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February 19, 2020

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Reni Cecilia.jpg

St. Cecilia
Guido Reni

Guido Reni was an Italian Baroque artist that split his time between Bologna and Rome, and is said to have had a run-in with the volatile Caravaggio. His style is a melding of Baroque complexity and Classical sobriety. His main subject matter was classical mythology and Christian imagery. In his early career, Reni was employed by the Pope and various bishops to create the murals and frescos for which he is most known.

This work of the patron saint of church music is one of serene piety. The main elements here are lighting and color—the dramatic use of both became the strengths of Baroque. Reni, for a time, was apprenticed to a Flemish artist where vivid color was a mainstay. Later, his move to Italy taught him classical idealism. In the very center of the work, a vibrant red attracts the eye. It dominates and draws it along the saint’s form to the bottom of the work. However, Reni counters this strong, brilliant color with a radiant light that highlights the white of her sleeves and hat, and the warm ivory of her face, neck and hands. Where these two colors meet is a thick band of black that walls off each field and keeps them from conflicting with each another. Also, notice how the black, red and white all meet at the exact center of the painting, and that their meeting point is interrupted again by the jeweled brooch.

Just as the red flows downward, the ivory/white draws our eyes upward to the Saint’s face. Her head is tilted slightly back, her lips are parted, and her eyes look heavenward. She gaze is fixed and she awaits instruction, waiting for musical inspiration. This region stops at her turban, the ends of which hang down and draw our eye back down into the piece. The turban and sleeves create this triangular shape that wraps around the figure, and intrudes into red’s region. This helps soften red’s otherwise visual supremacy. Another triangle, created by the violin and bow, counters the first, larger triangle, and extends downward to the bottom frame. The golden yellow in the violin matches the gold accents scattered throughout her garment. In this work then, Reni has used black and white—the two basic shades, and red and yellow—two of the three primary colors. He has managed to create a bright, and colorful work of art with the simplest palette.

The lighting is quite typical of Baroque art with the heavy, Caravaggian chiaroscuro. The light comes from the right, off canvas—possibly from a candle or window. Reni avoids the obvious heavenly light source, opting for a side light so more of her face is highlighted. A harsh light from the top would throw both her eyes into deep shadow and bleach out the rest of her face. By avoiding the top-light, the viewer sees this holy conversation from her point-of-view only. Only she can hear whatever voice is instructing her. This lifts her out of our earthly plane and reinforces her status as a saint—one set apart from the rest of us. The black background silhouettes her form and adds heavy contrast to the other colors, making them brighter. She jumps off the canvas.

The two instruments in the painting seem to create some interesting symbolism. First, the organ itself is the attribute of St. Cecilia. Usually, the saint is depicted playing the organ, but here it is in deep shadow behind her. The artist elected to give her a new instrument to play. Next, it was during the Baroque that the violin finally developed, for the most part, its present form, and seems to have been pretty popular with contemporary composers. I have been listening to a lot of Baroque music lately and one of the most noticeable characteristics of this type of music is the dominance of both pipe organs and stringed instruments, especially violins. I wonder if Reni is inserting this aspect of his culture into his work, similar to how an artist might insert an electric guitar into an updated version of this painting.

Finally, Reni plays with the viewer. There are two bottoms. The Saint’s figure is cut off well above the actual bottom of the work. The violin extends below this cropping. This may be Reni’s attempt at trompe-l’oeil. He is playing with the viewer’s eye by creating the illusion that St. Cecilia is reaching through the viewing plane into our space. Also, because of the total blackness of the background, there is no perspective to create the illusion that space is receding into the distance. Therefore, Reni counters the shallowness of the work by allowing the imagery to advance into our space.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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