Art History 101 – Part 3: 1400-1499

The following list is Part 3 (1400-1499) of my attempt to trace the history of human artistic endeavors by finding the best, most significant, and most highly-regarded works of visual art (primarily painting and sculpture) from all times and places and presenting them in chronological order. The seven Art History 101 lists contain every work of art that was on at least three of the over 34 ‘Best Works of Art’ lists that I collected from the Internet and books. Although most of the resources available to me focused almost exclusively on the art of Western Civilization, the list does identify some of the most significant artworks produced by the artists of Asia, Africa and South America. Because I believe visuals are essential for discussing the visual arts, I have included images of the art works, In most cases, you can click on the images to enlarge them. (I have tried to use public domain images where possible. In other cases, I believe this is a fair non-commercial use for educational purposes. If there are copyright concerns, please let me know.)

Each entry includes the date of the work, the artist’s name, the name (or names) of the work, the style or culture associated with the work, and the location where the work was produced.  In addition, I have included a brief essay with description (including measurements), artistic materials used, background and interpretation.

To see the rest of the Art History 101 series, click on the links below:
Part 1 (Prehistoric Era-399 CE)
Part 2 (400-1399 CE)

Part 4 (1500-1599)
Part 5 (1600-1799)
Part 6 (1800-1899)
Part 7 (1900-Present)

For a list of the best works of visual art organized by rank, that is, with the items that were on the most lists at the top, go here.

1400 – 1499

190. Coatlicue

Artist: Unknown
Date: c. 1400-1500
Period/Style: Aztec culture; Mexico
Medium: Statue carved from andesite
Dimensions: 8.9 ft. tall
Current location: Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City, Mexico
coatlicue  coatlicue rear
During a construction project in colonial Mexico in 1790, workers uncovered a large statue of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, a savage primordial earth goddess and the patron goddess of women in childbirth. Coatlicue plays a crucial role in Aztec mythology: her children include the moon and stars, and the gods Quetzalcoatl (god of wind, air, and learning), Xoloti (god of fire and lightning) and Huitzilopochtli (god of the sun and war). The statue, which was carved in the 15th Century before the arrival of Europeans, depicts a myth in which Coatlicue picked up a ball of feathers that had descended from the sky and tucked it into her skirt, after which the ball miraculously impregnated her. Her children, enraged by this illicit sexual behavior, hatched a plot to kill her; they struck off her head but were surprised when her son Huitzilopichtli emerged from her neck, fully grown and fully armed, to kill his sister and brothers. The statue depicts Coatlicue post-decapitation, with blood gushing from her neck in the form of two serpents. She wears a necklace of severed hands and human hearts, with a large skull pendant, and a skirt made from entangling snakes. After discovering the statue, Spanish colonizers – worried that local people would revive Aztec religious practices that the Spanish had suppressed in favor of Christianity – buried the statue. In 1823, the statue was unearthed and brought to England for an exhibition. Eventually it was returned to Mexico and placed on display.

191. The Well of Moses

Artist: Claus Sluter (aided by Claus de Werve) sculpted the figures and Jean Malouel painted them
Date: Begun in 1395; completed by 1403 or 1405
Period/Style: Medieval period; International Gothic style; Netherlands/France
Medium: Relief sculptures in limestone; originally painted and gilded
Dimensions: The remaining monument is 9.2 ft. across at the top and over 6 ft. tall. Each of the six prophets stands about 5 ft., 8 in. tall.
Current location: Chartreuse de Champmol (Hospital de la Chartreuse), Dijon, France
In the late 14th Century, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, ordered the building and decoration of a Carthusian monastery just outside Dijon, which would serve as his burial site. A number of artists provided artwork for the monastery, including Dutch sculptor Claus Suter and his nephew Claus de Werve, who created a large well for the center of the main cloister. Standing in the center of the well stood a massive limestone sculpture consisting of a crucifixion scene, with Mary Magdalene (and possibly one or two other figures) at the foot of the cross where Jesus was hanging, and below it, a hexagonal base with statues of six prophets and six weeping angels (see drawing of one possible reconstruction of the original in image below). The sculptures were decorated with paint in vibrant colors and gilding. During the anti-religious fervor of the French Revolution, the upper portion of the sculpture was destroyed (fragments are on display in a nearby museum), leaving the base, which has acquired the name the Well of Moses. In each of six niches, Suter has created life-sized statues of six Old Testament figures who were said to have predicted the birth of Jesus: Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah. Each prophet carries his prophecy on a scroll and each one is individually detailed with a unique expression and personality. Although they are sculpted in high relief, the figures appear to be independent of the stone behind them, and there is a sense of movement expressed by the bodies beneath the drapery. The angels, who top the slender colonnettes that separate the planes of the hexagon, also have individualized gestures and expressions.

192. Holy Trinity Icon

Artist: Andrei Rublev
Date: c. 1408-1427
Period/Style: Medieval period; Russian Orthodox icon painting; Russia
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimension: 4.6 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. wide
Current location: State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

The Holy Trinity Icon is one of the few existing paintings that can be reliably attributed to painter and Russian Orthodox saint Andrei Rublev. Religious icons differ from other kinds of religious paintings in being less concerned with a specific time and place than with representing a heavenly realm outside time. An icon is intended not as a display of artistic technique or a representation of the earthly world but as an object of religious contemplation. The icon depicts the story from the Book of Genesis in which three angels appear to the elderly Abraham at Mamre to announce that Abraham’s wife Sarah would bear a son. Although traditional depictions of the scene include Abraham and Sarah, Rublev has pared down the composition, giving us the perspective of Abraham and his wife. Believers who viewed the icon would have understood the links between the three angels and the three persons of the Christian trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). At a 1551 conference on the question of religious art, Russian Orthodox leaders declared that Rublev’s Holy Trinity was an ideal example of an icon and should be a model for other artists. Like many older icons, there has been considerable damage, repainting and other alteration over the years with attempts at restoration beginning in the 20th Century.

193. St. Mark

Artist: Donatello
Date: 1411-1413
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Marble sculpture
Dimensions: 7.75 ft. tall
Current location: Orsanmichele Church Museum, Florence, Italy

Donatello’s statue of St. Mark was commissioned by the Linen-weavers and Peddlers Guild to be displayed in a niche on the exterior of the Orsanmichele Church in Florence, which also served as a granary. It is considered one of the first great achievements of the Renaissance. Donatello sculpted the proportions of the body so they would look natural when seen from below, as the niches were above street level. The statue (without its niche) is located in the museum on the second floor of the church (see image above). The original statue has since been replaced by a replica (see image below).

194. Les Très Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry

Artists: Paul, Jean and Herman Limbourg (primary work); completed by Jean Colombe and others
Date: 1411-1416 (primary work), completed in the 1480s
Period/Style: International Gothic; Netherlands/France
Medium: Illustrated manuscript (Book of Hours), painted with tempera paints and gold leaf on vellum
Dimensions: 11.8 in. tall by 8.5 in. wide; 206 sheets; 66 large paintings; 65 small paintings
Current location: Musée Condé, Chantilly, France
 Les_Très_Riches_Heures_du_duc_de_Berry February
les_tres_riches_heures_du_duc_de_berry_octobre  les_tres_riches_heures_du_duc_de_berry-zodiac
Les Très Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry is a book of hours (a type of prayer book) that is a paragon of the International Gothic style. International Gothic was a late 14th-early 15th Century style favored by artists in the courts of Europe. According to one art historian, the style’s delicate realism and focus on vibrant color, lively details, and elegant settings “reflects the sophisticated, cosmopolitan nature and pageantry of courtly life.” Les Très Riches Heures was created for John, Duke of Berry. The book begins with a series of calendar pages and a zodiac, followed by numerous prayers. Most of the work was done by the three Dutch Limbourg Brothers (Paul, Jean and Herman) between 1411-1416, but they left the project unfinished, so it was completed by others, including Jean Colombe, in the 1480s. The illustrations depict the daily lives of the aristocracy as well as the peasants, and contains a number of remarkable depictions of medieval architecture.  Shown above are four pages attributed to the Limbourgs: (top left) The page for January, showing the exchange of New Year’s gifts among the Duke, his family and friends (note depiction of painted battle mural on the back wall); (top right) the page for February, showing workers warming their feet by a fire; (bottom left) the page for October, with workers in the fields in the foreground and the Louvre Castle in the rear; and (bottom right) the zodiac with the signs displayed on the body of a young man, then again in the frame surrounding the two figures.

195. Fonte Gaia Fountain

Artist: Jacopo della Quercia (born Jacopo di Pietro d’Agnolo di Guarnieri)
Date: 1414-1419
Period/Style: Late Gothic; Siena, Italy
Medium: Fountain with marble frame and numerous marble statues
Dimensions: The statues are life size.
Current location: The fountain (with 19th Century replacement statues) is located in the Piazza del Campo in Siena. The weather-damaged original statues are on display nearby at Santa Maria della Scalla
fonte gaia 2
The Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy) is a large fountain in the Piazza del Campo, the main square in the center of Siena. An older fountain was built on the site in 1342-1346, but the rectangular white marble frame with its many sculptures was added in 1414-1419 by noted Sienese sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. The central bas relief figure is the Madonna and Child, surrounded by allegorical figures of the Virtues. The sculptures on the sides show stories from the Book of Genesis: Creation of Adam and the Flight from the Garden of Eden. The figures also refer to Siena’s legendary connections with Ancient Rome. Freestanding statues of the birth mother (Rhea Silvia) and adoptive mother (Acca Larentia) of Romulus and Remus, both pictured with the twin boys, stood atop the end columns. Two wolves, representing the she-wolf that raised Romulus and Remus, serve as water spouts. The style is considered Late Gothic, although there are some elements (such as attempts at perspective) that presage the Renaissance style that was blooming in nearby Florence. The original sculptures suffered significant damage from the elements and were removed to a museum in Santa Maria della Scalla nearby and replaced by copies made by Tito Sarrocchi between 1858 and 1866. For some reason (excessive modesty?), the reconstruction omitted the two freestanding nude figures.  The images show:
(1) a view of the present-day Fonte Gaia, with Sarrocchi’s copies (top):
(2) the original Madonna and Child (above left); 
(3) Rhea Silvia, with her sons Romulus and Remus (above right);
(4) an angel with a portion of the marble frame from the original Fonte Gaia (below left); and
(5) the original allegorical figure of Wisdom (below right).


196. Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece

Artist: Gentile da Fabriano
Date: 1423
Period/Style: Medieval/Early Renaissance period; International Gothic style; Italy
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 10 ft. tall by 9.25 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy 
GentileDaFabriano_AdorationOfTheMagiThe often eye-dazzling International Gothic style favored brilliant color and abundant detail over realistic depictions of figures and space. In his Adoration of the Magi altarpiece, Italian painter Gentile da Fabriano brought the International Gothic style to its culmination, just a few years before the Early Renaissance style emerged in the works of Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio. The altarpiece was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a wealthy Florentine patron of the arts, for a chapel in the Santa Trinita church. (He and his son are depicted among the retinue of the Three Kings.) The ornate frame is crammed full of figures in elaborate 14th Century costumes, rich in scenery and populated by many animals, including exotic specimens like leopards and lions. The backstory of the Magi is told in the three arches: first, they see the star (left), then they go to Jerusalem (center), then to Bethlehem (right), and finally (in the foreground), they present gifts to the baby Jesus. The predella (the supporting panels at the bottom of the main frame) contain three additional scenes: two of them (the nativity scene and the flight into Egypt) include some novel experiments with night lighting and multiple lighting sources (see image below showing Nativity scene).
fabriano predella

197. North Doors, Florence Baptistery

Artist: Lorenzo Ghiberti (born Lorenzo di Bartolo)
Date: Begun 1403; completed in 1424.
Period/Style: Late Gothic/Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Set of doors with gilded bronze relief sculptures in quatrefoils
Dimensions: 16.6 ft. tall
Current location: The original doors are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy. The doors on the Florence Baptistery are replicas.

The Baptistery in Florence has three sets of bronze doors that are decorated with relief sculptures. The south doors were done by Andrea Pisano in 1330-1336; Lorenzo Ghiberti did the north doors between 1403-1424, and the east doors (known as the Gates of Paradise) from 1425-1452. The 23-year-old Ghiberti won a competition to sculpt the north doors over such names as Brunelleschi and Jacopo della Quercia. The north doors consist of a large frame consisting of rosettes and prophets’ heads, inside of which are 28 panels (14 per door), each surrounded by a polylobate Gothic frame known as a quatrefoil, each of which was set inside a square frame with plant motifs. Only the relief figures were gilded; the bronze in the background has acquired a dark patina over the centuries. Twenty of the panels depict the life of Christ, and eight panels portray the evangelists and church fathers. While Ghiberti’s work on the north doors shows some signs of the naturalism that would usher in the Renaissance, the style of the reliefs is essentially Gothic. A major restoration project was undertaken in 2012-2015. The original doors were removed, restored and moved to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where they have been on display (and safe from the ravages of the weather) since late 2015. In January 2016, a faithful replica of the North Doors was installed at the Baptistery. The image above shows the restored North Doors in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The image below shows the restored version of The Temptation of Christ.

198. The Mérode Altarpiece (Annunciation Triptych)

Artist: The authorship of the triptych is much disputed. It was originally attributed to the Master of Flémalle, who is now generally believed to be Robert Campin. But after the discovery of an earlier version of the central panel (now in Brussels), many scholars attribute the Mérode triptych to Campin’s assistants in his workshop.
Date: c. 1425-1428
Period/Style: Medieval period; Late Gothic/Early Netherlandish style; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: The entire triptych is 2.1 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide; the center panel is 2.1 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide; and the wings are each 2.1 ft. tall by 0.9 ft. wide.
Current location: The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Mérode Altarpiece is a seminal work of the Early Netherlandish style that developed in Northern Europe in the 15th Century, while the Renaissance was being born in Italy. It is also one of the earliest masterpieces of the new technique of oil painting. The center panel shows the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is to be the mother of Jesus. The left wing shows the donor, his wife and a messenger (the wife and messenger were probably added later, after the donor married) and the right wing shows Mary’s future husband Joseph in his workshop, making a mousetrap (see detail below right). The small size of the triptych leads experts to believe that it was intended for private devotional use. The painting includes many examples of Early Netherlandish attention to detail, and the technique of applying thin layers of oil paint over an opaque base allowed the artist to create illusionistic effects. The triptych abounds with religious symbolism. The center panel actually shows the Virgin Mary at the moment before she recognizes the Angel Gabriel is present. At the same time, a tiny Jesus flies down from the window with his cross, a sign of the Incarnation (see detail below right). The just-snuffed candle may symbolize the transformation of God into man. Similarly, the mousetrap Joseph is making may allude to St. Augustine’s writings, in which he describes the Incarnation of Jesus as a mousetrap to catch the Devil. The triptych seems to imply – presumably unintentionally – that Joseph and Mary were living together before they were married.
   merode altarpiece jesus

199. The Feast of Herod

Artist: Donatello (born Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi)
Date: Commissioned in 1423; completed in 1427.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Siena, Italy
Medium: Bronze relief sculpture set in the base of a hexagonal baptismal font
Dimensions: 1.97 ft. square
Current location: Battistero di San Giovanni, Siena, Italy
Donatello’s The Feast of Herod is one of six bronze panels set in the base of the hexagonal baptismal font in the baptistery of the Siena Cathedral. (The font, which was designed by Jacopo della Quercia and includes bronze panels by Donatello, Della Quercia, Lorenzo Ghiberti and others, is shown in the image below.) Donatello’s panel – one of the first sculptures identified with the new Early Renaissance style – is remarkable for its use of the principles of linear perspective, recently rediscovered by Filippo Brunelleschi, to create the illusion of depth, a particularly difficult achievement in a relief sculpture. The story takes place on three levels and chronologically follows the dance of Salome, after which Herod grants her any wish and she, at her mother’s bidding, asks for the head of John the Baptist. In the far background, in low relief, an executioner shows the head to someone, perhaps Salome. In the middle background, also in low relief, two men watch a woman playing a musical instrument. In the foreground, in high relief, Herod and his family react in horror to the head of John the Baptist, while Salome, sinuous in her dance costume, watches and gloats. The use of orthogonal lines in the floor tiles emphasizes the sense of real space. Donatello also demonstrates his ability to depict true human emotion, particularly in the faces and gestures of Herod and the young men sitting at the table.

200. Frescoes, Brancacci Chapel

Artist: Masaccio (born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone)
Date: 1424-1427
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes painted on church walls
Dimensions: The measurements of five frescoes attributed to Masaccio are: (1) The Tribute Money: 8.1 ft. tall by 19.6 ft. wide; (2) The Expulsion of Adam and Eve: 7 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide; (3) The Baptism of the Neophytes; 8.4 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide; (4) St. Peter Heals the Sick with His Shadow and The Distribution of Alms/Death of Ananias both measure 7.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide.
Current location: Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, Italy
The Tribute Money is one of Masaccio's frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel.
  masaccio st peter healing the sick  masaccio distribution of alms
Of the 15 frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence’s Santa Maria del Carmine church, at least six are generally attributed to Florentine artist Masaccio. Masaccio had begun as the assistant to the commissioned artist, Masolino da Panicale, but he eventually took over the project (although he, too, left it unfinished, to be completed by Filippino Lippi). The majority of the frescoes illustrate stories from the life of St. Peter. Two of Masaccio’s frescoes, The Tribute Money (top image) and The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (above left), are considered his masterpieces. These frescoes mark a revolution in the style of painting that truly announces the arrival of the Renaissance in that art form. The figures are substantial and defined by modeling, not line; lighting (including shadows), scenery and background are more realistic; and the emotional content is highly expressive (particularly in Eve’s despairing moan). Most importantly, Masaccio uses the newly rediscovered rules of linear perspective to create the illusion on three-dimensional depth on the two-dimensional wall. Masaccio’s frescoes, which underwent a substantial restoration in the 1980s, were highly influential among 15th Century Florentine artists. Other Masaccio frescoes from the Brancacci Chapel shown above are: St. Peter Heals the Sick with His Shadow (above center); and (4) The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias (above right).

201. The Holy Trinity

Artist: Masaccio
Date: 1428
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy
Medium: Fresco painted on a church wall
Dimensions: 21.9 ft. tall by 10.4 ft wide
Current location: Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy
When Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to renovate Florence’s Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in the mid-16th Century, he faced a dilemma. On the one hand, Vasari was an artist who wanted to please his patron by updating the church’s decorations into the contemporary Mannerist style. On the other hand, Vasari, who in addition to being an artist was one of the first art historians, knew that Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco, painted on the left side wall of the nave in 1428, was an important work that should be preserved for future generations. So Vasari compromised. He didn’t paint over the fresco and so preserved it for the future; but he constructed a new screen and altar directly in front of Masaccio’s work, hiding it from view. It was not until 300 years later, in 1860, that another round of renovations uncovered the hidden gem. The lower portion of Masaccio’s fresco shows a memento mori: skeleton lying on a sarcophagus and an inscription in Italian reading, “I was once what you now are and what I am, you shall yet be” (see detail in image below). Above, in what appears to be a recessed vestibule, we see God the Father, standing behind his son Jesus, who is hanging on the cross; Mary and St. John stand below them. Below them, and outside the inner sanctuary, kneel the donor and his wife. Masaccio’s use of one-point linear perspective (possibly achieved with the assistance of Brunelleschi himself) is here used to create a tromp l’oeil (“tricks the eye”) effect that astonished contemporary and later artists. Vasari himself wrote: “the most beautiful thing, apart from the figures, is a barrel-shaped vaulting, drawn in perspective and divided into squares filled with rosettes, which are foreshortened and made to diminish so well that the wall appears to be pierced.”
masaccio memento mori

202. The Ghent Altarpiece

Artists: Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Date: 1432
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels; large altarpiece with hinged shutters
Dimensions: 11 ft. tall by 15 ft. wide when open
Current location: St. Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium
The Ghent Altarpiece, which was made for the Church of St. John the Baptist (now St. Bavo Cathedral) in Ghent, Belgium, is an early masterpiece of the Early Netherlandish style and highlights the new artistic effects possible with oil paints. The large altarpiece consists of 12 panels, eight of them with hinged shutters. The commission from merchant and mayor Joost Vijdt was given to Hubert van Eyck, but many scholars believe Hubert’s brother Jan painted most or all of the piece. When closed, the altarpiece shows the Annunciation, imitation statues of two saints in grisaille, and portraits of the donor and his wife, Joost Vijdt and Lysbette Borluut (see first image below). The brightly-colored interior panels show: (top row) God the Father, dressed as the Pope, Mary, St. John the Baptist, two sets of musical angels and Adam and Eve and (bottom row) a grand celebration of Jesus as the Lamb of God, known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (see detail in second image below). The Early Netherlandish style was influenced by the earlier International Gothic, Byzantine and Romanesque styles, but the lack of idealization and the attention to detail in the Ghent Altarpiece indicate a new artistic conception. The altarpiece was also a showcase for the detailed effects of light and texture possible with the use of oil paints.

adoration of the lamb

203. Deposition of Christ (Santa Trinità Altarpiece)

Artist: Fra Angelico (born Guido di Pietro)
Date: c. 1432-1434 or c. 1437-1440
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 5.75 ft. high by 6.1 ft. wide
Current location: San Marco Museum, Florence, Italy

Originally, Lorenzo Monaco had been commissioned by the Strozzi family to paint an altarpiece for the Strozzi Chapel in the Santa Trinità church in Florence, but Monaco died after finishing only the three scenes above the arches and the commission went to Fra Angelico. (The man known as Fra Angelico (“Angelic Brother”) was born Guido di Pietro in Tuscany in about 1400. He became a painter and a Dominican monk early in his life.) At first Fra Angelico worried that the three Gothic arches would hinder his work, but he worked within the constraints by organizing the figures into three groups. In the center, the wood of the cross, the ladders, and the blue sky behind them provide a neutral background for focusing on the dead body of Jesus. The cross bar of the cross disappears behind the arch, creating the illusion of space. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and St. John help to lower Jesus from the cross. Mary Magdalene kisses his feet, a sign of repentance. On the right, an unidentified man – perhaps a portrait of one of the Strozzi family –  shows doubters the nails and the horns from the crown of thorns. The background landscape shows the Holy City and Calvary. On the sides of the frame are twelve full-length portraits of saints standing on columns and eight medallions with portrait busts. While Fra Angelico chooses not to show the movements of the limbs of the figures beneath their draperies (similar to Giotto), his use of light to model the figures derives from Masaccio’s pioneering works. In the words of Frederick Hartt, “In the poetry of this fully Renaissance picture, Christian mysticism is blended with a new joy in the loveliness of created things, transfigured by faith.” 

204. Portrait of a Man (Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban)

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Date: 1433
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 10 inches tall by 7.5 inches wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
Is Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban a self-portrait? Although there is no direct evidence, there are many circumstantial clues. On the frame of this small painting, Jan van Eyck has painted an inscription in Latin (“Jan van Eyck Made Me on October 21, 1433”) and a motto in Greek at the top (“As I Can”, a pun on “As Eyck Can”). The personal motto only appears on a small number of paintings and never as prominent as here. The clothing is appropriate for van Eyck’s social position. The subject gazes directly, almost confrontationally, at the viewer, in stark contrast to the tradition of portraiture at the time. In addition, the way the subject’s headgear (not a turban but a chaperon, a common form of 15th Century male headwear) is tied up on the subject’s head would be a sensible precaution for a painter.  A more technical clue is the fact that the subject’s left eye is sharply focused on some object in front of him, while the right eye appears only vaguely engaged in the act of looking (see detail in image below). This effect would result if van Eyck was painting his own eyes by looking at them in a mirror. Some scholars have speculated that van Eyck used this small portrait as a calling card or advertisement of his skills, so that customers could compare it with the face of the living artist standing before them. Whether a self-portrait or not, the painting is a masterpiece of oil painting in the Early Netherlandish style. Light enters the painting from the left, and the subject, with his direct gaze and bright red headpiece, appears to emerge from the dark background, an early use of the technique known as tenebrism. In addition, the painting of the intricate folds in the chaperon indicates a prodigious talent, evidence of Jan van Eyck’s position as one of the most highly regarded artists of his day by both contemporaries and current art historians.

205. The Annunciation of Cortona

Artist: Fra Angelico
Date: c. 1433-1434
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Tempera on wood panels
Dimensions: 5.7 ft. tall by 5.9 ft. wide
Current location: Museo Diocesano, Cortona, Italy
The Annunciation is the central panel of an altarpiece that Fra Angelico painted for the Church of St. Dominic in Cortona, although at some point it was transferred to the Church of Gesù and now hangs at the Museo Diocesano in Cortona.  In addition to the Annunciation, the altarpiece includes several scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary on the predella (see image above). The Annunciation takes place in a loggia with elaborate columns (atop one of which is a roundel with the image of the prophet Isaiah, who predicted the birth of Jesus). Mary is dressed elegantly and sits on an ornately decorated seat; the Angel Gabriel, too, is highly ornamented. Fra Angelico has chosen to paint the words of the conversation (taken from the Gospel of Luke) in rippling gold streams between the mouths of Mary and the angel (see first image below). As the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) hovers over Mary in a halo of golden light, Gabriel says, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee” and Mary responds, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” The words of the angel read left to right, while Mary’s words are upside down and read from right to left. As more than one commentator has noted, the words of Mary are designed to be legible only to God, looking down from above. Outside, we see the walled garden, symbol of Mary’s virginity, but we also see Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. The message is that the birth of Jesus will finally take away the sin that they committed. Random Trivia: The depiction of the Visitation in the predella contains what art historians believe is the first identifiable landscape in Italian art – a view of Lake Trasimeno, the Chiana Valley and the town of Castigliona Florentino (see second image below).

206. Porta Magna, San Petronio

Artists: Jacopo della Quercia (initial work); completed by Domenico da Varignana (St. Petronius), Antonio Minello (prophets), Anthony Ostiglia (prophets) and Amico Aspertini (Moses).
Date: Jacopo della Quercia began the work in 1425 and left it unfinished in 1434. The work was completed by other sculptors after 1510.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance, Sienese; Bologna, Italy
Medium: Bas relief sculptures carved in Verona marble
Dimensions: Each of the 10 panels with stories from the Book of Genesis measures 3.2 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide
Current location: Basilica of San Petronio, Bologna, Italy
The bas reliefs decorating the central portal of the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, Italy are considered the crowning masterpiece of Sienese sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. Della Quercia, who began his career in the Gothic style, was one of the first sculptors to adopt the new Renaissance style, with its focus on more realistic human figures and a truer sense of how objects and humans occupy space. The San Petronio commission was significant – 10 panels with stories from the Book of Genesis; portrait busts of 18 Prophets; the Madonna and Child with Sts. Ambrose and Petronius in the bezel; and five scenes from the New Testament on the lintel – and della Quercia only completed a portion before his death. The remainder was only finished by others after 1510. Art historians have praised the “directness and power” of the reliefs, their “wide gestures, eloquent poses and dynamic compositions”, and the sculptor’s “concentration on man’s psychic and physical energy.” Michelangelo famously acknowledged his debt to della Quercia in influencing some of his frescoes for the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The images shown below are (at left) The Creation of Adam; and (at right) Original Sin, showing Adam, Eve, the serpent and the apple.

207. The Arnolfini Portrait (Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife)

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Date: 1434
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: 2.8 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
The Arnolfini Portrait is a masterpiece of Early Netherlandish painting, but it is also a bit of a mystery. Wealthy Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini spent most of his life in Bruges, Flanders. He married in 1426 but his wife died in 1433. So who is the couple in the painting? Is it a memorial to Arnolfini’s recently-deceased wife or is it the record of a second wedding? Or is it not Arnolfini but another wealthy Flemish bourgeois couple? We may never know. What we do know is that this work is a tour de force of the skills of the painter, Jan van Eyck (who inscribed his name on the far wall). His adept use of oil painting techniques allows him to mimic many different textures (the fabrics of the clothing and bed linens; the carvings on the wooden bedframe; the metal of the chandelier) and show the way light reflects off different objects (such as the chandelier and the rosary hanging at the rear). As the piece de resistance, van Eyck places a mirror (like a gazing eye) in the center of the composition that reflects all that is going on (but in reverse) and reveals that there are two people in the doorway (one of them the painter himself?)  (see detail in image below). The objects in the room have symbolic value; they refer to love and marriage (the dog, for example, is symbol of marital fidelity) or highlight the wealth of the subjects (the oranges near the window would have been very expensive luxury items). And no, the woman is not pregnant: it’s just the way she’s holding up her fashionable dress.

208. Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin)

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Date: 1434-1435
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 2.2 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
Flemish artist Jan van Eyck was known for his exquisitely detailed compositions, achieved through his careful eye and mastery of oil painting technique. The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin is a prime example of van Eyck’s skills. The painting was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, for his parish church in Autun, France. In contrast to the Gothic tradition, in which the donor is painted on a smaller scale than the religious figures, Rolin is shown here on the same scale as the Virgin Mary – an indication, perhaps, of the influence of Renaissance Humanism in Northern Europe. The baby Jesus sits on his mother’s leg holding a cross, while an angel holds an elaborate crown over Mary’s head. Outside, there is a wide landscape, with an enclosed garden (symbol of Mary’s virginity), a town (perhaps Autun) and a wider view of mountains (see first image below). The figures at the edge of the garden may be a portrait of van Eyck himself (note the chaperon on his head) and his assistant. As an example of van Eyck’s attention to detail, scholars have identified three scenes from the Book of Genesis “carved” on the columns above Rolin’s head: the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise; the Killing of Abel by Cain; and the Drunkenness of Noah (see second image below).

209. Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele (Madonna with Canon van der Paele)

Artist: Jan van Eyck
Date: c. 1434-1436
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium); religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 4.6 ft tall by 5.8 ft wide (including frame)
Current location: Groeningemuseum, Bruges, Belgium
van der paele madonna
Jan van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele is an early example of a sacra conversazione, in which various religious figures are gathered without reference to any specific religious event.  Here, the donor (Canon van der Paele, a wealthy priest) kneels before Mary and Jesus, with Saint Donatian of Reims (patron saint of Bruges) at left and St. George (the donor’s name saint) at right. The Canon reads from a Book of Hours and carries a pair of eyeglasses. On Mary’s throne, van Eyck has carved scenes showing Old Testament scenes, including  Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Note that in contrast to medieval convention, in which figures from the heavenly realm – Jesus, Mary and the saints – are depicted as larger than earthly mortals, all the figures here are shown at the same scale. Scholars attribute this change in tradition to a change in societal attitudes about the role of human beings known as humanism. Van Eyck’s use of oil glazes to create realistic details is evident throughout, and in particular on the blue and gold garment worn by St. Donation. Random Trivia: Van Eyck used the reflectivity of St. George’s armor to include several reflections. St. George’s helmet reflects the Virgin and Christ Child, while his shield shows the painter himself (wearing a red chaperon similar to that worn in Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban) (see detail in image below).

210.  Portrait of a Princess (A Princess of the House of d’Este)

Artist: Pisanello (born Antonio di Puccio Pisano or Antonio di Puccio da Cereto)
Date: There are a range of date estimates. Louvre dates the painting c. 1425-1450, but other dates given by scholars are 1434, c. 1435-1440, c. 1435-1445, c. 1436-1438 and 1449.
Period/Style: International Gothic; Italy; secular portrait
Medium: Tempera on wood panels
Dimensions: 17 in. tall by 12 in. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

The embroidery on the young woman’s sleeve shows the two-handled vase that is a symbol of the Este family of Italian nobles, but the subject’s specific identity is unknown. The presence of a sprig of juniper (Italian: “ginepro”) may be a hint that this is Ginevra d’Este, the daughter of Niccolò III d’Este of Ferrara and Parisina Malatesta. 

211. Descent from the Cross (Deposition of Christ)

Artist: Rogier van der Weyden
Date: c. 1435
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders (now Belgium)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 7 ft. tall by 8.5 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain 
Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition brought a new level of emotional intensity to religious painting, with its depiction of weeping figures around the dead body of Christ. A student of Early Netherlandish pioneer Robert Campin, van der Weyden was commissioned by the Leuven guild of archers to make this large panel painting to hang in the guild’s chapel. We see a jumbled tableaux of figures and objects placed in an unusually shaped space with very little depth: Christ is lowered from the cross into the arms of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; at left, Mary falls in a swoon, with St. John (shown in left image below) helping her up; at right, Mary Magdelene’s body is contorted with grief (see detail in right image below). In the center, Christ’s body approximates the shape of a crossbow (in honor of the guild); his mother’s pose is an echo of his. The perspectives are odd: try to follow the logic of the ladder, for example – how can it be both behind and in front of the cross? But the impact of the painting is in the vibrant colors (including a sumptuously rendered coat on the figure holding Christ’s legs), the dramatic poses (one art historian compared the “undulating lines, swaying poses and counterposes of figures” to counterpoint in polyphonic music), and most of all the teardrops marking the grieving face of nearly everyone in the frame. The painting was highly influential and was copied many times: weeping figures and swooning Virgin Marys soon became de rigueur elements in Northern European religious art.
deposition st john  Weyden,_Rogier_van_der_-_Descent_from_the_Cross_-_Detail_Mary_Magdalene

212. Scenes from the Life of Noah

Artist: Paolo Uccello (born Paolo di Dono)
Date: c. 1436-1440
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes painted on cloister wall
Dimensions: The upper portion of the fresco measures 7 ft. tall by 16.7 ft. wide
Current location: Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy

By all accounts, Paolo Uccello was obsessed with one-point perspective, and nowhere is his obsession more evident than in the frescoes he painted in the cloister of Santa Maria Novella in Florence with Scenes from the Life of Noah. The work consists of two frescoes, each containing two scenes. The lunette above contains The Flood (or The Deluge) on the left and The Waters Receding on the right. Below is a rectangular fresco showing The Sacrifice of Noah and The Drunkenness of Noah. The frescoes were painted in a greenish monochrome that gives the cloister its nickname, Chiostro Verde (Green Cloister). The frescoes were transferred to canvas and restored in 2013-2014. The Flood shows the huge ark on the left, with the waters rising beside it, leading the soon-to-be-drowned humans outside to agonize or attempt to climb aboard.  On the right, we see the ark again, with Noah leaning out the window releasing a bird, and dead bodies strewn about (see detail in image below). Various details – including a ladder and the mazzocchio (a wood and wicker support for headdresses) – “serve to exhibit Uccello’s prowess in forcing unwilling objects to comply with the laws of one-point perspective”, in the words of Frederick Hartt. A clean-shaven elderly man stands outside, possibly blessing the land.  Some have speculated that he represents Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder (a patron of the church) or Pope Eugene IV (who was staying at Santa Maria Novella at the time).  Hartt points out that “[a]lmost in spite of Uccello’s obsession with perspective”, the painting “exerts great dramatic power.

213. Werl Altarpiece (Werl Triptych)

Artist: Scholars have disputed the attribution of the work; while most agree that Robert Campin painted it, a minority believe it was executed by his workshop assistants as a pastiche.
Date: 1438
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Flanders; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: Each wing of the original triptych is 3.3 ft. high by 1.5 ft. wide.
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
Originally a triptych, the Werl Altarpiece is missing its central panel, leaving us with the wings. The left wing shows the donor, Franciscan priest Heinrich von Werl, kneeling in prayer before the devotional scene in the missing central panel. Behind him is his intermediary, John the Baptist, with his attribute, the Lamb of God. In an homage to van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, a mirror on the wall reflects the room and reveals a figure not otherwise visible (see image below). The right panel shows St. Barbara sitting in a contemporary room with a book and a blazing fire; the viewer looks down from a high angle. The sumptuous green of her clothes contrasts with the rich red of the cushions. The tiled floor shows perspective, and the statue of the Holy Trinity on the mantle is a marvel in miniaturism. The figure is identified as St. Barbara by the tower outside the window, a reference to the story that her father locked her in a  tower. Art historians have noted that while the artist excelled in rendering the furnishings of St. Barbara’s room and in showing the effects of two light sources (sun and fire) of different qualities, his work on St. Barbara’s figure lacks substance.

214. The Battle of San Romano

Artist: Paolo Uccello
Date: c. 1438-1440 (Part I); c. 1435-1455 (Part II); c. 1455 (Part III)
Period/Style: Early Renaissance, Florence, Italy
Medium: Egg tempera paints with walnut and linseed oils on poplar wood panels; gold and silver leaf added
Dimensions: Each painting measures 6 ft. tall by 10.5 ft. wide
Current locations: National Gallery, London, England, UK (Part I); Uffizi Gallery, Florence Italy (Part II); Musée du Louvre, Paris, France (Part III)
battle of san romano I
Uccello_Battle_of_San_Romano_II Uffizi
Florentine painter Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano consists of three paintings depicting events from Florence’s 1432 military victory over Siena. The first panel shows Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino, the Florentine military leader (see top image above). The second panel (and presumably the centerpiece of the triptych) shows Niccolò da Tolentino unseating Siena’s Bernardino della Ciarda (see image above). The final painting depicts the counterattack of Florence’s Michelotto da Cotignola against the Sienese (see image below). The paintings show advances in the use of linear perspective (including the use of foreshortening), but those advances are not always obvious when looking at the paintings in museums; they were designed to be hung high on three walls of a room, and Uccello’s use of perspective presumes that viewers are looking up, not straight ahead. All three paintings were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family, although once Florentine leader Lorenzo de’ Medici saw them, he decided he had to have them, so he bought one and forcibly confiscated the other two. Time has changed the appearance of the paintings: much of the soldiers’ armor was covered in silver leaf which must have created a dazzling effect back in the 15th Century; unfortunately, the silver has oxidized over time to a dull gray or black.
Uccello battle of san romano iii

215. The Annunciation (Cell 3, San Marco)

Artist: Fra Angelico
Date: Scholars have a variety of opinions about when Fra Angelico painted his frescoes on the walls of San Marco Monastery. Date ranges include: c. 1438-1450; c. 1438-1443; c. 1439-1444; and c. 1440-1442.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco on the wall of a monk’s cell in a monastery
Dimensions: 5.8 ft. tall by 4.8 ft. wide
Current location: San Marco Museum, Florence, Italy

216. Madonna of the Rose Bower

Artist: Stefan Lochner
Date: c. 1440-1442, although some art historians date the painting to c. 1448 based on its similarities with Lochner’s Dombild Altarpiece from that year.
Period/Style: International Gothic/Northern Renaissance; Germany
Medium: Oil paints on oak wood panels
Dimensions: Each panel is 1.6 ft tall by 1.3 ft wide
Current location: Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany

Also known as Virgin of the Rose Bower. the painting presents Mary in her role as Queen of Heaven, surrounded by symbols of purity, such as the enclosed garden. The presence of God the Father and the Holy Spirit at top center also make this a representation of the Holy Trinity. German artist Stefan Lochner brings together aspects of the dominant International Gothic (line, color) mixed with the influence of the newer Northern Renaissance style (realism, iconography).

217. David

Artist: Donatello 
Date: There is much debate about the date, with theories ranging from the 1430s to the 1460s, but most art historians believe the sculpture was created in the 1440s, probably early in the decade.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy
Medium: Freestanding bronze sculpture
Dimensions: 6.2 ft. tall
Current location: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy
 david from behind
Donatello’s David was highly influential: it is the first freestanding bronze statue of the Renaissance and the first nude male sculpture since Ancient Rome, and it opened the door for other artists. The sculpture shows the young hero, having slain Goliath, standing with his foot on the giant’s head (see detail in image below) and carrying Goliath’s immense sword. David’s face shows youth, purity and innocence; his stance is relaxed and natural. The bronze is highly polished and portions of the statue – including David’s hair – were once gilded. The sculpture was probably commissioned by Florence’s powerful Medici family. David was considered a symbol of Florence, and by placing the statue in the courtyard of their villa, the Medicis would have been making a political statement about their place in the Florentine power structure. While the statue’s beauty is undisputed, some have commented on its departures from traditional forms. Some find the boy’s nudity odd, given his hat and boots. Some find the figure too effeminate or androgynous. Others claim that the very aspects some find ‘odd’ are intended to demonstrate that David’s victory over Goliath was not a result of strength, but of God’s will that a boy not yet a man could conquer a giant. Still others find homoerotic elements in the composition, such as the way the feather from Goliath’s cap runs up the inside of David’s leg (see image at right above). Adding credence to the homosexuality theme is the theory of some art historians believe that David’s face was based on 1st Century CE sculptures of Antinous, a young man who was beloved by (and perhaps lover of) Roman Emperor Hadrian (see image below right showing detail of a sculpture of Antinous (117-138 CE) from the Archaeological Museum in Delphi, Greece.).

218. The Annunciation

Artist: Fra Angelico 
Date: c. 1441-1446
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy
Medium: Fresco painted on a convent wall
Dimensions: 7.5 ft. tall by 10.5 ft. wide
Current location: Convent of San Marco (San Marco Museum), Florence, Italy 
annunciationIn 1439, Dominican friar and artist Fra Angelico transferred to the priory of San Marco in Florence, which was sponsored by the Medici family. It was at San Marco that Fra Angelico painted some of his most important works, many of them frescoes painted on the walls for the benefit of the other monks. Standing at the bottom of the staircase to the second floor, a monk looking up would have seen a large fresco of the Annunciation, the story from the Gospel of Luke in which an angel visits Mary to inform her that, although she is a virgin, she will bear a child who will be the Son of God. The fresco’s unusual perspective lines are based on a viewer looking up from the bottom of the stairs. The work is remarkable for its spare quality – it is free of the clutter of objects and symbols common in other Annunciations, maybe because the monks already knew the story and did not need guidance. The left side of the painting is almost two-dimensional in its flatness. Even Angel Gabriel and the Madonna are less substantial than some figures from earlier Renaissance works. It is as if Fra Angelico is aware of the new styles but is not quite ready to adopt them fully (although the architecture of the space where Mary and the Angel meet owes a debt to Brunelleschi). The lighting is also odd, with a strong light source at the upper left, but few shadows. Still, the moment at the center contains much for the monks to contemplate, including the way the angel and Madonna lean in toward each other, their mirrored hand gestures, the expressions in their eyes, and even the rainbow of color in the angel’s wings.

219. The Miraculous Draft of Fishes

Artist: Konrad Witz
Date: 1444
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Switzerland
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 4.3 ft. tall by 5 ft wide
Current location: Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva, Switzerland
The Miraculous Draft of Fishes, by German-born Swiss artist Konrad Witz, depicts a story from the Gospel of John: after Jesus died and rose from the dead, seven of his disciples spent all night fishing without luck. In the morning, a man called from shore and asked if they had caught anything. When they said no, he told them to put the net on the right side of the boat; when they did, they caught 153 large fish. One of the disciples recognized the man as Jesus and called out, at which point Peter jumped in the water to meet him. The painting is one of four surviving wings from an altarpiece that Witz painted for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. The painting’s importance to art history is based not on its figures, but on the realistic landscape. Witz substituted Lake Geneva for the Sea of Galilee, and in doing so, was able to paint an accurate and realistic depiction of an actual landscape, not the imaginary, idealized landscape found in so much earlier art. Furthermore, the landscape has been promoted from a minor element seen through a window to a major component of the composition. In addition to his landscape painting prowess, Witz used the work to examine the properties of reflections on water. Note, however, that the resurrected Jesus casts no reflection.

220. Santa Lucia de’ Magnoli Altarpiece (St. Lucy Altarpiece)

Artist: Domenico Veneziano
Date: c. 1445-1447
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 2.7 ft high by 2.8 ft wide
Current location: The center panel is in the Ufffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. The predella scenes are distributed as follows: St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata and St. John the Baptist in the Desert are at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; The Annunciation, and A Miracle of St. Zenobius, are at the Fitzwilliam Museum (University of Cambridge), Cambridge, UK; and The Martyrdom of St. Lucy is at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.
veneziano st lucy
Domenico Veneziano’s St. Lucy Altarpiece is considered by some to be the first true sacra conversazione, in which Mary, Jesus and selected saints share a single space and relate as equals outside the context of any particular Biblical narrative. The altarpiece is missing the predella, which consisted of five scenes from the lives of the depicted saints; it was removed and the panels are now located in four different museums. (Shown below are St. John the Baptist in the Desert, at left, and The Annunciation, at right.) The altarpiece was commissioned for the Santa Lucia dei Magnoli Church in Florence, a Franciscan church dedicated to St. Lucy. Not surprisingly, then, Sts. Francis and Lucy are among those depicted (from left): St. Francis, St. John the Baptist (Florence’s patron saint), Mary and Jesus, St. Zenobius (Florence’s first bishop), and St. Lucy. Painted using the rules of single-point linear perspective, the altarpiece is one of the first to abandon the elaborate frames and gilded backgrounds of earlier examples (although the painted architecture recalls those earlier frames).

221. The Last Supper

Artist: Andrea del Castagno (also known as Andrea di Bartolo di Bargilla)
Date: c. 1445-1450
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco painted on a convent wall
Dimensions: 14.9 feet tall by 32 feet wide
Current location: Museo di Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia, Florence
Andrea_del_Castagno last supper
Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper was painted on the wall of the dining room of Sant’Apollonia convent in Florence, Italy, home to a community of Benedictine nuns. Scholars have noted that the detail and naturalism of Castagno’s style are advances over work by earlier painters (see detail showing St. Peter, Judas, Jesus, and a sleeping St. John in image below). Castagno marshalls color (including the faux marble walls), gesture and posture (note the contrast/echo established by Judas’s erect posture and St. John’s sleeping horizontal form, for example) to create a sense of balance. He also uses perspective and detail to create the illusion of true architecture, with a niche in the wall, side walls, and a roof above. Due to the secrecy and isolation associated with the Benedictine order, the modern art world was unaware of the existence of the fresco until 1866, when the convent was closed by an anticlerical Florentine government. As with many depictions of Jesus’ last meal with his Apostles (although not Leonardo da Vinci’s famous and more emotionally-charged 1498 version), Judas sits on the opposite side of the table. Some critics believe that Leonardo’s more emotional version was meant to deliberately contrast with the stillness of depictions of the event by Castagno and others.

222. The Baptism of Christ

Artist: Piero della Francesca (born  Piero di Benedetto)
Date: Art historians have dated the painting as early as 1438 and as late as 1460, with a majority of sources dating it to between 1448 and 1450. The label at the National Gallery says “After 1437.”
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Sansepolcro, Italy
Medium: Egg tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 5.4 ft. tall by 3.8 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
piero baptism
Like so many Renaissance artists, Piero della Francesca saw the rationality of mathematics as a reflection of the perfection of the universe, and he sought to embody the beauty of math in his artwork. The Baptism of Christ, which was commissioned by the Camaldolese Monastery in Sansepolcro, Italy, contains many examples of Piero’s fascination with perspective, geometry and other aspects of mathematics: (1) John the Baptist’s hand, the bowl, Christ’s hands and the dove (representing the Holy Spirit) form an axis that divides the painting into two symmetrical halves; (2) the large tree divides the painting according to the Golden Mean; (3) the angles made by John’s arm and leg are equivalent; and (4) a horizontal line runs from the man taking off his shirt on the right, through John’s belt and Christ’s waist to the belts of the angels. Although on its surface, the painting appears to be a straightforward representation of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, it may have contained symbolism with a contemporary meaning to the Camaldolese monks. Piero was painting at the time of the Council of Florence, an attempt by certain Christian leaders (including Camaldolese monk and theologian Ambrose Traversari, the future St. Ambrose) to reunite the Eastern and Western Christian churches. Some art historians have suggested that the angels holding hands and the figures at the right background wearing Byzantine clothing may be references to the healing of the schism.

223. The Youthful David (David with the Head of Goliath)

Artist: Andrea del Castagno
Date: c. 1450
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Paint on a leather-covered wooden shield
Dimensions: 3.8 ft. tall by 2.5 ft wide (top) and 1.3 ft wide (bottom)
Current location: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The painted shield known as The Youthful David (but labeled by the National Gallery of Art as David with the Head of Goliath) is unique in art history. While decorative shields were common in 15th Century Italy for use in civic parades or religious processions, they were usually decorated with coats of arms. It was very unusual for such a shield to have a painted scene, as here, and even more rare for the painter to be someone of the stature of Andrea del Castagno. The Youthful David is the only shield painted by a recognized master that has survived to the present day. The artist Andrea del Castagno here shows a young David (a Florentine symbol/mascot) with his sling in an energetic pose (possibly based on a Classical model), with the head of Goliath beneath his feet, thus showing both the moment before the fight and the outcome of the fight at the same time.  Painting David on a shield may have reminded viewers of the line from Psalm 91, “His truth shall be thy shield and buckler.” In keeping with Renaissance principles, David’s body is modeled with light and shadow to create the impression of a three-dimensional form, and he realistically inhabits the painted landscape, with the realism even extending to his wind-blown garments.

224. The Melun Diptych

Artist: Jean Fouquet
Date: Art historians date the work between 1450 and 1455, with a number of sources dating it to 1452.
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; France
Medium: Egg tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: Each of the two wings measures 3 ft. tall by 2.8 ft. wide. The medallion is 2.4 inches wide.
Current locations: The left wing is in the Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany. The right wing is at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium. The artist’s self-portrait medallion is at the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.
Jean_Fouquet melun diptych
The Melun Diptych was created by French artist Jean Fouquet for Étienne Chevalier, treasurer to King Charles VII, to hang over the tomb of Chevalier’s wife. The name of the piece comes from the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame in Melun, where it originally resided. The left wing contains a portrait of Chevalier beside his patron saint, St. Stephen, shown with a rock to remind us that he was stoned to death (to drive the point home, blood drips from a wound on the saint’s head – see detail in image below left). Fouquet uses perspective to create the illusion of space receding into the background. The truly bizarre right wing, which is entitled Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, depicts the Virgin Mary ‘sitting’ on an ornate throne with the baby Jesus on her lap. Mary, who may be a posthumous portrait of the king’s mistress Agnès Sorel (called by some ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’) has ghostly marble skin, a fashionable shaved hairline and is wearing the equivalent of 15th Century haute couture. And there is the problem of the exposed breast; one commentator described it as “pneumatic”, another termed it “gravity-defying.” Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described the panel as creating an “air of decadent impiety.” In an attempt to explain the unnatural color scheme, one scholar theorized that Fouquet meant to honor the red, white and blue of the French flag. To further disorient the viewer, in depicting the heavenly space in the right panel, Fouquet completely abandoned the rules of perspective he employed so well on the left. Ironically, the unnatural and otherworldly aspects of the painting make it seem much more modern than a typical 15th Century religious painting. One commentated noted that it would not look out of place on the cover of a 1950s sci-fi magazine.  A small medallion with Fouquet’s portrait was originally attached to the frame (see image at right below).

225. The Gates of Paradise (East Doors, Florence Baptistery)

Artist: Lorenzo Ghiberti
Date: Work began in 1425; the completed doors were installed in 1452.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Set of bronze doors with gilded relief sculptures
Dimensions: The doors are 17 ft. tall by 10.2 ft. wide and weigh between three and four tons. Each of the 10 panels is 2.6 ft. square.
Current location: The original (recently restored) doors are located in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, in Florence, Italy. The doors on the Baptistery itself are reproductions.  

The Gates of Paradise is the name coined by Michelangelo when he first saw the gilded bronze relief sculptures carved by Italian artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the east doors of the Florence Baptistery. This was the second set of door panels carved by Ghiberti for the building. In 1401, at the age of 23, he won a contest (beating such illustrious competitors as Filippo Brunelleschi and Jacopo della Quercia) to create 28 panels with scenes from the New Testament for the north doors, a project he finished in 1423. In 1425, Ghiberti received a second commission for 10 panels with Old Testament scenes for the east doors. This project, which involved a dangerous gilding process, took him 27 years to finish. The second set of doors incorporates the newly-discovered rules of perspective; as a result, the scenes have a naturalism that is absent from the Gothic-style north door reliefs (see full set of doors below left). Each panel tells a Bible story in several scenes, using high and low relief. (Shown above are: The Story of Isaac, at top; and The Story of Joseph, bottom.) Between the 10 panels, narrow borders contain 20 full-length portraits and 24 heads in roundels of prophets and evangelists, including a Ghiberti self-portrait (shown below right). In 1990, the Baptistery doors panels were replaced by replicas to protect the originals from weather damage. The originals were brought to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where they recently underwent a 27-year-long restoration and cleaning.

226. Madonna and Child with Scenes from the Life of St. Anne (The Pitti Tondo)

Artist: Fra Filippo Lippi
Date: 1452-1453
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Tondo (circular painting) made with tempera on wood panels
Dimensions: 4.4 ft. in diameter
Current location: Palatine Gallery, Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy

227. Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata

Artist: Donatello
Date: c. 1453
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Padua, Italy; military portrait
Medium: Bronze sculpture
Dimensions: Horse and rider measure 11.1 ft. tall by 12.8 ft. long. The base is 26.5 ft. tall by 13.4 ft. long.
Current location: Piazza del Santo, Padua, Italy

Donatello and other Early Renaissance artists saw their mission, at least in part, as reviving the Classical cultures of Ancient Greece and Rome. With the David, Donatello revived the tradition of freestanding nude sculptures. With Gattamelata, Donatello revived the tradition of life-sized equestrian statues. The Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata is a bronze equestrian statue that has stood in the Piazzo del Santo in Padua, Italy since Donatello completed the commission in 1453. The Republic of Venice commissioned Donatello to create a monument to a revered military leader (“condotiero”) Erasmo da Narmi (1370-1443), known by his nickname Gattamelata (“speckled cat”). The sculpture, which is the earliest extant equestrian statue of the Renaissance, revived the Classical iconography of depicting heroes on horseback. In order to create a sense of movement, Donatello angled the head of the horse and lifted its left foreleg, but concerns over balancing the horse on three legs led him to place a sphere beneath the lifted leg.

228. Penitent Magdalene (Mary Magdalene)

Artist: Donatello
Date: Most art historians date the sculpture to c. 1453-1455, although some believe it was made much earlier, in the 1430s.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Carved white poplar wood
Dimensions: 6.2 ft. tall
Current location: Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy
Donatello’s ultra-realistic Mary Magdalene, shown suffering the symptoms of abstinence and fasting, shocked and awed contemporaries and stands apart from the rest of Donatello’s oeuvre in both style and substance. Although the story of Mary Magdalene going into the desert to fast and repent from her life as a prostitute has no basis in the Gospels, it was a popular subject for artists in the Renaissance and afterwards. Scholars believe that concept of the penitent Magdalene resulted from a conflation of the character in the Gospels with St. Mary of Egypt, a 4th Century CE former prostitute who fasted in the desert while repenting her sins. Probably originally placed in the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral, the sculpture was originally painted and gilded. Experts are divided over whether the statue’s dominant feature is the pathetic weakness of the emaciated penitent or the inner emotional strength she displays despite her condition. In support of the latter view, art historian Martha Levine Dunkelman wrote: “She can be read as a representation of continuing physical and emotional tenacity in the face of adversity – her suffering having increased her power.”

229. St. James Led to His Execution (St. James Led to Martyrdom)

Artist: Andrea Mantegna
Date: Estimates range from c. 1453-1457, but most sources believe the work was painted in 1455.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Padua, Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco painted on church wall
Dimensions: 14 ft. tall by 11 ft. wide
Current location: The fresco was painted on the wall of the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani Church, Padua, Italy but it was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II.

In the mid-15th Century, Andrea Mantegna painted six frescoes showing scenes from the life of St. James on a wall of the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani Church in Padua, Italy, the most highly-regarded of which was St. James Led to His Execution. In the fresco, Mantegna – who loved to give himself perspectival problems to solve – deliberately ignored the strict rules of one-point linear perspective in having no single point where all lines meet. He presented what has been called a “worm’s eye view” – looking up at the figures from below – while also preserving the sight lines from the chapel so that viewers would not be disoriented. Art historian Frederick Hartt calls the lost fresco “a triumph of Renaissance spatial construction and Renaissance Classicism.”  He points out, the strict laws of perspective would require the vertical lines of the architecture to converge as we look up, which would have destroyed the overall effect of the six frescoes on the wall. This and the other five frescoes are only known from black and white photographs, however, because on March 11, 1944, during World War II, Allied bombs hit the church, leaving only fragments of Mantegna’s artwork. A preparatory study for the fresco by Mantegna (c. 1455) in the collection of the British Museum (see image below).

230. The Flagellation of Christ

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: The majority of art historians date the painting between 1455 and 1460 but some say it could be as early as 1450 and others say as late as 1470.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Urbino, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil and tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 1.9 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide
Current location: Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Palazzo Ducale di Urbino, Urbino, Italy
Referred to by art critic Kenneth Clark as “the greatest small painting in the world”, Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ is notable for the artist’s deft use of perspective in contrasting the three men in the right foreground with the scene in the open air building, left rear, which almost certainly depicts the whipping of Christ as described in the Gospels. As for the identities of the three men on the right, and some of the figures on the left, there are a plethora of theories. Many scholars believe that the figures on the right are contemporaries of Piero, or represent other men from the recent past. The theory that the right and left sides of the painting occur in different eras finds support in the unusual lighting: the flagellation scene is lit from one direction, while the three men are lit from another. The time warp theory might also explain why the men on the right are ignoring the violence going on behind them. One common explanation is that the young man in the middle is Oddantonio da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, with his two advisors, all three of whom had been murdered in 1444. Other scholars point to evidence contradicting that theory and suggest other identities for the figures. As for the less controversial left side, most scholars agree that the sitting man is Pontius Pilate, and the man with his back turned is Herod, but this is not accepted by all. One art historian believes that the person being flogged is not Jesus but St. Jerome.

231. The Procession of the Magi (The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem)

Artist: Benozzo Gozzoli
Date: c. 1459-1462
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes (both true [wet] fresco and dry [a secco] painting) painted on the walls of the chapel of a Florentine palazzo, with some gold leaf added.
Dimensions: The frescoes take up three walls of a small chapel in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.
Current location: Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy 
magi south wall  magi west wall
After renowned architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo designed and built a new Florentine home for the powerful Medici family, Palazzo Medici, the family commissioned Fra Angelico’s former student, Benozzo Gozzoli, to paint frescoes on the walls of the Palazzo’s chapel. Gozzoli painted The Procession of the Magi on three walls of the large hall, which is now known as the Magi Chapel. Each of the three kings and his retinue receives a wall, with Caspar, the youngest king, leading the procession on the east wall (see detail in top image and image below), Balthasar following on the south wall (see image above left) and Melchior, the oldest, bringing up the rear on the west wall (see  image above right).  Among the kings’ entourages are portraits of the Medicis, their friends and business associates, political and religious leaders as well as at least one Gozzoli self-portrait. The style is International Gothic, but in creating the sumptuous landscapes (which contain scenes of hunting and other activities), Gozzoli may have been influenced by the Medicis’ large collection of Early Netherlandish tapestries. When the Riccardi family moved into what is now called the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in the mid-17th Century, they made architectural changes that required cutting a hole in the south wall of the Magi Chapel to make a new door. The fresco was saved by removing part of the wall, cutting it in two pieces and building a new, jutting corner wall, but gone was the simple symmetry of Gozzoli’s original design. Random Trivia: One of the reasons the 15th Century frescoes are so well preserved is that the walls are hollow – the Medicis had a maze of secret passageways built into the Palazzo to allow quick escapes. The unusual construction significantly reduced moisture, which is a fresco’s worst enemy.

232. The Agony in the Garden

Artist: Giovanni Bellini
Date: c. 1459-1465
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Venice, Italy; religious
Medium: Tempera on wood panels
Dimensions: 2.7 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
Bellini - Agony in the Garden The Agony in the Garden depicts that moment when, just prior to his arrest, Jesus asked God to “take this cup away from me” while his disciples slept. Most painters depict the scene in the depths of night, to emphasize that this was a dark hour in the life of Jesus. Giovanni Bellini upends that tradition with his rendition of the Biblical theme. Consistent with iconographic tradition, Jesus prays while an angel presents him with the sacrificial cup, the foreshortened disciples sleep, and off in the distance, Judas leads a cadre of Roman soldiers to make their arrest, but the scene-stealer is dawn, its salmon-colored light bringing a glow of hope to the bleak, rocky ‘garden’, as well as to the houses in an Italian hill town that doubles as the City of Heaven. Instead of focusing on Jesus’s impending suffering and death, Bellini is already thinking ahead to the salvation that Christians believe his death and resurrection brought about. The composition (without the dawn light) owes much to the previous treatment of the same subject by Bellini’s older brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna, and both paintings appear to be derived from a c. 1450 sketch by Bellini’s father Jacopo (see image below).

233. Portrait of a Lady

Artist: Rogier van der Weyden
Date: c. 1460
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish;
Medium: Oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: 13 in. tall by 10 in. wide
Current location: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Although we know that Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden (1399? – 1464) made many portraits in the last years of his life, this small panel is the only surviving portrait of a woman attributable to him. The woman (her name is lost) is dressed in the fashionable Burgundian style, which the artist reveals in loving detail, but the clasped hands and lowered gaze indicate penitent humility. Van der Weyden uses the elaborate veil as the touchstone for a series of geometric symmetries that balance the composition. Random Trivia: Anatomists might note that the lady’s left ear is positioned higher on her head than normal; art historians suspect that the artist may have raised the ear in order to balance his portrait, thus favoring aesthetic truth over anatomical.

234. Polyptych of the Misericordia (Madonna della Misericordia)

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: The work was commissioned in 1445 and completed in 1462.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints and tempera on wood panels
Dimensions: The entire polyptych measures 8.9 ft. tall by 10.8 ft. wide. The center panel showing the Madonna with her spreading cloak measures 4.4 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide.
Current location: Pinacotea Comunale, Sansepolcro, Italy
In 1445, the Confraternity della Misericordia, a lay Christian group in Sansepolcro, Italy, commissioned Sansepolcro native Piero della Francesca to paint what is now known as the Misericordia Altarpiece, or the Polyptych of the Misericordia (see image above, showing recreated altarpiece). The commission specified certain subjects and styles, including the outdated Gothic trope of a solid gilded background for the figures. Although the commission required delivery of the finished altarpiece in three years, Piero did not complete it until 17 years later, in 1462. The altarpiece, which contains Piero’s earliest surviving work, shows his indebtedness to Donatello and Masaccio and his love of geometric forms. It also embodies a tension between the donors’ desire for the styles and forms of a previous generation, and Piero’s embrace of modern Renaissance principles. The earliest panels completed were those of St. Sebastian and St. John the Baptist. Next were the Crucifixion, St. Benedict, the Angel, the Madonna of the Annunciation, and St. Francis. Piero finished the figures of St. Andrew and St. Bernardino about 1450. Despite the commission’s edict that Piero perform all the work himself, Piero assigned the predella, with five scenes of the life of Jesus, to his assistants. The last panel Piero painted was the centerpiece, the Madonna della Misericordia (Virgin of Mercy) (see image below). While the practice of making the Virgin Mary much larger than her followers is a holdover from the Gothic style, the piece contains many Renaissance attributes. The Virgin stands with her hands outstretched, enfolding a group of eight kneeling townspeople in her mantle, including an anonymous member of the donor confraternity (with hood). The mantle echoes the arch above the Virgin’s head. Despite the limitations posed by the two-dimensional gilded backdrop, Piero manages to create a realistic three-dimensional space within the mantle that recalls the apse of a church. 

235. Lamentation over the Dead Christ

Artist: Niccolò dell’Arca
Date: Most art historians date the piece to c. 1462-1464; others say it was made more than 30 years later, c. 1485-1490.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Bologna, Italy; religious
Medium: Group sculpture in seven pieces; sculpted from terracotta
Dimensions: Seven life-size figures
Current location: Church of Santa Maria della Vita, Bologna, Italy

There are few marble quarries near Bologna, Italy, so Bolognese sculptors used other materials, such as terracotta. This limitation proved a benefit for Niccolò dell’Arca’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ; the more pliable terracotta allowed him to provide his grieving figures with highly detailed, often powerfully emotional facial expressions that would not have been possible in the less forgiving marble. Dell’Arca sculpted seven life-size figures: six mourners (the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas, Salome, John the Apostle, and Joseph of Arimathea) gather around the dead body of Jesus, lying at their feet. Each figure has a different, individual reaction, as expressed in their face and bodily stance; one figure looks as if she had just run over to see, her gown still flowing in the wind (see detail in image below). The overall effect is one of extraordinary drama and pathos. The combination of realism and expressionism in the figures, which were originally painted (traces of paint still remain), was unusual for the Early Renaissance. Art historians have noted some Burgundian influences in the carving, derived either from the influence of Catalan sculptor Guillem Sagrera, who worked on the Castel Nuovo in Naples in the 1450s or from a possible trip dell’Arca took to France in the 1460s.

236. The Resurrection of Christ

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: c. 1463-1465
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Sansepulcro, Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco painted on the wall of a public building
Dimensions: 7.5 ft. tall by 6.5 ft. wide
Current location: Museo Civico, Sansepolcro, Italy

Visitors to the Tuscan town of Sansepulcro may be surprised to find a street named after English art lover Anthony Clarke. During World War II, Clarke, then a British artillery officer, received orders to bomb the German-occupied town hall. Knowing that the building contained Piero della Francesca’s Resurrection, Clarke refused to carry out the order, and the masterpiece was saved. As it turned out, the bombing would have been pointless, as the Germans had already retreated. The fresco depicts a triumphant Christ after emerging from the tomb, carrying the red cross flag that had become a symbol of his resurrection from the dead. Above him, two trees – one bare and the other in bloom – symbolize the miracle of Jesus’s death and rebirth. Below him sleep four soldiers, one of whom is a self-portrait of the painter. In order to create a harmonious and balanced composition, Piero exercised artistic license to remove the legs of one of the soldiers.

237. The Last Supper

Artist: Dieric Bouts
Date: c. 1464-1467
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Northern Renaissance; Flanders (now Belgium); religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 5.9 ft. tall by 4.9 ft. wide
Current location: Church of St. Peter, Leuven, Belgium
The Last Supper is the central panel of an altarpiece painted by Flemish painter Dieric Bouts for St. Peter’s Church in Leuven. The altarpiece (known as the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament) was commissioned by the Leuven Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament. The wings of the altarpiece contain painted scenes from the Old Testament (see image below showing the entire altarpiece ). The Last Supper is one of the first northern European examples of the strict application of the rules of linear perspective: the main room has a single vanishing point on the mantle above Christ’s head; the small room and outside landscapes also have vanishing points. The composition and color scheme are highly unified, but the apostles are not individualized or emotionally expressive. Instead, they seem frozen in space and time as Jesus consecrates the host. The minor characters are somewhat livelier; note the four servants dressed in Flemish attire looking on, including two who peek through a window from the kitchen. Bouts, who was influenced by both Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, also provides us with glimpses of outdoor landscapes through narrow windows.

238. Battle of the Nudes (Battle of the Nude Men)

Artist: Antonio del Pollaiuolo
Date: Various dates have been given for the creation of the engraving, including c. 1465, c. 1465-1475, and c. 1470-1495.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy
Medium: Paper print made from an engraving
Dimensions: 1.3 ft. tall by 1.9 ft. wide
Current location: Various collections

239. Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza 

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: c. 1465-1472
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy
Medium: Diptych with oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 19 inches tall by 26 inches wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Piero della Francesca’s diptych entitled Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, may be a memorial tribute for the Duchess, who died in 1472 from complications after childbirth, in which case Piero may have used her death mask to create the image.  (Other experts believe the painting may date to shortly after the couple’s marriage in 1465.) Over a plain black dress, the Duchess wears intricately decorated garments on her arms and neck, as well as an elaborate headpiece. Her hairline is shaved to create a great expanse of forehead, as was the fashion. The choice to pose in profile hearkens back to Roman coins or portrait medals and heraldic medallions, adding a formality to the depictions, but also placing the Duke and his lost partner in eternal conversation. The Duke was always painted on his left side, as he had lost his right eye and the bridge of his nose in a jousting tournament accident. The composition shows the two leaders towering over vast landscapes, which we view from an aerial perspective, a clear message about the power exerted by the two subjects over their territory. On the reverse of the portraits, Piero painted the subjects being carried in triumphal chariots with allegorical figures representing the Virtues, with Latin inscriptions below (see image below). The Duke is carried on a chariot led by white horses with Justice, Wisdom, Valor and Moderation, while the Duchess is joined by Faith, Hope and Charity on a chariot led by unicorns, a symbol of chastity.

240. The Legend of the True Cross (The History of the True Cross)

Artist: Piero della Francesca
Date: The work probably began in 1447-1448 with much of the painting done in the mid-1450s, then a break from 1458-1459. The frescoes were finally completed in 1466.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Arezzo, Italy; religious
Medium: Frescoes painted on church walls
Dimensions: The frescoes cover more than 9,000 square feet. Measurements of specific scenes include: Constantine’s Dream, 10.8 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide; Exaltation of the Cross, 12.8 ft. tall by 24.5 ft. wide; Finding and Recognition of the True Cross, 11.7 ft. tall by 24.5 ft. wide; and the Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, 10.8 ft. tall by 24.5 ft wide
Current location: Cappella Maggiore, San Francesco Church, Arezzo, Italy

Piero della Francesca painted a cycle of frescoes in the main choir chapel of San Francesco Church in Arrezo, Italy on the theme of the Legend of the True Cross. The cycle is considered Piero’s greatest achievement and one of the masterpieces of Early Renaissance painting, with the artist excelling in composition, perspective and use of color. Taken from the popular 13th Century book The Golden Legend, these non-Biblical tales follow the cross that Jesus was crucified on from the time the tree was a seed (at the time of Adam) until the 7th Century CE. In arranging the scenes, Piero eschewed traditional chronological storytelling, opting instead for placing similar scenes across from one another on facing walls – two open air scenes for the lunettes at the top, for example, and two battle scenes in the lowest register (see top image for overall view). These visual echoes increase the dramatic intensity of the artwork.  The other images show:
(1) Middle image above: The Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau. After Persian king Khosrau steals the true cross, Eastern Emperor Heraclius goes to war against him to retrieve it. The fresco shows Heraclius’s victory.
(2) Bottom image above: The Exaltation of the Cross shows Heraclius carrying the cross back to Jerusalem, when a group of passersby kneel down to worship it.
(3) Image at left below: Constantine’s Dream, in which the Roman Emperor, on the eve of battle, dreams of a cross and hears the instructions, “By this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine uses the Christian symbol to lead his troops to victory. 
(4) Finding and Recognition of the True Cross. This fresco shows Constantine’s mother and others who had been searching for the cross finally find it and recognize it as the true cross when a dead youth is miraculously resurrected.
constantine-s-dream  piero della francesca Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Arezzo

241. The Hunt in the Forest (The Hunt)

Artist: Paolo Uccello
Date: 1470
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy
Medium: Tempera and oil paints with gold leaf on wood panels
Dimensions: 2.2 ft. tall by 5.4 ft. wide
Current location: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England, UK
The Hunt in the Forest (also known as The Hunt, or The Hunt by Night) was the last major work by Florentine painter Paolo Uccello before he died in 1475. We do not know who commissioned it, but it may have been designed for a spalliera (the back of a bench or the headboard or footboard of a bed) for a prosperous Florentine family. The Hunt in the Forest is a fine example of the use of linear perspective (see first image). The artist used a grid on the wood panels to ensure that objects diminished in size as they became more distant. The perspectival vanishing point also serves the painting’s subject matter, as the dogs chase the roebuck into the distance at the work’s dark center, while the brightly-colored hunters and their entourages hesitate amid the noise and disorganization (see detail in image below). The scene is remarkable for its setting – a moonlit night in the forest – and its chaos. It is also a rare example of a contemporary secular subject painted for domestic use from this period. It is not clear is whether the scene is supposed to be real or imaginary, but the foliage of the trees was originally lined with gold leaf, giving it a magical sparkle, and there is at least one (probable) Classical reference: the crescents on the horses’ dressings may be crescent moons, symbol of Diana, goddess of the hunt.

242. St. George and the Dragon

Artist: Paolo Uccello
Date: c. 1470
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on canvas
Dimensions: 1.8 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK
st. george and the dragon Italian artist Paolo Uccello painted two versions of the story of Saint George and the Dragon, which most European Christians knew from the 13th Century book of saints’ lives called The Golden Legend. The earlier version, from 1435-1440, showed a not very fearsome-looking green dragon rearing up on its hind (that is, only) legs, while the damsel watches Saint George drive the spear home (see image below). Thirty years later, Uccello returned to the subject (see image above). This time, he combined two aspects of the story, ignoring narrative flow in favor of pictorial balance. At the same time that St. George is spearing the loathsome dragon (which had been terrorizing the local people by bringing them the black plague), the damsel is taming him, using her belt as a leash. While it is difficult to see how both actions could occur simultaneously, the composition is now balanced nicely, with one human on each side, both interacting with the dragon. Uccello uses the spear to establish a sense of three-dimensional space; at the same time, by lining up the spear with the spiraling storm behind St. George, Uccello implies that heavenly power assisted the saint in accomplishing his heroic quest. Scholars have noted Uccello’s penchant for Gothic touches (such as the dragon’s wing emblems) as well as occasionally ignoring naturalism in favor of accurate perspective (as in the case of the oddly shaped patches of grass).

243. The Temptation of St. Anthony (St. Anthony Tormented by Demons)

Artist: Martin Schongauer
Date: c. 1470-1475
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Germany
Medium: Paper prints made from copper engraving
Dimensions: 11.8 inches tall by 8.6 inches wide
Current location: Various collections

According to his 4th Century CE biographer, Athanasius, St. Anthony was an Egyptian hermit who often retreated to the desert to meditate and pray. His practice of asceticism led to an ability to levitate, according to Athanasius.  Martin Schongauer, an Alsatian artist, created an engraving showing the levitating St. Anthony beset by nine devils and demons, which may be a conflation of two scenes described by Athanasius in his biography.  We see a rocky crag at lower right and a serene St. Anthony under attack.  The monsters result from the combination of highly realistic elements of reptiles, mammals, birds and fish to produce what the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator calls “some of the most fantastic and grotesque fabrications in the history of printmaking.” The print depicts St. Anthony’s firm determination in the face of evil as an example for all Christians as they struggle with powerful temptations. Schongauer’s Northern Gothic style combines elements of Early Netherlandish art with German painting styles. Random Trivia: Michelangelo painted a copy of the print in 1487 when he was 12 years old (see image below). Many believe that the painting, known as The Torment of St. Anthony, that is in the collection of the Kimbell Art Museum in  Forth Worth, Texas, is Michelangelo’s original, although there is some dispute about the attribution.

244. Hercules and Antaeus (Hercules Slaying Antaeus)

Artist: Antonio Pollaiuolo (full name: Antonio di Jacopo Pollaiuolo)
Date: c. 1470-1475
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; mythological
Medium: Bronze sculpture
Dimensions: 18 inches tall
Current location: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy

The myth of Hercules and the giant Antaeus was a favorite subject for artists. According to the legend, Antaeus challenged every passerby to a wrestling match, which Antaeus always won, resulting in the death of his opponent. Antaeus’s secret? He was the son of Mother Earth, and as long as he maintained contact with the ground, he was invincible. Hercules needed to get past Antaeus as part of his 11th labor, so while wrestling the giant, he picked him off the ground and held him in the air, squeezing the life out of his now defenseless foe. Florentine sculptor and painter Antonio Pollaiuolo depicts the dying scream of Antaeus as Hercules (wearing the pelt of the Nemean lion) holds him off the ground and literally squeezes the life out of him. Pollaiuolo’s knowledge of human anatomy (possibly gained by dissecting cadavers) allows him to depict accurately the straining muscles of both Hercules and his foe in dynamic motion. The innovative in-the-round composition leads the viewer’s eye to move from one vantage point to the next.

245. Frescoes, Camera degli Sposi

Artist: Andrea Mantegna
Date: Begun in 1465; completed in 1474
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Mantua, Italy; portraits, decorative, sotto in sù
Medium: Frescoes painted on the walls and ceiling of a palace room
Dimensions: The room is 26.6 feet square. The court scene (north wall) measures 26.4 ft. tall by 26.4 ft. wide.
Current location: Castle of San Giorgio, Mantua, Italy
mantegna camera degli sposi
Andrea_Mantegna camera degli sposi
camera degli sposi meeting
Andrea Mantegna’s frescoes for Ludovico III Gonzaga, Marquis of the Italian city of Mantua served both a political and artistic purpose. Ludovico instructed Mantegna to paint the Camera degli Sposi, or bridal chamber, a room of his house that he used for gatherings and to welcome visitors. Ludovico, the leader of a small city in the midst of such political powerhouses as the Republics of Venice and Florence, wanted decorations that would impress his guests and confirm his power. Mantegna painted the entire room from floor to ceiling (see top image). Two walls show only what appear to be realistic leather curtains, but on other two walls, the curtains are drawn back to reveal Ludovico, his family members and various world leaders engaged in various activities. One scene shows a casually-impressive Ludovico seated at his court, listening to the pleas of his subjects (see second image above). Another wall shows a standing Ludovico meeting with his son (who had just been made a cardinal), the Holy Roman Emperor and the King of Denmark (see third image above). Mantegna creates the illusion that there is a space behind the curtains, that the walls have been pierced and we could walk outside. But Mantegna’s most original achievement is the ceiling (see image below). In the center, he has painted an oculus that appears to open directly onto a bright blue sky above, with extremely foreshortened cherubs, animals, and young men and women gazing directly down at the viewer below. A potted plant leans out precariously on the edge. This is one of the first paintings known as “di sotto in sù” (seen from below), a style that would become much more popular years later with Mannerist and Baroque ceiling painters.
Andrea_Mantegna camera degli sposi 2

246. St. Jerome in His Study

Artist: Antonello da Messina
Date: c. 1474-1475
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Italy
Medium: Oil paints on limewood panels
Dimensions: 18 inches tall by 14.3 inches wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, UK

247. The Portinari Altarpiece

Artist: Hugo van der Goes
Date: c. 1475
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Northern Renaissance; Flanders (now Belgium); religious
Medium: Triptych made with oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 8.3 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
portinari altarpiece
The Portinari Altarpiece brought Early Netherlandish painting into the heart of the Italian Renaissance. Italian banker Tommaso Portinari commissioned Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes to create an altarpiece for the chapel in the Santa Maria Nuova hospital in Florence. Portinari served as a banker for the Medici family in Bruges, Flanders (now Belgium), where he became familiar with Flemish painting and painters. Van der Goes depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds in the center panel of the altarpiece, with the Portinari family and their patron saints on the side panels. In a break from traditional iconography, the infant Jesus is placed on the ground, on a ‘blanket’ made of golden rays, instead of lying on a crib or on his mother’s lap (see detail below left). The background of each panel contains additional narratives: (1) the left wing shows Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem; (2) the center panel shows the angel appearing to the shepherds; and (3) the right panel shows the Three Magi on their way to see Jesus (see detail below right). When the painting arrived in Florence in 1483, its technique and style, particularly its naturalistic depiction of the figures, caused quite a stir, particularly among Florence’s painters, some of whom – such as Domenico Ghirlandaio – were strongly influenced by it.
portinari_child  portinari right wing

248. Portrait of a Man

Artist: Antonello da Messina
Date: 1475-1476
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Venice, Italy; secular portrait
Medium: Oil paints on poplar wood panel
Dimensions: 14 in. tall by 10 in. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK

Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina’s short sojourn in Venice in 1475-1476 had widespread impacts on the future of Venetian painting. Antonello was one of the first in Italy to completely absorb both the technique and the style of the Flemish oil painters from the Early Netherlandish school. Even on the small Portrait of a Man, Antonello shows how the multiple layers of oil paint, painstakingly applied, could produce astonishing effects. What was remarkable about this three-quarter portrait of a middle class man, possibly a self-portrait, was the treatment of light. As one critic noted, light sinks into the subject’s flesh at some points, turning his cheek to red and brown, and it reflects off his eyes and nose, as if it were reflected in a lake. Antonello da Messina had also mastered the Northern European attention to detail, as seen by his handling of the subject’s beard stubble. Yet, for all its Early Netherlandish elements, this was a portrait of an Italian by an Italian, for other Italians to view. There is humor in the idea that, even though the man is having his portrait painted, he seems wary or skeptical of the artist’s intentions – oil glazes catch that expression perfectly. 

249. Virgin Annunciate

Artist: Antonello da Messina
Date: c. 1476
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Sicily, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 17.7 in. tall by 13.8 in. wide
Current location: Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Italy

With the Virgin Annunciate, Antonello da Messina has created a vision of the Annunciation that upends the traditional iconography. First, there is no Angel Gabriel. Instead, by depicting only the Virgin Mary, the viewer becomes the sole witness to the holy event, perhaps even cast in the angel’s role. Second, there is no background, no architectural space (except the desk), no symbolic objects or allegorical figures to distract the viewer. What remains is the psychological truth – we see a young girl, a virgin, who has just learned that she will bear a child who is divine. Mary’s book, hands and gaze tell the whole story: she was disturbed from her reading by the angel, she put up her right hand out of fear (or ‘to make time stand still’, as one critic remarked), then clutched her veil, pointing to herself so as to ask how it could be, and finally the knowing gaze of willing acceptance of God’s will for her. Despite the spare composition and featureless background, Antonello manages to create a sense of real space with the book stand, desk and particularly Mary’s foreshortened hands. The Virgin Annunciate was painted in Antonello da Messina’s home in Sicily, with a local girl as model. It may be the last picture he ever painted. 

250. Virgin and Child with Eight Angels (Raczynski Tondo)

Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Date: 1477-1478
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy
Medium: The circular painting, or tondo, was made with muted tempera paints on wood panels.
Dimensions: 4.4 ft. in diameter
Current location: Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany
Painted after The Adoration of the Magi, Sandro Botticelli’s first success, but before his greatest masterpieces, Madonna and Child with Eight Angels (also referred to as the Raczynski Tondo after one of its owners) portrays the Virgin Mary breastfeeding her son Jesus (a discreet nipple is visible, although Jesus faces the viewer), while eight wingless boy angels sing hymns and hold lilies, symbol of Mary’s purity. As one critic observed, the hymns are antiphonal, with one section singing while the other waits its turn. There is strict symmetry to the composition. The goal of the piece is to engage the viewer in a devotional experience and to that end, Botticelli has three of the figures – Mary, Jesus and one of the angels – engage the viewer with direct or almost direct eye contact. The infant and the angel express a mix of curiosity and invitation, while the Madonna’s liquid eyes and tilted head communicate some deep sadness.

251. Altarpiece of the Church Fathers

Artist: Michael Pacher
Date: Some date the work, c. 1477-1480; others say it was made c. 1483-1484.
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Northern Renaissance; Austria/Italy; religious
Medium: Triptych created with oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: The center panel measures nearly 7 ft. tall and 6.5 ft. wide; each side panel measures 7 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide.
Current location: Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany 
Michael_Pacher_-_Altarpiece_of_the_Church_Fathers 2
Austrian artist Michael Pacher created the Altarpiece of the Church Fathers, a triptych, for the Augustinian monks of the Neustift Monastery near Brixen in northern Italy. When closed, the outer painted panels show St. Augustine liberating a prisoner (see image below right) and St. Sigisbert having a vision (see image below right), but the true masterpieces are the interior panels from which the piece draws its name (see image above). Pacher has set up four fathers of the Early Christian church in separate rooms, with projecting canopies and foreshortened floor tiles, creating a trompe-l’oeil effect of true depth. Each church father is accompanied by a dove (the Holy Spirit) and a memento of one of his legends. From the far left: (1) St. Jerome, who was said to have taken a thorn from a lion’s paw, pets a lion; (2) St. Augustine sits with the boy from a story in which Augustine saw the boy on the beach trying to transfer the ocean into a small pool using only a clam shell; the boy told Augustine that it was as likely that he would move the ocean as it was that Augustine would understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity with his rational mind; (3) Pope Gregory I, who was so impressed by a story of Roman Emperor Trajan’s kindness that he prayed for Trajan to be released from purgatory to be baptized, here gets his opportunity as Trajan rises from the flames; and finally, (4) St. Ambrose, shown with a rocking baby who refers either to a story from St. Ambrose’s infancy, when a swarm of bees landed on his face, leaving a drop of honey, thus ensuring his sweet tongue for oratory, or to the child who told Ambrose that he must be made a bishop. Throughout the piece, Pacher’s painting shows many sculptural elements (Pacher was also a sculptor) and combines elements of both Northern Gothic and Northern Renaissance styles. 
Church_Fathers_-_St_Augustine_Liberating_a_Prisoner  Church_Fathers_-_Vision_of_St_Sigisbert 

252. La Primavera (Spring; Allegory of Spring)

Artist: Sandro Botticelli (born Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi)
Date: c. 1477-1482
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; mythological
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 6.7 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Botticelli-primaveraLa Primavera is a celebration of Spring and the blossoming of love that was commissioned by a member of Florence’s powerful Medici clan. At the center, Venus presides over a sort of mythological garden party: Her son Cupid flies above her, blindfolded and arrow ready to strike. On the far right, Zephyr, the March wind, is kidnapping the nymph Chloris (see detail in image below left). Zephyr’s love transforms Chloris into Flora, the goddess of Spring, who is seen in a floral gown scattering flowers. On the left, the Three Graces dance while Mercury protects the gathering from bad weather. As in so many of Botticelli’s mythological works, the figures seem almost weightless, as if they live in a dream world. All the references to Spring and love are consistent with the theory that the painting was a wedding gift, possibly for the 1482 marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici to Semiramide Appiano. The theme of blossoming also extends to the plant life in the painting: Botticelli has accurately depicted hundreds of individual plants from at least 40 different species, including a grove of orange trees (see detail in right image below).
primavera detail  primavera detail 2

253. St. John Altarpiece (Triptych of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist)

Artist: Hans Memling
Date: The work was commissioned c. 1474 and completed in 1479
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Northern Renaissance; Flanders (now Belgium); religious
Medium: Triptych painted with oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: The center panel measures 5.7 ft. tall by 5.7 ft. wide; each wing is 5.8 ft. tall by 2.6 ft. wide.
Current location: Memling Museum, St. John’s Hospital, Bruges, Belgium
memling st john
German-born Flemish painter Hans Memling created the St. John Altarpiece for the chapel of St. John’s Hospital in Bruges; it is dedicated to the patron saints of the hospital, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The center panel takes the form of a sacra conversatione with saints gathered around the Virgin Mary and Jesus. John the Baptist stands at left, while events from his life shown in the outdoor space behind him; John the Evangelist stands on the right. St. Catherine sits at the left, while St. Barbara sits on the right. Mary sits on a throne with an intricately-rendered Oriental carpet (known as a Memling carpet) beneath her, reaching almost to the picture plane, while above two blue angels hold her crown (see detail above left). The infant Jesus puts a ring on St. Catherine’s finger, symbolizing her spiritual commitment to God, a standard trope known as the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. Scholars have noted that the composition of two standing and two sitting saints around the Virgin was very unusual. Also unusual was the breaking up of the architecture to allow almost continuous views of the background landscape, which allowed Memling to paint scenes from the saints’ lives there. (Even the carvings at the top of each capital represent aspects of the saints’ lives.) The left wing shows the beheading of John the Baptist: the executioner, his back to us, places the head on Salome’s platter, while the headless body lies on the ground. The right wing (see detail above right) shows John the Evangelist writing the Apocalypse on the island of Patmos, with the key events of the Book of Revelation depicted. This may be the first time that the entire Apocalypse story was presented in a single painting. Two concentric rainbows show God enthroned, with four beasts and 24 elders, while the Lamb of God breaks the seven seals on God’s lap. Elsewhere, Memling shows a giant angel emerging from the water, while a seven-headed dragon in seen in the background. When the doors of the triptych are closed, it reveals portraits of the four donors (two priests and two nuns) kneeling before their patron saints (see image below).

254. St. Francis in Ecstasy (St. Francis in the Desert)

Artist: Giovanni Bellini
Date: c. 1480
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on poplar wood panels
Dimensions: 4.1 ft. tall by 4.7 ft. wide
Current location: The Frick Collection, New York, NY
By choosing to use oil paints – which were very new to Italy – to paint a portrait of St. Francis, Giovanni Bellini proved to his fellow Italian painters that the new medium could render light and the effects of light in ways that could not have been achieved with tempera. In St. Francis in Ecstasy, Bellini uses natural lighting effects to create the sense of a heavenly visitation upon the founder of the Franciscans. Some believe the painting is meant to tell the story of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, or wounds of Christ, in his side and on his hands and feet, while on a solitary retreat near Mt. La Verna in the Apennines in 1224 and point to the marks on his hands and one foot. Others some argue that St. Francis, who is shown with his mouth open, is singing the Canticle of the Sun, a song he composed, in response to the presence of God. They note that in typical representations of saints receiving the stigmata, we usually see an angel shooting dart-like rays of light. The work is unusual in other ways: consistent with the Renaissance’s celebration of the natural world, St. Francis is almost dwarfed by the vast landscape around him such that if he were removed, the painting could stand on its own. Bellini has taken care to depict many of the plants and animals that share the world with St. Francis (see details in images below left and right). In addition, many of the objects in the painting double as references to Christian stories or teachings. To choose just a few examples related to Moses, the dry tree at left may represent the burning bush that spoke to Moses; the water issuing from the rocks at right may remind us of Moses striking the rocks at Horeb to start water flowing; and St. Francis’ bare feet and nearby sandals recall God’s words to Moses to take off his sandals on holy ground. Followers of St. Francis would have made many other connections.
st-francis-animals  st francis rabbit

255. Lamentation over the Dead Christ

Artist: Andrea Mantegna
Date: The date of the painting is much debated. Everyone agrees it was painted between 1457 and 1501. A large number of sources date it to c. 1480. A substantial minority date it to c. 1490, while still others believe it was painted in the 1470s.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Milan, Italy; religious
Medium: Tempera paints on canvas
Dimensions: 2.2 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide
Current location: Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan, Italy

Do artists paint for themselves or for others? Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation raises this question. There was no known commission for the piece, which was found unsold in the artist’s studio after his death; it is not known if Mantegna ever showed the painting to anyone else. An atypical treatment of a commonplace religious subject, Mantegna’s Lamentation presents Christ’s body at a highly unusual angle that required a dramatic use of the technique of foreshortening, forcing the artist to bend the laws of perspective somewhat by, for example, reducing the size of Christ’s feet so they would not block our view of Christ’s body. Our eyes are drawn to Christ’s bare upper chest, his privates (modestly covered by linens), and the holes in his hands and feet. The weeping Madonna and St. John barely make it into the frame, and unlike most lamentation scenes, none of the mourners is in physical contact with Christ’s body. Instead, Jesus’s body lies alone, untouched, on a cold marble slab, perhaps to remind Christians of the bleak reality of death. After Mantegna died and the painting was discovered, the artist’s son sold it to pay off some of his father’s debts.

256. St. Wolfgang Altarpiece

Artist: Michael Pacher
Date: The altarpiece was commissioned in 1471 and completed in 1481. (One source says the sculpted center panel was completed in 1479.)
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Northern Renaissance; Austria; religious
Medium: Polyptych with both sculpted scenes carved from pine and linden wood, which have been painted and gilded, as well as tempera painted wood panels
Dimensions: The altarpiece is nearly 40 feet tall and more than 21 feet wide.
Current location: St. Wolfgang Church, Abersee, Austria

Born and raised in the Tyrol section of Austria, painter and sculptor Michael Pacher took a trip to Padua, Italy at some point prior to 1471 that forever changed his style. From studying the frescoes of Andrea Mantegna, Pacher learned the rules of perspective, foreshortening and other Renaissance techniques and went on to fuse these principles with Northern Gothic realism to achieve a sublime hybrid style. In 1471, he received a commission from Abbott Benedict of the Mondsee Monastery to create an altarpiece for the monastery’s St. Wolfgang Church in Abersee. A decade later, Pacher delivered and personally installed the massive altarpiece. The altarpiece has two sets of moving hinges, permitting three separate views. Monday through Saturday, both sets of doors are closed and viewers see four painted scenes from the life of St. Wolfgang, flanked by carved figures of St. George and St. Florian, in armor. On Sundays, the first set of doors is opened to see eight painted scenes from the life of Christ, including the Death and Resurrection of Lazarus (see image below). On holy days, both sets of doors are opened to see a central sculpted scene of the Coronation of the Virgin, presented within a Gothic architectural space (see detail in second image above), flanked by four painted scenes: the Nativity, the Circumcision, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the Death of the Virgin. The predella underneath is closed except on holy days. When closed, the predella shows paintings of four Fathers of the Church: Pope Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome. When the predella is open, the viewer sees a central panel with a carved scene of the Adoration of the Magi, flanked by two painted panels: the Visitation and the Flight from Egypt. Towering over all these sculptures and paintings is a carved Crucifixion scene, with Jesus, his mother and various saints and angels, that is visible at all times.

257. The Adoration of the Magi

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci 
Date: 1481-1482
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 8.1 ft. tall by 8 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Leonardo da Vinci was in his late twenties in 1481 when he received a commission for an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi from the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence. He worked very hard on the preliminary drawings and completed an underdrawing but he never finished the painting. The Duke of Milan made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and Leonardo left Florence. Someone, probably not Leonardo, added the groundwork layer of brown and yellow ocher paint to the underdrawing and in so doing altered some of the original design. What remains is an unfinished Adoration of the Magi that, if completed, would have been atypical for the subject. The figure of the Virgin establishes the peak of a triangular composition that draws many features from Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden’s Entombment of Christ, from 1460 (see image below left). In Christian lore, the date of the Adoration, also the Epiphany, signaled the triumph of Christianity over the pagan world. This may explain the Classical building in the left rear (possibly based on the 4th Century Basilica of Maxentius, which legend has it would stand until a virgin gave birth), and the battle raging in the right rear (see detail below right). Nothing in prior depictions of the event prepares us for the grotesque and emaciated forms of some of the figures. Some art historians believe that the young man on the bottom right is a self-portrait of the artist, copied from an earlier bust. After Leonardo left for Milan, the monks reassigned the commission to Filippo Lippi, who provided his Adoration of the Magi altarpiece, based largely on Leonardo’s design (without the grotesque elements), to San Donato a Scopeto in 1496.

258. Delivery of the Keys (Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter)

Artist: Pietro Perugino (born Pietro Vannucci) 
Date: 1481-1482
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Fresco painted on the wall of the Sistine Chapel
Dimension: 10.8 ft. tall by 18.3 ft. wide
Current location: Sistine Chapel, Vatican Palace, Vatican City

Most visitors to the Sistine Chapel spend their time looking up at Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes (and for good reason), but there are masterpieces on the side walls, too, painted 25 years earlier by Florentine artists Botticelli and Pietro Perugino, including Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter that he will give him (and through him according to Catholic tradition, to the Roman Popes) the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that is, the authority to be his representative on earth. Taking the Bible passage literally, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned Perugino to paint a fresco on the wall of the Sistine Chapel showing Jesus giving an actual set of keys to St. Peter. Perugino’s fresco presents a master class in linear one-point perspective. The diagonal lines dividing up the foreshortened pavement tiles reach a vanishing point in the doorway of the central building, creating the illusion of depth and distance. The use of aerial perspective sustains the illusion of reality, leading the eye back to a distant horizon. The line (almost a frieze) of figures in the far foreground spreads out from the central pair of Jesus and the kneeling St. Peter; Perugino keeps them below the horizon line. The other apostles and various contemporary Roman figures are rendered with specificity and elegance, but with feet firmly planted on the ground. Some experts believe that Perugino included a self-portrait in the fifth figure from the right edge. Unusually, Judas is pictured with the other apostles (fifth figure to the left of Jesus). Somewhat incongruously, Perugino sets out two other New Testament stories in the middle distance: The Tribute Money on the left (see detail in first image below), and The Stoning of Jesus on the right (see detail in second image below). The central building is an imaginary octagonal Temple of Solomon, flanked by two triumphal arches that would have been familiar to Romans as the Arch of Constantine (echoed by Botticelli in his fresco on the opposite wall). Scholars believe that Perugino relied heavily on the work of Andrea del Verrocchio in painting the figures, and one expert believes that Perugino has repeated the poses of the foreground figures on one side of the painting on the other side, only in reverse.

perugino stoning

259. Virgin of the Rocks (I)

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: 1483-1486
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Milan, Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels (later transferred to canvas)
Dimensions: 6.5 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France

For reasons that are still unclear, Leonardo da Vinci painted two nearly identical versions of the painting called Virgin of the Rocks. The version that is at the Louvre, Virgin of the Rocks (I), was probably painted first and is considered the primary version. The painting shows the Madonna, the young Jesus, the young John the Baptist and the angel Uriel, within the pyramidal composition that Leonardo preferred, with Mary at the apex. They sit in a strange, rocky landscape that feels mystical, even unearthly. The central event of the painting – a common theme of Renaissance Christian iconography – is John’s adoration of Jesus, who makes the sign of Benediction in return. Two paintings of angels playing musical instruments are associated with the work, although they are believed to be painted by Leonardo’s assistants; all three were commissioned for an altarpiece by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan. Leonardo has broken with tradition and painted the religious figures without haloes, yet he communicates their divine or saintly natures through idealization; as the Early Renaissance ended and the High Renaissance began, artists sought to achieve not realism but something more perfect. Virgin of the Rocks (I) is also an excellent example of the sfumato technique, which Leonardo described as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.” Consistent with Leonardo’s polymath interests, scholars have determined that the geological and botanical details of the painting are scientifically accurate.

260. The Birth of Venus

Artist: Sandro Botticelli 
Date: 1484-1486
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy; mythological
Medium: Tempera paints on canvas
Dimensions: 5.7 ft. tall by 9.1 ft. wide
Current location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Birth of Venus 2Renaissance Humanists found enormous inspiration in all things Classical, including Greek and Roman mythology. Painted for the Medici family of Florence, Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, like his Primavera before it, portrays a mythological story with the grand scale previously reserved for Christian religious art. In Roman mythology, Venus was the goddess of love, beauty and sex. In one of her representations, Venus Anadyomene, she was said to have been born from the sea after the god Cronus castrated his father Uranus and threw his genitalia into the ocean; Venus emerged from the resulting foam fully grown. Botticelli shows the wind gods Zephyr and Aura bringing a nude Venus to the shore, while she stands in a contrapposto pose on a scallop shell (symbol of female sexuality). This life-size Venus is probably the first large female nude in a non-Christian setting since Classical antiquity. She poses shyly in the famous Venus Pudica stance, waiting for one of the Graces to cover up her nudity with a cape. Scholars have noted that Venus’s pose defies the laws of physics: she is putting too much weight on one leg to stay balanced, and her position on the seashell would cause it to tip forward. This is consistent with Botticelli’s work generally, which hearkens back in some ways to Medieval styles: his figures often lack a sense of weight, of being fully grounded, and he rarely spends much energy on the use of linear perspective that so fascinated artists like Piero della Francesca and Andrea Mantegna. The dream world of The Birth of Venus is unrecognizable to us, but it beckons nonetheless.

261. John the Baptist in the Wilderness

Artist: Geertgen tot Sint Jans
Date: c. 1485-1490
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Netherlands, religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 16.5 in. tall by 11 in. wide
Current location: Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

The John the Baptist described in the Gospels had little time to go somewhere quiet and think. He was occupied with baptizing his many followers and broadcasting the news that the Messiah was coming. But a popular book about the life of John the Baptist included an account of time he spent alone in the wilderness, which was probably the inspiration for Geertgen tot Sint Jans’s John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Painted in the Early Netherlandish style, the small painting was probably meant for private devotion, perhaps in a monk’s cell. Wearing a brown garment made of camel hair, St. John sits on a rock ledge, his attribute, the haloed Lamb of God, by his side, and leans his head in his right hand, looking pensive, even somber. A clue to the subject of his meditation is the position of his feet, which unconsciously imitate the position of Jesus’s feet on the cross. Although the ‘wilderness’ seems more like a well-managed park (within view of a city), the abundance of wildlife, particularly birds on the ground and in the air, gives a sense of hope, even salvation, to contrast with the doldrums into which St. John appears to have sunk. He even seems to have become a part of the landscape, as the folds of his blue cloak echo the curves of the topography.

262. San Giobbe Altarpiece (Enthroned Madonna of San Giobbe)

Artist: Giovanni Bellini
Date: Most art historians date the work to 1487, but some claim a date in the early 1470s.
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; religious (sacra converzatione)
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels   
Dimensions: 15.4 ft. tall by 8.5 ft. wide
Current location: Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

To satisfy his commission for an altarpiece for the San Giobbe (St. Job) Church in Venice, Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini painted a sacra converzatione of Mary and Jesus surrounded by an informal grouping of saints (left: St. Francis, John the Baptist, Job; right: St. Sebastian, St. Louis, St. Dominic). The work was almost immediately recognized as a masterpiece. Bellini creates an illusion of depth in the space and gives substantiality to the figures. To enhance the realism – the illusion that there is an actual niche in the wall – he painted the columns to match the real columns in the church, and chose a light source that appears to be coming from the actual windows of the church. Art historians marvel at Bellini’s ability to paint reflected light and to show modeling and shadows so they give form and substance to the figures and architecture. Although all the saints with their colorful garments occupy the lower half of the painting, the stunning gold half dome above them creates a sense of balance and draws the eye up to see how it catches the light. On a human level, St. Francis (with the stigmata wounds) gestures for us to join the conversation, as does the Madonna. Even the musical angels are positioned so they form a triangle pointing up at Jesus and Mary (see detail below left). Random Trivia: Bellini painted another portrait of St. Job onto the church garment worn by St. Louis (see image below right).
san_giobbe_  bellini san giobbe detail

263. Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni (Bartolomeo Colleoni Monument)

Artist: Andrea del Verrocchio (born Andrea di Michele di Francesco de’ Cioni)
Date: Wax model completed in 1488; cast in bronze and erected in 1495-1496
Period/Style: Early Renaissance; Florence/Venice, Italy; military portrait
Medium: Bronze sculpture
Dimensions: 12.9 ft. tall (excluding the pedestal)
Current location: Campo di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, Italy
Andrea del Verrocchio’s sculpture of Bartolomeo Colleoni on horseback was the second great equestrian statue of the Italian Renaissance. Like Gattamelata, who was the subject of Donatello’s 1453 equestrian statue, Bartolomeo Colleoni was a condottiero who served as a military leader in the service of the Republic of Venice. In his will, Colleoni provided the funds for an equestrian monument in his honor to the Republic of Venice, even specifying the location of the monument, Piazza San Marco. (The government chose instead to place the statue in nearby Campo di Santi Giovanni e Paolo.) Art historians praise the sense of energy, power and movement in both horse and rider. Verrocchio was the first sculptor to solve the mechanical engineering problems raised by depicting a horse with one foot off the ground. (Donatello had ducked the issue by placing his horse’s raised foot on a bronze sphere.) Unfortunately, the artist died before his creation was cast in bronze.

264. St. Mary’s Altarpiece (Altarpiece of Veit Stoss)

Artist: Veit Stoss
Date: Work on the altarpiece began in 1477; the work was completed and the altarpiece was consecrated in 1489.
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Northern Renaissance; Kraków, Poland; religious
Medium: Triptych altarpiece made with oak and larch wood; high relief and low relief sculptures carved from linden wood and painted
Dimensions: 42 ft. tall by 36 ft. wide (with all doors open). Some of the sculpted figures are nearly 9 ft. tall.
Current location: St. Mary’s Basilica, Kraków, Poland

At 42 feet tall and 36 feet wide, the altarpiece in St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków, Poland made by German sculptor Veit Stoss is the largest Gothic altarpiece known. The center of the altarpiece depicts the death of the Virgin Mary (surrounded by the 12 apostles) below, and the Assumption of Mary above (see detail in second image above) in high relief. The interior of the wings show six scenes of the Joys of Mary in low relief (see top image above). On top of the structure is the Coronation of Mary in heaven, with Sts. Stanislaus and Adalbert (see first image below). When closed, the altarpiece shows 12 low relief scenes of the life of Jesus and the life of Mary (see second image below). The predella shows the Tree of Jesse. All the sculpted scenes are painted. The style is primarily Gothic, but Stoss, a transitional figure, had begun to adopt some of the naturalism associated with the Renaissance. Each figure is individualized and the carving and painting together allow the depiction of strong emotions. Random Trivia: During World War II, members of the church’s congregation tried to hide the altarpiece from the Germans by dismantling it and distributing the sections in boxes, but soldiers discovered the valuable artwork, confiscated it, and brought it to the basement of Nuremberg Castle in Germany, where it survived Allied bombing raids. In 1946, Germany returned the altarpiece and Poland conducted a 10-year restoration. The altarpiece was replaced in St. Mary’s in 1957, where it remains.

265. Lady with an Ermine

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: c. 1489-1490
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Milan, Italy; secular portrait
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 21 inches tall by 15 inches wide
Current location: Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland
lady with an ermine
The first of Leonardo da Vinci’s works using oil paints, Lady with an Ermine is a portrait of Cecilia Galleriani, the 16-year-old mistress of Leonardo’s employer, Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan. Miss Galleriani was not an aristocrat, and her clothing, hair style and veil would have identified her as a commoner to contemporary viewers. The ermine symbolizes purity, for legend had it that it would rather die than dirty its white coat, but it may also be a reference to Sforza, who was a member of the Neapolitan Order of the Ermine. Leonardo’s composition is a spiraling pyramid; the subject is painted in three quarter profile (one of Leonardo’s favorite poses) and appears to be turning to her left. The portrait is also notable for the detailed attention the painter paid to the subject’s hand, down to the flexed tendon in her bent finger, reflecting Leonardo’s interest in human anatomy.

266. An Old Man and His Grandson

Artist: Domenico Ghirlandaio
Date: 1490
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Florence, Italy; secular portrait
Medium: Tempera paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 2 ft. tall by 1.5 ft. wide
Current location: Musée du Louvre, Paris, France
old man and grandson
Despite the title (which is not original), there is no direct evidence about the identity of the man and boy in the double portrait by Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio known as An Old Man and His Grandson. Their clothes indicate that the man and boy come from the aristocracy, and the entire composition indicates that they have strong feelings of love for each other. Their eyes meet on a diagonal line, while the boy’s left hand reaches out to touch the old man in a moving gesture of affection. This connection between the two is reinforced by the red garments worn by both. The old man’s deformed nose is probably the result of rhinophyma, a non-fatal skin disease. Ghirlandaio made a drawing of the same man, possibly after his death.

267. The Garden of Earthly Delights

Artist: Hieronymous Bosch (born Jheronimus van Aken)
Date: There is no consensus about the date of the work. Published estimates range from 1480 to 1515, with a significant number narrowing the time span to 1490-1510 or (even narrower) 1495-1505.
Period/Style: Early Netherlandish; Northern Renaissance; The Netherlands; religious
Medium: Triptych make with oil paints on oak panels
Dimensions: 6.75 ft. tall by 12.7 ft. wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
boschThe work of Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch is filled with enigmas: fantastic creatures, bizarre encounters, unearthly landscapes, and symbols, the meaning of which art historians have debated for centuries. The inspirations for Bosch’s images are not clear; his unique vision appears to have no precursors in Western art. Of all the enigmatic works of art Bosch created, the triptych known as The Garden of Earthly Delights has generated the most commentary and the widest range of interpretations. When the side panels are closed, we see a transparent sphere set in a void (see first image below). A tiny God sits at upper left. Inside the sphere, we see a watery earth with plants and rocks but no other living things. Is this the world on Day 3 of Creation, as some believe, or is it a vision of the Deluge, the Flood that washed over the world to cleanse it of sin? The interior panels show: (1) on the left, the Garden of Eden, with God presenting Eve to Adam amidst some fantastical scenes and creatures; note how both Adam and Eve are in physical contact with God, who is represented not as an old man but as a young, Jesus-like figure (see detail in second image below); (2) on the right, we see the torments and fires of Hell, with demons torturing, eating and defecating humans (see detail in third image below); note the many musical instruments – unlike many artists, Bosch apparently sees music as a pathway to sin. The center panel has generated the most controversy (see detail in fourth image below). Does it show an earthly paradise from an innocent time before humans knew shame (note that the center panel shares the landscape and horizon line with the Garden of Eden panel) or does it represent the lustful sinful existence of depraved humanity that must be wiped out by the Flood? Any why all the giant fruit? Art historians are deeply divided on these questions. Bosch had few imitators at the time (although Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Giuseppe Arcimboldo were influenced by him) but in the 20th Century, his vivid illusions and fantastic creations inspired the Surrealists, some of whom populated their dreamscapes with Bosch-like creatures.

Bosch_- _The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_exterior_(shutters)  bosch earthly delights detail 1
 bosch hell detail  

268. Virgin of the Rocks (II)

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: Most scholars date this version of the Virgin of the Rocks to 1495-1508, although some say it was painted between 1483 and 1486.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Italy; religious
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 6.2 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide
Current location: National Gallery, London, England, UK

Scholars have long debated why Leonardo da Vinci painted two versions of Virgin on the Rocks, which are now in the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in London, respectively (see National Gallery version in image). They do known that Leonardo accepted a commission for an altarpiece for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in the church of San Francesco Maggiore in Milan that was due in 1483. They also know that he delivered an altarpiece with a center panel of the Virgin on the Rocks to the church in 1508. Unanswered questions are: (1) Which painting came first? and (2) Why paint a second one? One theory is that Leonardo finished the commissioned work and then sold it to a private buyer, requiring him to paint another. Most scholars believe that the Louvre version was painted in 1483-1486 and the National Gallery version in 1495-1508, but a few experts believe the order should be reversed. Everyone seems to agree that the altarpiece wings, each depicting a musical angel, were painted by Leonardo’s assistants (second and third images). Virgin of the Rocks (II) focuses on the adoration of Jesus by the infant John the Baptist in a rocky landscape with the Virgin Mary and an angel. Like many of Leonardo’s works, the composition is pyramidal. Art historians have pointed out a number of differences between this painting and Virgin of the Rocks (I) in the Louvre: (1) these figures are larger; (2) the angel’s hand is not raised and pointing, but rests on her knee; (3) the angel’s eyes are downturned, not looking at the viewer; (4) the rocks are painted more meticulously; (5) there is less sfumato; (6) there is very little use of the color red; (7) haloes and John’s cross-shaped staff are present here; (8) the flowers are fanciful and not botanically accurate.

269. Procession in St. Mark’s Square (Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco) 

Artist: Gentile Bellini
Date: c. 1496
Period/Style: Renaissance; Venetian School; Venice, Italy; religious
Medium: Tempera on canvas
Dimensions: 11.4 ft. tall by 25 ft. wide
Current location: Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

The painting was commissioned for the Grand Hall of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in Venice. The canvas commemorates a miracle said to have taken place on April 25, 1444 involving a relic said to be a piece of the cross that Jesus was crucified on. When members of the Scuola were bringing the relic through St. Mark’s Square, a man knelt in front of it and asked for his sick son to be healed (the man is barely visible to the right of the canopy). When the man went home, the child was cured.  

270. The Last Supper

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: The work was begun in 1495 and completed in 1498.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Milan Italy; religious
Medium: Egg tempera paints on a dry wall prepared with a mixture of gesso, pitch and mastic, covered with a layer of plaster and white lead (a brightening agent)
Dimensions: 15.1 ft. tall by 28.8 ft. wide
Current location: Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

Just because a technique is new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be better. So when Leonardo da Vinci decided to forego the fresco technique, which limited his color palette, and try something new when painting The Last Supper on the wall of the mausoleum of his patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, it turned out to be a big mistake. Instead of mixing pigment with wet plaster, as wall paintings had been done for centuries, Leonardo decided to prepare the wall with a mixture of gesso, pitch and mastic, add a layer of plaster and a brightening agent (white lead), wait for it to dry and then paint on the dry plaster using egg tempera paints. Unfortunately for Leonardo, the Duke and art history, the mixture never set properly and bits of the mural began flaking off almost immediately after Leonardo finished the work in 1498. Add humidity, Allied bombs in World War I, angry anti-clerical French troops, a doorway cut out of the painting in 1583, and numerous botched restorations, and it is amazing there is anything left of Leonardo’s masterpiece. A comprehensive but highly controversial restoration project that ended in 1999 removed much of the paint added by earlier restorations and revealed a somewhat more subdued Last Supper, although it is not clear how much of it is the original (see detail in second image above). The painting adorns the end wall of what is now the dining hall of the convent of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church. It depicts the moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. The reactions of the various disciples, painted in groups of threes, are shown with vivid facial expressions and gestures. Without looking at each other, both Jesus and Judas are reaching for the same piece of bread; when their hands meet a moment later, it will be a sign that Judas is the betrayer. The painting is a premier example of single-point linear perspective; all the perspective lines meet at a vanishing point on or just above Jesus’ head (see perspective analysis diagram below left). Random Trivia: The painting has been much imitated and parodied, including tableaux vivant in the films Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961), MASH (Robert Altman, 1970) (see image below right), and Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014).
 mash last supper

271. The Apocalypse (Apocalypse with Pictures)

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Date: 1498
Period/Style: Northern Gothic; Northern Renaissance; Germany; religious
Medium: Book of prints made from woodcuts
Dimensions: 15.2 in. tall by 11 in. wide; 15 prints in each book.
Current locations: Various collections
Durer_Apocalypse four horsemen
It was 1498 and Europe was anxiously awaiting the end of the century. A significant number of Christians believed that the year 1500 would bring the Apocalypse – the series of cataclysmic events predicted in the Bible involving a battle between good and evil, the breaking of the seven seals, the appearance of a seven-headed dragon, and finally the second coming of Jesus Christ. The timing could not have been more perfect for German artist Albrecht Dürer to publish a new edition of the Book of Revelation called Apocalypse with Pictures, in both German and Latin. The book contained 15 woodcut prints by Dürer illustrating the terror and calamity of St. John’s apocalyptic visions so dramatically that his prints – which, unlike most paintings, were affordable to the middle classes – soon made him famous throughout Europe. Dürer’s woodcut technique was astonishing – he defied the limitations of the process and created highly detailed, realistic monochrome images. (His prints sparked a revival of this, the oldest form of printmaking.) Each book emphasized the illustrations by placing them on the right (or recto) page, with the text on the left (verso) side. While the entire set of prints received acclaim, the most famous was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in which Dürer effectively uses parallel lines and strong diagonal motion to depict Death, Famine, War and Plague wreaking havoc.  The images shown are:
(1) No. 4: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (top image above);
(2) No. 5: The Opening of the Fifth and Sixth Seals (image at left above);
(3) No. 7: The Hymn in Adoration of the Lamb (image at right above);
(4) No. 10: St. John Eating the Book (below left); and
(5) No. 11: The Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Seven-Headed Dragon (below right).


272. Self-Portrait

Artist: Albrecht Dürer
Date: 1498
Period/Style: Northern Renaissance; Germany; self-portrait
Medium: Oil paints on wood panels
Dimensions: 20.5 inches tall by 16.1 inches wide
Current location: Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain
durer self portrait
German painter Albrecht Dürer painted his second of three adult self-portraits after he had returned from a visit to Italy, where he felt that artists were treated with more respect than in his native land. (During a return trip to Italy some years later, he wrote to a friend: “How I shall freeze after this sun! Here I am a gentleman, at home only a parasite.” In this self-portrait, at the age of 26, he presents himself in a haughty, self-confident pose, with the stylish clothing (Italian, of course, complete with silk gloves) of an effeminate dandy who might circulate among society’s elite. The artist – who by 1498 had already achieved financial success in his profession – presents himself to his home audience as a master artist worthy of their praise: here I am, take me seriously. The Alpine landscape outside the window has been analyzed in numerous ways: a reminiscence of Dürer‘s Italian travels, a reflection of his inner mental states, or a prediction of things to come. The self-portrait was popular with royalty: at various points, the work was owned by Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain.

273. Pietà

Artist: Michelangelo (full name: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni)
Date: Commissioned in 1497; completed in 1499.
Period/Style: High Renaissance; Rome, Italy; religious
Medium: Sculpture carved from Carrara marble
Dimensions: 5.7 ft. tall by 6.4 ft . wide
Current location: St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City 
Sculptures of the Pietà (“the pity”), a standard religious subject depicting a seated Mary holding the dead body of her son Jesus, were common in Northern Europe from the 14th Century, but Michelangelo’s late 15th Century masterpiece was the first (or one of the first) Italian sculptures on the subject. (The image below left shows an early German example from c. 1375-1400, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.) Michelangelo depicts Mary as younger, calmer and less sorrowful than in other versions of the scene. According to the artist himself, the youthful appearance of Mary, the mother of a 33-year-old son, was a result of her extreme purity. As he told his friend and biographer Ascanio Condivi:”Do you not know that chaste women stay fresh much more than those who are not chaste? How much more in the case of the Virgin, who had never experienced the least lascivious desire that might change her body?” On the other hand, Vatican tour guides tell visitors that the face of Mary is that of Michelangelo’s own young mother, who died when the artist was six years old. The Pietà was originally commissioned by French Cardinal Jean de Bilhères for his funeral monument but was later moved to its current position inside the first chapel on the right as one enters St. Peter’s Basilica. The Pietà is the only artwork Michelangelo ever signed; the story goes that he overheard someone attributed the work to one of his rivals, Christoforo Solari, after which Michelangelo carved his name onto the sash across Mary’s chest. Late in his life, Michelangelo carved a second Pietà, known as The Florentine Pietà (or The Deposition), which includes his self-portrait as Joseph of Arimathea. It is now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence (see image below right). Random Trivia: The statue is now protected behind a plate of thick glass after an incident on Pentecost Sunday in 1972 when Hungarian geologist Lazlo Toth, yelling “I am Jesus Christ! I have returned from the dead!”, did serious damage to the statue with a hammer, breaking off one of Mary’s arms and disfiguring her face. As pieces of marble went flying, some onlookers made off with them, including a piece of Mary’s original nose that has never been returned. The statue was restored using marble from the same quarry, including some taken from the back of the statue.
Pietà_(Vesperbild)_MET_DT345345  Florentine Pieta

274. The Damned Cast into Hell, from The Last Judgment

Artist: Luca Signorelli
Date: c. 1499-1505
Period/Style: Renaissance; Italy
Medium: Fresco painted on chapel interior walls
Dimensions: 23 feet wide
Current location: Orvieto Cathedral, Orvieto, Italy
signorelli damned
Instead of presenting the Last Judgment in one combined scene (see Giotto, Michelangelo and others), Italian painter Luca Signorelli expanded the story to fill an entire chapel in the Orvieto Cathedral, with six different scenes, each dedicated to one aspect of the drama, including The Elect Called to Heaven, the Resurrection, the Deeds of the Antichrist and the Apocalypse, The Damned Cast into Hell and The Damned Carried Across the River to the Underworld. The most powerful portion of the fresco program is The Damned Cast into Hell. Three archangels (Michael, Gabriel and Raphael) in full armor watch (see detail in first image below) as bizarrely-pigmented ghouls and demons carry the damned to hell, where they are tortured and abused. Building on the work of Michelangelo, Signorelli used the opportunity of the wide space to experiment with showing the nude, often quite muscular human bodies in a multiplicity of positions and the human face in a panoply of expressions (see detail in images below left and right). Random Trivia: Signorelli painted himself into Hell – he is the bluish single-horned demon near the very center of the composition (see image below right).


To continue on to Art History 101, Part 4 (1500-1599), click here.

3 thoughts on “Art History 101 – Part 3: 1400-1499

  1. michael garcia

    Hello, I have a painting on tapestry about 5′ by 3.5′ angel portrait about 300 years old. out of a castle from England. love to send photo via e-mail so it could be viewed.

  2. Pingback: 19/09/2019 – Pre-Production: Concept design and image research. – Jess's Blog

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