I'm currently brushing up on my history of art because I want to do a seminar wherein I discuss the development of Western culture and its worldviews. I plan on entitling it "The Heart of Art: How worldviews shape art and culture." I've done this for my classes in the past, and want to now present it to the wider community.
Today I came across a great article at artyfactory.com entitled, Artists, Movements, and Styles in Western Art. There was one line in it that caught my attention though. The author says of the Gothic era, "These were very formal artistic traditions with rigorous religious conventions that limited the personal creativity of the artist." (Italics added for emphasis).
The author obviously has a slant; and one that is certainly against Christianity. Unfortunately, What he doesn't seem to understand is that every artist is limited by his rigorous religious conventions! Everyone has a worldview, and no one can break free of those religious principles. All of his art will be an expression of his most basic personal convictions (be they christian, secular, postmodern, etc).
What the author fails to understand is that the artists of the Renaissance are just as creatively limited as the Gothics. Their humanism forms for them an artistic template that restricts their creativity.
As it is said, "Culture is a product of cult." That is to say, a society will reflect what it worships. Or, a society's laws, art, education, etc will be the expression of its fundamental beliefs.
Let's look at some examples. To the right we have a picture of a Gothic style church. The spires that stretch heavenward like long needles are characteristic of this period, as are the tall pointed windows. The design of the building is to point you up to the sky. All the lines are drawing your head towards the very place where God is said to dwell.
Add to this the feeling of transcendence that is imposed upon you by the structure. The building is obviously enormous. You can even tell that the interior will will be just as grand. All this is to make you feel small and help you get a sense of how inferior you are in comparison to the awesome majesty of God.
Why didn't they just build a little theater-type church, like the ones that we have today? It is because the architecture reflects the prevailing notion of God in this period. God is transcendent. He is wholly "other" and deserving of the highest degree of reverence. It would be impossible (and maybe even considered blasphemous) for them to create a church in the contemporary style.
This also helps to understand why Gothic art portrays people as long and ghostly looking figures that are always standing on their toes. Someone might initially wonder if these these artists were capable of making "real" men? Did they not have the skill set to make real feet touching the ground?
The fact is that they very well could have. Their skills were excellent. However, they had a reason for portraying people in this manner. The artists were usually depicting saints and holy figures such as the angels, apostles, Mary, or Jesus. And as they did they sought to portray them as "other worldly."
Notice Mary in this painting to the left. She has a halo representing her "angelic nature." Is Mary an angel? No, but she is a holy person. Notice how she is sitting on a throne. Did Mary own a throne? Certainly not. But at the time of the painting the church had a highly exalted view of Mary.
One may ask why all the people typically look sullen. To our modern eye it looks like all the angels are on the verge of depression. But this is again to give them an other-worldly look. They gaze off into the distance because they are distant creatures being that they abide in heaven.
All of this is symptomatic of their worldview. How they understood truth came through their paintbrushes.
Now let's run forward a couple hundred years to the time of the Renaissance and look at their cult & culture.
Quite a bit of Renaissance painting is still quite religious in nature. That's because the Christian worldview was still the dominant worldview. The church was still the most significant patron of the arts too. So if you wanted to make a living as an artist, you are obviously going to go where the demand is and paint for the church.
But in the picture above, you see a distinct difference of style from the earlier Gothic period. Looking at the landscape we can tell that there is a new perspective on depth. The mountian ranges looks like a real muontian range and the setting looks like it might be a literal town in Galilee.
Moreover, the people look like real people. Their feet are flat on the ground. They have definite muscle tone. They still have halos because that is the best way to show their unique stature as apostles. But they are definitely real men.
This "realness" has evolved out of a change in worldview. The Renaissance was a "rebirth" of classical Greek and Roman ideals. Ancient Greece and Rome focused on man as the supreme ideal. The Greek philosopher Protagoras summed up the spirit of the age by saying, "Man is the measure of all things." It should be no wonder then that man should become more defined as a natural person during the Renaissance as this was a time of "rebirthing" man.
It is important to understand that this was not simply a shift of style. It was a shift of worldview. Man was coming into his own and a shift was moving away from the focus on God and things "other-worldly."
Glancing back to the picture above, one can already see that Jesus is losing some of this divinity, being that he is now a "real man." In the past, he was represented as a divine being. To be sure, Jesus was a real man because he was incarnate and had a human nature. But the shift in worldview shows a shift in the depiction of Christ.
Michelangelo gives us a perfect illustration of the paradigm shift. To the left are statues he created. They are of men seeking to tear themselves out of the rock. It is Michelangelo's way of saying, "Man makes himself."
This shows how the world in which Michelangelo lived had been converted from a Biblical (Gothic) worldview. Instead of having your mind pushed upward towards heaven and being reminded that you are completely insignificant, your mind is pushed towards yourself and your own ability. The god now being worshipped is yourself.
There is no doubt that Michelangelo was a genius artist. Nevertheless, he is just as much limited in his creative ability as the Gothic painters. His worldview is just as much a rigorous convention that puts restraints on his ability to do art.
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