Sample Basic Visual Analysis

Sally Student
Basic Visual Analysis
Art 109 Renaissance to Modern
Spring 2014


Artist:  Unknown
Title:  Enthroned Madonna and Child
Date:  13th century
Medium:  tempera on panel
Collection:  National Gallery of Art

Subject Matter Description
THESIS (what my description will “show”):  Mary appears queenly and untouchable,  but is “humanized” by her tender and melancholy expression
This painting represents the Virgin Mary, with the Christ Child on her lap.  Mary is elegantly dressed in a blue robe that shimmers with golden highlights, echoing the gold background that was a common feature of the Italo-Byzantine style that dominated Italy in the 13th century. To emphasize her queenly status, the Virgin is seated on an elaborately carved throne, with her feet resting on a rectangular footrest.  Her long slender fingers cradle the Christ Child as she gestures towards him, while she gazes at the viewer with a melancholy expression that suggests her awareness of the fate that awaits Him. The Christ Child sits upright and alert in her lap, behaving more like an adult than a newborn child, as he makes a gesture of blessing with one hand, and holds a scroll in the other.

 Stylistic Analysis
THESIS:  This painting exemplifies many of the characteristics of the Italo-Byzantine style, but it also has elements typical of the Proto-Renaissance

  • The Italo-Byzantine characteristics include the gold background, which flattens the space, and makes it seem like the figures are floating in Heaven
  • The perspective of the throne and footstool are also off:  the diagonal lines do not converge, and therefore do not successfully create an illusion of depth
  • There is also very little modeling with light and shade:  the Virgin’s robes are defined by sharp linear patterns, rather than modeling.  This makes her seem more “cartoonish” than real, as was common in Byzantine icons, which deliberately avoided naturalism because of the religious taboo against making images of Mary, Jesus, and the Saints
  • The Virgin’s face looks like a typical Byzantine icon with her long thin nose, almond shaped eyes, and tiny mouth.  She doesn’t look like a real person, but instead appears to follow a one-size-fits-all generic formula
  • The proportions of the figures are very unrealistic, as was common in Byzantine art:  they are tall, slender, and elongated – we can see this especially well in the Virgin’s impossibly long fingers
  • But there is also the beginning of an interest in representing the Virgin more naturalistically, which makes this work Proto-RenaissanceThe diagonal lines of the throne create a rudimentary sense of depth, even if it isn’t completely convincing.  Like the throne in Cimabue’s Trinita Madonna, the artist is clearly trying to create the illusion of depth in this picture, and to convince us that Mary is actually sitting “in” the throne, rather than hovering in front of it
  • The Virgin’s knees also  project outward from the picture, rather than being flattened out.  This makes her seem more three-dimensional and physically real; the Christ Child’s body also has some dimension to it:  the linear patterns follow the contours of his limbs, so that we get a feeling of their roundness; we can even see how one leg is in front of the other, because of the drapery folds.
  • Finally, there is also some modeling with light and shade on the Virgin’s face, neck and hands, as well as on the Christ Child’s face, hands and feet.  These gradations from light to dark give the figures a sense of volume and mass that makes them seem physical and real.

The National Gallery’s Enthroned Madonna and Child exemplifies the changes that were taking place in religious painting in Italy in the 1300s.  Italian artists began to reject the flat, linear style of Byzantine icons, and pioneered a more naturalistic style, employing techniques such as modeling with light and shade, to make their religious subjects come to life.  By “Humanizing” their subjects in this way, Italian artists brought religion out into the real world, so that people could see, and touch, and feel, and thus relate to Jesus, Mary, and the Saints on a more personal level.

Melissa Hall,  “Art Before the Renaissance,” Art 108 Ancient to Medieval, Westchester Community College

Melissa, Hall, “Giotto and the Proto-Renaissance,” Art 108 Ancient to Medieval, Westchester Community College

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

Allentown Art Museum, “Humanism in the Renaissance,” The Renaissance Connection

National Gallery of Art, “Byzantine Art and Painting in Italy during the 1200s and 1300s,”