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A Travel Back in Time: Medieval Artworks and Their Interpretation in the XXI Century Essay

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Updated: Apr 15th, 2019

Formal Analysis. The Nativity: Medieval Art of the XIII Century in a Nutshell

Mediterranean Medieval art delights with the seeming simplicity of its themes and the numerous underlying ideas that are revealed as one takes a closer look at the artwork in question. Even though the artworks delight with their diversity of themes and motifs, there is still a common threat with each of them.

Although the influence of art pieces created in different regions of the Mediterranean on each other and on the next generations of artworks can hardly be traced nowadays, very intriguing and peculiar conclusions can be drawn from the analysis of one of these works, and The Nativity by Master of Gerona is a perfect example of the given phenomenon.

Subject matter: the influence of Christianity

Despite the fact that Christianity had been the official state religion of the Byzantine Empire for quite long by the time that similar works appeared in the art heritage of the state, religion related themes continued to manifest themselves in the works of Byzantine artists even ten centuries after.

Centered around the birth of the Christ, as one can easily guess, The Nativity touches upon both the event and the journey that the Magi had to make in order to bring gifts to the Son of God and the son of a man. The painting itself depicts the Manger with the Christ and two Magi standing next to it.

Formal elements: what lurks in the shadow

Like any visual medium, The Nativity uses the best of the formal elements in order to get the key message of joy and happiness of the event across to the general audience. One of the most remarkable features of the given work is that, though clearly meant for the Christian audience, it nevertheless addresses the universal values, such as mother – child love, the need for wonder, etc., therefore, making the context accessible for literally everyone.

Curved lines are used a lot in the picture to get the idea of harmony across. The picture gives the characters enough space to breathe, yet the Virgin Mary and Jesus are drawn close to each other, which emphasizes the power of maternal love. The light shed on the Virgin Mary and her Son implies the idea of holiness, while the colors (beige, orange, green and dark blue) help create the feeling of grandeur (green and dark blue) and the aforementioned bond between the Mother and her Child.

Organization: the delicate balance

One of the first features of the painting that fall into the eye of an average observer, the lack of symmetry and straight lines in the painting serves the purpose of stressing the delicate air of care and love, as well as the idea of a miracle happening within the realm of gruesome reality. Because of the delicate harmony that the two curves create, the concept of the Nativity as the joyful event in the midst of an ocean of misery comes out in full blue.

Medium: the chick of gold on parchment

The painting was created by using tempera leaves and gold on parchment. Both gold and parchment, being rather expensive materials, are the sign of the depicted event being worshipped greatly by the author. Thus, the choice of the material shows the significance of the Christian thought in the XIII century in the Mediterranean.

Meaning: Celebrating the Nativity of Christ

As it has been stressed above, the artwork is supposed to glorify the Nativity; and, in fact, it does so very graphically. The color cast of the painting, its organization and the rest of the elements of the paper create the atmosphere of humility and festivity simultaneously, therefore, setting a rather religious mood.

Literature Analysis: Specimens of Medieval Art

It should be noted that the Medieval art has been explored quite thoroughly by a number of researchers. Not only did they arrange the major Medieval artists and their artworks chronologically, but also studied the ideas and concepts, which manifested themselves in Medieval artworks. Offering a timeline of the Medieval art evolution, such works not only help track down the progress of the Medieval art, but also to analyze the influences that affected Medieval artists and their creations.

Analyzing the major papers devoted to the subject of Medieval art in general and the artwork in question (i.e., The Nativity) in particular will help define the key features of the period pieces, as well as help interpret other layers of meaning in The Nativity.

Medieval artworks: an overview

Embracing quite a wide range of artworks, starting with paintings and frescos, and up to sculpture and architecture, Medieval art can only be defined by using traditional commonplace ideas, such as the overwhelming impact of Christianity on the inspiration of most of Medieval artists, the influence of the Ancient Roman art on the evolution of the Mediterranean one, etc.

However, when picking a particular set of artworks created in a certain era, one is most likely to view the specifics of the Mediterranean art development and analyze the numerous influences that it was under on the specified time slot. To understand the implications hidden in the depth of The Nativity, it will be, therefore, most reasonable to consider some of the milestones of the ear and evaluate their impact on art.

Kousis, Maria Contested Mediterranean Spaces: Ethnographic Essays in Honor of Charles Tilly. Oxford, NY: Berghan Books, 2011.

One of the most famous works that handle the subject of the Medieval art, the book by Kousis analyzes the art created in the Medieval era through the lens of the works of another famous historian and politician, Charles Tilly.

Although Kousis does not pick a [particular period within a comparatively long era of the Medieval, she still manages to define the key features of the Medieval art quite successfully. However, with a rather noticeable influence of the late Charles Tilly on Kousis’s viewpoint, the research takes a very unexpected turn and discusses the key features of the Medieval art from the sociological, historical and political perspective.

When it comes to defining the key strengths of the research, one must mention that the sometimes controversial attempt to analyze art from the position of politics and economics works surprisingly well in the given paper.

In contrast to most of the authors writing on the topic in question, Kousis addresses not only the diversity of the medieval art, but also the factors that shaped and changed it. Seeing how art is supposed to reflect the objective reality as viewed by the artist, it is quite reasonable to tie the concepts of politics, economics and art together.

Therefore, the obvious strength of Kousis’s paper concerns her ability to trace the cause-and-effect links between the most impressive and grandeur period pieces, as well as the major tendencies in the Medieval art forms, and the political and economical changes that Byzantine was suffering at the time[1].

The paper, however, has its problems, the key one being the fact that Kousis actually introduces little to no original ideas. Granted that Tille’s viewpoint was very unique and deserved being used in a massive research, it still should not steal the show, leaving the research results in the shadow.

In Kousis’s case, sadly enough, it does; therefore, the given paper is a very graphic example of methods triumphing over results. Speaking of which, the research results were rather expected, with the emphasis put on the economical and political connections that Byzantine established with the rest of the states and the Roman legacy shaping the stylistic features of the Byzantine artworks. Though Kousis’s paper mostly recycles Tille’s idea, it still provided enough foil for the analysis of the artwork in question.

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, John F. Haldon and Robin Cornack. The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Oxford, UK: Oxford Handbooks, 2008.

Another detailed research on the specifics of the Medieval art, the given paper helps define the basic features of the Medieval paintings and other artworks, much like Kousis’s paper. However, in contrast to the aforementioned source, the given one merely provides an analysis of the influences that other art movements had on the Mediterranean art in general and Byzantine art in particular.

Without the analysis of the economical and political aspects of the state functioning, it is easier to track down the trail of changes that occurred to the Byzantine art, as well as define the cultures responsible for these changes, which is definitely a positive aspect of the research. The book allows focusing on the phenomenon of Medieval art without being distracted with the implications of complex political moves and the designs of economic strategies; as a result, the essence of the Medieval art is exposed to the reader.

However, the book clearly lacks efficient methodology. As it has been stressed above, the Medieval art is far too great a phenomenon to be encompassed in a single book, even such a well-written one as Barber’s one.

Granted that the writer did set certain boundaries to his research by encompassing only paintings that were created in the Medieval era in Byzantium in the XI century, he still had to embrace a large amount of works and obviously had too much material to work efficiently with. Anyway, the given paper allowed understanding the premises for The Nativity to be created on[2].

The Nativity through the prism of time

Wharton, Annabel Jane. Art of Empire: Painting and Architecture of the Byzantine Periphery: A Comparative Study of Four Provinces. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.

Some researches address a particular artwork or a set of artworks created by a certain person, and the paper by Wharton is a graphic example of the given research types. While devoting her paper to the art of Byzantine in general, she analyzes particular artworks in her book, and The Nativity[3], which is being discussed, is also mentioned in her work. Wharton offers a fairly decent overview of the key Byzantine artworks, yet she could have explored the ideas behind these artworks somewhat deeper.

Bibliography

Jeffreys, Elizabeth, John F. Haldon and Robin Cornack. The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Oxford, UK: Oxford Handbooks, 2008.

Kousis, Maria Contested Mediterranean Spaces: Ethnographic Essays in Honor of Charles Tilly. Oxford, NY: Berghan Books, 2011.

Wharton, Annabel Jane. Art of Empire: Painting and Architecture of the Byzantine Periphery: A Comparative Study of Four Provinces. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.

Footnotes

  1. . Maria Kousis Contested Mediterranean spaces: ethnographic essays in honor of Charles Tilly (Oxford, NY: Berghan Books, 2011), 3.
  2. . Elizabeth Jeffreys, John F. Haldon and Robin Cornack, The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies (Oxford, UK: Oxford Handbooks, 2008), 5.
  3. . Annabel Jane Wharton, Art of Empire: Painting and Architecture of the Byzantine Periphery: A Comparative Study of Four Provinces (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), 9.
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