I believe that the art lover is a freedom fighter for a better life for himself and the world.
Great art is a series of windows on the past, it gives us understanding of where we are at present and who we are at present. We question our priorities and the world we live in and through this we’re always discovering something new, something we didn’t know before.
We can change society and my next story is an example of how this happened in the past. Around 700 years ago there was a seismic shift in people’s outlook right across Europe. We can see this change through looking at paintings so I went to the National Gallery in London.
I can just pop into the National Gallery or spend all day, if I have the time, looking at the greatest paintings in the world – it’s free.
We’re going to look at three Italian paintings with the same subject matter – a mother’s love for her child – Mary holding the baby Jesus as they contemplate his future death on the cross.
The first is from medieval times and it’s by Duccio in 1300. It’s outside of time and space. And it has the authentic stamp of the Church because the truth is witnessed by saints, prophets and angels. Their size is not realistic; rather it’s in proportion to their importance in the spiritual hierarchy.
It’s a direct appeal to Faith – no doubt, no questions; a background of shining gold – no contact with the outside world.
The message is spiritual: we are nothing. Yet we can become one with God.
The earth was flat, heaven was above and hell below.
Masaccio our next painter comes 100 years later. This is the time of the Renaissance. Renaisssance means rebirth when people rediscovered the art and ideas of ancient Greece and Rome. Masaccio’s work was more naturalistic and was inspired by ancient Greek sculpture. The rules of perspective had just been rediscovered. He uses this and rational lighting to place the stone throne and figures in real space.
The child tastes the grapes which are a symbol of the blood he is prepared to shed for us.
It’s now 1500 and the high Renaissance. This painting is by Bellini. It’s the same familiar subject but now the world has been let in. Mary sits in a field. The baby is allowed to sleep like a real child. We can feel Mary breathing as she watches over him.”
This painting by the Flemish painter Hieronymous Bosch is from exactly the same time as Bellini. It is still a religious subject but it’s crowded with horrible characters – it is set in the drama of life and shows what humans are really like when they’re about to torture Christ.
Worldly subject matter entered painting through portraits. This double portrait of Arnolfini and his wife is painted by Jan Van Eyck. It documents the rise of a rich middle class who took advantage of the new techniques in oil painting to record themselves in their finery and among their expensive possessions. The world is becoming more materialistic.
Wealthy merchants, bankers and Princes decorated their palaces with scenes from ancient Greek and Roman mythology, like this painting of the Judgement of Paris by Rubens. They were showing off their new, modern and worldly outlook which included the pleasures of the flesh.
(Many important events coincided to cause this radical change in outlook of Renaissance thinkers and artists. But the most important factor was the rediscovery of the Greek mind where freedom of thought triumphed over Mediaeval dogma.
In this self portrait by Rembrandt we enter right into the private life of the painter. God has been replaced by man as a source of ideals. Freedom from the Church’s authority led to experimentation and science and the cult of the individual.
Change happened in the past and I think we’re heading to radical change in outlook again.