Spatiality and perspective in fifteenth century Renaissance Art
Fifteenth century paintings and sculptures essentially chronicled around the spatial, three-dimensional inter-relationship between figures and objects, on a two-dimensional space. Due to lack of orthogonals or parallel lines, landscapes were a difficult work.
‘Although we don’t think of it every time we write about naturalism in visual art, perspective is there at the foundations of our concept. It is the firmest link between paintings and the measurable world known to physics, and therefore, even if that link is not usually evoked in any grand detail, perspective plays a central role in art historical writing that involves versions of naturalism.’ (1)
Andrea Mantegna’s The Agony in the Garden
Andrea Mantegna’s landscape scene depicted in The Agony in the Garden (egg tempera, with oil on panel) does without the single point perspective and still creates the illusion of pictorial space successfully. The space as shown, is divided into three distinct planes and not based on single-point perspective. The three planes are: the foreground, (by the Apostles and Christ), the middle ground wherein Judas is shown leading the troop of soldiers away from the city, his right hand pointing forward, and the background of the distant blue hills. The comparative proportion of sizes of the figures here create the sense of space and distance. The Apostles, Christ and the tree with the black bird atop are much bigger figures than Judas and the hills and trees drawn further back. Christ, kneeling before a group of five angels who are shown holding the instruments of imminent Passion to be handed over to him, is much bigger in size than them as he is meant to be more in proximity. The same holds true for the Apostles and the tree in the foreground. The city and its walls in the middle ground are as tall as Judas, but, we know, by visual logical deduction, that Judas is and must be in front and below the city in his procession. The chiaroscuro created in the landscape by a strong source of light from the upper left corner, provides a relatable mould to the figures. No straight lines retreat into the visual plane in the scene. Rather the left foreground has a road winding to the middle ground and vanishing into the background which serves as the connecting space of the three planes, as on objectively perceiving the scene, the three planes come across as belonging to the same landscape, even though the road is not painted in continuity throughout the scene.
Moving on to the introduction of perspective into the larger scene of fifteenth century Renaissance art, a letter back then read ‘An ingenious man called Filippo Brunelleschi’, (2) a specialist in physics of optics, stepped in. His biographer, Antonio Manetti( 1423- 97) wrote that Brunelleschi esssentially ‘propounded and realized what painters today call perspective (and) originated the rule that is essential to whatever has been accomplished since his time in that area’. (3)
A plethora of reflections on the concept of perspective was forwarded by significant theorists of the fifteenth century such as Piero della Francesca, Leonardo Da Vinci, so understanding of perspective as an element of art was very much there by the time Manetti wrote his biography in the 1480s. However, Brunelleschi’s expostulation paved way for a conscious use of perspective by succeeding as well as contemporary artists thereon.
Masaccio’s Trinity and Francesca’s Resurrection of Christ are two such paintings which are exemplary artistic works , what with the sharpness and clarity of the messages evoked through the single point perspective, even before Brunelleschi’s experiments had surfaced.
Masaccio’s Trinity depicts the Mercy seat. Christ is shown put on the cross held by God the Father to evoke human repentance and a seeking for forgiveness for human sins. Mary and Saint John are shown on the right and left sides of crucified Christ respectively, one pointing to and the other acknowledging the powerful scene with enfolded arms to add to the magnitude of the apparition. Berto di Bartolomeo and his wife Sandra kneel at the base of the Corinthian pilasters that border the divine scene, on a lower plane than the heavenly figures. The Trinity is touted to draw reference from Brunelleshi’s sculpture ‘Christ Crucified’. The barrel vault here, due to its spatial element is eye-catching. The orthogonals help in finding the vanishing point through the perpendiculars to the picture space. Massaccio employs the single-point perspective to reconstruct the space herein, albeit suiting the concerns of the artist as an artist, and not from the scope of a sculptor like Brunelleschi’s sculpture. The eye level of the onlooker is the centric point here. In the Trinity, unlike earlier paintings where donors were painted smaller than the God to maintain the divine hierarchy, all the figures inhabit the same scenic space so hierarchy of distance from the eye level of the viewer comes into play as the farther the figures pushed back into the space, the smaller they are painted irrespective of their mortality or divinity.
Piero Della Francesca’s Resurrection of Christ
Piero Della Francesca’s fresco, Resurrection of Christ, employs the single point perspective beautifully to transfuse the binaries of divinity and mortality in the visual plane. The foreground shows four unconscious soldiers with their contracted heads and reclined pose before the sarcophagus of Christ, with two side faces, one back face and an upward face resting on the sarcophagus. These vertically shortened pose of the figures create the space of mortal reality juxtaposed by the space of divinity and immortality of the wholly frontal and vertical figure of Christ rising from his sarcophagus at the moment of his resurrection.
After Brunelleschi, stepping up to make his bit of contribution to the artistic concept of perspective, was Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 72). He was an exponential figure who expounded on the theories of single-point perspective in his book, ‘On Painting’. Geometrical basics of points, lines and surfaces are extended to his discussion of perspective. Alberti deemed perspective to be a ‘mixed science’ that coupled light optics with mathematical geometry and he describes seeing as ‘rays stretching between the eye and the surface seen’. Alberti greatly impacted later artists through his work. ‘ First, an artist created a “floor” (a ground or stage on which figures and objects would be placed) in a painting and drew a receding grid to act as a guide to the relative scale of all other elements within the picture. Alberti suggested relating the size of the floor squares to a viewer’s height. ‘ (4) This suggestion was of extreme significance in the context of Renaissance art because it unveiled an important, inherent principle of the Renaissance. Painting as an art was now no longer a creative medium to glorify the supernatural power of God as it were in Medieval Europe, but, rather to establish the viewer to painting relationship and the viewer’s visual perspective upon setting his/her eyes on a painting as a conceptual basis of the brush strokes of the artist. This served as a brain-racking, intellectual visual fodder for the viewer.
Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ
Rooting on notions of single-point perspective propounded by Alberti, Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ (1450-60) is another painting foundered strongly on its technicality and spatial intensity in a century where the subject of the art preceded geometry somewhat. The scene is halved into two by a Corinthian column and colonnade. The agelessness brought forth by the scene is astounding. The foreground has three impassive, still men stand mutely before three distinct backgrounds: the black haired, bearded man before Corinthian palace, the blond man before a tree and the side-facing, sparse-haired man in an illustrious raiment before a house. Christ, whose flagellation is the subject of the painting, is as if made to retreat into an interior space that is behind the space of the three men. The distinct spaces created thus are interesting. Christ is bound to a column topped by the golden statue of Apollo. Each of the three men in the foreground as well as the adjoining figures around Christ including Pontius Pilate are oblivious to the divine light that brightens up the ceiling, highlighting its patterns. Christ’s face and body shines, washed in the light emanating from below between the columns. Pontius Pilate, seated on the throne, purple clothed man on the immediate right of Christ looks to the left, yet unseeingly. The three men, probably a lawyer, a craftsman and a merchant, and the other figures, through their ignorance of divinity, sustain the suffering of Christ. The relative proximity of the figures again is depicted by their proportions.
Masolino’s The Raising of Tabitha and Healing of the Cripple
Masolino, when taken into consideration in light of the shortcomings of the technique of Fresco painting which he adhered to, like many artists in Italy back then, achieves excellent spatial continuity in his painting, ‘ The Raising of Tabitha and Healing of the Cripple’. Here, interestingly for the onlooker, the figures share the same height with unequal distance of their feet from the bottom edge of the painting. The vanishing point here can be located between the two gorgeously dressed men at the centre and helps in locating where the horizon is, despite the fact that the buildings depicted in the foreground and background break the horizontal extent and continuity of the scene. The viewpoint is about the height of the heads of the figures as the horizon line and the heads merge, creating a structure called ‘horizon line isocephaly’. The two figures crouching on the fore ground, Tabitha and her attendants on the right and the beggar on the left are as per the horizon line, below it, hence below the viewpoint. But the pictorial space hence created is botched a bit due to the vanishing point coming between the two men who are essentially inessential figures here with respect to the scene of healing depicted. Nevertheless, the painting still stands as a compelling one from Masolino.
Before the mid-fifteenth century, single-point perspective was cornered among Italian artists, but thereon, artists from the north of Alps who went south for pilgrimage to Rome or to serve an Italian patron, were exposed to the concept. However, artists in the north of Alps explored other concepts available too, widely. The north sprouted the aerial perspective as their paintings were based on landscapes and outdoor scenes, with the use of oil paint. Here, therefore, single point perspective was needless. But the Italians were the ones to write about the aerial perspective. Leonardo said: ‘there is another perspective which we call aerial…in such air the furthest things seen in it – as in the case of mountains – appear blue, almost the colour of the air when the sun is in the east.’ (5) Leonardo explained that the mountains appear light in colour at their feet and darkly shaded at the summit and the sky should seem whiter near the horizon and darker away from it due to atmospheric density. The air being less dense away from the horizon, colours appear darker due to the lesser absorption of light by the thin air which causes as he put ‘ the most beautiful blue that is in itself the darkest’. His famous painting Mona lisa (1503-06) contains the aerial perspective.
Dieric Bouts’ Last supper from the altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament
An early Netherlandish painter, Dieric Bouts’ Last supper from the altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament (1464-7) uses the single-point perspective in the central panel so that the Apostles are visible clearly as they are shown sitting round the table through the spatiality thus created. A sort of superior perspective is created here as the viewer looks down on the scene, the vanishing point and the ‘centric lines’ being set high up in the painting as the orthogonals meet above Christ’s head, at the intersection point of the mantelpiece and the shutters. The horizon through the windows and doors have been placed low deliberately to create the visual space for the landscape and the sky. On the whole though, this painting is sort of a half-baked work despite the space being accurately done using perspective.
Petrus Christus’ Holy Family in a Domestic Interior
Nextly, Petrus Christus (1410- 75), another Renaissance painter, brought the single point perspective to Netherlands from Italy. In his Holy Family in a Domestic Interior (1460-7), the interior of the home shown is a setting particular to Netherlands. The prodigious employment of perspective channels an unbroken, path-like receding view from the foreground where Mary is poised with the child in her arms, right through rooms into the one where Joseph enters. The folds of the green curtains on the wooden stepping to the bed, the ‘hortus conclusus’ or walled garden to the left of the foreground, creates distinct visual spaces, where the walled garden symbolises her virginity. Leonardo’s aerial perspective is brought up here as the foreground colours are darker than the ones in the background. The orthogonals visually meet up to Joseph and the bed, stressing on his familial importance in the scene.
‘A youth should first learn perspective, then the proportion of things’, Leonardo da Vinci stated in his treatise of art composed of writings which was an exposition of Italy’s state of art in the fifteenth century as claimed by Francis Ames-Lewis. (5) In Panofsky’s essay entitled ‘Perspective as symbolic form’ , he states that ‘ the history of perspective may be understood with equal right as a triumph of the human struggle for power, denying distance’. ( 6) This seems to be a heightened declaration on the state of Renaissance art in fifteenth century Italy. Ernst Gombrich proclaims by defining perspective as ‘precisely what it claims to be, a method of representing a building or any scene as it would be seen from a particular vantage point (7), and just that.
But on a concluding note, perspective was a watermark development that marked Renaissance art as back in an age where modern mediums such as photography and cinema did not exist for capturing scenes in and around, the illusion of reality could be still spaced out in the paintings by integrating the science of optics and mathematics of geometry to create a prismatic visual communication with the viewer. So subjects of Humanist education fused in the form of visual space in the paintings and merged the binaries of what we know today as two distinct disciplines, namely Humanities and Science, in a bid to depict and express cultural ideas and visions. Thus, this brought about the uniqueness in the fifteenth century Renaissance Art that it is thereafter known for across the globe.
(1) Elkins, 1994, p.11.
(2) Letter of the poet Domenico da Prato to his friend, Alessandro di Michele di Ghino Rondinelli, 1413, p.125.
(3) Manetti, 1970, p. 42.
(4) ‘Discovering linear perspective’ @ http://www.renassainceconnection.org
(5) Ames-Lewis, 2000, p.31
(6) quoted in Holly, 1984, p.152
(7) Gombrich, 1967, p. 57.
- Campbell, Gordon Renaissance Art and Architecture
- Woods, Kim W. Making Renaissance Art