The “beautiful violence” of Old Masters painting, a magnificence rooted in the study of Light and Dark as technique, as style, but most of all as a symbolic representation of the very essence of life on earth, remains timeless for its sublime understanding of that which for each human soul cannot be explained…
“To define art is to define life.” —William R. Bradshaw, 1890
Once upon a time, there was a rape that changed the course of world history. The event was immortalized in a stunning work of art, Tarquino e Lucretia, by the late Renaissance Venetian painter Tiziano Vecellio, or more commonly “Titian” in the English-speaking world. The scene depicts the soldier Sextus Tarquinius, the son of a sixth century (BC) Roman king, dagger in hand, implacable anger, insatiable desire in his eyes, about to assault the “chaste and virtuous” Lucretia, wife of his cousin and kinsman Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. The intensity of the image captures the aggressor’s passion and his victim’s horror as his body lunges forward and she recoils in fear—a voluptuous figure of blonde waves and alabaster body engulfed by the lonely luxury of her dark bedroom. Tarquinius has come one evening to visit the home of Lucretia and her husband, Collantinus, and other visiting fellow soldiers. Aware of and aroused by the noblewoman’s famed dignity and reputation, Tarquinius stealthily enters her room that night and threatens to kill her if she does not consent to his advance, stating that he will defend the murder to her husband as an honor killing of an adulterous discovery between her and one of her slaves. Following the act, Tarquinius flees and Lucretia later tells the entire story of what took place before her husband and her brother. She then commits suicide before the two of them, declaring that in the choice between life and honor, death is the only way to preserve the latter. In the ensuing outrage, led by Collantinus and his friend Lucius Iunis Brutus, war is declared on the royal Tarquinius family and the Kingdom of Rome is destroyed. In its place, the ancient Republic of Rome is established, built on the martyrdom of Lucretia, who lives on in Western memory as one of the nine great heroines of antiquity. “Alas, Tarquino!,” the poet Ovid would write during the reign of Augustus nearly five centuries later. “How much that one night cost you your Kingdom!”
The emotions captured in Titian’s rendering of that criminal scene on Lucretia’s wedding bed are as seductive as they are dreadful. The languid, nocturnal tones of the bedroom are vivified by the brutalized sensibilities of the two protagonists as set against a backdrop of scarlets, reds, white, and gold expressing Lucretia’s vulnerability and Tarquino’s rage with equal force. It is a Renaissance world of chiaroscuro, of Light and Darkness, the spiritual and the worldly, the pure overwhelmed but not ultimately conquered by the corrupt. In an earlier interpretation of the story, Titian depicts Lucretia only as abstract portraiture, her virtue immortalized in a serenely luminescent and contemplative face. It would take another half century for the artist to recount the legend of her fate in its tortured realization. This latter version, one of Titian’s most famous works, is a passionate, vibrant, startling masterpiece that evokes Livy’s estimation of the myth as universal parable about the short-term victories of vice and the long-term triumph of Justice: “And the deed one forces often brings damage to one’s own. Let all ranks be warned that this has destroyed many a government.”
The story of Lucretia captured the Western imagination in painting like few other mortal-goddesses. She abounds in so many gorgeous variants, usually portrayed in the throes of agony as she plunges a dagger into her own young breast. In Parmigianino (1540) she is shown in dignified profile, a stoic blond Valkyrie, arm confidently taut and hand firm around the hilt, her mouth slightly agape but her gaze solemnly heavenward and her skin a dewy, golden cream satin that evinces lack of corruption, an eternal innocence within an adult woman. Lucas Cranach the Elder, one of the great names of the German Renaissance, portrays her in his version of 1510 -1513 looking straight at the viewer but then also with a certain remoteness as well, no expression at all on her face, heavy gold chains around her neck and purple silk lined with fur enrobing her body. The nobility of her person is clear here, not only in the sumptuousness of her dress but in the frank, calm pensiveness of her gaze: Take a look at those eyes and note how they seem to stare out directly at the viewer and, at the same time, at some stray reflection deep within her interior infinity—the last flinch of emotion that is her acceptance of the act of self-obliteration she has just committed. Guido Reni, one of the stars of the Italian Baroque, employs the muted tones and naturalistic softness of that époque: His Lucretia is sultrier, earthier and warmly feminine in contrast to the fierce, somewhat cold pride of the examples above. Here, Lucretia again maintains the same stoic composure, her eyes cast upward and her face and her mouth without tension. But her agony is palpable in the loneliness of her person—once more, the somber, dark tones of the vast room around her that intensifies her solitary appeal to Heaven, the mysterious inner dialogue of that appeal that has allowed her to confront her fate not as impending death but as anticipated deliverance.
The power of her story is one that metaphorically contrasts the struggle between the high-mindedness and base instincts of human existence, the mythologies and allegories of which literature has not and could not exhaust. In Old Masters painting, this duality was developed in the techniques of Light and Dark beginning in the Renaissance, the application of which developed perspective and depth in the history of the art. In theme, impact; an exquisite manipulation of emotional expression presented in material form, art as physical metaphysics. The techniques are chiaroscuro, tenebrism, and sfumato—they play of light and dark, clarity and obscurity, clear definitions and blurred symbolism, the rational mind and “the dark side.” Chiaroscuro grew out of the dual-personality of the Renaissance. “It was a time of vehement activity,” wrote the art scholar G.B Rose in The Sewanee Review in 1904, “when brains and nerves and sinews were strained to the utmost; when each strove most passionately for himself, freeing himself most completely from his fellow men, a time of infinite light and Cimmerian darkness.” What fantastic times, when Pope Sixtus IV “defiled the chair of St. Peter” in activity that “would have shocked the companions of Nero,” yet was still the same Pope who brought back Rome from provincial backwater at the end of the Middle Ages to world-domination again the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Renaissance produced saints like Fra Angelico and Savonarola; great vixens like Lucrezia Borgia and holy matrons like Vittoria Colonna. It was an era when principalities were daily changed into republics and republics into principalities and scholars drank rapturously at the newly discovered fount of the Grecian muses while men were cutting each other’s throats outside the academy door, or as Rose summarizes: “a time of almost anarchy when men yet loved art and learning with an intensity of devotion that has never since been equaled.” It was a time, in short, when a man could be anything if he had the boldness, cunning, and strength. In this atmosphere, where all things were possible for good or evil, life was passionate, voluptuous, and cruel as it rarely had been, and pervaded by a spirit of humanistic struggle at variance with the ferocity that was relentlessly breaking forth.
Light and Dark representing purity and corruption are seen in the gorgeous Jupiter Descending in a Shower of Gold (Danaë series, 1544-1560) by Titian. The glorious Danaë was seen in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as a symbol of the corrupting effect of wealth, which tainted feminine beauty and moral virtue. Zeus “rained gold” upon her to have his will and way with her; the painting depicts her as languid and mesmerized, passive in her acceptance of this worldly defilement. As the Greeks wrote of her: “Thou didst fall in a rain of gold on Danaë, Olympian Zeus, that the child yield to thee as to a gift…Zeus bought Danaë for gold…piercing the brazen chamber of Danaë, cut the knot of intact virginity. Gold the subduer of all things, gets the better of brazen walls and fetters, gold loosens all reins and opens every lock, gold makes the ladies with scornful eyes bend the knee. It was gold that bent the will of Danaë. No need to for a lover to pray to Aphrodite, if he brings money to offer.”
Michelangelo Mersini da Caravaggio, who flourished at the beginning of the Italian Baroque, is known as the foremost exponent of tenebrism (from the Italian tenebroso meaning dark or mysterious)—a technique of dramatic illumination more profound than chiaroscuro in late Renaissance art. In works such as the incredible Conversion on the Road to Damascus (1601) or The Crucifixion of Peter (1600-1601)—two stunning examples of the alluring “violence” of such art; their power, movement, allegories, action—the contrasts of light and dark not only are remarkable for their technical execution and their symbolic meaning, but for their emotional impact upon the viewer of a sort that brings to mind Rilke’s statement that “All beauty is terror.” One feels the same intensity viewing his Calling of St. Matthew (1598) or contemplating The Raising of Lazarus (1608-1609), a painting that appears as if one is dreaming it.
In one of his David and Goliath works (1605-1610), the technical contrasts between light and dark are at their most extreme. Against a pitch black background, the shepherd David stands almost as if under a spotlight, his tunic falling gently, his face still glowing with youth and with satisfaction in his deed. The weapon in his hand is not the famous sling of the Biblical story, but Goliath’s own sword which was used by David against him. A close look at the sword shows the following inscription: “H-AS OS” which is believed to be an abbreviation for the Latin phrase “Humilitas occidit superbiam” (Humility shall kill pride). The light washing across his figure suggests a kind of divine illumination, everything else around him, including the grotesque trophy in hand, merely a dark, dead framework of evil. Yet the hero highlighted in the center appears oblivious to that environment; he is unthreatened by the evil and his serene countenance expresses only awareness of his triumph over it.
Decades spent studying light, color, nature, and human anatomy allowed Leonardo da Vinci to create his most famous invention, which the Italians call sfumato: The blurred outline and the mellowed colors that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to the imagination. He applied sfumato to his masterpiece, the Mona Lisa (1505-1506). Of this famous painting Rose, the critic cited above, comments: “How intriguing that this man, who was so powerful that he could break the strongest horseshoe with his naked hands, whose vast mind embraced all the knowledge of the time and forecast many of the discoveries of the future, above all loved most the face of this woman, and in depicting the subtle charm of her womanhood there is no rival. That smile is all his own, whose meaning is as unfathomable as the sea, and which haunts us like a magic spell.” That very haunting quality one may attribute to the technique of sfumato. It involves making subtle gradations, without lines or borders, from light to dark areas, and was used for a highly illusionistic rendering of facial features. As the art history scholars John Hulsey and Anne Trusty have written, during the Renaissance, “oil painting underwent radical changes as artists learned to manipulate the new theories of linear perspective”—this, in large part had begun with the landscapes and hunting scenes of the Florentine perspective-pioneer Paolo Uccello—“to create ever greater depth of space and lifelike images.” At this time, the search was on to eliminate the “flatness” of the painting surface. “Taken in the context of the time,” the scholars note, “it was still a rather radical idea—if it could even be achieved at all. Nonetheless, the Italian Master came closer than anyone else with his Mona Lisa.” Research discovered that da Vinci had applied thin layers of oil paint with his fingers over the course of months to slowly build up the glowing, softly focused image of that painting. In fact, he would apply twenty to as many as forty layers of paint. “This technique allowed him to not only realistically duplicate the translucency of skin, but also to create such a lifelike presence that the subject appeared to actually be in the room, as if she were sitting in a window.” This revolutionary technical aspect—sfumato as depth brought out from “under the surface” as it were—is reflected in the philosophical nature of the work. For, certainly, the enigmatic quality of its subject matter is enhanced by the fact that da Vinci was painting on a flat surface the vision of someone not at all confined to “surfaces”; of a woman observed in such a way that the dual-dimensionality of length and breadth defining the work’s technical aspect is itself the illusion and the subject’s multi-dimensional spiritual depth is what is real.
Contrasts of light and shade saturated Spanish Baroque painting, defined by the ecstasy and the piety of Counter-Reformation brilliance. Nestled as an epoch between the Italian Renaissance and the Dutch Golden Age, the artists El Greco (born on Crete as Doménikos Theotókopolous), Jusepe de Ribera, Francisco de Zurbarán, Velázquez, Murillo, flourished with works that fused naturalism and abstractionism in a way that made their paintings—particularly those of El Greco and Zurbarán—seem almost modern. Their environment was a peculiar one: that of Habsburg Spain under Philip II, an absolute monarch in a society dominated by the Catholic Church, was a time of great wealth, amassed largely during the country’s period of “colonial gold fever” bringing painters abundant commissions for the king, churches and private collectors. Spanish art flourished and the Escorial Palace became “the” European venue for the titans of art to which to be commissioned; Rubens held court as an Emissary of the Infanta Isabella in 1682 and had a great influence on many Spanish masters. Masterpieces such as The Apostles Peter and Paul (1587–92) by El Greco, Velázquez’s Cristo Crucificado (c. 1632)—the spirituality and mystery of which inspired much religious writing, notably the poem El Cristo de Velázquez by the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno—Bartolome Murillo’s St. Thomas of Villanouva Giving Alms to the Poor (c. 1665-70) and de Ribera’s St. Jerome in Meditation (1640-1650) are “heavy” yet ethereal, containing within their expression the great strength of Habsburg Spain on the world stage and the intense religious culture at the very core of that empire’s existence. In these works, adherence to strict aesthetic concepts promulgated by the Church expressed itself in such modern, abstract ways that “Catholic art,” if one were to call it such, inadvertently cultivated a highly intellectualized idiom. In The Disrobing of Christ (1577) and The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-1588) of El Greco one sees some of the most intense images in the history of painting, with such high value placed on the mystic or visionary experience. El Greco was master of this, his elongated figures so highly abstract that they inspired the profane as it venerated the sacred: Pablo Picasso, referring to his conception of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), a Cubist masterpiece of prostitutes from a brothel, said he was inspired by El Greco’s Opening of the Fifth Seal–The Vision of St. John (1608-1614), a work referring to the Book of Revelation (6:9-11), in which the souls of persecuted martyrs cry out to God for justice. In a work like The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion (1628) by Francisco de Zurbarán, a complete sense of calm overpowers the violence endured by his subject matter—that of the spirit of this dying priest as a force more implacable than the soldiers, the centurions and the State who have collected to crucify him. Such works bring to mind the famous dictum of Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West: “Let a man be a hero or a saint; in between lies not wisdom but banality.”
The power of the intellectual Catholicism—beautifully rounded out by the philosophies of Scholasticism during this time—as found in the works of El Greco and Zurbarán, has an intriguing source-origin, briefly referenced above. The Catholic Church held almost undisputed sway over Europe between 325 to the time of Rembrandt (1606-1699) and “there arose,” wrote the critic Rose, “an exceedingly virile artistic expression of religious enthusiasm.” The last quarter of the sixteenth century and the early part of the seventeenth century, Spain was the foremost champion of the religion; for nearly eight-hundred years the country “held the banner of Faith against the Infidel Moor.” Art followed the edicts of the Council of Trent, which demanded that Catholic art “inspire devotion, involve the viewer, and be didactic.” This, as scholars have noted, stood in stark contrast to Protestants, for whom “The Word”—the written word—was the most powerful psychological influence on man. “Chivalry and Catholicism were the breath of life in the stern, haughty hildagos and when the Faith was everywhere threatened by the inroads of the Reformation they became leaders of the Counter-Reformation; a burning devotion to the faith.” El Greco was the principal artist to this fervent movement. Heavily influenced by Titian, he formed his own exuberantly esoteric style, sought after by patrons, ecclesiastical and lay. “Chivalric fervor glowed with an intense flame of religious mysticism. The white core of this spiritual volcano was Toledo. El Greco interpreted the natural to its spiritual environment; he painted not only the fact but the soul of the fact.”
In El Greco’s The Disrobing of Christ, referenced above, in the foreground, a carpenter is putting finishing touches on the Cross, an allusion to Christ’s upcoming crucifixion. The face of Christ turned upwards and, once more, light is the central feature-technique of the painting, which streams down upon him alluding to the Resurrection. He is solitary within the crowd, the focal point of the image in the strongest color, red, and distinguished from the rest of the crowd that is a mass of formlessness in the same grayish blue palette. He is surrounded by men pulling at his robes, betraying their own ugly character that revels in disgracing Christ. The two thieves that were crucified with Christ are also present, their nakedness indicative of their humility and repentance, while the other figures behind the torturers and thieves look normally human and may represent hope for humanity. In the El Greco masterpiece, “The Burial of Count Orgaz” (1586) which hangs in the Church of Santo Tome in Toledo, the artist intentionally exaggerated the length and leanness of the figure of Christ for the purpose of enforcing spiritual significance. Form was a symbol of spiritual interpretation. “Clouds like draperies,” wrote the critic Charles A. Coffin of El Greco in Art & Progress, in 1911. “He makes the spiritual fact visible to the eye through the medium of the forms.” Coffin defined El Greco as “the master of naturalistic representation and spiritual expression,” understanding that expression is a higher form artistically than representation. “The result is a great realistic picture based upon naturalism out of which grown the spiritual significance.”
Zurbarán, adored by this writer, was very well known for his use of chiaroscuro, recalling at times the power of Caravaggio, the master of that medium. In The Martyrdom of Saint Serapion (1628) depicts the twelfth-century saint in a quasi-crucified pose, a serene depiction of a brutal death. He makes strong use of chiaroscuro in the Spanish tradition of Jusepe de Ribera, the stark, purely white cloth is used to reinforce a sense of purity and tranquility. “Saint Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness which is like midnight in Dostoevsky,” wrote the poet and novelist Frank O’Hara in a 1954 poem, “Meditations in an Emergency” of this arresting and beautiful image. Zurbaran, whose portraits of the great female saints are absolute gems of purity bathed in luxury, was known for his remarkable textures, portraying silks and brocades at a level of detail that is astonishing. But it is that light revealing the character of those faces of his—penetrating, inscrutable, pensive, intelligent, other-worldly but with—I say it again—an abstract quality that is highly intellectual and very modern. Compare El Greco’s Death of Count Orgaz (1586-1588) referenced above, with Zurbarán’s Death of Saint Bonaventura (1629)—the austere central figure shown horizontally or diagonally is contrasted by the striking height and splendor of popes, kings then encircled by somber gray-black worshippers, mendicant brothers, the curious. The Louvre, which houses the Zurbarán work, notes that “the composition, steeped in spirituality, is a blend of archaism and Caravaggesque effects.” The great Franciscan lies in state in pristine clarity in his white liturgical robes with this Cardinal’s mitre at his feet. As with the El Greco, the two powerful individuals flanking the deceased protagonist are richly dressed—here, Zurbarán dazzles with the figures of Pope Gregory X and James I, King of Aragon. The light-dark magic is at work again here as well, the figures illuminated but as if veiled by a light rose-gold smoke, and in the far background a dead, dark black. Also look at his Saint Lawrence (one of a series) of 1636-1639: the brilliant red robe, the sharp, noble profile, the tension and profundity of the face; or at the luxurious piety of his St. Gregory (1626-1627) or his St. Ambrose (1626-1627), and then compare these with his Saint Francis in Meditation (1635-9) so filled with haunting awe, the eyes covered by shadow, the stream of light just on the center of the face discerning only the outline of eyes—an absolutely spectacular work. In The Appearance of St. Peter to St. Peter Nolasco (1629) there is overwhelming force to the massive image of St. Peter upside down on the Cross; in The Birth of the Virgin (1627) the emotional grandeur has the same monumental effect, seen particularly in the graceful weariness of the Virgin and her fragility emphasized by her layered diaphanous white gown, while an assistant in the foreground and to the side gazes calmly at the viewer and holds a basket of eggs—an allusion to the purity of Mary and of the Resurrection. “He has arranged the composition in an airy, oval sweep to reveal the subtle play of light and shade,” notes an overview of the painting by its patron institution, the Norton Simon Foundation (California). It is said that Zurbaran’s piety was influenced by his study of Spanish Quietism, a religious movement that taught inner withdrawal, the discovery of God in humble silence, and the use of penitential exercises “to subdue the senses and calm the intellect.” In April 1634 Diego Velázquez, who was in charge of new decoration for the Escorial Palace in Madrid commissioned Zurbarán to execute for the Hall of Realms two battle scenes, later lost to fire. He later returned to Seville with the honorary title of Painter to the King and the happy memory that Philip IV called him the “king of painters.” As with light and dark itself, there is a duality to the work of Zurbarán, consisting of “sophisticated technique and ingenuous primitivism, precise exactitude and transcendent dissimilitude, accurate realism and ineffable mysticism, emphatic corporeality and divine immanence,” in the words of Martin Soria, a renowned Zurbarán scholar. His saints wear no halos, “they mysteriously exhale the breath of divine grace.” If art is a language that describes the soul of things and to define art is to define life, then the works of Zurbarán speak in a secret code understood only by strong emotions made splendid by imagination.
“Force,” wrote the renowned scholar Wilhem R. Valentiner in The Burlington Magazine in 1906, “predominates in the art of Rembrandt.” The nature of that artist, continued Valentiner, expressed itself with a zealousness, a soul-hunger with which no other artist of his time could compare. “Stroll through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam,” he wrote, “let your eye compare the merits and beauties of the various artists, and then let it fall on a Rembrandt; they sink to the ground and all their work is child’s play in comparison with his Promethean strength.” Valentiner continues: “In Rembrandt’s manner of seeing and rendering what he saw, there speaks an intensity of will, a constant, passionate effort, which declares that no one ever went nearer to the heart of life or fought its battles more mightily than he.” Such intensity of life is conveyed in The Night Watch (1642), one of the most famous paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, known for its massive size, its arresting contrasts of light and dark and the energized movements of the main characters of the painting, a militia group, that communicate action, ambition and success as no mere static “class portrait” of wealth and station ever could. The depiction of the company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburgh, surrounded by sixteen of their men, highlights the power of this group, one that was often called upon to defend the city of Amsterdam and put down riots. At first glance, we are struck by the broad movements of shadows and light “which, like color-sounds, sing thru the enormous canvas.” Then, at once, two men come to you, as they step out of the group. One is entirely dark, the other dressed in a light costume. “How full of energy and character are those heads, the clothes are moulded to the bodies, the steel neckguard, the sash, the boots of the white man-they all have marvelous painter’s quality,” writes Valentiner. “Then the black one, with the red bandoleer, with the glove and the cane—it is a combination which does not strike you, because it is so true, so simple, so natural. I know of no representation which shows stronger the abandon and picturesqueness of those times than these two men, passing along on this enormous canvas.”
Such is Rembrandt, “unabashed to contrast sharp light against the black.” And to harmonize this contrast of big lines, light against dark, “he invents to extend the left arm of the darker man as if with a gesture he seeks to argue something, and so he throws a big sunny half shadow on his white comrade.” Rembrandt, notes Valentiner, was deliberately audacious in this composition, portraying figures of immense vitality reinforced by the striking use of illumination and shade as the men appear to be emerging from a dark gateway into the light. The effect is powerful and sublime, ambitious and restrained at once. He adds: “Rembrandt with his talent for chiaroscuro, was not afraid to present someone entirely in red, for he knew that the play of light and shade would help.” Another scholar wrote: “In this wonderful painting you find every moment something startling. That pikeman on the left talks, then see the man who is examining his gun, and how beautifully that laughing boy with his gray hat stands out against the background. Even the gray pillar, against which you see that helmet, is so rightly in place for the ensemble… [D]espite all that has been said of the improbability of the scene and the exaggeration of the dark background—still The Nightwatch remains what it has been from the beginning: ‘the world’s wonder.’“
It has been said that the essential feature of Rembrandt’s art in its maturity was his power of abstraction and concentration. This allowed him to separate from his subject just those qualities which were required for pictorial expression, to reject everything else, and in this regard, he was given the name “master of light of shadow” because of his brilliant manipulations of these two. Note, for example, in his work Philosopher in Meditation, dated 1632, the thinker in his room positioned before a window in the left-hand corner relative to the viewer and bathed in spectacular yellow-white light in a way that makes the small room seem cavernous. A curved staircase leading to a dominant black space, a slash-circle of nothingness, takes up the other half of the painting, while what one assumes to be the man’s wife works in the foreground oblivious to her surroundings, to the symbolism of which she plays a part. One immediately apprehends the allusions: Man’s upward but never straight-line search for meaning is met by a black hole or wall of obscurity, of deeper interiors and darkened passages. But this still does not overwhelm the immense light and the glowing red-russet and earth tones that add color and depth to the painting’s protagonist. There is just such a dynamic brilliance in this ability to render the painting of a man deep in thought into an assertive, provocative, animated and probing challenge to the viewer. Rembrandt’s mastery of light and shade is seen again in Christ Descending from the Cross (1634), in which illumination highlights certain figures of bystanders with the intensity highly varied upon each of them. Then, at the work’s center, the brightest areas are the body of Christ who is contrasted against a morose, inky-black background. To emphasize the nighttime action of the scene, torches and candles comprise more variations of contrast and showcasing three main groups: Christ and the people carrying him, women laying out what appears to be a burial cloth, and Mary and mourners with her. Certain interpretations immediately come to mind: The orchestration of the lighting in this scene gives structure to the work, “shedding light” on the event, on its main actors, and the course of history to follow.
Then there is The Mill (1645-1648), considered by nineteenth-century scholars to be one of the greatest creations of “The Master.” The wonderful silhouette of the post-mill perched on a cliff and shadowed by the gentle descent of an amber evening and the ominous foretelling of a “dark and stormy night” conveys romantic solitude, the melancholy of landscapes, the close of a golden summer evening made portentous by the worn, gloomy mien of the windmill. Scholars attributed this atmosphere to Rembrandt’s frame of mind in the period of the mid-1650s, when he was overcome by financial difficulties. Of course, one cannot say for sure what the artist’s cast of mind was during that time, but The Mill is certainly a work that evokes a sense of somber impenetrability, of mystery. “By deepening its shadows, its mood of sublime sadness, that yellowing, translucent shield of old varnish, may have added something to the painting’s reputation,” comments the notes of The National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, which houses the work. The reference to the painting’s varnish concerns the discovery by the painting’s restorers of lighter gradations of tone than as originally perceived by modern audiences. Those nuances aside, the brooding beauty of this painting is unforgettable. J.M.W. Turner, the great landscape painter who revered The Mill wrote of “its inestimable gloom.” Sir Joshua Reynolds studied it as a guide to landscape painting, and John Constable judged it “sufficient to form an epoch in the art.” “Probably no single canvas,” writes one scholar “has so strongly affected English painting. Sir Charles Holroyd, the director of England’s National Gallery, told reporters that the painting was “the first of the great Romantic landscapes—the chief pride of modern European art.”
A legend recounts that when Adam was driven out of Eden, disgraced and cursed, the aesthetic faculty—or, sense of beauty—“seems to have survived the wreck of his other high moral perceptions and to have lived on through all the perplexities and struggles of individuals and nations,” wrote G.B. Rose in The Sewanee Review, again in his article of 1904. He wrote of great art as “an heirloom of Eden’s glory, a memorial of man’s pure first life, keeping the relationship to God bonded through the beauty of the world and keeping alive in the soul unutterable longings for its restoration.” The sense of beauty “finds its fullest and most ennobling exercise in the souls of the cultured and refined.”
In light of this fundamental power of art over life, over existence, it is interesting to note that the two periods in the history of art that have most captured the Western imagination are the Age of Pericles and the Italian Renaissance. For, the two eras were completely distinct, yet each spoke to the human hierarchy of values with an uncannily equal degree of awe-inspiring force. “The age of Pericles” wrote G.B. Rose in The Sewanee Review in an earlier essay of 1898, “was the culmination of a long and harmonious development, the glorious blossoming of a perfect flower, which had grown in symmetrical grace to bloom in ideal beauty.” Not so with the Renaissance, he explains. “No period of humanity has been rife with more conflicting ideas, with more diverse aspirations, with more opposing passions. These inconsistent elements waged an incessant war. Sometimes the spiritual side had the entire victory; sometimes, in the case of Titian, the new paganism uprooted the Christian spirit and sometimes, as in the case of Raphael, they were blended together in harmonious union.” One celebrated Serenity, the other Discord—conflict, ambition, worldliness, redemption as the “inner violence” of the human experience, beautiful in its exalted states.
In Greece, every artist was striving for the same thing: for the highest type of Beauty and strength. In ancient times, artists strove to produce an ideal of perfect beauty, free from imperfections. The soul was not the concern, Olympian placidity was. Then, in the Middle Ages, when Christianity caused men to turn their glance inward to probe the soul’s most hidden mysteries, the individual was absorbed into the mass of his fellow man; all sought a single ideal and each rejoicing to subordinate himself to the spirit that animates the whole. Such were the Middle Ages, when men cooperated in the establishment of marvelous Gothic cathedrals “yet we know not,” as Rose opined in his essay, “the names of the architects from whose astounding brains could spring the conception of those vast structures with their infinite complication of ornament—men who did not even carve their names upon those pillars.” One of the peculiarities of the Middle Age was its constant yearning for the Unattainable. That which was within reach was without value; that which was beyond the grasp was longed for with infinite desire—just as Dante’s visionary love for Beatrice did not prevent him from marrying and having ten children. (Perhaps the best illustration of this particular kind of love is the Florentine poet Sacchetti, who married three successive wives and in the meantime addressed all his poems to a fourth). For Fra Angelico, the Dominican friar whom Vasari, in his Lives of the Artists (1550) described as having a “rare and perfect talent,” it was the soul alone that he regarded, most beautifully depicted in his exuberant yet emotionally somber devotional frescoes. “He was himself the purest and most saintly being upon whom the sun has ever shone, and all his spiritual fervor glows in his works.” Fra Angelico was the tipping point between the Medieval and the Renaissance, blending spirituality and complexity. The late, great art scholar Frederick Hartt, referring to one of Fra Angelico’s most famous works, the San Marco Altarpieces (1439) at Florence, writes in his The History of the Italian Renaissance (1969): “The result was unusual for its time. Images of the enthroned Madonna and Child surrounded by saints were common, but they usually depicted a setting that was clearly heaven-like, in which saints and angels hovered about as divine presences rather than people. But in this instance, the saints stand squarely within the space, grouped in a natural way as if they were able to converse about the shared experience of witnessing the Virgin in glory.” Clearly, the humanism of the Renaissance was entering these sacred spaces, but in a way that intensified rather than diminish the divine message. As Hartt wrote in his classic history, referenced above, one of the main purposes of the Renaissance was the effort by humanists “to reconcile the ideas they found in Greek and Roman authors with Christian beliefs.”
In the Renaissance and early Baroque period Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Antonio da Corregio, and Titian sought all these elements of the classical, the Medieval and the Early Renaissance. Yet they sought much more. The Middle Ages had likened God to an artist as a means of illustrating the creative power of “the Almighty.” Now, in the full flower of the High Renaissance the artist and his own powers of invention were being compared with God. In Giotto (one of the “founders,” along with Duccio, of the Renaissance), the germs of the future glories of Raphael and Michelangelo are to be seen in the Arena Chapel at Padua and in the Church of St. Francis at Assisi. Slowly, the growing recognition of the “Individual” in Renaissance times—a development so meticulously analyzed in Jacob Burckhardt’s classic study of the era—starts to enter painting, just as with the frescoes of Fra Angelico the saints are more “humanized,” more terrestrial. The effort was to represent the individual person, the individual soul, and as meticulously as possible. It became an obsession of the Renaissance artists. As G.B. Rose stated: “It is said that Leonardo da Vinci would follow all day long a person whose countenance struck him as they passed upon the street, seeking to penetrate the secret of personality and to fix upon his sketch book the charm of features or expression with which he had been impressed—something an Apelles or Praxiteles would have been anxious to exclude.” Painting was to become highly interpretive and personality-based, showing passions, character and inners struggles in the faces of subjects—“countenances in which are depicted all the passions of humanity; its most secret instincts”—all of it emotionally charged and breathtaking.
As “chapters” of history go, there is nothing more striking than the sudden ending of Renaissance art. Greek art reached its zenith in the Age of Pericles, “but its long afternoon was almost as brilliant as its noonday splendor.” Yet when the sun of Italian art “had reached its meridian it was suddenly eclipsed,” Rose explains. This was principally the result of political causes. However, all art thereafter and nearly all modern art have followed the guidance of the Renaissance emphasis on the Individual. The “beautiful violence” of Old Masters painting, a magnificence rooted in the study of Light and Dark as technique, as style, but most of all as a symbolic representation of the very essence of life on earth, remains timeless for its sublime understanding of that which for each human soul cannot be explained.
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