entirely new figure; so the painters went back and borrowed the old Roman form. Christ appeared as a beardless youth in Phrygian costume, the Virgin Mary was a Roman matron, and the Apostles looked like Roman senators wearing the toga.
Classic story was also borrowed to illustrate Bible truth. Hermes carrying the sheep was the Good Shepherd, Psyche discovering Cupid was the curiosity of Eve, Ulysses closing his ears to the Sirens was the Christian resisting the tempter. The pagan Orpheus charming the animals of the wood was finally adopted as a symbol, or perhaps an ideal likeness of Christ. Then followed more direct representation in classic form and manner, the Old Testament prefiguring and emphasizing the New. Jonah appeared cast into the sea and cast by the whale on dry land again as a symbol of the New Testament resurrection, and also as a representation of the actual occurrence. Moses striking the rock symbolized life eternal, and David slaying Goliath was Christ victorious.
The chronology of the Catacombs painting is very much mixed, but it is quite certain there was degeneracy from the start. The cause was neglect of form, neglect of art as art, mechanical copying instead of nature study, and finally, the predominance of the religious idea over the forms of nature. With Constantine Christianity was recognized as the national religion. Christian art came out of the Catacombs and began to show itself in illuminations, mosaics, and church decorations. Notwithstanding it was now free from restraint it did not improve. Church traditions prevailed, sentiment bordered upon sentimentality, and the technic of painting passed from bad to worse.
The decline continued during the sixth and seventh centuries, owing somewhat perhaps to the influence of Byzantium and the introduction into Italy of Eastern types and elements. In the eighth century the Iconoclastic controversy broke out again in fury with the edict of Leo the Isaurian. This controversy was a renewal of the old quarrel in the Church about the use of pictures and images. Some wished them for instruction in the Word; others decried them as leading to idolatry. It was a long quarrel of over a hundred years’ duration, and a deadly one for art. When it ended, the artists were ordered to follow the traditions, not to make any new creations, and not to model any figure in the round. The nature element in art was quite dead at that time, and the order resulted only in diverting the course of painting toward the unrestricted miniatures and manuscripts. The native Italian art was crushed for a time by this new ecclesiastical burden. It did not entirely disappear, but it gave way to the stronger, though equally restricted art that had been encroaching upon it for a long time—the art of Byzantium.
BYZANTINE PAINTING: Constantinople was rebuilt and rechristened by Constantine, a Christian emperor, in the year 328 A.D. It became a stronghold of Christian traditions, manners, customs, art. But it was not quite the same civilization as that of Rome and the West. It was bordered on the south and east by oriental influences, and much of Eastern thought, method, and glamour found its way into the Christian community. The artists fought this influence, stickling a long time for the severer classicism of ancient Greece. For when Rome fell the traditions of the Old World centred around Constantinople. But classic form was ever being encroached upon by oriental richness of material and color. The struggle was a long but hopeless one. As in Italy, form failed century by century. When, in the eighth century, the Iconoclastic controversy cut away the little Greek existing in it, the oriental ornament was about all that remained.
There was no chance for painting to rise under the prevailing conditions. Free artistic creation was denied the artist. An advocate of painting at the Second Nicene Council declared that: “It is not the invention of the painter that creates the picture, but an inviolable law of the Catholic Church. It is not the painter but the holy fathers who have to invent and dictate. To them manifestly belongs the composition, to the painter only the execution.” Painting was in a strait-jacket. It had to follow precedent and copy what had gone before in old Byzantine patterns. Both in Italy and in Byzantium the creative artist had passed away in favor of the skilled artisan—the repeater of time-honored forms or colors. The workmanship was good for the time, and the coloring and ornamental borders made a rich setting, but the real life of art had gone. A long period of heavy, morose, almost formless art, eloquent of mediæval darkness and ignorance, followed.
It is strange that such an art should be adopted by foreign nations, and yet it was. Its bloody crucifixions and morbid madonnas were well fitted to the dark view of life held during the Middle Ages, and its influence was wide-spread and of long duration. It affected French and German art, it ruled at the North, and in the East it lives even to this day. That it strongly affected Italy is a very apparent fact. Just when it first began to show its influence there is matter of dispute. It probably gained a foothold at Ravenna in the sixth century, when that province became a part of the empire of Justinian. Later it permeated Rome, Sicily, and Naples at the south, and Venice at the north. With the decline of the early Christian art of Italy this richer, and in many ways more acceptable, Byzantine art came in, and, with Italian modifications, usurped the field. It did not literally crush out the native Italian art, but practically it superseded it, or held it in check, from the ninth to the twelfth century. After that the corrupted Italian art once more came to the front.
EARLY CHRISTIAN AND BYZANTINE REMAINS: The best examples of Early Christian painting are still to be seen in the Catacombs at Rome. Mosaics in the early churches of Rome, Ravenna, Naples, Venice, Constantinople. Sculptures, ivories, and glasses in the Lateran, Ravenna, and Vatican museums. Illuminations in Vatican and Paris libraries. Almost all the museums of Europe, those of the Vatican and Naples particularly, have some examples of Byzantine work. The older altar-pieces of the early Italian churches date back to the mediæval period and show Byzantine influence. The altar-pieces of the Greek and Russian churches show the same influence even in modern work.