Why is baby Jesus holding a bird?
And this baby Jesus is holding a bird as well!
In Renaissance religious painting, the small bird often shown in baby Jesus' hand is the European goldfinch. At that time, it was a popular pet for children because of its beautiful plumage, which included red feathers around its beak. According to James Hall in Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, “The reason for its association with the Christ Child was the legend that it acquired its red spot at the moment when it flew down over the head of Christ on the road to Calvary and, as it drew a thorn from his brow, was splashed with a drop of the Savior’s blood.” The goldfinch can symbolize the soul, resurrection, sacrifice and death... Following the plagues of the 14th century, it also took on a another meaning as a symbol of healing and redemption.
Apparently, an ornithologist named Herbert Friedmann (1946) made a scholarly study of this phenomenon in which he traced no fewer than 486 devotional pictures containing the goldfinch!
Any egg tempera paintings?
Oh, let me look into that! Are you an artist? I have found that artists are often interested in materials.
Sort of! I just came from the library and saw some really amazing egg tempera paintings.
Many of the religious paintings in the Beaux-Arts Court, where you are, were painted with tempera. In the Renaissance-era, tempera was mixed with egg and that material practice has been used actually since ancient Egypt through the Renaissance until it was eventually replaced with oil paints.
Oh! Awesome! Why was it replaced?
Mainly because the effects that can be achieved with oil paints are much greater than with tempera. Artists could achieve more color, depth and contrasts with oil. Oil takes much longer to dry allowing the artist to continually make changes and add layers of color. The surface is often brighter.
What is the significance of the color pink in the religious paintings done in Italy during for 1400s? It is so bright, I am shocked by it.
It is quite striking! I believe that that symbolism is more linked to the color red, but that the pink you see is the way that Italian painters chose to represent red at the time.
The way we think of standardized colors now has changed a lot over the centuries.
The red color is associated with Holy Spirit in Catholic imagery making it an important (thus prolific) color in religious painting. What we now call pink would have been understood as a shade of red.
Why is this baby so buff?
He does indeed seem to be sporting a bit of a six-pack! Artists during the Italian Renaissance had an interesting challenge in depicting this Christ Child because, by his very nature, he is human and divine at the same time.
So, they wanted to stress his natural baby-like behavior (being held by his earthly mother, having a chubby face), but they also wanted to give him respect and demonstrate his significance. For the latter reasons, he often looks more "adult-like" than we might expect, in certain ways. He is sometimes draped in a sheer cloth, which shows us his human baby body yet also gives him modesty and dignity.
Yay for Jesus!
So the gold trim, is this paint or a gold leaf? It's really cool and we're wondering how they accomplished this reflective look.
As for the shiny bits, that is actual gold, beaten and flattened into a very very thin sheet. This gold leaf or gilding, as it is also called, would be applied by first laying down bole, a sticky, reddish clay, on the painting. The bole provided a adhesive for the small squares of gold leaf. The gold leaf could then be adhered and burnished until it shone.
This painting even includes designs delicately hammered into the gold leaf. For example, look at the figures’ halos!
Tell me more.
This is a grand example of the transition from the Gothic to Renaissance style in Florentine painting of the 1300s. We still see the extensive use of glittering gold and the rigid structure stemming from the Byzantine tradition, but the figures, especially, are much more naturalistic.
Religious paintings were important in the Medieval and Renaissance periods as visual aids because many people could not read.
Who are the four figures around the Madonna and baby Jesus?
Clockwise from the lower left we see: John the Baptist identified by his cross-shaped staff; Saint Zenobius, patron saint of Florence, dressed as a bishop; Reparata, another patron saint of Florence characterized by her short hair; and John the Evangelist identified by his book.
Can I have more information about all of the people in this painting?
Aside from the Madonna and Jesus, the work includes two patron saints of Florence, Saint Zenobius and Reparata. Two other saints are pictured, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist. I love how they each can be identified by very specific attributes like their clothing or the things they're holding. Saint Zenobius, in the upper left, was a Bishop of Florence, which explains his clothing. Reparata, in the upper right, was a martyr, executed for her Christian faith in the Roman empire before the legalization of Christianity. Her short hair coveys that her hair was shaved before her beheading. John the baptist, in the lower left, was a prophet of Christ who lived a monk-like lifestyle alluded to by his bare feet and cross-shaped staff. Lastly, Saint John the Evangelist, in the lower right, was the author of the Fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation, which is why he holds a book.
What is the sheer fabric around the baby Jesus?
It was a compromise between portraying the baby Jesus as a child, often depicted naked in Renaissance art, but also affording him respect as the savior. This sheer drapery provided at least a modicum of modesty.
Why is Virgin Mary painted in black?
That is an interesting observation, her mantle was actually a rich blue that has darkened over time. A blue mantle became the signature, identifying garment for the Virgin during the Medieval period. The symbolism of the color was that of purity and wealth. The traditional pigment was called ultramarine and derived from lapis lazuli, a brilliant, imported, precious stone that was only mined in Afghanistan.
About the altarpieces, were they commissioned by a church, or as a personal testament of faith?
Both! Larger works were typically for church settings while smaller works can typically be expected to have been for personal devotion.
We believe, for example, that Nardo di Cione's altarpiece was meant for a small chapel within the famous Duomo in Florence.
But something like the small portraits of the Madonna and Child in Infinite Blue would have been for a wealthy homeowner for use as a focus of personal devotion.
On the third floor, here, and in many museums, so many babies looks so strange. Any reason behind that or am just being rude?
There is in fact a reason! One of the artistic innovations during the Renaissance in Europe was to sketch everything from life in order to paint it. Artists who didn't do that, had to recreate babies, for example, from memory.
Even though it sounds like a simple task, these paintings prove that without a reference in front of you, it's nearly impossible to get all the details right.
Another factor, in some paintings, is the way that artists attempt to rectify Jesus's nature as both divine and a human infant. This explains why you might see some representations of the Christ child with very adult looking muscles.
We were just wondering about these muscle bound children
Well, there you go! I admit it is strange to see an infant with such musculature. You'll also notice the Christ child is also often draped in a sheer fabric of some kind—another attempt to reconcile his humanity with his divinity.
Do the gold designs have a certain meaning in the Nardo di Cione?
The designs are largely decorative. The inclusion of gold here is a holdover from a Byzantine style of religious painting where it is meant to suggest the otherworldly, heavenly space that the Virgin and Child occupy. The patterning that Nardo di Cione includes is a more elaborate way to depict the halos and backdrop of the portrait.
Is there any speculation as to who the artist of this piece is?
This painting and its pendant (just to the right) were created by Nardo di Cione in the mid 14th century in Florence.
Nardo di Cione was a member of the Painter's Guild of Florence along with his two brothers. Nardo was especially known for his paintings produced for churches around the city and for his increasingly naturalized approach to the human form (a hallmark of the early Renaissance).
Why does the human figure have low saturation?
What you might be reading as "low saturation" may be related to the early Renaissance practice of trying to portray a more realistic human body, which meant more shading and thus more grey tones included in the flesh.
A relative paleness, however, was typical of depictions of people in Italian Renaissance art.
Why is her facial expression emotionless?
If you look at all of the faces in this painting, none of them show a lot of emotion. A painting like this was thought of as being made for God and for eternity. A resting, or relaxed face fits the function.
You may notice in depictions of the crucifixion, for example, that Mary is shown clearly grieving, but depicting someone smiling in formal painting didn’t become acceptable until the 18th century.
What does the flag in the background represent?
It's known as the flag of Christ Triumphant, because Christ is often seen carrying it in scenes of his resurrection, having triumphed over death.
Here it is carried by Reparata, a patron saint of Florence and martyr. Martyrs, in Christianity, are considered to have also triumphed over death. Additionally, it can be seen as foreshadowing the resurrection of the Christ child depicted in this painting.
Why do they stand in this position?
The poses are an efficient way for the artists to include all of them in the painting, rather than based in reality. One important thing to note is that Mary is sitting and larger than the saints because she is the most important figure in the painting. To further this point, the saint are all facing Mary in a way that both guides the viewer's eye to her and expresses their reverence fore her.