During this period, European citizens turned to artwork as relief from the horrible past experiences such as the Black Death. Symbolic representation in paintings became a thing of the past, as many artists moved to realistic representation. This change in art was caused by a move of scientific worldview of reason, and scientific exploration of the human body. Along with that, many other artistic concepts were introduced such as: chiaroscuro, proportions, pyramid configuration, oil paints, and linear perspective.
The Lamentation” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and “The Crucifixion and Last Judgment” by JanVan Eyck, both embody many of the new Renaissance art styles which reflect the changing sentiments of European culture. Born in Maaseick, Limbourg, Jan Van Eyck was known to be the most celebrated painter in fifteenth-century Europe. Although he was credited with inventing painting with oils, which is incorrect, he was the first to use oil paint to his advantage, making illusions of light, vivid oil colors, and microscopic detail. He was known to have perfected this technique.
The Crucifixion and Last Judgment” was painted in the 1430’s, and when I saw this painting it caught my eye because of the way he presents it. The painting is split in half; on the left there is “The Crucifixion” and on the right there is “The Last Judgment”. The concentration of these paintings all seem to be centered on Christ by using pyramidal composition. Pyramidal composition was the idea that objects are placed on the foreground of the scene and other objects are placed further and further behind, which creates an illusion of depth while drawing the focal point to the center of the paper.
After studying the painting it is remarkable how much detail and information he put on the small canvas he had. “The Crucifixion” was painted to show Jesus and the story of his death. At first glance, it looked to me as if it was a simple painting of Christ being crucified and many people around him simply watching it. As I stood there and tried to examine the finer details, it took me a while because I never actually examined an artwork to this extent. I soon began to see the intricate details Van Eyck made, and how he incorporated some of the new styles that were founded in the Renaissance in his painting.
If you look closely, you can see the very detailed castles and structures in the background. I then noticed the cloud formation and the mountains in the horizon. I was amazed at this, because when closely examined it looks completely real. This was made possible by the introduction of linear perspective, one of the most influential advancements made in art. Linear perspective entails making lines converge at a vanishing point, while having objects in the painting appear to retreat in the distance.
This creates an illusion of depth, and makes it so there is an illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. One of the last things I saw that I found most impressive was the amount of detail Van Eyck put into the people and animals at the bottom half of “The Crucifixion”. As said before, at first glance it only appeared as if many people were gathering around to view Christ’s death, and when I first looked I could not make out the expression on their faces. As I looked closer, the expression on each face was remarkable.
Van Eyck puts a completely different facial expression on each person. Seeing this, I realized that there were not only a group of people who watched Christ’s death with satisfaction, but there were in fact a number of people mourning his death. It seems that the mourners were at the bottom of the painting, which from the perspective of the eye witness, would be closer to him/her. The clear and present agony was evident as the subjects being portrayed responded to the situation that was being presented.
One last detail in “The Crucifixion” that Van Eyck displays nicely would be the horses. He paints their bodies with great detail, and differentiates each horse from the next one by minutia such as color, amount of hair, and by the number and types of harnesses that are on them. “The Last Judgment”, to the right of “The Crucifixion”, was the half of the painting that intrigued me the most. In this half, Van Eyck uses chiaroscuro, which is contrasting objects using light and dark. Although it is not strongly used, he uses it to show heaven, hell, and a place in-between.
Obviously, he used light colors to portray heaven and darker colors to portray hell. At the top of the painting, heaven is portrayed with Christ in the middle surrounded the twelve disciples, many normal people who have made it to heaven, and many angelic creatures. The people in heaven seem to be trouble free, and safe of any violence or harm. Further down, an angelic warrior separates heaven and hell. His armor, shield, and sword are portrayed with great realism and attention to detail.
In between heaven and hell there seems to be a piece of land and a river where many souls are approaching their afterlife. Van Eyck depicts them as on their way to hell, but begging and praying to try to repent for their sins to be admitted into heaven. The characters appear stuck into the ground, or ocean, by one of their body parts, and gives the illusion that they are being sucked into hell. It took me a while to realize that in the background there seems to be burning structures, symbolizing what is to come next for the hell-bound souls.
The way Van Eyck conveys the poignant emotions of the characters as they struggle is understandable and realistic because of the way he depicts hell. Van Eyck paints a clustered region for hell, with a huge winged skeleton on top of hell. Beneath, it is packed with tortured souls being ravaged by many things. The bodies are being bitten, eaten, and mangled by many demonic creatures, such as: snakes, serpents, gargoyles, skeletons, wolves and more. It truly does not look like a place where anyone would ever want to be, which explains the struggle the souls have in between heaven and hell.
It is harder to observe the facial expressions of the demons in hell because of the darkness, but when studied closely I found it remarkable how Van Eyck could instill such a scary emotion in the demons, and such a fearful tortured look in the souls. You can almost feel the pain they are going through by the way he paints it. Jan Van Eyck was truly remarkable in the way he detailed his paintings, and how he could tell so much with so little of a canvas. “The Lamentation”, painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder, was painted after “The Last Judgment and The Crucifixion” in 1583 which was considered the “High Renaissance” period.
Cranach was a German painter who painted mostly in Venice. He became a court painter for the Saxon elector Frederick III of Wittenberg. Most importantly, while he was there he became friends with Martin Luther and painted for him. The artwork made for Luther was very controversial. “A close friend of Martin Luther, Cranach painted portraits and mythological subjects as well as altarpieces, which reflect the strong Protestant convictions of his patrons” (Fazio, 38).
The Protestant reformation was occurring at this time, and to many traditional Catholics Cranachs paintings seemed offensive and inappropriate. He developed the full-length portrait, and was skilled in creating erotic nude paintings. This is a perfect example of the change brought about by the Renaissance, not only because they were realistic and proportional, but simply for the fact that nude portraits were allowed to be made. In “The Lamentation”, certain individuals are seen crowding around Christ’s lifeless corpse.
In the painting, Saint John is holding Jesus’ head up, Nicodemus holds Mary Magdalene’s ointment jar while she bends down to kiss Jesus’ hand wound, Joseph of Arimathca holds the crown of thorns, while the Virgin Mary glances at Jesus’ corpse (Fazio, 38). What’s so incredible about this painting is the realness that is portrayed. To achieve this, Cranach used five techniques, three of which were mentioned before; chiaroscuro, pyramidal composition, and linear perspective. Chiaroscuro is used in this painting to create shadows and show the source of light.
The light seems to be coming from behind the figures, particularly in the middle to right corner of the painting. This is used to create shadows on the characters, and in turn makes certain characteristics such as clothing seem real. When a viewer looks at this painting, they will see and think that Jesus is the main focus of this painting, however there are other people in it. This was done by the way Cranach utilizes pyramidal composition. Jesus is in the foreground, and objects are placed strategically further into the painting to create depth, while still maintaining focus on Jesus.
This is similar to Linear Perspective, where Cranach places Jesus in front, and others further back of the scene. His vanishing point is more towards the center of the painting rather then a certain side. The difference between linear perspective and pyramidal composition is that linear perspective doesn’t necessarily have to draw a focal point to the center of the painting. Contrapposto pose, which is a technique used that dates back to the ancient Greeks, is a shift of weight to one side, and is used to make the painting appear to be a real situation.
By using contrapposto pose, it makes the characters look as if they are responding to the situation that is presented, making it look real. Like Van Eyck, Cranach focuses in on the detail of facial and body expressions. Combined with contrapposto pose, it makes it so a viewer of the painting can feel the anguish of the subjects painted, who are responding to Christ’s death. “Typical of Cranach’s mature manner are the painting’s high emotional drama, intense palette, and mannered elegance” (Fazio, 38). During this time of Renaissance art, the Protestant Reformation was also occurring.
The church had been losing power over members of society, since the late Middle Ages when the whole culture and ethos revolved around church. Because of this, artists were able to express themselves more and paint religious scenes more freely and with less censorship. Cranach took advantage of this, and used real life proportions on every character in his painting. Until the Renaissance, many artists would embellish Gods, heros, kings, and many select individuals to look superhuman and take precedence over all other people.
Cranach does not do so however, and shows Jesus as a mere mortal. He is portrayed as weak, fragile and almost helpless. He was able to depict Jesus freely and as he wanted to, which would never have been allowed before the Renaissance. The increasing separation of the Church from the state allowed for a more advanced expression of art. The paintings “The Crucifixion and Last Judgment’ by Jan Van Eyck, and “The Lamentation” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, both are perfect examples of Renaissance art.
The Renaissance brought upon many new styles to the art realm, which usually portrayed the change Europeans were having in their cultures. Both paintings are examples of how there was a shift from symbolism to realism from pre-Renaissance to the Renaissance on. They also represent many Europeans interest in observation and the exploration of reality. These paintings affected my appreciation of not only Renaissance art, but art as a whole, because it helped me understand how art can be used as communication, and how many paintings were reflections of the current time they were being painted in.