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Posts Tagged ‘Christ child’

When you’re being paid to get a message across, composition is your friend.

Florence, ~1500.  Sandro Botticelli has been commissioned to make a painting in which a baby—quite literally–is the message. The culture Botticelli lives in is built around this theological message. He’s well acquainted with the usual cast of characters, will assemble them again for this painting and he knows he has to work out a composition that makes this baby the focus of attention, again.

Botticcelli yawns, takes out his sketch pad and draws straight lines and arches.  Those are the most important tools for his composition and really all he needs: straight lines and arches.  The arches will enclose the space around the baby.  The straight lines will converge on the baby.  Botticelli concentrates on his scribbling for two minutes.  Gotcha, he says.  He means the viewer.  The viewer’s gaze will not wander, will constantly be led to the point of convergence, the baby. The client, who is powerful and wealthy, better pay him well for this fine work.

It was the custom for a master like Botticelli to have assistants that were trained by the master to specialize in rendering specific parts of a painting. One student might specialize in painting drapery, one in skies, and one in vegetation.   When the master’s name is followed by “and workshop” we can’t be sure that the master actually worked on the painting. It may mean that he only drew the initial sketch (called “cartoon”) with the all-important composition lines and then assigned his assistants (his workshop) to flesh it out on canvas.  It may mean that he painted only the faces and hands and then turned the painting over to his trained assistants.  But it may also mean that the workshop crew had been trained so well by him that they could work in his style without him being present at all.

As for creating the cartoon, that was the main job and usually performed by the master. But, as you can see, once you knew where the focus had to be—and that came with the all-pervasive theology of the time—you reached for your composition tools and, voila, the thing fell together: arches and converging lines.

What about anatomy?  Well, anatomy has to become subservient to composition. Joseph’s left arm is too small and Mary’s right forearm cannot be attached to an upper arm. Both  are squeezed into place somehow. St. John’s right leg is not attached to his pelvis.  The bodies of the two adults are hulking and humongous in relation to their tiny heads.  The new born weighs about forty pounds. But no matter. We accept it all.  Why? Because the composition tells us so.  Enveloping arches and converging lines focus the mind.  The mind loves that.

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