The culmination of the one thousand years that comprised the Middle Ages was the Black Plague that broke out during the mid fourteenth century. In effect, it weakened even further the already susceptible population, whose health was already undermined by natural disasters, famine and war. As much as half of the populations of Florence and Siena were lost to the epidemic.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the focus of survivors of the plague began to shift away from preparation for the afterlife and towards fully exploring this life. They found inspiration from the ancient texts and arts of Rome and Greece, and rekindled the study of the human condition. The developing views became more optimistic than the previous medieval beliefs. The renewed interest on the classics, as well as the severely reduced urban centers, helped to spawn a new society with greater freedoms and economic opportunities. Soon the middle class began to thrive and became the new patrons of the arts. As they juggled the importance of the individual with their spirituality, they commissioned the many defining works of the Renaissance.
As artists searched for a more systematic method for the accurate portrayal of the natural world, the architect Brunelleschi and artist Alberti helped to codify the ideal proportions that were both aesthetically pleasing and classically inspired. Their resulting treatises greatly assisted other artists in their quest for individual beauty.
One of the great innovators of the Early Renaissance period was the sculptor Donatello. With each piece he took his experimentation with form and technical approach further. Towards the end of his life, he was commissioned to create a piece for the Florence Baptistry. As he was battling a long-term illness and contemplating his own mortality, he stepped away from idealized beauty to create the tortured image of Mary Magdalen. Her image of sunken eyes, emaciated body and ascetic garments elicits an emotional response from the viewer. Although Marilyn Stokstad attributes Maryâ€™s bedraggled appearance to years of deprivation, a different picture is painted in Luke 8.2. Jesus is reported to have exorcised seven demons from Mary Magdalen. Instead of a portrait of an aged Mary, perhaps Donatello has created a Mary weary from demonic possession, in the moment before Jesus saves her. Despite the uncertainty of what instant this illustrates in Mary Magdalenâ€™s life, beneath her weathered appearance lies the divine beauty of unwavering faith. Unlike many sculptors of the time, Donatello decided against using marble and opted to carve and paint wood. The medium itself caused turbulence among the art cognoscenti.
As the affluence of the Italian middle class began to expand in the High Renaissance period, commissions for non-secular images emerged. Completed in 1506, Leonardo da Vinci painted one of the worldâ€™s most renowned portraits, the Mona Lisa. Most likely it was a portrait of a prominent Florentine merchantâ€™s wife, the twenty-four year old Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. If commissioned by the merchant, he never received the painting as Leonardo kept it in his possession for the remainder of his life.
The Mona Lisa painting is another example of a shocking portrait of a woman from this time period. Rather than following with Donatelloâ€™s emotionally charged Mary Magdalen, the Mona Lisa is scandalous in a more subtle way. Most of the non-secular portraiture of the Renaissance executed was in profile. Although this may have been due to the everything- classical desire to emulate images from ancient coins, it was not considered appropriate for a woman to be viewed in any other way. In three-quarter view, she is perceived as immoral and flirtatious. Her smile is another temptation and attack on this societal norm. Leonardo renders her volume by use of chiascuro (lights and darks) and adds sfumato (lightly tinted varnish) to soften her image. Her posture is very solid, and self-assured, in a pyramidal form, rather than Maryâ€™s slightly hunched penitent and subservient form. Her gaze is serene and set against an equally tranquil landscape. Leonardo also captured her plucked eyebrows and shaved hairline, the fashion of the time, which adds to her intrigue. Where the Mona Lisa painting tends to evoke many questions, the purpose of Donatelloâ€™s Mary Magdalen was clearly to encourage Florentines to live a virtuous life and to repent oneâ€™s sins, as Mary demonstrated repentance could lead to salvation.
Both Donatello and Leonardo effectively capture the individuality of each woman. With the focus on the human condition, the ideal is to create a beauty that can catapult the viewer into a divine transcendence, to establish a link between the arts and spiritual meditation.
Bishop, Philip E. Adventures of the Human Spirit. Third Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001.
Gordon, Heather, MA Theology. Telephone Interview. 15 and 18 February 2006.
Kreis, Steven. â€œLectures on Modern European Intellectual History: Renaissance Humanism.â€ HistoryGuide. 13 May 2004. 15 Feb 2006
â€œMedici: Godfathers of the Renaissance: Donatello.â€ PBS. Devillier Donegan Enterprises. 16 February 2006
â€œThe Real Mary Magdalene.â€ BBC Two. 07 March 2005. 16 February 2006
Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History: Volume One. Revised Second Edition. Upper Saddle River: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005.
—. Art History: Volume Two. Revised Second Edition. Upper Saddle River: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2005.
[tags]black plague, renaissance period, mary magdalen, aesthetically pleasing, susceptible population, systematic method, accurate portrayal, medieval beliefs, ancient texts, baptistry, fourteenth century, sunken eyes, one thousand years, brunelleschi, economic opportunities, term illness, technical approach, emotional response, emaciated, donatello, da vinci, mona lisa, lisa gherardini del giocondo, chiascuro, sfumato[/tags]