Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Why do we make art? Seriously, think about it. Does art have a purpose, or is it just pretty, something to decorate hallways in hotels? Yes, art has purpose. It is created for a reason, and the reason it is created determines what the art looks like.
Say you need to make art that makes a political statement in a big way. You'll want a big piece of art, something people notice and probably made from sturdy material so you can place it outside where everyone can see it. The people of Northern Europe in the 15th century loved art, and their art reflected a very specific purpose: devotion, or an attitude of personal religious worship.
The religious attitudes of people in Northern Europe defined their art. To understand this, you are going to need to get an up-close view of life in Northern Europe, which means we are going to make you into a 15th-century Northern European. There we go. Now you need a Northern name-let's call you Jan van der Student. Alright, Jan, let's get going!
At its most basic, devotional art is meant to inspire or reflect devotion. As a 15th-century Northern European, you are a devout Catholic. This is a very important part of your life and an important part of how other people see you. In today's terms, the more devout you are, the cooler you are. Showing off your devotion is 'in', and that means that the art you commission and buy will reflect that. Thus, in Northern Europe, altarpieces are very popular forms of art. An altarpiece is a series of connected panels meant to decorate an altar, and the richest people in Northern Europe pay for large, ornate altarpieces. These are meant to encourage a humble, pious, and meditative attitude during worship.
Let's say that you are not one of the richest members of society. Sorry, even in a fictional world, you don't get to be a billionaire. But you are wealthy enough to afford a personal altarpiece. These smaller altarpieces, which could be folded up and easily transported, were very popular in Northern Europe. You take it with you, and whenever you are reading your bible or praying, you open it up. It helps you reflect on your prayers and on the word of the gospel. This personal altarpiece is called a triptych, because it has three panels, tri for three, like a tricycle.
An altarpiece with two panels is called a diptych, such as this one. This is Virgin and Child with Maarten van Niuewenhove, painted by Hans Memling in 1487. It is very typical of devotional art. On one side is the Virgin Mary and Christ child. People in Northern Europe venerated Mary above all other saints, so her image is very common. The other side shows the donor, the person who paid for the diptych. In this image, the donor is seen worshiping Christ, almost as if in a direct conversation. For the donor, this both serves as a reminder that Christ answers prayers and displays his piety for everyone to see.
So, Jan van der Student, that's the basic function of your devotional art. Did you get some nice souvenirs along the way? A couple triptychs and a diptych or two? Oh, this is a good one.
This triptych is called the Merode Altarpiece, painted by Robert Campin around 1430. Look at the details in this painting. Northern European painters achieved a new level of detail due to the fact that they began painting with oil paints, as opposed to the egg-based tempera paints of the rest of Europe. Oil paints allowed them to paint with much more detail and finesse. They became obsessed with the details of a painting and began inserting details with the purpose of increasing the amount of symbolism in their art. In fact, nearly every aspect of these paintings is symbolic in some way or another.
Let's look at the Merode Altarpiece. This scene is the annunciation, the moment when the archangel Gabriel tells Mary she is pregnant with the Christ child. In front of Mary is a book and scroll, symbolizing the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and the role Mary plays in fulfilling the prophesy of the savior. The lilies in the vase represent Mary's virginity. The small lions on the bench represent the throne of the Hebrew king, Solomon, which was a metaphor for Mary as holding the leader of the Hebrew people. The cloth and pot in the back, meant for bathing, representing the basin used by a priest to wash his hands during the Mass. The sixteen sides of the table represent the 16 Hebrew prophets. The extinguished candle could represent the fate of Christ to be crucified.
Mary is seated on the floor to show humility, but the light reflecting on her dress creates the image of a star - a common metaphor for Mary at the time. And that's just the center panel. On the right panel, Saint Joseph builds a mousetrap, to represent Christ managing to capture and defeat the Devil.
Essentially every detail of this image is symbolic, but why? Well, just look at how much time we've spent talking about it! These images are supposed to encourage meditation and reflection about the scriptures. It's a sort of mental exercise to test your familiarity with the gospels and to help you relate the messages to your daily life through metaphors and symbols. You see, faith was something you were supposed to constantly think about in the 15th century.
So, Jan van der Student, now that you've had a chance to be a 15th-century northern European, what do you think about the purpose of art? Images like this encouraged people to reflect on the gospels at all times, creating a truly devotional society.
In 15th-century Northern Europe, art had a very specific purpose. It was meant to reflect devotion, an attitude of personal worship. This was a devoutly Catholic culture that valued the individual nature of worship, emphasizing private meditation and reflection. Altarpieces were very popular forms of art in this time period and were used to give worshipers something to contemplate while praying or reading the Bible.
Wealthy patrons commissioned large altarpieces for churches, but most people bought smaller ones for private use. An altarpiece with two panels is called a diptych: one with three panels is a triptych. Northern artists switched from egg-based tempera paint to oil paints, allowing them to create a much greater amount of detail, which they used to fill their paintings with discrete symbols. Everyday items, from candles to books, had deep, religious symbolic meanings that encouraged people to meditate or reflect on the meaning of the gospels in their own lives.
In your time as Jan van der Student, 15th-century Northern European, you got to see just how connected art and religion can be. Art has purpose, and a devotion-centered society creates great devotional art.
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Back To CourseArt 101: Art of the Western World
23 chapters | 278 lessons