Art Before the Renaissance

“With Giotto, the flat world of thirteenth-century Italian painting was transformed into an analogue for the real world, for which reason he is considered the father of modern European painting.”
Italian Painting of the Later Middle Ages 

A dramatically new style of religious painting emerged in Italy in the 14th century.  In Florence, an artist name Giotto di Bondone broke with the Italo-Byzantine style that had dominated religious art for centuries, and he pioneered a new approach to painting that was based on his own observations of the natural world, rather than time-honored conventions. Giotto’s innovations ushered in a new, more Humanist approach to religious subject matter, and laid the foundation for the Renaissance in the 15th century.

In order to appreciate Giotto’s innovations, we need to understand what art looked like before he came along.  So let’s “time travel” back to the ancient world, where many of the techniques that Giotto discovered were already being used.  We will then explore how the rise of Christianity changed everything about how artists represented the visible world, resulting in the abstract linear style that Giotto set out to overturn.

Procession of the Royal Family, Ara Pacis, Rome, 13-9 CE

During the Classical period (meaning ancient Greece and Rome), artists made paintings and sculptures that were naturalistic in style (naturalism in art means images that look like the real world the way we actually see it).  The Roman relief illustrated above is a good example of naturalism.  It depicts a group of people in a religious procession, and although it was carved on a flat surface, the sculptor created a convincing illusion of a crowd of people casually standing in line.  The figures stand in natural poses, and we can sense the bodies beneath their drapery; their faces and gestures are individualized.  They seem physical and real, and we can almost imagine ourselves entering the scene and standing amongst them.

Seated woman playing a Kithara, fresco from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor, Boscoreale, 4-30 CE
Seated woman playing a Kithara, fresco from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor, Boscoreale, 4-30 CE

value_scaleRoman painters also created convincing illusions of life.  This fresco from a Roman villa depicts a seated woman holding a musical instrument.  The figure is rendered in perspective (the way she would appear from a fixed viewpoint), and the artist used “modeling” (i.e. gradations of light and shade) to create the illusion of volume.  Although painted on a flat surface, the image seems remarkably three dimensional and real.

Watch this video which demonstrates the use of modeling with light and shade to create the illusion of three dimensional volume.

Shape into Form

Religious Images in Medieval Art
During the Middle Ages, naturalistic images such as these disappeared.  This is because Christianity became the dominant religion in the European Middle Ages, and there was a religious taboo against the making of so-called “graven images.”  Read an explanation of why at this assigned resource:

Smarthistory_icon_smallAssigned Resource:
Dr. Nancy Ross, “The Image in Medieval Art,” Smarthistory

Bonaventura Berlinghiere, Madonna and Child with Saints and Crucifixion,1260-70

In an effort to obey the commandment against “graven images,” Medieval artists abandoned many of the techniques used by Classical artists (such as modeling and perspective).  Their images were flat, rather than three-dimensional, with thick outlines that make the figures appear cartoonish.  As Dr. Nancy Ross explains, this unrealistic approach was designed to distinguish Christian art from the naturalistic styles of Europe’s pre-Christian predecessors:

“Artists began to abandon classical artistic conventions like shading, modeling and perspective—conventions that make the image appear more real . . .[they] favored flat representations of people, animals and objects that only looked nominally like their subjects in real life . . . This new style, adopted over several generations, created a comfortable distance between the new Christian empire and its pagan past.”
Dr. Nancy Ross, “The Image in Medieval Art,” Smarthistory

Jacopa di Cione Madonna and Child in Glory 1360/65

The Human and the Divine
Medieval artists also avoided naturalism to establish a strict separation between heaven and earth.  Holy figures wore halos to signify their divinity, and hierarchic scale was used to indicate importance:

“The central figures of the Madonna and child in this painting from the late Middle Ages are much larger than the four saints who stand below the Madonna or the angels gathered around the upper edges of the painting. The artists made the Madonna and child larger to help viewers understand that they are the most important figures in the painting.”
Humanism in the Renaissance

Bibles for the Poor
Most of the art made in Europe during the Middle Ages was commissioned by the church. Stained glass windows, mosaics, and sculptures were used to decorate religious buildings, and their function was to serve a kind of “bible for the poor” — pictures that could teach church doctrine to a largely illiterate population.  The subject matter of Medieval art was therefore usually religious in subject matter, and usually reflected the church’s ideas about the nature of divinity and spirituality.

Christ as Pantokrator, Church of the Dormition, Daphne, Greece, c. 1090-1100

The Italo-Byzantine Style
The painting style that was popular in Italy before the Renaissance is called the Italo-Byzantine style.  Italians called it  La Maniera Greca (“the Greek manner”) because it was influenced by Byzantine icons (Greek was the dominant language in the Byzantine Empire).

Typical features of the Italo-Byzantine style include the use of a flat gold background to symbolize the perfection of heaven, and figures that are flat and cartoon-like.  This abstract style reflected religious ideas about the nature of divinity:  since Mary, Jesus, and the Saints were considered to be spiritual rather than earthly beings, they were represented as abstract, symbolic figures that float in an unrealistic space.  The images were meant to symbolize a heavenly reality, very different from our own physical world.

Last Judgment Mosaic, Florentine Baptistry, 1240-1300

In Italo-Byzantine art, Jesus is often portrayed as a remote and terrifying judge.  This mosaic in the Baptistry of Florence depicts the Last Judgment, when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.  Surrounded by angels, he floats against the gold background like a heavenly apparition.  Down below and to his right, the dead rise from their graves and are greeted by angels; to his left, they are greeted by demons.  The fate awaiting the sinners is rendered in vivid detail.

Fig 7-28
Cimabue, Madonna Enthroned with Angels and Prophets, c. 1280-1290

The work of the Italian painter Cimabue exemplifies the Italo-Byzantine style that was popular in Italy in the 13th-14th centuries.  Mary is portrayed as a remote queen of heaven, seated on a golden throne.  The halo indicates her divinity, while hierarchic scale is used to indicate her importance.  The flat gold background was made with thin sheets of actual gold leaf, and symbolized the perfection of heaven.

The figures in Cimabue’s painting have a cartoon-like quality, because the artist uses lines to define contours and drapery folds, and the figures float in an undefined space that has little suggestions of depth.  The image was intended to make us focus on the spiritual nature of the Virgin, rather than on her humanity.  She exists in heaven, rather than in our world.

But Cimabue was one of the first artists to begin using some of the techniques that will become central to the new style of painting introduced in the Renaissance.  Although his image conforms to the traditional conventions of the religious icon, he does begin to model with light and shade to create just the slightest sense of dimension.

Cimabue, Maesta of Santa Trinita, 1280-1290, tempera on panel, 151 1/2 x 87 3/4″ (385 x 223 cm), Uffizi, Florence Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

Unknown Master, Virgin and Child Enthroned with St Dominic, St Martin and Two Angels, c. 1290

Why Do All Icons Look Alike?
Cimabue’s Madonna looks like all the other icons of the Virgin that were produced in the Middle Ages — and for very good reason.  All icons look alike because they were all copies of copies of copies of an “authentic” or “sacred” original.

According to legend, Saint Luke painted the first portrait of the Virgin Mary and this sacred original has served as the model for all icons created thereafter:

“Around the twelfth century one icon in particular came to be identified with Luke’s image: a half-length portrait of Mary holding the child and pointing toward him as the way of salvation. Known as the Hodegetria—she who points the way—the original icon was taken in the fifth century to the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, and installed there in the Hodegon monastery. It was said to produce miracles daily and became such a part of the city’s life that it was carried out of the church every Tuesday so it could be seen by the public. A Spanish visitor in 1403 described how “all . . . make their prayers and devotions with sobbing and wailing” before it.  The original Hodegetria seems to have vanished following the fall of Constantinople  to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Copies of the icon, however, could be found everywhere from Russia to Ethiopia; some six hundred were known in Rome.”
Saint Luke Paints the Virgin and Child (NGA)

Statue of Diadoumenos , c. 69-96 AD; Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue by Polykleitos

The Body in Classical and Medieval Art
Attitudes towards the representation of the human body also changed in the Middle Ages. Nudity had been common in Classical art, reflecting Humanist values:

“The nude first became significant in the art of ancient Greece, where athletic competitions at religious festivals celebrated the human body, particularly the male, in an unparalleled way. The athletes in these contests competed in the nude, and the Greeks considered them embodiments of all that was best in humanity. It was thus perfectly natural for the Greeks to associate the male nude form with triumph, glory, and even moral excellence, values which seem immanent in the magnificent nudes of Greek sculpture. Images of naked athletes stood as offerings in sanctuaries, while athletic-looking nudes portrayed the gods and heroes of Greek religion. The celebration of the body among the Greeks contrasts remarkably with the attitudes prevalent in other parts of the ancient world, where undress was typically associated with disgrace and defeat.”
Sorabella, Jean. “The Nude in Western Art and its Beginnings in Antiquity”

But attitudes towards the nude human body changed dramatically in the Middle Ages:

“Unlike paganism, Christianity required no images of naked divinities, and new attitudes cast doubt and opprobrium on nude athletics, public bathing, and the very value of the human body. The early Christian emphasis on chastity and celibacy further discounted depictions of nakedness. In this climate, there was little motive to study the nude, and unclothed figures are thus rare in medieval art.”
Sorabella, Jean. “The Nude in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance”

Gislebertus, Last Judgment, Autun Cathedral, 1120-1135
Expulsion of Adam and Eve, Hunterian Psalter, c. 1170

When nude figures were represented in Medieval religious art, the emphasis was on shame and sin, rather than triumph or heroism.  After the sin in the garden, Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness and they were ashamed:  “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”  No longer “innocent,” their bodies now became an outward expression of their sinful state, or what church doctrine refers to as “original sin.”  This negative attitude towards the human body is reflected in medieval images that avoid a naturalistic depiction of the human form.


Web Resources:
Byzantine Art and Painting in Italy during the 1200s and 1300s (National Gallery of Art)

Dr. Nancy Ross, “A New Pictorial Language:  The Image in Early Medieval Art,” Smarthistory

Humanism in the Renaissance

Sorabella, Jean. “The Nude in Western Art and its Beginnings in Antiquity”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. 

Sorabella, Jean. “The Nude in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.


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