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January 26, 2022

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Cimabue Madonna.jpg

Madonna And Child Enthroned

Giotto Madonna.jpg

Madonna in Maest

Comparing artworks is a good way to hone your skills at reading art (click on either image for a side-by-side view). It’s also fun. A good place to start is two works that have the same subject, such as the Madonna and Child enthroned. This was a VERY common subject in Western art for centuries, so there’s a lot of different interpretations around. These two works were created just decades apart, by a master and his student. Together, they demonstrate a shift in aesthetics from one generation to the next.

How did Cimabue and Giotto create similar works but two very different pieces?

COLOR: The palettes are similar: gold, red, and blue. In the Cimabue, gold is the dominant color. It is in the skin tones and even defines the creases and folds of Mary’s garments. Gold infuses everything and represents the holy majesty and the heavenly realm. The Giotto also uses gold, but he defuses its potency with that huge area of royal blue. He also adds other colors, mostly greens and white. The heat of Cimabue’s gold and red radiate. Giotto’s green, blue and white cool these colors down. To me, Giotto’s work is easier to look at. And the variation in color allow the eye to wander and pick out details.

COMPOSITION: Cimabue arranged his work in a very formal style. The main figure is Mary, no question. She sits dead center, facing the viewer. The angels are carefully arranged around the throne and stand on bleachers so each face and all eyes are seen. The angels pose stiffly. The four prophets under the throne occupy their narrow spaces and pose Gothically. In the Giotto, the figures are relaxed. Mixed together, the angels and prophets stand around the throne as a group. The figures overlap each other naturally. All eyes are on Mary, not the viewer. Giotto didn’t change how Mary is composed however. She is still dead center and huge, the entire focus of the work.

PROPORTION: The use of proportions here is quite simple. In both works, the main figure, Mary, is massive, while the others are smaller. In the Cimabue, Jesus is tiny, and because he has similar colors to His mother, He gets lost in her colossal form. Fortunately, her gesture helps the viewer see Him. Cimabue renders Him with the scale of an infant but the proportions of an adolescent. Giotto, however, gives Christ a more natural body for His apparent age and size. He is a chubby toddler here. He doesn’t get lost in the work and shares dominance with His mother.

PERSPECTIVE: This is the era before mathematical perspective was invented. Artists rendered three dimensional space in a way to get the idea across. Things get smaller as they recede, the viewer will get the hint. However, the figures within this setting look unnatural. They are placed in the space but don’t inhabit it. They’re just there. I think this idea is best seen in how the thrones are constructed. I think Giotto does a better job at depicting perspective, but they both look “off”. They demonstrate the influence of Byzantine/Gothic art styles that still dominated the era.

LIGHTING: In terms of lighting, Cimabue uses a straight on soft light to highlight faces and give his figures some definition. The highlights of Mary’s garment are just gold lines that symbolize the fold and creases of a garment. Shadows are black or darker shades of the main color with very little shading. Giotto is very different. His highlights and shadows blend gently and seamlessly. He uses lighting to drape Mary in rich blue and demonstrates where the cloth covers her knees and where the white top falls over her breasts. Christ’s form is also well-defined. The pink garment defines his baby fat. It bunches up and spread out where it’s supposed to. Same with the robes of the two angels in green to the sides. Giotto’s figures have mass.

Comparisons in art give the viewer an understanding of why some works or artists were trailblazers and innovators and why certain works or movements were important. These two paintings are an example of a change in thinking from older medieval ideas where art represents the abstract and eternal, to the ideals that evolved into the Renaissance. Both works are altarpieces, intended to guide the worshipper. Where Cimabue’s work is formal, stiff, lofty, straight-forward and flat, Giotto’s is warm and relaxed. Giotto’s work still communicates majesty, but he brings a tenderness and naturalism to the subject. Mary is real and three-dimensional.

Cimabue’s figures feel separated from us, on another plane. They look out at us and we look back at them like we’re watching a staged tableau. They are there and we are here. In the Giotto, the angels and prophets look at Mary, like us. The viewer feels a part of the group and joins them in veneration. The front angels kneel, like the viewer, before the throne but to the side so our view is unobstructed. We are included in the worship and it becomes personal and communal.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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