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Renaissance unleashed a flood of creativity in the form of art, philosophy, mathematics, architecture, alchemy, and other visual forms of expression. The period saw a blending of different art forms and each inspired the other. This was mainly due to the fact that many artists were mathematicians, alchemists, philosophers, etc. Renaissance art in particular had many instances where geometrical representations and perspectives were used. This paper analyses the works of some great masters who have used geometrical visual perspective in Renaissance art (Dunning, 1991).
The Beginning of the Visual Perspective
Murray (Murray, 1963) has suggested that the concept of using perspective in art forms such as drawing and painting first started in the early 14th century when an architect from Florence, Filippo di ser Brunelleschi sketched the famous landmark building of San Giovanni Baptistery. What Filippo had done was create an illusion by scaling the objects in the drawing so that objects nearer to an observer appeared larger while objects further away were drawn smaller. This created a visual perspective and the sketch appeared as it would appear to the naked eye. Murray has argued that perspective allowed the illiterate and the literate to visualize a picture and created a pictorial space that unified the beholder with the image.
The use of perspective allows a three-dimensional image to be made on a two-dimensional surface. Visual perspective allowed the artist to use basic geometry and unify distant forests and buildings, cityscapes, and tidal waves with human, animate, and inanimate forms. It was perspective that allows the artist to blend different worlds and environments into a single surface. Many artists such as Piero Della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Leone Battista Alberti, Albrecht Dürer, Galileo Galilei, and others have used geometry and perspective to create the fine art of illusion and perspective.
Visual Perspective in Art
Kubovy (Kubovy, 2005) has provided a detailed analysis of how the Renaissance Master have used geometry and perspective. The authors have suggested that not only was perspective regarded as central to giving aesthetic perceptions but it was also used “deliberate discrepancy between the viewer’s actual point of view and a virtual point of view experienced by the viewer on the basis of cues contained in the perspective organization of the painting”. Perspective was used to provide a rationalized depiction of space, area, and depth. This allowed the painters to paint group scenes in a complex spatially manner. The painting ‘The Tribute Money’ painted by Masaccio shows how perspective was used to pull the viewer’s attention to an important aspect of the painting.
In the picture, the tilting and slanting lines that present the chazzan or the horizontal feature of the building fades into the background. This is called the Orthogonal and it represents the lines that are at the right angle to the picture plane. These lines will meet at a point in the distance and this is called the vanishing point. In the above picture, the vanishing point is placed on the right side of Christ and draws attention to him. Domenico Veneziano has played with the vanishing point concept in a different manner. In his painting Martyrdom of Saint Lucy, the vanishing point is appearing at to draw attention to the action and the arm of the executioner who is plunging a dagger into the saint’s neck.
In another painting, visual elements and powerful elements of a painting are made to interact with the vanishing point. Kubovy has suggested that in one of his paintings called ‘Madonna and Child with Four Saints’, Madonna holds the infant Jesus, and the four saints are standing in the foreground. Madonna is wearing a cloak that creates a triangle when it covers her knees. The vertex is pointing down and matches with the arches decoration in the background and this forms the vanishing point.
The four saints shown in the picture are St Francis, the left figure, and St John’s second image on the left, St Zenobius, the second image on the right side. The author suggests that the eyes and fingers of the three saints are all directed at the orthogonal and the viewer’s attention is immediately drawn to Madonna and the infant Jesus.
Kubovy has suggested that there were four uses of perspective: illusionistic focus, structural focus, and narrative focus. He has also suggested that artists used perspective to create a theological allusion. The following text is quoted from the book by Kubovy.:
“The most obvious factor in Domenico’s scheme of dimensions and proportions, as might be expected, is three. The elemental shape from which the pattern of floor tiles is derived is the equilateral triangle; the viewing distance, or invisible floor, is three times the visible floor; the Gothic facade consists of three bays and is three G [ = the interval between columns of the Gothic loggia] high (including the putative entablature) by three wide; the floor is feet wide at the baseline and the total depth of the architecture beyond the baseline is 27, or 33 feet. A second and less obvious element in the proportions is the interplay between 2 and 3. We look across a floor which is 3/2 G deep at an elevation (without the entablature) of which the base is 2/3 G below eye level and the proportions above eye level are 2:3. The overall proportions of the elevation, 23 :3.2 The proportions of the four large rectangles of floor into which the plan forward of the exhedra naturally divides are, beginning with the invisible floor, 3:2, 1:2, 1:3, and 2:3. No doubt the theological allusion of this coupling of 2 and 3 is the expansion of the dual deity to the Trinity with the coming of Christ.” (Kubovy 2005)
Geometry in Art
Kubovy (Kubovy 2005) has explained the problems and challenges that the Renaissance artists faced in the early days. In the early days of the Renaissance when there was no concept of taking an image, artists faced the problem of understanding the concept of optics, understand abstractions and then draw real-life figures in perspectives. Brunelleschi created an experiment using a small hole in a panel and then making viewers see the plaiting with a mirror. This experiment allowed artists to better visualize geometry and how objects could be represented geometrically. He allowed an illusion of depth to be formed when in fact there was none.
Donatello played with the concept of robustness of perspective and the fact that a picture would not appear distorted when viewed from a different angle. This concept was very important as it allowed artists to experiment with different geometric figures and yet ensure that the same visual representation was given to the viewers.
The work was a gilded bronze panel and it was placed in the Siena Baptistery. The work was placed below eye level and the bass relief figures at the fore and the distant arches at the back presented a contrast that deceived the eye of viewers.
Kubovy has suggested that geometry served to achieve a few important things for the Renaissance artists.
- Scenographic Device: Perspective was used to introduce drama and action in a scene. Stage dramas that were staged in the Renaissance period used perspective-drawn images in the background to infuse a sense of distance and depth.
- Provide a sense of Action: The Renaissance painters actually had a small strip of canvas in which the scale of a vast image needed to be displayed and the concept of action to be shown. The images had to speak for themselves and perspective and geometry helped to deliver this message
- Emphasis Point: This was a key concept that was utilized to the full by drawing viewers’ attention to a specific area of a large canvas. Artists such as Leonardo used this very effectively when he drew the last supper.
- Evocating Moods and Feelings: Artists used perspective and illusion to depict and convey the mood of anger, desperation, and other feelings.
Kubolov has suggested that Italian artists used perspective, not for any visual reality but because that is how they represented the space in a picture. He has quoted Leonardo and says “the eye is adapted to receive like the ear the images of objects without transmitting some potency in exchange for these”
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- Dunning William V (1991). ‘Changing Images of Pictorial Space: A History of Spatial Illusion in Painting’. Syracuse University Press: New York
- Kubovy Michael & Tyler Christopher (2005), ‘Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art’. Web.
- Murray Linda, Peter Murray (1963). ‘The Art of the Renaissance’. Praeger Publications: New York