Painting and sculpture are often considered, fair enough, the most silent types of art forms. Indeed, unlike music or literature, painting and sculpture do not shower the audience with ideas or impose their opinion on the latter; on the contrary, they remain silent and distant. This is where the charm of museums is concealed, though; exhibitions allow for well-paced meditations, they create a specific atmosphere, letting the audience sink into it, which a visit to the Norton Simon Museum was a solid proof for.
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After viewing the Coronation of the Virgin Altarpiece: Saint Prosdochimus (di Arpo), I realized that the art of the Middle Ages, the era that is rightfully considered one of the darkest and the most complicated times that the humankind had to live through, also had some of the most delightful specimen of art to consider.
The given iconography is dedicated to the Virgin Mary; to be more exact, it depicts a particular moment in her life, i.e., her coronation. Although the given episode from the life of Virgin Mary is often omitted or forgotten when the traditional Biblical stories are told, and very few people know actually about the given issue, this event plays a pivoting role in the canonization of the Holy Virgin. Symbolizing the parting with the secular world and crossing the threshold of Heaven (Boyer 54), the given event has been depicted in the iconography in a very peculiar manner, which makes the given iconography a devotional work.
Di Arpo uses the formal elements of painting in his own inimitable manner, which, paradoxically, also resembles a number of other Medieval authors of iconographies. Di Arpo uses light and shadow to contrast the heavenly glow that surrounds the two characters, the Virgin Mary and St. Prosdochimus, which helps create the atmosphere of wonder and makes the audience gasp in awe. Also, by using the lighter palette when depicting the Holy Virgin, and choosing the much darker color cast for the portrayal of St. Prosdochimus, di Arpo sets apart the youth and innocence of Virgin Mary and the age and wisdom of the former.
The given iconography is a graphic example of the case when shades come to life, telling their own story, and when the light and darkness can shake off the burden of their standard connotations and try new shades of meaning on, as well as colors, do. Speaking of which, the colors in the iconography can be described as di Arpo’s trademark. Although it must be admitted that a number of Medieval artists used the yellowish and brownish palette in their artworks (Gage 63), di Arpo, with his careful use of the reddish palette, managed to stay original. While the red color was not commonly used in iconography in the Middle Ages (Gage 63) for quite understandable reasons, i.e., because of the interpretation of the red color as the symbol of passion and blood, di Arpo managed to add a speck of carmine and considerable amounts of crimson, pink and even Cornell red color to his painting.
Even though the traditional interpretations of red are usually related to such secular emotions as passion, vengeance, lust, etc. (Kim 49), in the given iconography, these colors create a very solemn and spiritual atmosphere (Kneiner 502), perhaps, because the tone of these colors matches with the background. In addition, the uneven texture, which is typical for iconographies, makes the concept of an old and sacred legend that the given iconography incorporates complete.
Made of “tempera and gold leaf on the panel” (di Arpo), as the description states, the Coronation of the Virgin Mary was created in an unusual manner – at least, for an artwork in the Medieval times. However, at this point, one may realize that this is not just another iconography made hastily on a traditional Biblical subject; on the contrary, the very mentioning of the “gold leaf” makes one think of how much effort and appreciation went into that work, as well as in what awe the author was to the person whom he was depicting. Oil and canvas did not suit the significance and beauty of the moment – only gold leaves could help capture this glorious moment.
The scale of the work is surprisingly small – according to the data mentioned in the description of the artwork, it is 13.3 cm long and 26.4 cm high. Therefore, it is easier to imagine the Coronation as a smaller part of the larger picture, where the Holy Virgin is surrounded by a choir of angles, and blissful light is shed from up above.
A visit to remember, this journey into the Middle Ages and attempt to see the universe of the XIV century through di Arpo’s lens was truly unforgettable. While some of the questions concerning the meaning behind the author’s choice of the means of expression remained unanswered, seeing the Coronation of the Virgin Altarpiece: Saint Prosdochimus truly was an aesthetic delight. Watching the world through di Arpo’s prism was an exciting experience that definitely will not be forgotten any time soon.
Boyer, Mark G. Reflection on the Mysteries of the Rosary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2005. Print.
Di Arpo, Guantento. Coronation of the Virgin Altarpiece: Saint Prosdochimus. 1344. Web.
Gage, John. Colour and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 1990. Print.
Kim, Kyong Liong. Caged in Our Own Signs: A Book about Semiotics. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation. 1996. Print.
Kneiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History. 14th edition. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning. 2013. Print.