110: Post-Renaissance Period

Published by S.D. Cason Admin on Ecclesiastical Art History

Post Renaissance Course Audio

There are certain political explanations of this great change between the art of the sixteenth and the art of the seventeenth century. There were several forces at work which were hostile or indifferent to artistic development, such as the religious, dynastic and commercial wars, the difficulties of the Reformation, and constitutional problems, while the grouping together of small towns into larger provinces and countries was doing away with the rivalry of the craftsmen in the smaller places, and permitting a spirit of greater uniformity in style to spread throughout a large section of Europe. Add to all these colonial expansion, huge enterprise, and great commercial prosperity, constantly broken into by ravaging wars, and the causes for the decay of that spirit of religious activity in art characterizing earlier periods are apparent. Spain and Italy were, in the seventeenth century, almost the only two countries in which any close connection between art and the Church was kept up. England was troubled with the religious question, and struggling with great constitutional problems, while it had given itself over to the faith of the Reformers, and such art as it was producing was the great architectural triumph of Sir Christopher Wren in the rebuilding of the churches of London, and the various sections of craftsmanship concerned with the adornment of the house and the person. In Spain there were still some great goldsmiths at work, and some even greater workers in wrought iron, preparing the rejas for the Spanish cathedrals, while pictorial art was at its very highest in that country, and its masterpieces, with the exception of those of the very greatest artist of all, Velazquez, were devoted to subjects suggested by the Church. Yet there had been no country in which the painter had been so trammelled by traditional restrictions as in Spain. The very manner in which each saint was to be represented, the method in which his or her clothing was to be painted, and the colouring which was to be applied to each garment, had been a matter of stern decree. It had needed the profound genius of a Velazquez to break through the traditional rules, and to open for his successors, and especially for Murillo, a period of greater freedom. Commencing with such painters as Pantoja della Cruz and Vicente Carducci, the great Spanish School had produced the Ribaltas and Ribera, and then the majestic Velazquez. In Spain the only great painter to follow Velazquez was Murillo, but there were many whose works were marked by distinction, excellence, and beauty, especially Zurburan, Iriarte, Juan de Valdes, Alonso Cano, and Orrente. The seventeenth century was, in various countries of Europe, one of the important periods of artistic production, and although the Italian schools, the Realists, and the painters of the Second Revival were men whose productions at the present time are out of favour, yet they deserve more than a passing notice, while contemporary with them are others who rank among the veritable giants of the artistic craft. The late Italian artists, the Carracci, Caravaggio, Sasso Ferrato, Carlo Dolci, Domenichino, Luca Giordano, Carlo Maratta, Guido Reni, Salvator Rosa, and others, show in their work melodramatic style, love of magnificent colouring, and intense shades. The draughtsmanship of these artists should cause their works to be more highly esteemed than they are at present, for they certainly represent an important epoch in the art history of the world, and one which must never be overlooked. Many of their works were altar-pieces painted for churches, or were intended for church decoration, but at the same time they were greatly influenced by the Humanistic movement, and by the eager desire to represent the stories of classical writers in pictorial effect. The commercial prosperity of Holland, at a time when other nations were lacking in material wealth, was one of the reasons for the existence of a veritable crowd of artists just at this time. The Church had ceased to commission pictures in Holland, and very seldom were stories, either from the Bible, or from the lives of the saints, represented by this school of artists.

In dealing with the arts and crafts of the eighteenth century, a new and destructive factor which had arisen must be taken into consideration. "The genius of handicraft," as has been well said, "passes now into invention," and the commencement of a system now appears that was eventually to strike at the very roots of the manner in which supreme works of genius had been produced in the preceding centuries. It must also be noticed that, in painting especially, the artistic centre of gravity had shifted from Italy to England, and to a lesser extent to France, and that Italy Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands took but a very small share in the artistic development of the eighteenth century, instead of, as in preceding periods being the great centres of development themselves. The triumph of the home, however, in contradistinction to that of the Church, was now complete, and portraiture, whether concerning itself with the great decorative single figures or family groups of Reynolds and Gainsborough, or with the productions of the leading miniature painters, Cosway, Engleheart, Plimer, Smart, Hone, Wood, and their numerous followers, was exclusively applied to the multiplication of portraits of those persons who were able to afford to employ the artist, and who desired to possess and distribute to others such delightful representations as would adorn the home and the person. Ecclesiastical art, or art for the decoration of the church, had hardly any existence.

In England towards the middle of the nineteenth century a new movement having in it some of the instincts of earlier Italian art began to arise. The foremost artist of this new school was Sir Edward Burne-Jones. In the wonderful succession of poetic visions which he presented, marked by a play of fancy, a fertility of inventiveness, tender witchery of inspiration exquisite colour, and grace and harmony of line and grouping, he was able to develop the spirit of religious emotion to a far fuller extent than he himself had intended, and to vivify the old legends of primitive times which had formed part of his inheritance from Celtic ancestors. His appearance on the horizon of art was to a great extent coincident with the blossoming forth of what has been termed the Oxford Movement in religion, a growing desire for a deeper and fuller devotion, an eager determination to return to earlier and purer lines of thought in religion to set faith free from the regulations of statecraft, and to rise from the dreary monotony of a Genevan theology to something approaching closer to the fiery enthusiasm and the sumptuous ceremonial of the passionate faith of earlier days. The progress of this movement within the Protestant Church led to a considerable number of accessions to the Catholic Faith, but in the Church of its origin it worked a complete revolution. Once more there arose the determination that the house of God should be beautiful, and once again art with all the various crafts closely connected therewith entered into the service of religion, very much in the manner they had done in preceding centuries. Tapestry-workers, under the influence of William Morris and Burne-Jones, were set to work to prepare panels of glowing colour for the decoration of churches. The stained-glass painters, under the influence of these craftsmen, sought out old designs, originated new schemes of colour, and worked hard to discover old secrets of technic. The earlier schools of embroidery were studied, and all over the country women set to work to make vestments and to execute needlework of rare distinction and great beauty. A revival took place in the art of the metal-worker and in that of the stone-mason. Many fine wrought- iron grilles were made, and the claim of the artist to prepare the design and to superintend the carrying out of its execution was once more considered and gladly entertained. Quite apart from the religious aspect of the movement there was in this Oxford revival the origin of the effort towards greater refinement, greater beauty, and more attention to handicraft which, commencing in the middle of the nineteenth century, has by no means reached its culmination till the early years of the twentieth.

One of the first and most important of the movements which aimed to break away from the artistic traditions of the eighteenth century took place in the early part of the nineteenth century in Germany, and was led by Overbeck. The Academy of Vienna, at the time that he entered it, was under the direction of Füger, a talented miniature painter, but a follower of the pseudo classical school of David, and a firm believer in the tenets of these opinions, too conservative to vary from them in the least degree. Overbeck felt that he was among commonplace painters, that every noble thought was suppressed within the academy, and that Christian art had been diverted and corrupted until nothing Christian remained in it. The differences between him and his followers and their fellow-students were so serious that the upholders of Overbeck and their leader were expelled from the academy. Leaving Vienna Overbeck journeyed to Rome, reaching it in 1810, and remaining there for fifty-nine years. Here he was joined by such men as Veit, Cornelius, Schadow, with others of less importance — together they formed a school which was known as the Nazarites, or the Church-Romantic painters. They built up a severe revival on simple nature and the serious art of the Umbrian and Bolognese painters, and although for a long time they laboured under great difficulties yet, after a while, they were able to exert considerable influence, and their success led to memorable revivals throughout Europe. Overbeck was a Catholic, as were several of his friends. He was a man of high purity of motive, of deep insight, and abounding knowledge, a very saintly person, and a perfect treasury of art and poetry, insomuch that his influence helped very largely to purify the art of his time. The secessions from the conservative line adopted by the Royal Academy in England late in the nineteenth century were not marked by the particular element of religious fervour distinguishing Overbeck, but were the result of a similar determination to return to nature, and understand the art of painting in the open air, with not only a strict adherence to realism in choice and treatment of subject, but also the subordination of colour to tone gradation. These secessions in England were, however, very much the result of the movement in France which had preceded them, and which was connected with the name of Millet.

In Catholic countries there are arising some signs that the old practice of enlisting the services of art for the purposes of religion may be developed, but the signals of an approaching movement are not very strong as yet, and the Church has a good deal to learn with regard to decoration, to design, and to craftsmanship from the earlier periods of its history. Foremost among the signs of the new spirit must be placed the erection of the Westminster Cathedral at London, one of the most perfect buildings in England, erected after the truest and most careful study of the past and with every desire to give full play to the spirit of the present and to the original talent of its designer, while avoiding anything that could be called a slavish copying of the past. This building affords an example of the revived use of mosaic properly applied, in method following the work of Ravenna, and planned by a great artist, Bentley. It affords the most perfect scheme of interior decoration that could well be conceived. In other countries of Europe the signs of progress are not quite so clear, but the Church which fostered and encouraged art from its very birth has so many glorious examples in its midst of the great achievements of profound genius that it can only be a matter of time before its ancient use of the fine arts is revived. A close study of the past would enable the Church to once more set about the task of employing the craftsmen of the world to produce their finest work in the domain of ecclesiastical art.