Posts Tagged ‘Counter Reformation’

GossaertMadonnaThe Flemish painter Jan Gossaert (c. 1478–1532) was much sought after, as a portraitist of Hapsburg royals and as a creator of altar pieces for Catholic churches. When I saw this Madonna and Child at the Met last December I just about burst out laughing. No, I didn’t actually laugh out loud, though that’s permissible in museums, but I did stand there for a long time, gaping at this extravagant and, yes, funny image of what was at the time a sacred subject.
He was a very busy man and it’s hard to imagine that he had time to paint for his own entertainment. But it’s also hard to imagine this undogmatic Madonna and Child hanging in a Catholic church in the early 16th century, during the Counter Reformation.
Let’s consider one bit of the historical context. In the Late Gothic, the S-curve of the Madonna becomes very pronounced and the baby Jesus becomes playful and fidgety, pure baby.
But Gossaert’s Madonna is over the top. He shows her playing with the baby, but it doesn’t look like a lot of fun, does it. The baby looks terrified and frantic and mom–sitting on the floor with her knees pulled up–is more interested in posing than in bonding with her child.
The heap of blue cloth that we are supposed to accept as her gown is so overdone—even for the convention of the time—that I find it comically bizarre. It seems to be the work of an obsessive-compulsive. Or somebody who had an ax to grind.
Maybe Gossaert painted this not so much for his own amusement but as a satire. Satire wafted in the northern air. It was a time of political/theological upheaval and Gossaert may have had clients who were eager to see satirical views of the establishment’s icons. Who else would have bought a painting like this around 1500?!
Two contemporary northern satirists were Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), who had the nerve to poke at the papacy, and Hieronymus Bosch (1450’s-1516), who made no bones about his disgust with the corruption of the Catholic Church and the general insanity of the time. Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) published his satire Ship of Fools in 1494. Here’s part of Bosch’s illustration of that theme:

We don’t have personal details about Gossaert’s life that would provide insights into his playful, very human and possibly satirical Madonnas.
For more Madonnas by Jan Gossaert,
Jan_Gossaert_-_the_virgin_and_child_with_white_lily_and_cherriesAll contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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By the middle of the 16th century the Protestant reformers were raging against Catholic dogma and inspiring their followers to ransack old churches, destroying stained glass windows, murals, paintings, statues, tapestries and candelabras. The Catholic hierarchy fought back and stood its ground. The battle of the Counter Reformation was so serious that the pope convened his cardinals intermittently for about twenty years. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) hammered out numerous dogmatic formulations and, interestingly for us, enlisted the Caravaggio-Crucifixion_of_Peter1arts in the fight. They declared that art should illustrate the dogmas and saints of the Catholic faith to the common people in an emotionally intense way.
The cardinals became very specific about how this end was to be achieved. They decreed that religious images were to be clear and dramatic, bodies were to be rendered to appear three-dimensional, physically real, emotionally intense, with vivid color and contrasts between light pauland dark–so as to draw the viewer emotionally into the scene and close to the biblical character being depicted. Appropriate and approved themes were: grandiose visions, ecstasies and conversions, martyrdom and death, intense light, and intense psychological moments.
Since, at the time, the pope and the clergy were the major commissioners of paintings, sculptures and other decorative objects, artists perfected their skills to conform to the church’s taste in art. The artists who opposed the church’s dictates were called the Mannerists, because they worked in the manner of the late Michelangelo, who as he matured (he died in 1564) became a skeptic about the faith he had been raised in. The Council of Trent’s decrees directly opposed the highly individual styles of the Mannerists.
What about Caravaggio? Caravaggio shared the church’s taste for high drama. Death, torture and falling off your horse were subjects he related to personally. To make these scenes emotional he painted the bodies (so much flesh!) and the drapery (so much drapery!) very convincingly, very three-dimensionally.
Well, now, class, how did he achieve these effects?
Everybody in unison: reflected light!
Verrry good. Everybody gets a gold star.

I do this demo on how to make a curved surface look convincingly three-dimensional , every term. People look over my shoulder as they unanimously pick out the cylinder that looks good and the one that is drawn wrong. Somebody brings up Caravaggio. Everybody loves Caravaggio, so amazing, and everybody knows that he was a master at reflected light and that reflected light is what did the trick for him.
Below, a passage from “The Death of the Virgin,” showing rims of reflected light, without which the shapes would look flat.

Now, you would think that all these Caravaggio-lovers would go home and practice drawing round objects, say an egg, a pear or an apple on their kitchen counter, using the reflected light trick. You would be wrong. Why is that?! Why do art students love the illusion created by Reflected Light, but don’t practice how to achieve it?!
(Btw, lest you think Caravaggio was a humble and obedient genuflector, he used a drowned prostitute as a model for the Madonna in this painting. Artists tend to be complicated characters.)
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1571-1610
All contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.

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