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Art Before Giotto

[Courbet, Whistler, And Manet]  [Leonardo, Raphael, And Michelangelo]  [Renaissance In Venice]  [The French Tradition]  [El Greco And Rubens]  [The Impressionists]  [Fauves And Cubists]  [The Post-Impressionists]  [Renaissance In Florence]  [The Expressionists]  [Art Before Giotto]  [Giotto And Fra Angelico]  [The Eclectics] 



Histories of European painting usually begin with Giotto. If we were concerned only or especially with the lives of the great masters we should do the same. Bui; since our interest is in the art of painting, and in the changes in the point of view of artists, we must go beyond Giotto to the earliest artistic efforts of the Christian Primitives.

It is commonly believed that European artists of the second, third and fourth centuries were clumsy and crude; we are taught to smile with indulgence upon the childish conceptions and execution of the frescoes that have been found in the Christian catacombs. But we forget that this naive, unskillful art is the work, not of the artists of the period, but of preachers untrained in drawing and painting. The zealous converts took upon themselves the task of first illustrating the Scriptures, just as today ladies on the entertainment committees of churches will often make the signs and posters for strawberry festivals, instead of hiring professional sign painters to do the work.

The real artists of early Rome, which ruled all civilized Europe, were in the employ of the rich. Not only were pagan temples decorated with frescoes, sculpture-reliefs, altar pieces and countless images of gods, but the lordly government officials vied with each other in the decorative magnificence of their homes. Artists are notoriously indifferent to religious quarrels and activities, the psychologists attributing their detachment to the fact that art is itself a religion with them-the worship of beauty; so the fervid zeal of the Christians found few converts among painters and sculptors. There was little chance of inducing a successful, talented artist to forsake the honors, rewards, and admiration of the leading classes, in order to paint the pictures or carve the altar pieces of a hunted and hated body of poor zealots (who, moreover, were by training and condition unfitted to experience a proper appreciation of art, which is to the artist almost as precious as his bread).

So the task of telling the stories of the Bible fell to the preachers or to the artisans and skilled mechanics among the converts. They made up in passionate sincere feeling what they lacked in knowledge of proportions and design and anatomy. And the lack of any artistic tradition behind their work gave it a kind of originality that has served to amuse numbers of cynics. We cannot, unfortunately, compare their crude and sincere efforts with the polished art of the pagan temples, since, in the sudden overwhelming ascendancy of Christianity in the third and fourth centuries, the Roman houses of worship and all their art were destroyed by mobs of rioting believers of the new faith. (The Christians were intent upon serving their lately acquired God and the bishops by destroying all vestiges of an immoral competition.) We may see, however, what a superior art, from the point of view of decorative skill and knowledge, the art of the pagans was, by looking at the frescoes unearthed at Pompeii, mercifully (and paradoxically) saved from destruction by burial under the lava of volcanic eruptions.

Yet we must confess that the untrained art of the early Christians moves us, in a different way of course, equally as much as the finer art of the pagan artists. There is a vitality of spirit and an emotional honesty seldom found in the more decorative work. The amateurs succeeded in instilling into their paintings something of the essence of the new religion. The spirit was stressed, not the decorative forms. The inability to draw and paint a graceful, ideal figure served, instead of hampered, the humble and pious preachers in conveying to the spectator the moral lessons of the Bible.

In order to show the difference between the art of the early Christians of Rome which was, as we have said, a sincere but amateur art, and the decorative art of the professional painters of the pagans, we reproduce a fresco of early Christian art found in the catacombs (Fig. lo), and a fragment of a Greek vase of some seven hundred years earlier (Fig. W. The fresco represents Moses striking the rock. The figures are ludicrous in drawing and proportion, yet if we look at them for a time we are affected by the simplicity and singleness of idea in the presentation. There is little art but much clarity of message, like a child's drawing, or like hieroglyphics. The Greek painting depicts a combat between the gods and the giants. It is merely decoration, beautiful in pattern, correct in drawing, skillfully executed. But it might just as well be called The Horse Fair. The spirit is missing. We are not made to feel that there is any combat going on. Turning to the Biblical illustration, we see that the crude efforts of the amateur were the first steps in the establishment of a new art which lacked the decorative principles of the professionals but which affects us through its single-minded intensity.

The most noteworthy thing about this early Christian art is that its defective drawing and proportions became symbolic o f Christianity. The Christians at first were the poor and the hunted whose only pleasure came in the contemplation of a future life. They were of necessity ascetics. The pleasures of the pagans were to them anathema. An art which represented a human being who was homely and even ugly was more suited to their spiritual faith than an art which delighted in showing man and woman as finely proportioned animals. 5o that even when there was sufficient talent among them to enable them to have their Biblical characters as good looking as the gods of the pagans, they exhibited a preference for the ill-proportioned, ascetic images as symbols of their faith.

This asceticism in Christian art is best exemplified in the art of the Byzantines. Asia Minor was early converted to the new religion, but it was centuries before there was established a church organization comparable to that at Rome. So that there is an interval of a few hundred years between the art of the catacombs and the mosaics and altar pieces of the Byzantines. There is a decidedly Oriental flavor to the latter: a sense of ornament which has remained unsurpassed for richness and inventiveness. This decorative skill shows the influence of the Chinese, in the treatment of landscape, and of the Persians in color and in pattern. There is no reason to suppose that the Byzantine artists were inferior in draughtsmanship to the ancient Greeks, yet their figures of Biblical characters, especially that of Christ, are painted in an almost hideous distortion apparently for the purpose of causing the spectator to shudder in sympathy. Their paintings, however, soon became stylized; for instance, the lines expressing the sorrow of a face were treated as symmetrical design. The reproduction illustrates this tendency.

Pagan art and pagan religion, essentially decorative, never concerned themselves with human anguish. They made physical life pleasurable-but only for those privileged to enjoy it. Opposed to this creed of lust, rituals, joyous energy, Christianity aimed at solace for the unhappy, the excluded. It opened new fields of spiritual pleasure for the physically oppressed. Art is turned from a purely objective or decorative pursuit to the rendering of human service. The artist conveys the thoughts and visions and feelings calculated to uplift the spirit. These thoughts and feelings are not dependent upon systems of decoration or other conventional means. They come from the imaginative mind and the fervent heart. In other words, we have in Christian painting the birth of subjective art.

For centuries painting in Europe remained in its amateur status. There were no doubt many itinerant artisans who lived by the profession of illustration for churches but on the whole the artisan of talent found more lucrative work in the applied arts. It was not until the Church had attained a degree of power and wealth that gave it a dominant position in State affairs that it was able to attract men of creative ability (generally Byzantines), and cause to spring up schools for professional artists. Rigid geometric design stamps this era of Primitive painting, not to be confused with the earlier art of the Martyrs. One of the outstanding teachers of this period, the thirteenth century, was Cimabue.

His work clearly shows the Byzantine influence He used gold leaf for the halos about the heads of his saints and angels, a procedure which was almost a precept of Byzantine art. His arches, columns and architectural ornament were likewise derived from Asia Minor. Only his faces and costumes are Italian. But his painting, while more realistic, is also less vital, less religiously spirited-a kind of indeterminate compromise between Oriental design and illustration of his surroundings. His work is important historically, but actually it leaves us cold.

There is nothing spiritual in the faces of his Madonnas, angels and prophets. While the tilt of the head or the gesturing hands and arms are meant to indicate some emotion, the faces are devoid of expression. They are not interesting either as painting or character portrayal. When we compare them to the faces painted by Greek artists twelve or fifteen hundred years earlier, we see what little progress had been made in the art of portraiture. We reproduce two portraits found wrapped up with mummies (Fig. 14). Although they make no pretensions to character analysis and are as objective as possible, we find that the simple representation holds us by its honesty as well as by its peculiar technique. Without any religious motive to assist him the Greek artist has put much greater character into his faces than has the mediaeval one.

Yet Cimabue's work, as we said, is interesting historically. The very lifelessness or realistic vapidity of his figures is sufficient indication of a change in religious attitude that was creeping into early Italian society. Christianity was no longer the hope of the downtrodden and the defeated; it was beginning to hold up its head. It was casting off asceticism. It was looking at the things of this world, not of the next. Not until the Renaissance, a hundred and fifty years later, did it completely emerge as a pleasurable, decorative, pagan sort of faith. But the first warnings of the change were visible in the unrealized efforts of this Florentine Primitive, Cimabue.

Cimabue was born in 1240 and died in 1301. The condition of Florentine society in his day throws as much light upon him as his pictures do upon the changing ideals of his compatriots. In the latter part of the thirteenth century, Italy was already renowned for its cultural advancement over the rest of Europe. The French philosopher Taine draws a vivid picture of the times, contrasting the high civilization of Italy with the barbarous warring races of the north who lived in brutality and ignorance. Historians of the period describe vividly the interest of the Florentine nobles and citizens in the works of the architects, painters, sculptors and poets. Charles of Anjou, more appreciative of art than most of his countrymen of that period, found in Florence an environment to his regal taste. On one of his visits he was so thrilled by the art of Cimabue, that, accompanied by his lords and ladies, he marched in procession with the citizens and their trumpeters, from the studio of the artist to the Church of Santa Maria Novella where "the largest altar piece yet painted" was to be installed.

We note here that the general interest in art was accompanied by a certain materialistic urge for pomp and splendor. The Church encouraged these tendencies. The stage is already set for the Renaissance. There were, of course, certain direct causes which brought about the sudden lush productivity of art that amazed the world. But we must avoid the popular error that Cimabue and his fellow* Primitives who painted such droll canvases lived in an unorganized society, among barbarous illiterates, who at the year 1450 suddenly went artistic, thus producing a Renaissance. The cultural soil was already there, it only remained for the genius to plant the seed which was later to flourish so richly. Giotto was that genius.