Main Great Paintings. The World's Masterpieces Explored and Explained
Book cover Great Paintings.  The World's Masterpieces Explored and Explained

Great Paintings. The World's Masterpieces Explored and Explained

»Великие картины» предоставят вам экскурсию по вашей личной галерее по 60 из самых популярных во всем мире картин. Из работ Боттичелли и Рафаэля, Сальвадора Дали и Фриды Кало книга охватывает картины, которые потрясли мир искусства разных эпох и на разных континентах.
Издание содержит историю создания каждой картины, расшифрует скрытый смысл и символы и содержит более 700 фотографий, которые помогут вам понять основные характеристики, состав и методы рисования, которые делают эти картины выдающимися. Плюс биографии художников обеспечивают исторический фон для каждого произведения искусства.

Great Paintings takes you on your own personal gallery tour of over 60 of the worlds best-loved paintings. From works by Botticelli and Raphael to Salvador Dali and Frida Kahlo, the book covers the paintings that have shaken the art world across centuries and across continents.
The story behind each painting is told, unlocking hidden meanings and symbols and over 700 photographs bring the pictures to life helping you understand the key features, composition and techniques that have made these paintings stand out. Plus, biographies of the artists provide the background to each art work helping you paint your own picture of the historical and social context behind each masterpiece.
Year: 2011
Language: english
Pages: 258
File: PDF, 80.94 MB

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GREAT

PAINTINGS

PAINTINGS

contents
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Hieronymus Bosch

44

The Great Piece of Turf
Albrecht Dürer

48

Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci

50

Looking at Paintings

6

The Qingming Scroll
Zhang Zeduan

10

The School of Athens
Raphael

54

The Lamentation of Christ
Giotto di Bondone

14

Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Michelangelo

The Madonna Enthroned
Duccio di Buoninsegna

18

Bacchus and Ariadne
Titian

1100–1500

David with the
Head of Goliath
Caravaggio

88

58

The Judgement of Paris
Peter Paul Rubens

90

62

Charles I on Horseback
Anthony van Dyck

94

1600–1700

1500–1600

The Annunciation
Fra Angelico

22

The Ambassadors
Hans Holbein

66

Self-portrait as “La Pittura”
Artemisia Gentileschi

96

The Arnolfini Portrait
Jan van Dyck

26

Spring Morning in the Han Palace
Qiu Ying

70

Las Meninas
Diego Velázquez

98

The Baptism of Christ
Piero della Francesca

30

Netherlandish Proverbs
Pieter Bruegel The Elder

74

Self-portrait
Rembrandt van Rijn

102

The Hunt in the Forest
Paolo Uccello

34

Spring
Giuseppe Arcimboldo

78

The Art of Painting
Johannes Vermeer

106

The Birth of Venus
Sandro Botticelli

38

Cypress Tree
Kano Eitoku

80

Akbar's Adventures with the
Elephant Hawa’i in 1561
Basawan and Chetar

84

DK INDIA
LONDON, NEW YORK, MUNICH,
MELBOURNE, DELHI

Managing Art Editor

Ashita Murgai

Managing Editor

Saloni Talwar

Project Art Editor
Senior Editor
Senior Art Editor
Editors
Production Editor
Production Controller
Picture Research
Managing Editor
Managing Art Editor
US Editors

Angela Wilkes
Michael Duffy
Anna Kruger, Hugo Wilkinson
Tony Phipps
Mandy Inness
Sarah Smithies
Stephanie Farrow
Lee Griffiths
Shannon Beatty, Rachel Bozek

Rajnish Kashyap

Project Editor

Garima Sharma

Senior Art Editor

Anchal Kaushal

Assistant Designer
Production Manager
DTP Manager
DTP Designers

Diya Kapur
Pankaj Sharma
Balwant Singh
Shanker Prasad
Mohamad Usman

Managing Director

Aparna Sharma

First American Edition, 2011
Published in the United States by DK Publishing,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
11 12 13 14 15 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
001—177857—October/2011
Copyright © 2011 Dorling Kindersley Limited
All rights reserved.
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved
above, no part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or
transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic,
mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise)
without the prior written permission of both the
copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

Lake Keitele
Akseli Gallen-Kallela

192

The Large Bathers
Paul Cézanne

194

The Kiss
Gustav Klimt

198
202

The Valpinçon Bather
Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres

138

Composition VII
Wassily Kandinsky

206

The Third of May 1808
Francisco de Goya

142

Berlin Street Scene
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

208

Wanderer Above
the Sea of Fog
Caspar David Friedrich

146

Northern River
Tom Thomson
Red Balloon
Paul Klee

210

148

Red Canna
Georgia O'Keeffe

212

Still Life with Flowers and Fruit
Jan van Huysum

112

The Hay Wain
John Constable

The Metamorphosis of Narcissus
Salvador Dalí

214

116

The Fighting Temeraire
J. M. W. Turner

152

Marriage à-la-Mode:
the Marriage Settlement
William Hogarth

The Artist's Studio
Gustave Courbet

156

Guernica
Pablo Picasso

218

Mr. and Mrs. Andrews
Thomas Gainsborough

120

Olympia
Édouard Manet

160

Nighthawks
Edward Hopper

222

1700–1800

1900 to present

1800–1900

Allegory of the Planets
and Continents
Giambattista Tiepolo

124

Arrangement in Grey
and Black, No. 1
James McNeill Whistler

164

An Experiment on a Bird
in the Air Pump
Joseph Wright of Derby

128

The Dancing Class
Edgar Degas

168

Red Interior, Still Life on a Blue Table 230
Henri Matisse

172

Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)
Jackson Pollock

234

The Death of Marat
Jacques-Louis David

132

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte
Georges Seurat

176

Untitled
Mark Rothko

238

Van Gogh’s Chair
Vincent van Gogh

180

Marilyn
Andy Warhol

240

The Child's Bath
Mary Cassatt

182

To a Summer's Day
Bridget Riley

242

Where Do We Come From?
What Are We?
Where Are We Going?
Paul Gauguin

The Dance
Paula Rego

244

186

Athanor
Anselm Kiefer

246

The Waterlily Pond
Claude Monet

Glossary
Index
Acknowledgments

248
250
255

Published in Great Britain by Dorling Kindersley Limited.
A catalog record for this book is available from the
Library of Congress.
ISBN 978-0-7566-8675-8
DK books are available at special discounts when
purchased in bulk for sales promotions, premiums, fundraising, or educational use. For details, contact DK
Publishing Special Markets, 375 Hudson Street, New
York, New York 10014 or [email protected]
Printed and bound in Singapore by
Star Standard Industries
Discover more at www.dk.com

Without Hope
Frida Kahlo

CONTRIBUTORS
Karen Hosack Janes
Arts and culture educationalist, who teaches History of Art at Oxford University Department for
Continuing Education. Formerly Head of Schools at the National Gallery, London and now an advisor
to several arts and education projects. Has written two series of art books for children, as well as
articles for the Times Educational Supplement.

Ian Chilvers
Writer and editor, whose books include The Oxford Dictionary of Art, A Dictionary
of Twentieth-Century Art, and The Artist Revealed: Artists and their Self-Portraits.
Chief consultant on Art: the Definitive Visual Guide.

Ian Zaczek
Writer, whose books include The Collins Big Book of Art, Masterworks, Art: the Definitive
Visual Guide, and The Story of Art.

226

LOOKING AT PAINTINGS

Looking at
Paintings
Great paintings come in many guises. The smallest could be held
in one hand, while the largest extend magnificently across the vast
ceilings of palaces and chapels. Paintings vary just as much in other
respects too, ranging from microscopic depictions of the natural
world to bold, swirling abstracts, and from beguiling, intimate
portraits to interpretations of key moments in history, myth, or
literature. The 66 paintings in this book span many centuries and
they represent a huge wealth of human experience. Some tell stories,
some transport you to faraway places, and some celebrate beauty;
others are scenes of almost unbearable horror. Each painting,
however, is unique.

Looking at any painting is a personal experience, but one that
benefits from broader knowledge—the more you know about works
of art, the closer you look at them, and the more you see and enjoy.
Like a helpful guide standing next to you in a gallery, museum, or
church, this book will help you to look at each painting with fresh
eyes and expert knowledge: you will find out about each painting’s
background, its historical context, and the artist who created it. You
will also learn about the techniques of the world’s greatest painters—
how they have used color, perspective, light, and shade to capture a
likeness or a moment in time, and to convey the feelings that it
inspired. Perhaps more importantly, this book will lead you through
the key details of each painting, elements you may barely notice at
first—a tiny reflection in a mirror, a crescent moon high in the sky,
a slipper dangling carelessly on a foot—that help to reveal what a
painting is really about.

Great paintings often have hidden levels of meaning, but once you
start to unravel the clues, everything begins to make sense. Finding
your way into a great painting is like setting off on a voyage of
discovery—endlessly fascinating and deeply rewarding.

7

„

The Qingming Scroll

„

The Lamentation of Christ

„

The Madonna Enthroned

„

The Annunciation

„

The Arnolfini Portrait

„

The Baptism of Christ

„

The Hunt in the Forest

„

The Birth of Venus

10

1100–1500

The Qingming Scroll
c.1100

„

INK AND COLOR ON SILK

„

10in × 17ft 3in (25.5cm × 5.25m)

ZHANG ZEDUAN
Astonishing in its intricacy, this magnificent silk painting
on a handheld scroll depicts scenes of everyday city life
in 12th-century China. The scroll was designed to be held
by the viewer, who would unroll an arm’s length at a time,
starting from the right. Below you can see the central
section of the scroll. With its bustling streets and beautiful
arched rainbow bridge spanning a curving river, the urban
landscape is full of vivid, narrative detail.

View of an ideal city
The city shown in the painting is thought to be the
Northern Song capital, Bianliang (modern Kaifeng), in
Henan Province, although the artist has not included
specific features, such as a famous temple, that would

„

PALACE MUSEUM, BEIJING, CHINA
SCALE

make identification certain. The word “Qingming” in
the title has perplexed scholars over the years. It was
thought to relate to a festival that took place 100 days
after the winter solstice, when ancestral graves were
swept with willow brooms. There is, however, little
evidence of the willows in the painting: branches would
have been hung up on house roofs but none are shown.
Other objects associated with the festival, such as displays
of paper houses outside shops, are also missing.
An alternative interpretation of the painting, which the
lack of unique landmarks would seem to bear out, is that
it portrays an idealized cityscape. “Qingming,” which
literally means “bright-clear” and “peaceful and orderly,”
would then refer to a splendid city where all members

THE QINGMING SCROLL

of society live harmoniously. Indeed, if you look carefully
at the painting, there is no evidence of poverty and
people from all social classes are mingling in the streets.
The scroll begins at the far right with a morning scene
in the country (see p.13), and at its midpoint the artist,
Zhang Zeduan, has depicted its most striking feature—
the crowded bridge and the drama taking place on the
river below. Very little information exists about the artist,
and his reasons for painting this masterpiece have not
been documented. Yet from the colophons (written notes)
at the end of the scroll, it seems likely that Zhang was
trying to recall and recapture the illustrious past of the
Northern Song dynasty in China—a period of peace,
prosperity, and high artistic achievement.

„

ZHANG ZEDUAN

ZHANG ZEDUAN
c.1085–1145

The Qingming Scroll is the only surviving documented work by Zhang Zeduan,
but this alone establishes him as one of the great painters of the Northern
Song period (960–1126).

What we know about the artist is revealed only in the colophons of The
Qingming Scroll. In addition to notes from the various Chinese owners of the
scroll, together with their seals, Zhang’s place of birth is given as Dongwu
(now Zhucheng, Shandong Province), China, although there is no date. He
traveled to the Northern Song capital, Bianliang, to study painting when
he was young, and may then have become a member of the Imperial Hanlin
Academy. This was set up to support contemporary artists by Emperor
Huizong, who reigned from 1100 to 1126. Zhang Zeduan’s great skill was
in depicting everyday scenes in exquisite and extraordinary detail on the
high-quality silk that was widely produced in the region.

With each viewing, the observer gains new
understanding of the people and the city shown
in such vivid detail
VALERIE HANSEN THE BEIJING QINGMING SCROLL AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE FOR THE STUDY OF CHINESE HISTORY, 1996

11

12

1100–1500

Visual tour

2

2

4
6
5
7

3
1

KEY

4 BOAT ADRIFT On the river below the bridge, boatmen struggle to
regain control of a large boat; it has a broken tow rope, and has been
pushed off course by the powerful current. Some of the crew are
trying to lower the mast, while others attempt to steady the boat
with poles. One man is trying to reach the bridge above with a long
boat hook. Onlookers lean over the bridge, shouting warnings or words
of encouragement, and one has thrown down a rope that is uncoiling.

1

3

1 INTERACTION A sense of drama is conveyed by the
reaction of the spectators watching the drifting boat.
Although you cannot make out the details of their faces,
they are all intent on the action and are pointing or
gesturing. The man above is standing on the roof of
his boat, gesticulating at the drifting vessel. The river
is high and the water is swirling dangerously.

2 RAINBOW BRIDGE The main focus of this part of
the painting, and indeed of the whole scroll, is the
beautiful, arched rainbow bridge spanning the river.
It is thronged with people, traders, and animals. Food
is being cooked and sold at stalls, with room for
sitting and eating. Other vendors display their goods
on the ground, sheltered under temporary awnings.
Although this rainbow bridge is very distinctive,
similar bridges also existed in other Chinese cities
besides Bianliang, the Northern Song capital.

THE QINGMING SCROLL

„

ZHANG ZEDUAN

ON TECHNIQUE

3 HOUSEBOATS Long, flat houseboats are moored along the side of the river—
one even has its own potted garden. Behind them, the riverbank is lined with
cafés. The tables are not yet occupied. In the evenings, the cafés and restaurants
would have been lit by lanterns.

4

Zhang Zeduan drew the buildings and other
structures in The Qingming Scroll with a fine
brush, and used a ruler to help him draw
straight lines. The colophons (written Chinese
characters) at the end of the scroll refer to this
technique as “ruled-line painting.” It is also
known as jiehua, which means “boundary”
or “measured” painting. Most of the scroll is
monochrome and has faded to brown with age,
but a few details are in color, such as the green
buds of the willow trees. Zhang has drawn most
of the scenes from overhead, enabling you to
see the tops of roofs, umbrellas, and people’s
heads. However, sometimes the perspective
shifts so that the viewer can explore other
angles. From certain viewpoints you can see
both the top and the underside of the bridge.

IN CONTEXT

5

6

Following the course of the day from morning
until mid-afternoon, the scroll begins on the right
with a quiet, rural landscape and ends on the left
in the busy capital city. Signs of commerce
appear throughout the scroll, from the donkeys
laden with wood on their way to market in the
opening scene to a pharmacy with two female
customers in the final one. The Qingming Scroll
is a unique and precious historical document
that provides a fascinating glimpse of what life
was like in China 800 years ago.

2 WHEELBARROW It takes two men
to maneuver this wheelbarrow with
a giant wheel—one at the back, and
another at the front, who pulls with
the aid of a donkey. There is room
for passengers on either side.

3 TAKEOUT The scroll is full of
incidental detail, depicting characters
going about their everyday lives. Here
you can see a man carrying two bowls
of takeout food—probably noodles—
and chopsticks.

1The first scene of The Qingming Scroll, to the far
right of the scroll, shows the river meandering
through a peaceful rural scene in the country.

7

1 SEDAN CHAIR The wealthy traveled in enclosed sedan
chairs, carried on poles by bearers. The servants of the person
inside this one are disputing who has right of way with the
servants of the man on horseback.

1The last scene, to the far left of the scroll, shows
the teeming life in the city streets.

13

14

1100–1500

THE LAMENTATION OF CHRIST

„

GIOTTO

The Lamentation
of Christ
c.1305

„

FRESCO

„

72¾ × 78¾in (185 × 200cm)

„

SCROVEGNI CHAPEL, PADUA, ITALY

GIOTTO

SCALE

Painted on the wall of the Scrovegni Chapel in

focal point of the painting. Like Christ’s large and

the old university town of Padua, the drama

elongated body, Mary’s grief seems unbearably

depicted in this fresco is unbearably poignant.

heavy. To Mary’s right, John the Evangelist

The griefstricken faces and postures of the

throws back his arms in a gesture that expresses

figures, the strong composition, and the use of

shock and dismay, and Mary Magdalene sits

space all convey a sense of tragedy at Christ’s

mourning at Christ’s feet.

death. This scene forms part of a sequence of

Giotto’s use of simple shapes and blocks

frescoes depicting episodes from the lives

of color helps the viewer to concentrate on

of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Virgin’s

the main areas of emotional expression in the

parents, Anne and Joachim, and is in many

painting: the faces and hands. The solid masses

ways the emotional highpoint of the Chapel.

of the figures in the foreground are draped with

With these frescoes, Giotto succeeded in

clothes that describe the shape of the bodies

breaking away from the artistic conventions

underneath. We do not need to see these

of the day, and his new, naturalistic style of

people’s faces—their sorrow is expressed by

painting marked a turning point in the

their bowed heads and hunched shoulders. The

development of Western art. Before Giotto

proportions of the composition are realistic and

created his innovative images of realistic,

there is a convincing sense of space. In this

three-dimensional people, the stiffness of

respect, Giotto anticipates the techniques of

figures in the Byzantine tradition and the flat,

perspective that were to be formulated and

one-dimensional space they inhabited made it

developed in detail over a hundred years later.

difficult for the viewer to experience any real
connection with the subject matter. Mosaics had
often been used previously for religious images,
but these were not only expensive and timeconsuming to produce, they were also primarily
decorative and were not intended to engage the

GIOTTO DI BONDONE
c.1270–1337

One of the giants of the history of art, Giotto is
generally considered to be the founder of the
mainstream of modern painting.

viewer emotionally. This engagement is exactly
what makes The Lamentation of Christ so
powerful. It portrays the most emotional
episode in the sequence of frescoes and Giotto
endows the scene with an intensity that is both
touching and beautiful.

Bringing the narrative to life
In the biblical account depicted here, Christ’s
body has been taken down from the cross and
is encircled by his grieving family and friends.
The Virgin Mary cradling her dead son is the

Born in Colle di Vespignano, near Florence, Giotto studied under
the Florentine painter Cimabue and went on to create a powerful,
naturalistic style that broke away from the flat, remote
conventions of Byzantine art, which had been dominant for
centuries. His figures seem solid, weighty, and set in real space,
and they express human emotion with conviction and subtlety.
This huge achievement was recognized in Giotto’s lifetime.
He worked in various major art centers, from Florence to Naples,
and was the first artist since classical antiquity to become
renowned throughout Italy. Unfortunately, many of his paintings
have perished over the centuries and his career is difficult to
reconstruct in detail. However, his masterpiece—the fresco
decoration of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua—survives in good
condition, and this work alone is enough to secure his reputation
as one of the greatest artists of all time.

15

16

1100–1500

Visual tour
7

8
6

3

2

1
4

5

KEY

2

4 MARY MAGDALENE
The simple figures in Giotto’s
composition have no objects
surrounding them to help us
identify them. Here, however,
Mary Magdalene is recognizable
from her humble posture and
actions. The dead Christ’s feet
rest on her lap and she touches
them lovingly, just as two other
women touch Christ’s hands.
Mary Magdalene seems to be
weeping at the terrible sight of
the wounds. In many images
of the period she is shown with
a jar of ointment.

1

1 MOTHER AND SON The Virgin Mary holds the
dead Christ in her arms, an expression of the most
intense grief on her face. The close contact between
mother and son, their faces almost touching, helps
us to empathize with the human tragedy before us.
Bereavement is a universal experience and the painting
resonates on an emotional and very personal level,
whether or not you hold religious beliefs.

4 SEATED FIGURES The people with their backs to
us in the foreground of the painting strengthen the
composition in several ways. They and the other
people in the crowd encircle Christ, giving the scene
a greater feeling of intimacy. The space between the
two figures also draws us into the heart of the scene,
bringing the drama to a human level. It is as though
we are offered the choice of watching from afar or
becoming emotionally involved.

3

4

5

THE LAMENTATION OF CHRIST

„

GIOTTO

ON TECHNIQUE

6

7

2 ANGUISHED ANGELS
Ten angels, like shooting
stars—some with flaming
trails—look down from
the azure sky on the holy
scene below. Their tiny,
contorted bodies express
their anguish eloquently.
Some pray, some are
clearly weeping, and
others simply hold their
heads in their hands to
show their despair.

To paint these frescoes, Giotto transferred a
preliminary sketch directly on to the plaster of the
wall. The outlines of the sketch were pricked, and
powdered charcoal was then brushed through the
holes. Applying water-based paint while the final
layer of plaster was still wet (fresco means “fresh”
in Italian) allowed the colors to embed. Giotto
had to work quickly, completing small sections
at a time. Once dry, frescoes become part of the
plaster on the wall and some last for hundreds of
years. Giotto used gold leaf on the halos, on the
angels’ wings, and for detailing on clothes. When
the chapel candles were lit, the gold would have
helped light up the scenes.

IN CONTEXT
The series of frescoes, including The Lamentation
of Christ, was commissioned around 1300 by a
wealthy banker and merchant, Enrico Scrovegni,
to decorate the walls of the chapel next to his
palace in Padua. Giotto was asked to depict
stories from both the Old and New Testaments.
The vaulted roof of the chapel is decorated like
a star-studded blue sky and the walls are lined
with the framed panels of fresco. The series
ends with The Last Judgment, which fills the
whole of the west wall facing the altar.

1 MOURNERS The faces of the
mourners are natural and animated, yet
have a sculptural quality. They are all
inclined toward the body of Christ, as
if no one can quite believe their eyes.
There is a calm dignity about the group
and their gestures are expressive,
but not overly theatrical: they hold
their hands up in despair or clasp
Christ’s hands and feet. In their facial
expressions you can discern pain and
anger—emotions that they are trying
hard to keep under control. This acute
sense of realism is Giotto’s trademark.

8

1 STILLNESS AND MOVEMENT The swooping and twisting bodies of
the angels in the sky form a strong contrast with the stillness of the
scene below. The tension between these two opposing forces helps
to create a powerful and somber atmosphere.

1The Scrovegni Chapel (also known as the Arena
Chapel) interior, looking toward the altar

17

18

1100–1500

The Madonna Enthroned
c.1308–11 „ TEMPERA AND GOLD ON PANEL „ 7 × 13ft (2.13 × 3.96m)
MUSEO DELL’OPERA DEL DUOMO, SIENA, ITALY

DUCCIO DI BUONINSEGNA

SCALE

Hailed as one of the greatest masterpieces of the age,

regarded as sacred and painters were expected to copy

Duccio’s painting helped to change the course of Italian

them faithfully. Originality, personal expression, and

art. For much of the medieval period, the prevailing

any form of realism were not encouraged. Led by Giotto

influence in art came from the East. Byzantine devotional

(see pp.14–17) and Duccio, Italian masters gradually

art was powerful and hieratic, but its ancient images were

broke away from many of these constraints. In Duccio’s

THE MADONNA ENTHRONED

„

DUCCIO DI BUONINSEGNA

remarkable altarpiece there are signs of human warmth

officially designated as the city’s patron and protector.

in many of the figures, there is genuine drama in the

The inscription beneath her throne reads, “Holy Mother

narrative scenes, and the draperies look far more fluid

of God, bestow peace on Siena.”

and natural than in their Byzantine counterparts.

Duccio was commissioned to produce the altarpiece
by Siena’s civic authorities. A contract from 1308 has

A monumental undertaking

survived, indicating the lavish nature of the project. It is

This imposing panel dominated the front of a huge

notable, for example, that the patrons pledged to provide

altarpiece commissioned for Siena Cathedral. It represents

all the artist’s materials. Accordingly, the Virgin’s robes

the Maestà (Virgin in Majesty) or The Madonna Enthroned.

were painted in ultramarine—a rare and expensive

Presiding over the Court of Heaven, surrounded by saints

pure blue pigment made from lapis lazuli, only found in

and angels, are the Virgin and Child. Siena’s four patron

quarries in Afghanistan. By contrast, the blue coloring

saints kneel at Mary’s feet, interceding for her favor.

in the Rucellai Madonna in the Uffizi, Florence, which is

This is entirely appropriate, as the Virgin had been

attributed to Duccio, was composed of azurite, a much
cheaper pigment that is slightly more
turquoise in tone.
The altarpiece was completed in 1311
and carried in a triumphal procession to the
cathedral. At this stage, it was even more
massive than it is now. In addition to the

Maestà, there were originally scenes from
the infancy of Jesus and the Death of the
Virgin on the front, with further episodes
from the life of Christ on the reverse.
Unfortunately, the altarpiece was cut down
in 1771 and some sections were lost or sold.

DUCCIO DI BUONINSEGNA
c.1255–c.1318/19

A Sienese painter, Duccio was one of the key figures
in the development of early Italian art. He owes his fame
to a single masterpiece—the magnificient altarpiece in
Siena Cathedral.

Very little is known about Duccio di Buoninsegna’s life.
There is no reliable evidence about his birthplace or
training. Some scholars have suggested that he may have
been a pupil of Cimabue or Guido da Siena, but the first
documentary reference to him dates from 1278. Records
of several commissions have survived, but The Madonna
Enthroned is the only work that can be attributed to him
with absolute certainty. Hints about his character emerge
from other documentary material, suggesting that he had a
rebellious streak. He was fined for a variety of offenses—for
refusing to do military service, for declining to swear an
oath of fealty, and perhaps even for a breach of the
regulations against sorcery.
Whatever faults Duccio may have had, they were clearly
outweighed by his prodigious talent. The Sienese authorities
were anxious to secure his services for their most important
commission and the reasons for this are plain to see. Along
with Giotto, Duccio was instrumental in freeing Italian art
from the limitations of its Byzantine sources.

19

20

1100–1500

Visual tour
4
6
2
1

3

5

7

KEY

3 ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST This distinctive
figure is John the Baptist. He can be
identified by his unkempt appearance and
his tunic made out of animal skins. These
refer to his ascetic lifestyle, wandering in
the desert, living off locusts and honey.
John was frequently included in paintings
of the “Court of Heaven” because of his
status as the forerunner of Christ. He was
also regarded as a symbolic link between
the two parts of the Bible—the last of the
Old Testament prophets and the first of
the New Testament saints.

3 ST. ANSANUS The four figures in the
foreground, kneeling before the Virgin,
are the guardian saints of Siena: Ansanus,
Savinus, Crescentius, and Victor. Their
prominent position confirms that Duccio’s
altarpiece was a civic commission as well
as a religious one. This man is St. Ansanus.
He came from a noble Roman family, as
his aristocratic attire indicates, but he was
betrayed by his father for preaching the
Gospel. Condemned to death by Emperor
Diocletian, Ansanus was thrown into a vat
of boiling oil, before being beheaded.

1

2

4

1 THE VIRGIN AND CHILD Italian artists borrowed the theme of
The Virgin Enthroned from Byzantine sources (see opposite). Early
examples can be found in the mosaics at Ravenna in Italy, which for
a brief time was the Western capital of the Byzantine Empire. The
Virgin represents the Queen of Heaven, as well as the personification
of Mother Church. In keeping with the normal medieval practice, she
is depicted on a larger scale than the other figures, to underline her
importance. The star on her cloak—another Eastern feature—refers to
her title, “Star of the Sea.”

1 ANGELS’ FACES Duccio followed tradition in his depiction of the figures
surrounding the Virgin. Artists had developed their own conventions for the
physical appearance of many of the better-known saints, based on the accounts
of their lives. St. Paul, for example (on the left, immediately above St. Ansanus),
was normally shown as a bald man with a dark beard. Angels, on the other hand,
were frequently given the same, idealized faces. They were regarded as sexless
beings, so painters invariably strove to make them appear androgynous.
Sometimes their bodies were omitted altogether and they were represented
by a head encircled by three pairs of wings.

3

THE MADONNA ENTHRONED

„

DUCCIO DI BUONINSEGNA

ON TECHNIQUE

5

2 ST. AGNES This is St. Agnes, a Roman virgin who
was one of the many Christians to suffer martyrdom
during Diocletian’s reign (284–305). She is carrying her
traditional attribute, a young lamb. This association
probably arose because of the similarity to her name
(agnus is Latin for “lamb”). Agnes was a young girl,
aged about 13, who was thrown into a brothel after
refusing the attentions of a high-ranking official.

Duccio’s Virgin is loosely based on a Byzantine
format known as Hodegetria (meaning “She who
shows the Way”). Here, Mary gestures towards
Jesus, indicating that he is the way to salvation.
Both figures gaze at the viewer and there is no
show of maternal affection. The original was said
to be by St. Luke, so painters followed its format,
as in the Virgin of Smolensk. Duccio was one of
the first Italian artists to soften this approach,
giving it a warmer, more naturalistic appearance.

3 NATURALISTIC INTERACTION The Byzantine
models for this type of picture were deliberately
stiff and hieratic. By contrast, Western artists
gradually adopted a more naturalistic approach.
Rather than depicting rows of repetitive figures,
Duccio introduced a degree of variety into the scene.
His saints and angels exchange glances and appear
to commune with each other.

6

1Virgin of Smolensk, c.1450, tempera on fabric,
gesso, and wood, 53¾ × 41¼in (139 × 105cm),
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

IN CONTEXT
The back of the altarpiece, which is now
displayed opposite the front, tells the story of
Christ’s Passion in 26 scenes. Duccio made the
Crucifixion, the climax of the story, larger than
the other panels and gave it a central position.

4 FEET AND ROBES Duccio’s career predates
the development of mathematical laws of
perspective. However, he did make some
attempt to create a sense of depth in this
picture by showing the feet and robes of some
figures overlapping with the edge of the
platform. In part, this was to draw attention to
the inscriptions on the base, which identified
some of the lesser-known saints.

7

1The Crucifixion, detail of panel from the
back of The Madonna Enthroned, 1311, Museo
Dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena, Italy

21

22

1100–1500

The Annunciation
c.1430–32

„

TEMPERA ON PANEL

FRA ANGELICO

„

WHOLE ALTARPIECE 76¼ × 76¼in (194 × 194cm)

„

PRADO, MADRID, SPAIN
SCALE

THE ANNUNCIATION

„

FRA ANGELICO

Fra Angelico is not an artist properly so called,
but an inspired saint
JOHN RUSKIN MODERN PAINTERS, VOLUME II, 1846

In a portico filled with light and color, we

lifelike. The architectural structure also reveals

witness a significant encounter between two

Fra Angelico’s command of perspective. With

haloed figures. Both adopt a similar attitude

its receding columns and the open chamber at

of graceful humility, inclining their heads and

the rear, the composition has a sense of depth

crossing their hands. This still, meditative

and creates the impression that both figures

tableau depicts one of the defining moments

inhabit a real, physical space. In this respect,

of the Christian tradition, when the Archangel

it is possible to see the influence of other early

Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she

Renaissance painters such as Masaccio—Fra

has been chosen by God to be the mother of

Angelico’s contemporary and one of the first

Christ. The Annunciation as interpreted by

artists to paint convincingly lifelike figures in

Dominican friar Fra Angelico was created

settings that appeared three-dimensional. Fra

as a devotional panel for the altar of San

Angelico’s work, however, possesses delicacy

Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence. The painting

and gracefulness that set it apart from that

has a predella (horizontal panel of religious

of his contemporaries.

scenes) below it, hence its square shape.
The diagonal shaft of holy light falls on Mary,
illuminating the intense ultramarine of her cloak
and the complementary peach tones of her
dress. On the other side of the central column,
Gabriel’s shining, gold-patterned robe, a similar
shade to Mary’s dress, also complements the
rich, saturated blue. The angel’s rounded back

Fra Angelico painted numerous altarpieces and
frescoes, including several Annunciation scenes,
all characterized by simplicity of line and vivid
color. For him, painting was an act of spiritual
devotion and his works seem to convey the
strength and inspiration he derived from his
Christian faith, as well as the beauty he saw in
the world around him.

harmonizes with Mary’s graceful pose and is
echoed by the curve of his massive, exquisitely
detailed wings. The tips of Gabriel’s wings
project beyond the portico structure into the
first section of the painting, which takes up a

FRA ANGELICO

quarter of the composition and depicts a scene

c.1395–1455

from Genesis, the first book of the Bible. It is
the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden
of Eden, an episode that adds drama to the

A devout friar, Fra Angelico painted many fine
frescoes and altarpieces. His fine line and use of
light and pure color inspired other Renaissance
artists, including Piero della Francesca.

whole painting and sets the Annunciation in
context: Christ will be born on earth to save
humanity from original sin.
Color, light, and space
This precious work displays Fra Angelico’s keen
observational skills and fine craftsmanship. The
use of light, glowing color and the naturalness
of the poses animates the figures of Mary and
Gabriel, giving them weight and making them

Born Guido de Petro, Fra Angelico was already illustrating or
“illuminating” manuscripts when he joined the Dominican order
at Fiesole, near Florence. He was known as Fra Giovanni; the
epithet “Angelico” (angelic) was probably added after his death.
What little is known about Fra Angelico is derived mainly from
the writings of Giorgio Vasari.
Apart from the church’s patronage, Fra Angelico also received
other commissions and he traveled widely in his later years. He
is perhaps best known for the beautiful frescoes that he painted
in the monks’ cells of the monastery of San Marco, Florence,
c.1440. He was later referred to as “Beato (blessed) Angelico”
and was in fact officially beatified in 1982.

23

24

1100–1500

Visual tour
2

5
6

8
3

4

2

7
1

2 ARCHANGEL GABRIEL The glowing
halo around Gabriel’s head, which has
been painted with gold leaf and then
burnished and tooled, reinforces the
divinity of God’s chief messenger.
Gabriel’s respectful pose is as graceful
as Mary’s submissive gesture and the
two figures, each framed by an arch,
complement each other perfectly. Fra
Angelico has skilfully portrayed the
intensity of their encounter, yet there is
also a sense of stillness, which gives the
altarpiece a meditative quality.

KEY

1

3

2 WINGS Fra Angelico has given Gabriel
a solid, human form and his stance is
realistic. In contrast, the beautifully
shaped wings define him as a divine
being. Each feather is carefully depicted,
and the overall impression is of a real
bird with a large wingspan. You can
almost feel the weight of the wings on
the angel’s back.

4

1 SHAFT OF LIGHT The divine light cutting diagonally through the painting
represents the all-powerful presence of God. From its fiery source in the first
section of the painting, the golden beam touches the archangel’s gilded halo
and diffuses softly in front of Mary, linking the two different narrative
episodes. Within the heavenly light a white dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit,
is making its descent, which marks the moment of conception.

2 VIRGIN MARY In the delicate portrayal of Mary’s face you can see
Fra Angelico’s expertise at painting detail. As an illuminator of manuscripts,
he would have needed an aptitude for fine, small-scale work. Mary’s pose,
with her hands crossed, symbolizes her submission to God’s will. As protector,
she played a central role for the Dominican friars, Fra Angelico’s order.

THE ANNUNCIATION

6

„

FRA ANGELICO

ON TECHNIQUE
Fra Angelico uses linear perspective to convince
the viewer that the area within the classical
portico structure is a real, three-dimensional
space. The Corinthian columns decrease in size
and appear to recede into the background, as do
the arches of the star-studded ceiling. A small
room can be seen through the doorway, with a
window set into its back wall. There is, however,
no single vanishing point and the perspective
is not completely resolved. Fra Angelico was
working at a pivotal point in Florentine art, when
the Gothic conventions were giving way to more
sophisticated techniques.

4 ADAM AND EVE Beyond the confines
of the portico, we see the dejected
figures of Adam and Eve who have
fallen from God’s grace and are being
expelled from the fertile Garden of Eden.
The forbidden fruit under their bare feet,
they move beyond the frame of the
painting. Fra Angelico contrasts their
sinfulness with Mary’s immaculate state
and reminds us that Christ was born to
redeem the sins of humanity.

3 GOD THE FATHER Above the
central column of the portico is
the sculpted head of a bearded
male. This is an image of God, the
wise, all-seeing Father.

5

IN CONTEXT

7

8

Fra Angelico revisited the theme of the
Annunciation in paintings and frescoes made
at different times in his career. The Madrid
Annunciation was made at roughly the same
time as another altarpiece for the church of San
Domenico in Cortona, Tuscany. Although the two
are similar in composition, the Cortona altarpiece
is more decorative and features gold text flowing
from the mouths of the archangel and Mary.
Fra Angelico created a third celebrated
Annunciation, a fresco (shown below), for the
convent of San Marco, near Florence, where it can
be seen on the wall at the top of the dormitory
stairs. Compared with the two earlier versions,
which are dramatic and colorful, it is a pure,
serene image of contemplation.

1 DECORATIVE PLANTS The Garden of Eden, which lies beyond the
portico and takes up the first quarter of the painting, is so richly
patterned with plants that it resembles a medieval tapestry. In the
stylized treatment of the meadow flowers in the foreground, Fra
Angelico’s work reveals the influence of the earlier Gothic style.

2 SWALLOW Perched on the central column, above the heads
of Mary and Gabriel and below the image of God, is a swallow.
It probably symbolizes the resurrection of Christ. Just as Christ dies
and is then reborn, so the swallow disappears, then returns each
spring. Its presence in the painting brings together the trinity of God
the Son, God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit.

1The Annunciation, Fra Angelico, c.1438–45,
fresco, 90½ × 126¼in (230 × 321cm), Convent
of San Marco, Florence, Italy

25

26

1100–1500

The Arnolfini Portrait
c.1434

„

OIL ON PANEL

„

32¼ × 23½in (82.2 × 60cm)

„

NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON, UK

JAN VAN EYCK

SCALE

The exquisite detail in Jan van Eyck’s masterpiece and

audiences of the day, underline their strong moral

the level of precision in the painting give this celebrated

principles and beliefs. The proportions of both figures also

double portrait an authenticity that is very convincing.

emphasize their stature in society. Their bodies appear

The sense of space is realistic, the light is handled with

elongated, emphasizing the volume of their garments and

immense skill, and the composition is tightly controlled.

reinforcing the impression of wealth and status.

In a richly furnished room, a prosperous couple stand

It is, however, the skill of the artist that is perhaps the

together, the reflections of their backs glimpsed in an

most striking aspect of this work. Van Eyck perfected

elaborately carved mirror at the center of the tableau.

the technique of oil painting at a time when tempera

There has been much speculation about the identities

(pigment mixed with egg) was still the most popular

of the man and woman in the double portrait. They were

medium. By carefully building up layers of paint and

long thought to be the Italian merchant Giovanni di Arrigo

adding detail and texture, he created the illusion of real

Arnolfini and his wife, who lived in Bruges, and the

objects and surfaces. The fur linings of the couple’s heavy

painting was known as The Arnolfini Marriage, until it

robes are painstakingly reproduced and look soft to the

was established that the couple was married some years

touch. The patina of the wooden floor with its worn grain

before the 1434 date written on the wall in the painting.

seems accurately depicted, and the oranges on the table

It is now thought that the painting depicts Giovanni’s

and the windowsill look good enough to eat.

cousin and his wife. Central to the composition and
beautifully illuminated by the light from the window,
their hands touch in a display of togetherness.

JAN VAN EYCK

Social documentation

c.1390–1441

Most people who see the painting wonder whether

One of the greatest artists of the Northern Renaissance, van Eyck
was an early master of oil painting. He was famed for his ability
to produce detailed paintings.

Arnolfini’s wife is pregnant. Apart from her rounded
stomach, which was considered a becoming feature in
women and often seen in portraiture at the time, there are
other small details that may suggest pregnancy. However,
it is possible that she is simply holding up her dress to
display the folds of its sumptuous fabric. Indeed, the main
purpose of the painting was probably to emphasize the
couple’s wealth and social standing in 15th-century
Bruges. The interior of the fashionable Flemish house is
richly furnished, both sitters are dressed in fine clothes,
and particular visual symbols, which were employed by

In his early years, van Eyck probably trained as a manuscript illuminator. This
might account for his immense skill in observing and representing objects and
figures in great detail. His earliest known works show his interest in painting
people in a landscape, which was very unusual at the time.
Van Eyck is first recorded working as an artist in August 1422 in the
Hague. There he took up the post of court painter to the Count of Holland,
John of Bavaria. After the Count’s death, he moved to Bruges and became
painter to the court of Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy. This post offered
opportunities for travel and van Eyck was inspired by the scenery and works
of art he encountered. The Arnolfini Portrait and the Ghent Altarpiece are
his most celebrated works and display not only his his acute powers of
observation, but also his naturalism and superb craftsmanship, particularly
when describing the fall of light.

other artists and would have been understood by cultured

Van Eyck’s inspired observations of light and its effects,
executed with technical virtuosity…enabled him to create
a brilliant and lucid kind of reality
SISTER WENDY BECKETT THE STORY OF PAINTING, 1994

27

28

1100–1500

Visual tour
3 COSTLY FABRIC The superb modeling of the folds
of the emerald-green gown emphasize the fabric’s
quality and heavy weight. The fabric is probably
velvet, which was extremely expensive at the time. The
intricate ruffles and pleats on the sleeves increase
the overall impression of luxury and opulence.

6

5
1
2
7

9
3

4

3

8

5

2 CARVED STATUE The
figure of St. Margaret with
a dragon has been carved
into the high back of
what is probably the
bedpost, and the hanging
brush to the left is
associated with St.
Martha, patron saint of
housewives. St. Margaret
is the patron saint of
childbirth, which would
support the view that the
wife is pregnant.

KEY

3 ARNOLFINI Crowned by an enormous hat, the figure
of Arnolfini conveys the impression of great wealth and
status. His eyes are downcast and his expression is
serious. This is in contrast to the welcoming gesture of
his right hand, almost like a wave, as he moves to place
it into his wife’s open palm.

1

2

1 ARNOLFINI’S WIFE A headdress of fine linen
with an intricate frill frames the youthful face of
Arnolfini’s wife, which is bathed in light. Both the
husband and wife’s faces are seen in three-quarter
view. Van Eyck employed this angle in other
paintings and it brings a natural human quality
to the figures.

4

2 SHOES In the bottom left-hand corner of
the painting Arnolfini has taken off his wooden,
clog-like shoes. Look closely at them and you can
see the fine detail of the wood grain and splashes of
mud. The wife’s daintier red shoes are visible in the
background, under the bench beneath the mirror.

THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT

JAN VAN EYCK

ON TECHNIQUE

6

2 CHANDELIER There is a solitary
candle burning in the impressive brass
chandelier. The single flame symbolizes
the all-seeing eye of God. Together
with other signs of devotion, such as
the prayer beads on the wall and the
miniature paintings of the Passion of
Christ around the mirror, it demonstrates
the couple’s strong Christian beliefs.

7

„

Van Eyck used oils rather than tempera to bind
powdered pigments (finely ground particles). He
attained a level of precision using oil paint that
had not been seen previously and his techniques
were innovative and influential. Using layers of
translucent glazes to build effects for a multitude
of textures, he was able to depict light on surfaces
with extraordinary skill. In The Arnolfini Portrait
you can see his mastery of oil paint in the glints
on the chandelier and the magical reflective
quality of the mirror.

8

1 DOG For its association with loyalty
and its reputation as a faithful
companion, the dog was widely used
as a visual symbol. In this painting,
the dog stands between the feet of
its owners, uniting them in fidelity.

2 CENTRAL MIRROR Ten miniature
paintings encircle the round, convex
mirror. They depict in astonishing
detail the events leading up to and
including the crucifixion of Christ.
The craftsmanship in such a piece
would have been highly valued in the
Netherlands at the time. At least four
figures can clearly be seen reflected in
the mirror. Two of them are the couple
seen from behind, the third is probably
van Eyck, and the identity of the
fourth person is unclear.

9
2 SIGNATURE The Latin inscription
on the wall with the date 1434 can be
translated as “Jan van Eyck was here.”
Van Eyck often signed and dated his
paintings in creative ways.

ON COMPOSITION
Van Eyck uses perspective to add a sense of
depth and create the illusion of interior space.
The straight lines of the floorboards, echoed
by the angle of the bed and window frames,
draw your eye toward the central focus of the
composition, the mirror on the back wall. This
is the vanishing point of the painting where the
lines meet, as can be seen in the overlay below.

29

30

1100–1500

THE BAPTISM OF CHRIST

„

PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA

The Baptism of Christ
c.1450

„

TEMPERA ON PANEL

„

65¾ × 45½in (167 × 116cm)

„

NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON, UK

PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA

SCALE

Solemn in mood yet ravishing in coloring, lofty in attitude

by his cousin John in the River Jordan. Piero, however,

yet full of earthy details, this altarpiece exemplifies the

places the scene in the kind of hilly countryside that he

perfect balance between science and poetry that makes

saw around his own hometown. Indeed the town (with its

Piero’s art so memorable. He was a profoundly thoughtful

fortified towers) that can be glimpsed between Jesus and

artist who worked slowly and deliberately in a rational,

the tree bears a strong resemblance to Sansepolcro, which

scientific spirit (in his old age, when fading eyesight

has changed comparatively little since Piero’s day.

perhaps made him give up painting, he wrote treatises on
mathematics and perspective). His love of lucidity and
order was matched by an exquisite feeling for color
and light, however, so his paintings never seem like dry
demonstrations of theories. He was influenced by some
of his great Italian predecessors and contemporaries in
this handling of color and light, but an innate sensitivity
to the beauty of nature must have been equally
important to him.
A fresh look at a popular theme
Nothing is recorded about the commissioning of this
picture, but circumstantial evidence indicates that it
was painted as an altarpiece for a chapel dedicated to St.
John the Baptist (one of the two principal figures in the
painting) in an abbey in Sansepolcro in Tuscany. When
the abbey closed in 1808, the painting was transferred
to Sansepolcro’s cathedral, which sold it in 1859, an
indication that Piero was regarded as a minor figure at

Painting is nothing but a
representation of surface
and solids…put on a plane
of the picture…as real objects
seen by the eye appear on
this plane
PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA DE PROSPECTIVA PINGENDI,
c.1480–90

that time, rather than far and away the town’s greatest
son, as he is now. Two years later, it was bought by the

PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA

National Gallery, London, whose director at the time, Sir

c.1415–92

Charles Lock Eastlake, played a leading role in Piero’s
rediscovery. There is no external evidence to help with
dating the painting, but because it has such a feeling of
springlike freshness, it is generally considered to come
from fairly early in Piero’s career. It is perhaps the first
work in which he revealed his full powers.
The Baptism of Christ has been a popular subject from
the earliest days of Christian art, and many aspects of
Piero’s painting can be paralleled in works by other Italian
artists of the time. None of them, however, rivaled Piero
in creating a scene of such monumental dignity and
authority. Nor did any of them give the event such a
lovely setting. In the biblical accounts, Jesus is baptized

Piero’s majestic powers of design, combined with his
extraordinarily sensitive handling of color and light, have
made him one of the most revered figures in Renaissance art.

Piero spent most of his life in his hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro (now
known as Sansepolcro) in the Tiber valley, southeast of Florence, Italy. It was
a prosperous town, but not particularly distinguished artistically, so he also
found employment in several other places, including major art centers such
as Florence and Rome.
Much of Piero’s work has been destroyed over the centuries, and few of
his surviving paintings are well documented, so his career can be followed
only in broad outline. He was highly respected in his lifetime and worked
for some of the most eminent patrons of the day, but after his death his
reputation faded. This was largely because his major works were in rather
out-of-the-way places. Before the days of photography and easy travel, they
therefore tended to be overlooked. It was not until the late 19th century that
his reputation began to rise to its present exalted heights.

31

32

1100–1500

Visual tour
2
3
4
2
1
5
6

2 JOHN THE BAPTIST John
was the forerunner or herald of
Jesus, and the baptism marked
the beginning of Jesus’s public
ministry. In art, he is often
depicted as something of a
“wild man”—an ascetic who
lived in the desert and dressed
in animal skins. Piero, however,
shows him as rather better
groomed than Jesus.

KEY

3 JESUS In Renaissance paintings,
Jesus is usually depicted as finefeatured and otherworldly, emphasizing
his divine nature. In contrast, Piero
gives him the look of a robust farmer,
the kind of figure he could have seen
working in the countryside at any time
around Sansepolcro. In this painting,
Jesus is far from conventionally
handsome—his ears are large, his
lips thick, and his hair rather lank.
Nevertheless, there is nobility in
his bearing, and his grave, pensive
expression leaves no doubt as to
his holiness.

4 CENTRAL AXIS Jesus is
very much at the center of the
painting. The water pouring
from John the Baptist’s bowl
creates an imaginary central
line. The line runs vertically
through the picture, bisecting
Jesus’s head and praying hands.
Piero prevents the effect from
being stiff or obvious by giving
a slight twist to Jesus’s lower
body. He stands naturally
and convincingly, his weight
solidly on the ground.

1

3

1 DOVE The biblical accounts say
that when Jesus was baptized the
Holy Spirit descended on him from
Heaven like a dove, and it became
common in art to depict an actual
dove hovering above him. A dove
was used in a similar way in other
religious scenes, and often as
a generalized symbol of peace,
innocence, or good tidings. Piero’s
renowned skill in perspective and
foreshortening is shown in the
difficult head-on position in which
he has chosen to depict the bird.
The dove’s shape also echoes the
shapes of the clouds.

4

THE BAPTISM OF CHRIST

„

PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA

ON TECHNIQUE

6

2 ANGELS Paintings of the
Baptism of Christ often include
two or three angels standing to one
side, sometimes holding Christ’s
garments, but sometimes used more
ornamentally or to balance other
features of the composition. Piero’s
angels are among the most individual
and lovable ever painted. Like the
figure of Jesus, they seem based on
the observation of real people rather
than conventional ideas of celestial
beings. They look like chubby,
blonde-haired peasant children who
have dressed up for a village festival,
and one leans on the shoulder of
another with a delightfully casual
gesture. However, for all this charm,
they do not detract from the picture’s
solemn atmosphere.

Piero’s lifetime coincided with the introduction
of oil paints in Italy. By the end of his career, he
had adopted them, appreciating—like many other
artists—their flexibility and versatility. When he
painted The Baptism of Christ, however, he was
still using the older technique of tempera, in
which pigments are mixed with egg rather than
oil. Tempera can produce beautiful, durable
results, but it is difficult to master, requiring
patient craftsmanship. Colors cannot easily be
blended (whereas they can with oils), so effects
have to be painstakingly built up, layer after
layer, touch after touch. Sometimes, paintings in
this transitional period were begun with tempera
and finished with oils.

IN COMPOSITION
Piero was a mathematician as well as an artist
and his paintings often have almost geometrical
lucidity. The painting has a round top, and in
its basic proportions it is made up of a square
topped by a circle—two of the fundamental
geometric forms. Less obviously, the diagonal
of John the Baptist’s left leg is part of a triangle
whose apex is formed at Jesus’s hands. In
this way, even the most dynamic part of
the composition—as John leans forward with the
baptismal bowl—is anchored in geometrical order.

5

2 FEET ON THE GROUND The
monumental grandeur of Piero’s
style is encapsulated in Jesus’s
legs, which almost seem like marble
columns and are as firmly planted
on the ground as the tree alongside
them. Yet there is great subtlety in
the way the light molds their form
and in the way the water is observed
around the ankles. In reality, Jesus’s
baptism may have involved total
immersion, but Piero, like many
artists of the time, reduces a
substantial river, the Jordan, to
a small stream winding through the
painting. According to the biblical
accounts, the event took place
“during a general baptism of the
people,” and the legs to the right
of this detail belong to a man who
is stripping off to take his turn.

33

34

1100–1500

The Hunt in the Forest
c.1470

„

TEMPERA AND OIL ON PANEL

„

29 × 69¾in (73.3 × 177cm)

„

ASHMOLEAN, OXFORD, UK

PAOLO UCCELLO

SCALE

A striking panorama, this hunting scene displays Uccello’s

Uccello cleverly uses perspective to evoke the excitement

mastery of the new techniques of perspective, in which

of the chase and to draw us further into the darkness as

objects and figures appear to grow smaller with distance,

we follow the men with their horses and hounds as they

creating the illusion of space and depth. Riders, horses

disappear rapidly into the trees. The bright vermilion of

and huntsmen, either galloping or running alongside their

the hunters’ hats and jackets, the beaters’ leggings, and the

dogs, move directly toward the center of the painting.

horses’ harnesses stand out dramatically against the verdant

Here a stag disappears into the the forest and the lines

grass and foliage and the dark background, giving the

of vision converge in a central vanishing point.

composition a decorative, jewel-like quality.

THE HUNT IN THE FOREST

The meaning of The Hunt in the Forest is not immediately
clear. The stylized setting and symbolic motifs create
an air of pageantry and suggest that this is a scene of
chivalric make-believe rather than a realistic depiction.
One interpretation is that the painting is an allegory of
the quest for love. This quest, which can lead into the
darkness of unknown territory, is perhaps represented
symbolically by the hunt, and the painting may have been
intended as a wedding gift, such as a decoration for the
headboard of a large bed.
Alternatively, the painting may simply have been
commissioned from Uccello by a sophisticated nobleman
who wanted a unique and ornamental scene by a
contemporary artist that could be set into the wooden
paneling of a grand interior.

„

PAOLO UCCELLO

PAOLO UCCELLO
c.1397–1475

Most of Uccello’s surviving paintings demonstrate his passion for
perspective. His innovative use of this technique to create the
illusion of depth in paintings helped transform the course of art.

Born Paolo di Dono in Florence, this artist was nicknamed Uccello (uccello is
Italian for “bird”) because of his love of birds and animals. He trained in the
workshop of the Florentine sculptor, Lorenzo Ghiberti. The chronology of his
career is difficult to establish, but records show that he was invited to Venice
to work on mosaic designs for the Basilica di San Marco (St Mark’s Cathedral)
in 1425. In Florence he worked on The Creation of the Animals and The
Creation of Adam, two frescoes for the cloisters of the church of Santa Maria
Novella, and later produced two more. He also designed stained glass windows
for Florence Cathedral, the Duomo, two of which survive. The Hunt in the
Forest, the three panels that make up The Battle of San Romano (see p.37),
and St. George and the Dragon are perhaps his most famous paintings.

35

36

1100–1500

Visual tour
9

7

1

3

2

8

6

5
4

KEY

1

14 HUNTERS All the hunters in the painting
have similar faces. Even though some adopt
different poses and others appear to be
shouting, they all have the same distinctive
nose, eyes, and facial proportions. Most of the
hunters are shown in profile and this makes it
easier to spot the similarities between them.
This repetition, together with the use of bright
red for their clothing and hats, gives the scene
a pattern-like uniformity and makes it seem
like part of an imaginary world.

2

5

3

4

1 STAGS The stylized forms of the stags are, at first glance,
similar to those of the dogs. However, when comparing the two,
you can see that the dogs are running, whereas the stags are
leaping. Uccello’s skill in depicting the forms of animals with a
strong degree of realism, however stylized and decorative the
treatment, is clear when you study the painting closely.

2 DOGS The speed at which the hunting dogs are running is
expressed by their outstretched legs and arched backs. Some
look almost identical and parts of their bodies overlap to give
the picture a three–dimensional quality. The dogs’ collars are
exactly the same shade of vermilion as the hunters’ jackets.
This complements the green of the grass in the foreground,
adding to the vibrancy of the painting.

THE HUNT IN THE FOREST

„

PAOLO UCCELLO

ON COMPOSITION

6

2 HORSES Uccello loved
painting animals and would
have made many preliminary
drawings of horses, using real
animals as models, for this and
other works. He would then
simplify the forms of the
animals so they were in
harmony with the overall
composition of the painting.

Uccello’s skilful use of perspective can be seen
clearly from the diagram below. Here the radial
lines that make up a grid system to guide the
artist in the initial design have been overlaid
on the painting. Above the horizon line, the
trees diminish in size and appear to recede into
the distance, whereas everything below the
horizon converges on a central vanishing point.
The tree trunks on the ground and patterned
areas of foliage also follow the lines. The
principles of perspective as applied to painting
were first described in a treatise written by
Leon Battista Alberti in 1435.

3 MOON In the center of
the dark blue sky is another
reference to Diana, a slender
crescent moon. Whether this
suggests evening or nighttime,
this detail is almost impossible
to see without the aid of a
magnifying glass.

7

8

9

IN CONTEXT
Uccello’s battle scene below is one of three that
were once in the Medici Palace. It was assumed
that they were commissioned for it but research
published a few years ago shows that they were
painted for the Bartolini Salimbeni family and
were later seized by Lorenzo de Medici.
Uccello has used the same perspective
devices in this painting as in The Hunt in the
Forest. Note how the lances on the ground point
toward a spot above the white horse’s head.
The lines in the fields also lead your eyes
into the distance, although they converge at
a different point.

1The Battle of San Romano, Paolo Uccello,
c.1456, tempera on panel, 71½ × 126in
(182 × 320cm), Uffizi, Florence, Italy

1 CRESCENT MOTIF The symbol of the Roman goddess
of hunting, Diana, is a crescent moon. Gold crescents
decorate the horses’ reins and appear on the harness
straps on their rumps. Diana is the protector of chastity.
It was more common for wedding gifts to depict Venus
and Mars, the god and goddess of love.

2 TREES We can see that the trees are oaks from the
shape of their leaves, some of which would once have
been decorated with gold leaf. Uccello made sure that
there were no branches below the canopy to obstruct
our view of the hunt. Oak groves were sacred to the
Roman goddess Diana.

37

38

1100–1500

The Birth of Venus
c.1485

„

TEMPERA ON CANVAS

„

68 × 109¾in (172.5 × 278.5cm)

SANDRO BOTTICELLI

„

UFFIZI, FLORENCE, ITALY
SCALE

THE BIRTH OF VENUS

„

SANDRO BOTTICELLI

This supremely graceful painting is full of gentle

beautiful, iconic figure of Venus is positioned right

movement and harmony. It depicts the arrival of Venus,

at the center of the perfectly balanced composition.

Roman goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, on the island

Botticelli’s Venus embodies the Renaissance ideal of

of Cyprus. All around her are signs of spring, which is a

beauty. Her pale limbs are long and elegant, her shoulders

time of new beginnings and renewal. The extraordinarily

slope, and her stomach is sensuously rounded, yet there
is something otherworldly about her, especially the
expression on her exquisite face.
The painting was probably commissioned by a member
of the wealthy Medici family, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’
Medici, for his villa at Castello near Florence. A cultured
individual, he would have been familiar with the stories
of classical Greek and Roman mythology as well as the
philosophy of Plato, so Botticelli’s Venus can be seen as
the physical manifestation of a divine and perfect beauty.
In Renaissance Italy, mythological scenes were usually
commissioned to decorate wooden furniture such as

cassone (wedding chests). Religious images, on the other
hand, were created on a grander scale and used in
churches, often as altarpieces. In creating the The Birth of
Venus, Botticelli broke with tradition, producing the first
work on canvas to feature a mythological image that was
comparable in size to a large-scale religious painting.

Aphrodite the fair… she with
the golden wreath…was
conveyed by the swelling
breath of Zephyrus, on the
waves of the turbulent sea
HOMERIC HYMN TO APHRODITE, c.5000 BCE

SANDRO BOTTICELLI
c.1445–1510

One of the most celebrated painters of the Renaissance, Botticelli
developed a graceful and ornamental linear style that harked
back to elements of the Gothic style in art.

Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, known as Sandro Botticelli, was born in
Florence. He worked as an apprentice in the studio of Fra Filippo Lippi, then
established his own workshop c.1470. At the high point of his career Botticelli
was producing work for Florence’s churches as well as receiving commissions
from the most powerful families in Florence, particularly the Medici. By 1481,
his reputation was such that he was summoned to Rome to paint frescoes in
the Sistine Chapel. Botticelli’s good fortune did not last, however. The Medici
family was expelled from Florence, his style of painting went out of fashion,
and he died in poverty and obscurity. It was only in the late 19th century that
interest in his work revived.
Botticelli’s masterpieces were his large mythological paintings, The Birth of
Venus and Primavera (see overleaf). The Mystic Nativity, 1500, another of his
great works, was the only painting of his that was signed and dated.

39

40

1100–1500

Visual tour
1

6

3

5
4

2

3 SHELL Venus is about to alight from her boat, a scallop shell, which anchors
her in the center of the composition. Despite the painting’s title, the moment
of her birth occurred under less poetic circumstances. According to Greek mythology,
Venus emerged from the fertile foam that was created when her father Uranus’s
severed genitals were thrown into the sea.

2
7

KEY

1

3

2 VENUS The mythological goddess
emerges as a fully grown woman. Her
right hand covers one of her breasts,
while her left holds long skeins of
golden hair over her pubic area. Her
classical pose is known as the Venus
pudica, the modest Venus; some artists
portrayed the goddess as a more erotic
figure. Botticelli’s Venus represents the
15th-century Italian ideal of female
beauty—she has a small head, an
unnaturally long neck, steeply sloping
shoulders, and a rounded stomach.
Apart from the pink roses wafting down
on her, Venus is pictured without her
usual attributes, such as her pearl
necklace or Cupid, her son.

4

1 ROSES Around Zephyrus and Chloris, delicate pink
roses tumble, each with a golden heart and gilded
leaves. Known as the flower of Venus, the beautiful
and fragrant rose is a symbol of love, with thorns that
can cause pain. It also represents fertility.

THE BIRTH OF VENUS

„

SANDRO BOTTICELLI

ON TECHNIQUE

5

2 FLORA The female figure on the right is generally
identified as Flora, the goddess of flowers, who
appears similarly attired in Botticelli’s Primavera.
An allegorical figure, she represents spring, the time
of rebirth. Around her neck she wears leaves of the
myrtle, a tree sacred to Venus; her dress is sprigged
with cornflowers, and she wears a high sash of roses.
There are more spring flowers on the billowing pink
cloak she holds out to the naked Venus.

In the painting, Venus stands with her weight on
her left leg, giving her body a graceful S-shaped
curve. The pose is based on that of classical
statues. Venus’s stance, and the way in which
she has been painted without shadows, give her
delicacy and make her seem almost to float.
In Botticelli’s ink drawing (below), the female
figure adopts the same pose, this time with her
weight on her right leg. Being able to represent a
figure in this relaxed pose was greatly esteemed
by Renaissance artists.

3 GOLD HIGHLIGHTS The foliage of the orange
trees is picked out in gold leaf, as are the individual
feathers on the wings of Zephyrus. All the figures
have gold highlights in their hair, and the veins of the
shell, the stems and centers of the roses, and the grass
stalks in the foreground are similarly gilded. With
these gold details the whole painting would appear
to glimmer after dark when lit by candlelight.

6

1Allegory of Abundance or Autumn, Botticelli,
1480–85, pen and ink on paper, 12½ × 10in
(31.7 × 25.2cm), British Museum, London, UK

IN CONTEXT

1 ZEPHYRUS AND CHLORIS The personification of
the west wind, the winged Greek god Zephyrus brings
movement to the scene. His cheeks are puffed out
as he blows the waves that cast Venus toward the
shore. He is clasped by a semi-clad female, probably
Chloris, a mortal nymph abducted by Zephyrus
to be his bride. Chloris was later transformed into
the goddess Flora, the gorgeously clothed figure on the
right of the painting. In terms of composition, Zephyrus
and Chloris are balanced by the graceful figure of Flora.

4 LAPIS LAZULI The intense blue of the cornflowers
on Flora’s dress comes from ultramarine, an expensive
pigment made by crushing lapis lazuli, a semiprecious
stone. Botticelli’s wealthy patron clearly spared no
expense when he commissioned this painting.

7

There is much debate as to whether The Birth of
Venus is a companion piece to Botticelli’s other
allegorical masterpiece, Primavera, perhaps
commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’
Medici about five years earlier. Both are symbolic
representations of the cycle of spring and both
depict Venus, Zephyrus, Chloris, and Flora.
Primavera (which means “spring” in Italian) is,
however, painted on wood rather than canvas.
In this painting, Flora has Chloris and Zephyrus
on her left and Venus on her right. Venus is fully
clothed and can be identified by her son, Cupid,
who is flying overhead. On the left is Mercury,
the messenger of the gods, and next to him
are the three Graces, Venus’s handmaidens.

1Primavera, Botticelli, c.1482, tempera on panel,
78 × 123½in (203 × 314cm), Uffizi, Florence, Italy

41

„

The Garden of
Earthly Delights

„

The Great Piece of Turf

„

Mona Lisa

„

The School of Athens

„

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

„

Bacchus and Ariadne

„

The Ambassadors

„

Spring Morning in
the Han Palace

„

Netherlandish Proverbs

„

Spring

„

Cypress Tree

„

Akbar’s Adventures with the
Elephant Hawa'i in 1561

44

1500–1600

The Garden of
Earthly Delights
c.1500

„

OIL ON PANEL

„

86½ × 153in (220 × 389cm)

„

PRADO, MADRID, SPAIN

HIERONYMUS BOSCH

SCALE

Across three large panels an astonishing vision unfolds.

alleged to have belonged to the sect and, therefore, to

Scores of figures—some human, some monstrous—inhabit a

have exalted lust in the painting rather than condemned

visionary world that encompasses radiant beauty as well

it. Such theories can be entertaining, but they are based

as scenes of hideous torment. The two outer panels depict

on little or no hard evidence.

the Creation of Eve on the left and Hell on the right. In the
central panel, teeming nude figures engage in unbridled
sexual activity in a luscious garden. Although many of the
details are baffling to the ordinary observer, the general
idea of the painting seems clear—God gave man and
woman an earthly Paradise, but the sins of the flesh have
led them to the tortures of Hell. However, because the
painting is so unconventional and the circumstances of its
creation are unknown, there has been endless commentary
on how exactly it should be interpreted.
Open to speculation
The painting was first documented in 1517, the year
after Bosch’s death, when it was said to be in a palace in
Brussels belonging to Count Hendrik—Henry III of Nassau.
Paintings in triptych (three-paneled) format were very
common as altarpieces in Bosch’s time, but this one is so
personal that it was almost certainly created for a private
patron rather than a church, and in the absence of other
evidence it is reasonable to assume that this patron was
Hendrik or one of his relatives.
Bosch left behind no letters or other writings, and
there are no reminiscences by people who knew him.
There are numerous contemporary documents relating
to him, mainly preserved in the municipal archives of
’s-Hertogenbosch. While they provide some information
about the outline of his life, they throw no light on his
character. The gaps in our knowledge have been filled
with a wealth of speculation by modern writers, who
have portrayed Bosch as everything from a scholarly
theologian to a heretic with a disturbed mind. It has been
proposed, for example, that the figures in the central
panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights are members of
an obscure sect who practised ritual promiscuity to try to
recapture the initial innocence of Adam and Eve. Bosch is

THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS

Instead, all the contemporary records indicate that Bosch
was a respected member of society who held conventional
religious views. Aspects of his work that seem strange to
us probably reflect the popular culture of his time rather
than bizarre personal views. Religious pageants and plays,
for example, sometimes used repulsive demon masks to
suggest the horrors of Hell.

…it is his ability to give form
to our fears that makes his
imagery timeless
LAURINDA DIXON TIMES HIGHER EDUCATION, 2003

„

HIERONYMUS BOSCH

HIERONYMUS BOSCH
c.1450–1516

Bosch produced some of the strangest and most perplexing
paintings in the history of art. Very little is known of their creator,
inspiring much speculation about his character and motives.

As far as is known, Bosch spent all his life in the town after which
he is named, ’s-Hertogenbosch, which is now in the southern
Netherlands, near the Belgian border. In Bosch’s time, when the
map of Europe was very different from that of today, the town was
in the Duchy of Brabant. Bosch was the leading painter of the day in
’s-Hertogenbosch, which was prosperous and a notable cultural center.
By the end of his life, his work was sought by leading collectors in
Italy and Spain as well as his homeland. His paintings continued to be
admired and influential throughout the 16th century, but thereafter
they were long neglected. It was not until about 1900 that there was
a serious revival of interest in him.

45

46

1500–1600

Visual tour

1

2 ADAM AND EVE In
the biblical account of the
first days of the world,
God creates Eve from a
rib he has taken from the
sleeping Adam. Here God,
looking very like the
traditional image of
Christ, takes Eve’s wrist
and presents her to
Adam. With his other
hand, he makes a gesture
that confers blessing on
their union.

2
6

5

9

4

3

8
7
1

KEY

3 FOUNTAIN OF LIFE This strange and beautiful
structure in the left-hand panel is the Fountain of
Life, from which the rivers of Paradise flow. It is not
mentioned in the biblical account of creation, but it
appears in Christian art from the 5th century onward.

2

4

5

3

1 EXOTIC ANIMALS Scenes of the Garden of Eden
allowed artists to depict all manner of animals, both
real and imaginary, to illustrate the abundance of
God’s creation. The mythical unicorn was adopted
into Christian art as a symbol of purity.

1 NAKED MEN RIDING ANIMALS Groups of men—mounted on real and imaginary
animals—energetically circle a pool, from which women look out invitingly. Animals
were traditionally associated with the lower or carnal appetites of humankind,
and in Bosch’s day, as now, the act of riding was often used as a metaphor for
sexual intercourse.

THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS

„

HIERONYMUS BOSCH

ON TECHNIQUE

3 GIANT STRAWBERRY In art, the strawberry
was sometimes interpreted as an allusion to drops
of Christ’s blood. However, it was also used as a
sexual metaphor, its juicy voluptuousness suggesting
carnal activity.

6

3 BUTTERFLY AND THISTLE Few details in the
painting have escaped symbolic interpretation. The
butterfly has been seen as an allusion to inconstancy
or capriciousness and the thistle to corruption. In other
contexts, however, both can have positive associations.

7

Bosch was a free spirit in terms of technique
as well as imagery. Most of his contemporaries
in the Netherlands cultivated smooth, tight,
precise handling of paint, but Bosch’s
brushwork is fluid and vigorous. He was also
one of the first artists in northern Europe to
produce drawings intended as independent
works. This typically lively example is a
variant of the tree man in The Garden of
Earthly Delights.

8

1The Tree Man, Hieronymus Bosch, c.1505,
quill pen and brown ink, 11 × 8¼in (27.7 × 21cm),
Grafische Sammlung Albertina, Vienna, Austria

IN COMPOSITION
The hinged side panels of the triptych can be
closed over the central panel to form an image
of the Earth, painted in shades of grey. God can
be seen top left; his creation of the world—
shown here as barely formed and unpopulated
—forms a prelude to the creation of Eve inside.

1 POOL OF NAKED WOMEN In the middle of the
central panel is a pool full of naked women who excite
the circling men. Medieval moralists writing on sexual
matters invariably saw women as temptresses—
following the example of Eve. This “Fountain of Flesh,”
a kind of crazy merry-go-round of courtship, can be
seen as a sinful counterpart to the Fountain of Life
depicted in the first panel of the triptych.
4 TREE MAN Part man, part egg, part tree, this
weird construction defies precise analysis, but it is
surely intended as Hell’s counterpart to the Fountain
of Life on the left-hand panel. It has been suggested,
although without any real evidence, that the
haunting, pale face is a self-portrait of Bosch. On his
head, demons lead their victims around a disc, which
in turn supports a bagpipe, an instrument that often
had sexual connotations.

9

4 KNIFE AND EARS A pair of ears and a knife present
an obviously phallic appearance. The knife bears the
letter “M”, as do other blades in paintings by Bosch.
Various explanations have been offered for this. One
suggestion is that the letter stands for mundus
(“world” in Latin ).

1Creation of the World, the monochrome exterior
side panels of The Garden Of Earthly Delights as
they appear when the triptych is closed

47

48

1500–1600

The Great Piece of Turf
1503

„

WATERCOLOR, PEN, AND INK ON PAPER

„

16 × 12½in (40.8 × 31.5cm)

„

ALBERTINA, VIENNA, AUSTRIA

ALBRECHT DÜRER
The minute detail in this exquisite painting of a simple
piece of meadow turf is of almost photographic precision.
Painted more than 500 years ago, it is one of the first

SCALE

Visual tour

great nature studies.
Here, Dürer has given us an insect’s perspective of

1
2

nature. He has recreated the small, tangled plants with
such clarity that it is possible to identify each one, making

1

it one of the first European studies of biodiversity.

The Great Piece of Turf is a masterpiece in its own right
but, like his Italian contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci,
Dürer made his nature studies primarily to increase his
understanding of the natural world and to help him with
the detail in his engravings, such as The Fall of Man, 1504,
his woodcuts, and his large-scale paintings, such as
The Feast of the Rose Garlands, 1506.
Dürer has used watercolor here, enabling him to work
relatively quickly and concentrate on the colors and
textures of the plants. With watercolor, unlike oil paint,
which Dürer used in his large works, it is easy to mix
subtle shades quickly and layer washes of paint on top of
each other without having to wait too long for them to
dry. Dürer mixed the different shades of green with great
accuracy, both to differentiate each plant from the others
and to create a sense of depth in the composition.

3

KEY

2

1 KEEN OBSERVATION The fleshy leaves of a
greater plantain stand out among the grasses.
Note how Dürer has used fine, dry strokes of a
deeper green to model the forms of the leaves,
and fine white lines to highlight the veins and
the edges of the leaves.

2 PALE BACKGROUND This detail shows a
spent dandelion head. You can trace the fading
stem of the plant down to its familiar toothedged leaves. The top of the painting is
covered with a pale wash so that the plants
are delineated clearly against it.

ALBRECHT DÜRER

3

1471–1528

Surely the greatest of all German artists, Dürer was a brilliant
Northern Renaissance draftsman, printmaker, and painter. His
work was characterized by accuracy and inner perception.

Born the son of a master goldsmith in Nuremberg, a center of artistic activity
and commerce in the 15th and 16th centuries, Dürer was apprenticed with
Michael Wolgemut, whose workshop produced woodcut illustrations, then
travelled as a journeyman, making woodcuts and watercolors. He visited Italy
twice and was deeply influenced by Italian Renaissance art and ideas. Back in
Nuremberg, Dürer took printmaking to new heights. He completed several
series of revolutionary woodcuts on religious topics, studied the nude, and
published books on proportion in the human body and perspective. Dürer
became an official court artist to Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian I and
Charles V. He was also the first artist to produce several self-portraits.

1 SILVERY ROOTS Dürer has not limited his study to what grows above the
ground. He has cleared the soil away in places to reveal the fine, threadlike
roots of the plants and has set them against a dark wash to make them more
visible. The dark sepia tones weave around the bases of the plants and give the
composition depth and solidity.

THE GREAT PIECE OF TURF

„

ALBRECHT DÜRER

49

50

1500–1600

Mona Lisa
c.1503–06

„

OIL ON POPLAR

„

30¼ × 22in (77 × 53cm)

„

LOUVRE, PARIS, FRANCE

LEONARDO DA VINCI

SCALE

From behind bulletproof glass in the Louvre, France’s

Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy

national gallery, Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda)

Florentine merchant, hence her other title, la Gioconda.

looks out at her adoring crowds. Mystery surrounds this

Monna meant “Mrs.” Giocondo’s purchase of a new home
around the time the portrait was painted, as well as the
birth of the couple’s third child in 1502, are both plausible
reasons for commissioning a portrait. Mona Lisa is seated
in a half-length composition, one of the earliest Italian
examples of this kind of pose in a portrait.

beautiful woman, not only because her identity has been
debated for so long, but also because her facial expression
is ambivalent: strangely open and yet quietly reserved
at the same time.
She sits turned slightly toward you as if on a terrace,
with an imaginary landscape in the background. Framed
by two barely visible columns, she smiles and gazes
almost straight into your eyes, but her folded arms keep
you at a distance. With this amazing image, Leonardo
established a sense of psychological connection between
the sitter and the viewer, an innovation in portrait
painting that was soon taken up by other artists.

Realism in portraiture
Leonardo’s great skill was to breathe life into this
remarkable portrait. It is almost as if a real person is
sitting in front of you. The softness of Mona Lisa’s skin,
the shine on her hair, and the glint in her eyes are all
achieved by minute attention to detail. Plainly dressed

She has the serene
countenance of a woman
sure she will remain
beautiful forever

and appearing relaxed, she is particularly renowned for
her smile, often described as enigmatic. It is very difficult

THÉOPHILE GAUTIER
GUIDE DE L’AMATEUR AU MUSÉE DU LOUVRE, 1898

to determine her exact mood from the mouth or eyes
alone. The flicker of a smile plays on her lips, yet her
eyes show little sign of humor.
The fashion in portraiture at the time was to paint
women as mythological, religious, or historical figures
embodying desirable female traits, such as beauty or

LEONARDO DA VINCI
1452–1519

A genius of the Renaissance, Leonardo is now famous for the
range and variety of his talents, embracing science as well as art.
He is regarded as the main creator of the High Renaissance style.

grace. Such portraits exaggerated women’s features to
realize these ideals: noses were elongated and necks
lengthened. Mona Lisa is represented neither as Venus,
the Roman goddess of beauty, love, and fertility, nor
as the Madonna—both popular and idealized roles for
women at the time. In celebrating this woman’s own
perfectly balanced features without any need for allegorical
embellishment, or even decorative jewelery or costume,
Leonardo was clearly breaking with tradition.
There are no existing records of a commission for this
portrait and what we know about the sitter comes from
biographies of Leonardo. She was probably Lisa

Born in or near Vinci, close to Florence, Leonardo served an apprenticeship in
the workshop of the Florentine artist Andrea del Verrocchio. He then spent most
of his career between Milan and Florence. His last years were spent working for
the French monarchy and he died in Amboise, France.
The diversity of Leonardo’s interests meant that he produced few finished
paintings, but he left behind many sensitive, highly detailed drawings and
notebooks. Among other subjects, he studied anatomy, the flight of birds
and insects, the forms of rocks and clouds, and the effects of the atmosphere
on landscape. All of his observations informed his paintings, in which he
combined grandeur of form and unity of atmosphere with exquisite detail.
Leonardo’s mastery of composition and harmony can be seen in another of his
most celebrated works, The Last Supper (c.1495–97). Sadly, the painting has
deteriorated badly over time because of the experimental technique he used.

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Visual tour
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4 ENIGMATIC SMILE
Leonardo introduced a
painting technique known
as sfumato, which makes
subtle use of blended
tones. Used here to great
effect, it gives Mona
Lisa’s smile a mysterious
softness. Her lips tilt
gently upward at the
edges, but her expression
is hard to read. Alongside
other aspects of her pose,
this gives Mona Lisa an
air of remote calmness.

KEY

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1 EYE CONTACT It is natural to look
into someone’s eyes. As is the case
with many portraits, Mona Lisa's eyes
seem to look straight back at you
and to follow you around if you move.
Leonardo achieves this illusion by
directing the left eye squarely at the
viewer, and positioning the right eye
slightly to one side.

4 HAIR Look carefully at this part of
the painting and you can see a dark veil
over Mona Lisa’s head and to the side
of her face, probably indicating her
virtuousness. Her hairline and eyebrows
may have been plucked, as was
fashionable at the time.

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1 ARMS AND HANDS
Mona Lisa's folded arms
form the base of a
triangle that reaches up
from each arm to the
head. Leonardo used this
compositional technique
to place his model within
a harmonious space—in a
geometrical sense—that is
pleasing to the eye. Mona
Lisa wears neither rings
nor bracelets, and her
hands look youthfully
plump. Her hands and
arms look relaxed, as if
she is sitting comfortably.

MONA LISA

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LEONARDO DA VINCI

ON TECHNIQUE

3 BRIDGE IN PERSPECTIVE Just behind the right
shoulder, you can make out the arches of a bridge
spanning a river. As with other parts of this imaginary
landscape, Leonardo has painted it so that you look
down on it. Mona Lisa’s eyes, however, are at the
same level as the viewer’s.

3 SLEEVES Leonardo’s skilful application of oil paint
can be seen in the modeling and tones of the sleeves.
Originally these sleeves would have been saffron
yellow, but the pigment has faded over many years
and the varnish applied to the surface to conserve
the paint has also darkened the color.

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Leonardo would have made studies of every
aspect of the portrait, sketching each part
individually beforehand. Such attention to detail
was unusual and helped to give his paintings
their realistic quality.
This study of drapery shows how Leonardo
modelled the material using charcoal, chalk, and
wash to create the impression of creases. He used
the same technique with oil paint on the sleeves
of the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo dipped rags in plaster to help him
paint drapery. The plaster held the fabric in place
and emphasizied its folds, giving Leonardo the
time to make detailed drawings.

1A Study of Drapery, Leonardo da Vinci, 1515–17,
charcoal, black chalk, touches of brown wash, white
heightening, 6½ × 5¾in (16.4 × 14.5cm), The Royal
Collection, London, UK

IN CONTEXT
This iconic image has been subverted through the
ages, perhaps most famously by Marcel Duchamp
in his 1919 “readymade,” L.H.O.O.Q. (below).
Duchamp drew a beard and moustache on a
postcard of the portrait with those letters beneath
it—a crude pun in French suggesting that Mona
Lisa is a sexually available woman. Duchamp may
also have intended to underline the ambiguity of
the sitter’s gender.

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1 SOFT FOCUS The hazy appearance of the landscape
has been achieved with a technique called glazing,
in which layers of thinned, transparent oil paint are
applied one over the other. Each layer of paint has to
be dry before the next is applied. Blue emphasizes the
dreamlike effect of the landscape and helps to create
the illusion that the background is receding.

1 WINDING PATH In an early drawing, Leonardo had
already used the pictorial device of a long path or river
to lead the viewer’s eye into the distance. Visually,
the feature appears simply to be part of the landscape
but the device is used very cleverly to give the
painting depth and to make the space appear less
flat and one-dimensional.

1L.H.O.O.Q., Marcel Duchamp, 1919, pencil
on card, 7¾ × 4in (19.7 × 10.5cm), Centre
Pompidou, Paris, France

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The School of Athens
c.1509–11

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FRESCO

RAPHAEL

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16ft 4¾in × 25ft 3in (500 × 770cm)

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VATICAN, ROME, ITALY
SCALE

THE SCHOOL OF ATHENS

The School of Athens is the most famous of the frescoes
commissioned by Pope Julius II when he remodeled
his private chambers in the Vatican Palace. Raphael and his
assistants undertook the task of decorating all four of these
stanze (grand rooms) in 1508. They continued their work

„

RAPHAEL

under Julius’s successor, Leo X, but Raphael died before
the rooms were completed. This monumental fresco, which
depicts an imaginary gathering of classical philosophers
and scholars, sits above head height on the wall of the

Stanza della Segnatura with its vaulted ceiling. It is justly
famous for the graceful poses of its figures, the sense of
movement they embody, and their expressiveness—all
of which Raphael achieved after making hundreds of
detailed studies and sketches. The painting’s other
outstanding feature is the harmony of its composition.

Pursuit of truth and knowledge
The pictorial scheme of the Stanza della Segnatura shows
that it was used as the papal library and private office.
The theme of the frescoes on all four walls is the search
for truth and enlightenment, and The School of Athens
represents the pursuit of rational truth through
philosophy. Central to the composition are the figures
of the two great classical Greek philosophers, Plato and
Aristotle, who represent different schools of thought.
The majestic style of The School of Athens, the serene
movements and gestures of the figures, and the grand
architectural composition with its sense of symmetry
and spatial depth all combine to make this work a
masterpiece of the High Renaissance. In the brilliant
portrayal of the subject matter and the assured style
of its execution, Raphael has encapsulated the classical
ideal of the pursuit of knowledge.

RAPHAEL
1483–1520

The precociously talented Raphael took on major commissions at a
young age. Together with Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he
dominated the High Renaissance period.

Born in Urbino in central Italy, Raffaello Sanzio initially trained with his father,
Giovanni, who was a poet as well as a painter. He later assisted in the workshop
of the painter, Perugino. In 1508, with his reputation already established, the
25-year-old Raphael was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II and given a
prestigious commission—the decoration of the papal apartments.
Other major commissions followed but these were increasingly executed by
assistants in Raphael’s workshop. The workshop was so well organized that it
is often hard to tell how much workshop contribution there is in a painting.
Apart from The School of Athens and the other frescoes of the Stanza della
Segnatura, Raphael’s designs for the 10 tapestries for the Sistine Chapel are
considered to be among his finest work. He also painted several portraits.
Under Julius’s successor, Pope Leo X, Raphael became Papal Architect. He died
in Rome of a fever, aged just 37.

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2 HERACLITUS The expressive body language of this
figure gives him an air of melancholy. He represents
the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus,
commonly known as the “weeping philosopher.”
His well–built frame leans on a block of marble and
he seems to be writing dark thoughts on a piece of
white paper. This figure is a portrait of Michelangelo,
another of Raphael’s contemporaries, who was
working on the nearby Sistine Chapel when Raphael
was painting The School of Athens. Raphael is paying
the artist a great honor by depicting him in such
illustrious company.

KEY

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1 DIOGENES A controversial character in Greek
philosophy, Diogenes chose to drop out of society
and live in poverty inside a barrel. He is pictured
here lounging on the steps partially clothed, but he
is usually depicted as a beggar living on the streets,
unwashed and dressed in rags.

2 PLATO AND ARISTOTLE These two great
Greek philosophers represent theoretical and natural
philosophy. Under his right arm Plato holds the
Timaeus, one of his dialogues. Plato believed that
a world of ideal forms existed beyond the material
universe, so Raphael shows him pointing towards
the heavens. He looks like Raphael’s contemporary,
Leonardo da Vinci, to whom the artist is paying
tribute. Aristotle is holding his famous Ethics and is
gesturing towards the ground. Unlike Plato, Aristotle
held that knowledge is only gained through empirical
observation and experience of the material world.

THE SCHOOL OF ATHENS

„

RAPHAEL

IN CONTEXT

4 SELF-PORTRAIT The
figure looking out of
the far right of the
painting straight at
the viewer is Raphael
himself. Wearing a dark
beret, the customary
headgear of the painter,
he is not only identifying
himself but possibly
making a link between
the worlds of the past
and the present.

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3 EUCLID Leaning over and demonstrating a
mathematical exercise with a pair of dividers, the
Greek mathematician Euclid is surrounded by a group
of young men. Known as the “Father of Geometry,”
Euclid’s writings include observations on “optics,”
which is closely related to perspective. The figure
is a portrait of the architect Bramante.

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Raphael worked on the fresco scheme of the
Stanza della Segnatura, where each fresco
represents one of four themes, between 1508
and 1511. Besides The School of Athens, there
are three other frescoes in the vaulted Stanza. On
the wall opposite is the Disputation of the Most
Holy Sacrament (see below), a representation
of theology. Above the painted horizon is the
Holy Trinity with saints and martyrs arranged
in a semicircle; below them are the Church’s
representatives on earth, similarly arranged with
the Sacrament in the center.

1Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament,
Raphael, 1509–10, fresco, 16ft 4¾in × 25ft 3in
(5 × 7.7m), Vatican, Rome, Italy

ON COMPOSITION

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1 PYTHAGORAS On the opposite side of the
painting to Euclid, we find the celebrated Greek
philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras. He is
demonstrating theories of geometry and, like Euclid,
is being watched eagerly by a group of students.
One of them holds up a diagram on a slate.

1 ZOROASTER AND PTOLEMY By bringing together
philosophy’s greatest minds in this painting, Raphael
took the opportunity to depict discussions that could
never have taken place. Here we see Zoroaster, prophet
and philosopher of ancient Persia, talking to Ptolemy,
the Greek mathematician, geographer, and astronomer.
Ptolemy, who believed the earth was the center of
the universe, holds a terrestrial globe in his left hand;
Zoroaster is holding a celestial sphere.

The architectural setting of the fresco is imaginary,
but its scale and splendor represent the ideals
of the High Renaissance. The setting was inspired
by the plans of Raphael’s friend and distant relative,
the architect Donato Bramante, for the papal
basilica of St. Peter’s. It is an acknowledgment
of Rapahel’s admiration for Bramante.
In The School of Athens, the large central arches
decrease in size, creating the illusion of depth.
Raphael has placed the two most important figures,
Plato and Aristotle, in the center of the painting,
where the horizon line converges with the central
vertical (see overlay below). Lines radiate outwards
from this point. These can still be seen in the
original drawing made for the fresco.

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Sistine Chapel Ceiling
1508–12

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FRESCO

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45 × 128ft (13.7 × 39m)

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VATICAN, ROME, ITALY

MICHELANGELO

SCALE

Painted single-handedly over a period of four years

deep admiration of classical Roman sculpture and the way

and including almost 300 figures, this superhuman

it expressed the beauty of the human body. In the niches

achievement earned its creator the title il Divino

below the ignudi, Old Testament prophets alternate with

(the Divine) during his lifetime. Michelangelo, an artist

sibyls, the female seers of ancient Greek mythology.

with a profound religious faith, also planned the whole

Michelangelo filled the arches around the high windows

imaginative design, making hundreds of detailed,

with more paintings of biblical scenes.

preliminary drawings for the frescoes and skilfully
working out the complicated perspective needed for the

Summoned to the Vatican

large, curved surface that would be seen from 20 meters

Leading Renaissance artists, such as Botticelli and

below. His elaborate scheme divides the vaulted roof into

Perugino, had been commissioned to decorate the walls of

narrative scenes, each illustrating a key episode from the

the Sistine Chapel some 20 years earlier, and Pope Julius

creation story in the book of Genesis. Between the scenes

II, an ambitious and authoritarian figure, was determined

are naked, muscular youths, known as ignudi. Like all the

that Michelangelo should renovate the ceiling, which had

other figures on the ceiling, they reveal Michelangelo’s

been painted to resemble a star-studded sky. After initial

SISTINE CHAPEL CEILING

reluctance—Michelangelo saw himself primarily as a
sculptor not a painter—the special scaffolding designed
by the artist was put in place and Michelangelo embarked
on years of lonely and physically demanding work, while
beneath him church services were conducted as normal.
The great ceiling fresco was finished in October 1512.
Before the most recent restoration work, which was
completed in 1992, Michelangelo’s biblical scenes looked
dark and muted. Once hundreds of years’ worth of
accumulated grime had been expertly removed, however,
the brilliance of the colors shone through. Even in
reproduction the ceiling is an awe-inspiring sight as well
as a fitting testament to the extraordinary vision and
artistic genius of this intensely spiritual man.

As we look upwards we seem
to look into…a world of more
than human dimensions
ERNST GOMBRICH THE STORY OF ART, 1950

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MICHELANGELO

MICHELANGELO
1475–1564

One of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, Michelangelo
Buonarroti was a sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. No other
artist has ever equalled his mastery of the nude male figure.

Born near Arezzo, Tuscany, into a minor aristocratic family, Michelangelo
worked as an apprentice in the workshop of the painter Domenico
Ghirlandaio, where he learned fresco painting. Soon afterward, he joined
the household of Lorenzo de’ Medici and made figure drawings based on the
works of Giotto and Masaccio. After Lorenzo’s death, Michelangelo moved
to Rome, where he made his name with the beautiful, sorrowful Pietà, the
marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Christ. His technical
mastery was also evident in David, the colossal statue he created for the city
of Florence, completing it in 1504.
A year later, Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to create sculptures
for his papal tomb, but this grand scheme was scaled down dramatically.
Meanwhile, the deeply devout artist had embarked on another prestigious
commission for Julius—the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo was just
37 years old when he finished it. Other commissions, some for the Medici
family and several for the papacy followed, notably the painting of The Last
Judgement on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel, which was commissioned
by Pope Paul III. This huge fresco depicts the terrible fate of corrupt humanity.
Michelangelo was appointed architect to St. Peter’s in Rome in 1546, and
the last years of his life were devoted mainly to architecture, notably
redesigning the great dome of the church. He died in Rome.

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3 CREATION OF PLANTS, SUN, MOON, AND STARS In this scene,
Michelangelo shows the third and fourth days of Creation, with two
massive figures representing God. The figure with swirling robes seen
from the back is a depiction of God creating vegetation and fruit trees
on earth. The bearded figure with outstretched arms points to a ball
of golden light, the sun. The other beautifully modeled hand points
back to the moon, the second “light” in the heavens.

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4 CREATION OF EVE On the
sixth day of creation, God created
Adam “in his own image.” After
sending him into a deep sleep,
God made Eve, the first woman,
from one of Adam’s ribs. Here Eve
is shown emerging, her hands
raised to the cloaked figure of
God,