Thursday, 3 October 2013

Lecture one in a new term: Am I persuaded?

No nudes thanks, we're post-Trent Catholics
It's that time of year again when we're dusting off the pencil cases and hole reinforcers and toddling off to university as if the summer didn't happen. This first term, second year, is shaping up to be purgatorial because the options were rather limited. I opted rather anxiously to do 'Art of Persuasion: Catholic art of the reformation'.

The reminder to treat the past (and religion) as a foreign country is never more important than in this tricky area. To distance yourself from your own faith (or lack thereof) and maintain an open minded historical perspective, concentrating on what they believed THEN is crucial. I'm thinking of the Catholic Church as a political entity rather than anything religious or spiritual and as we are supposed to be thinking about belief in context, this should work.

This introductory lecture was a kaleidoscope of sacred images, spaces, and monuments. Dr Caldwell opened with an image of the crossing of St Peter, from the Basilica of the same saint. This church took over a century to construct and it importance to the Catholic Church can't be overestimated. The focus was on Rome, the reason for the church's entire existence.

These religious spaces were fundamental to the Catholic faith. Making concrete difficult concepts, giving shape and form to ideas, and ultimately making the divine visual. They were designed to transcend the everyday.

Sculptors such as Bernini recognised the importance of space and created entire 'experiences'. Seen in context, the art, space, music, scents combined to present a multimedia experience. This was important in shaping the congregation's idea of god and their beliefs. The laity, apparently, were generally ignorant of their faith; even if they knew about it, they didn't think about their faith, it just was. Rites of passage, birth, marriage, death were dominated by the church.

At this point I had to query whether the common person was so ignorant, did they know the right/wrong things? Take Menocchio, the miller who flummoxed the inquisition with talk of angels, worms and cheese. How many others thought about their faith in this learned way? Maybe it's only me that would have chewed the fat with this thoughtful man?

The next question she posed was 'why is there so much art'? comparing it to the white washed, text smeared walls of Protestant churches. Is the art the bible of the illiterate? The ruling classes were well aware of art's power to persuade. We moderns may not be convinced when we see a religious painting in a museum / art gallery space. However in the right church context, separating the sensory and experience is impossible. It's not art for arts sake, it's the entire package. It wasn't a patron showing off their knowledge, this art (in the widest sense) fulfilled a different function or purpose.

Annibale Carrracci 'Crucifixion' 1582: The world at this time was at war for souls, whether in Europe, South America, the Middle East (crusades). This is important and central to the period. This painting isn't a narrative, the back story knowledge is assumed. The stark shape of the cross is an iconic image. The painting stands for striking new things and was an expression of new directions within post-tridentine art. The figures in the picture weren't there at the crucifixion which is a departure from the new reality. But there is no doubt about the importance of Christ, well lit, elevated, demonstrating redemption. Through his sacrifice everything is going to be ok.

The Circignani painting is an entirely different style. Art historians can't think globally, but regional and in this case Tuscan. It's most definitely propaganda, full of colour and drama, the ship of the church is being ravaged by winds and seas but will prevail. Totally different audience from the previous painting.

Caravaggio's 'Ecstasy of St. Francis' is not big and brash but intimate, small, contemplative, intensely emotion and quietly personal, offering private access to the divinity.

Del Conte's 'Holy Family' provides one aspect of the virgin Mary; cf the assumption picture. These proliferated as private devotional images, offering a sense of normality and domesticity so that women could relate to her, a role model.

Carracci's 'Assumption of the Virgin' depicts Mary as apart, inaccessible, perfect, and in a totally different realm from the holy family. However if you look at just the painting without the setting, you miss its purpose and function. It is an altar piece in a funerary chapel, vying with Caravaggio in the same place. There is fabulously ornate and fussy decoration to overwhelm and commemorate the patron.

Michelangelo's Medici chapel is came under brief scrutiny. Again she says you have to see his sculpture of Night etc as part of the chapel's ornament. She says much has been said about the sculpture, cult of personality and self expression...'banging on about neoplatonism'. Clearly not a fan of certain art historians then!

We briefly looked at the architecture of Borromini (can be a bit scary but have to think about the space - pure, focusing -physically guiding us through the church). Then Bernini's gaudy Tomb of Alexander VII, followed by the Dome of the Gesu (a celestial, multimedia experience). We finished with Michelangelo's Last Judgment which was done for Paul III's private chapel. This image became more controversial, with debate around the proprietorial nature of image, as well as a major problem for those of a reformist bent. Nudes were later covered up.

Our tutor concentrates on art which perhaps isn't classically aesthetically pleasing but instead communicates with, and controls, the soul and mind. In an age of artistic celebrity, she enjoys discussions about art in an age of art. She also looks to trying to understand how authorities recognised the importance of the art and why the explosion of religious imagery. Of course the effects of the 1563 Council Edicts weren't immediate. She cited Bronzino's excessive use of nudity in his St Lawrence, saying he had all the problems (of Michelangelo) without the genius. His art has a intellectual virtuosity which put him on a collision course with the church.

Of course, inevitably Bronzino is one of my artistic heroes. I feel like I'm embarking on a pilgrimage to a very dark period of art history.

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