The pictorial art in the Age of Faith took four principal forms: mosaic, miniatures, murals, and stained glass.
The mosaic art was now in its old age, but in the course of 2000 years it had learned many subtleties. To make the gold ground they loved so well, mosaicists wrapped gold leaf around glass cubes, covered the leaf with a thin film of glass to keep the gold from tarnishing, and then, to avoid surface glare, laid the gilded cubes in slightly uneven planes. The light was reflected at diverse angles from the cubes, and gave an almost living texture to the whole.
It was probably Byzantine artists who in the eleventh century covered the east apse and west wall of an old cathedral at Torcello—an island near Venice—with some of the most imposing mosaics in medieval history.10 The mosaics of St. Mark’s range over seven centuries in authorship and style. Doge Domenico Selvo commissioned the first interior mosaics in 1071, presumably using Byzantine artists; the mosaics of 1153 were still under Byzantine tutelage; not until 1450 were Italian artists predominant in the mosaic adornment of St. Mark’s. The twelfth-century Ascension mosaic of the central cupola is a summit of the art, but it has a close rival in the Joseph mosaics of the vestibule dome. The marble mosaic of the pavement has survived through 700 years the tread of human feet.
At the other end of Italy Greek and Saracen workers united to produce the mosaic masterpieces of Norman Sicily—in the Capella Palatina and Martorana of Palermo, the monastery of Monreale, the cathedral of Cefalù (1148). The wars of the papacy in the thirteenth century may have retarded art in Rome; however, resplendent mosaics were made in that period for the churches of Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Maria in Trastevere, St. John Lateran, and St. Paul Outside the Walls. An Italian, Andrea Tafi (1213–94), designed a mosaic for the Baptistery at Florence, but it was not up to the Greek work in Venice or Sicily. Suger’s abbey at St. Denis (1150) had a magnificent mosaic floor, partly preserved in the Cluny Museum; and the pavement (c. 1268) of Westminster Abbey is an admirable mingling of mosaic shades. But the mosaic art never prospered north of the Alps; stained glass outshone it; and with the coming of Duccio, Cimabue, and Giotto, murals crowded it out even in Italy.
The illumination of manuscripts with miniature paintings and decoration in liquid silver and gold and colored inks continued to be a favorite art, gratefully adapted to monastic quiet and piety. Like so many phases of medieval activity, it reached its Western apogee in the thirteenth century; never again has it been so delicate, inventive, or profuse. The stiff figures and drapes, and hard greens and reds, of the eleventh century were gradually replaced with forms of grace and tenderness in richer hues on backgrounds of blue or gold; and the Virgin conquered the miniature even as she was capturing the cathedral.
During the Dark Ages many books were destroyed; those that remained were doubly precious, and constituted, so to speak, a thin life line of civilization in their text and art.11 Psalters, gospels, sacramentaries, missals, breviaries, books of hours were cherished as the living vehicles of a divine revelation; no effort was too great for their fit adornment; one might reasonably spend a day on an initial, a week on a title page. Hartker, a monk of St. Gall, perhaps expecting the end of the world with the century, made a vow in 986 to remain within four walls the rest of his earthly life; he stayed in his tiny cell till he died fifteen years later; and there he illuminated—brightened with pictures and ornament—the Antiphonary of St. Gall.12
Perspective and modeling were now less ably practiced than in the Carolingian exuberance; the enlumineur, as the French called the miniaturist, sought depth and splendor of color, and a crowded fullness and vitality of representation, rather than the illusion of tridimensional space. Most frequently his subjects were taken from the Bible, or the apocryphal gospels, or the legends of the saints; but sometimes a herbal or a bestiary sought illustration, and he took delight in picturing real or imaginary plants and animals. Even in religious books the ecclesiastical rules for subject and treatment were less defined in the West than in the East, and the painter was allowed to range and frolic widely within his narrow room. Animal bodies with human heads, human bodies with animal heads, a monkey disguised as a monk, a monkey examining with proper medical gravity a phial of urine, a musician giving a concert by scraping together the jawbones of an ass—such were the topics that graced a Book of the Hours of the Virgin.13 Other texts, sacred as well as profane, came to life with scenes of hunting, tournament, or war; one thirteenth-century psalter included in its pictures the inside of an Italian bank. The secular world, recovering from its terror of eternity, was invading the precincts of religion itself.
English monasteries were fertile in this peaceful art. The East Anglian school produced famous psalters: one treasured by the Brussels library, another (“Ormsby”) at Oxford, a third (“St. Omer”) in the British Museum. But the finest illumination of the age was French. The psalters painted for Louis IX inaugurate a style of centered composition, and division into framed medallions, obviously taken from the stained glass of the cathedrals. The Lowlands shared in this movement; the monks of Liege and Ghent attained in their miniatures something of the warm feeling and flowing grace of the sculptures at Amiens and Reims. Spain produced the greatest single chef-d’oeuvre of thirteenth-century illumination in a book of hymns to the Virgin—Las cantigas del Rey Sabio (c. 1280)—“The Canticles of [Alfonso X] the Wise King”; its 1226 miniatures suggest the labor and loyalty that medieval books might receive. Such books, of course, were works of calligraphic as well as pictorial art. Sometimes the same artist copied or composed and wrote the text, and painted the illumination. In several manuscripts one hesitates to decide which seems more beautiful—the decoration or the text. We paid a price for print.
It is difficult to tell how far the miniatures, in subject and design, influenced murals, panels, icons, ceramic painting, sculptural relief, and stained glass, and how far these influenced illumination. There was among these arts a free trade in themes and styles, a continuous interaction; and sometimes the same artist practiced them all. We do injustice to art and artist alike when we separate one art too sharply from the rest, or the arts from the life of their time; reality is always more integrated than our chronicles; and the historian disintegrates for convenience’ sake the elements of a civilization whose components flowed as a united stream. We must try not to sever the artist from the cultural complex that reared and taught him, gave him traditions and topics—praised or tormented him, used him up, buried him, and—more often than not—forgot his name.
The Middle Ages, like any age of faith, discouraged individualism as insolent impiety, and bade the ego even of genius submerge itself in the work and current of its time. The Church, the state, the commune, the guild were the lasting realities; they were the artists; individuals were the hands of the group; and when the great cathedral took form its body and soul would stand for all the bodies and souls that its design and building and adornment had consecrated and consumed. So history has swallowed up nearly all the names of the men who painted the walls of medieval structures before the thirteenth century; and war, revolution, and the damp of time have almost swallowed up their work. Were the methods of the muralists to blame? They used the ancient processes of fresco and tempera—applying the colors to freshly plastered walls, or painting upon dry walls with colors made adhesive by some glutinous material. Both methods aimed at permanence, through permeation or cohesion; even so the colors tended to flake off in the course of years, so that very little remains of mural painting before the fourteenth century. Theophilus (1190) described the preparation of oil colors, but this technique lay undeveloped till the Renaissance.
The traditions of classic Roman painting were apparently snuffed out by the barbarian invasions and the ensuing centuries of poverty. When Italian mural painting revived it took its lead not from antiquity but from the half-Greek, half-Oriental methods of Byzantium. Early in the thirteenth century we find Greek painters working in Italy—Theophanes at Venice, Apollonius at Florence, Melormus at Siena…. The earliest signed panel pictures in the Italian art of this period bear Greek names. Such men brought with them Byzantine themes and styles—symbolic figures religio-mystical, making no claim to the representation of natural attitudes and scenes.
Gradually, as wealth and taste rose in thirteenth-century Italy, and the higher rewards of art drew better talents to their quest, Italian painters—Giunta Pisano at Pisa, Lapo at Pistoia, Guido at Siena, Pietro Cavallini at Assisi and Rome—began to abandon the dreamy Byzantine manner, and to infuse their painting with the color and passion of Italy. In the church of San Domenico at Siena Guido (1271) painted a Madonna whose “pure, sweet face”14 left far behind it the frail and lifeless forms of the Byzantine painting of that age; this picture almost begins the Italian Renaissance.
A generation later Duccio di Buoninsegna (1273–1319) carried Siena to a kind of civic-esthetic frenzy with his Maestà or “Majesty” of the Virgin enthroned. The thriving citizens decided that the Divine Mother, their feudal queen, should have her picture painted on an imposing scale by the greatest artist available anywhere. They found it pleasant to choose their townsman Duccio. They promised him gold, gave him food and time, and watched every step of his work. When, after three years, it was complete (1311), and Duccio had added a touching signature—“Holy Mother of God, give Siena peace and Duccio life because he painted thee thus”—a procession of bishops, priests, monks, officials, and half the population of the city escorted the picture (fourteen feet long and seven wide) to the cathedral, amid the blare of trumpets and the ringing of bells. The work was still half Byzantine in style, aiming at religious expression rather than realistic portraiture; the Virgin’s nose was too long and straight, her eyes too somber; but the surrounding figures had grace and character; and the scenes from the life of Mary and Christ, painted on the predellas and pinnacles, had a new and vivid charm. Altogether this was the greatest painting before Giotto.*
Meanwhile at Florence Giovanni Cimabue (1240?-1302) had inaugurated a dynasty of painters that would rule Italian art for almost three centuries. Born of a noble family, Giovanni doubtless saddened them by abandoning law for art. He was a proud spirit, apt to cast aside any of his works in which he or another had found a defect. While stemming, like Duccio, from the Italian-Byzantine school, he poured his pride and energy into his art to revolutionary effect; in him, more than in the greater artist Duccio, the Byzantine style was superseded, and a new path of advance was cleared. He bent and softened the hard lines of his predecessors, gave flesh to spirit, color and warmth to flesh, human tenderness to gods and saints; and by using bright reds, pinks, and blues for the drapery, he endowed his paintings with a life and brilliance unknown before him in medieval Italy. All this, however, we must accept on the testimony of his time; not one of the pictures attributed to him is unquestionably his; and the Madonna and Child with Angels, painted in tempera for the Rucellai Chapel of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, is more probably by Duccio.15 A tradition disputed, but probably true, assigns to Cimabue a Virgin and Child Between Four Angels in the Lower Church of San Francesco at Assisi. This colossal fresco, usually dated 1296, and restored in the nineteenth century, is the first extant masterpiece in Italian painting. The figure of St. Francis is bravely realistic—a man frightened to emaciation by visions of Christ; and the four angels begin the Renaissance alliance of religious subjects with feminine beauty.
In the closing years of his life Cimabue was appointed capomaestro of mosaics at the cathedral of Pisa; and there, it is said, he designed for the apse a mosaic of Christ in Glory Between the Virgin and St. John. Vasari tells a pretty tale how Cimabue once found a shepherd lad of ten, called Giotto di Bondone, drawing a lamb on a slate with a piece of coal, and took him to Florence as a pupil.16 Certainly Giotto worked in Cimabue’s studio, and occupied his master’s house after Cimabue’s death. So began the greatest line of painters in the history of art.
4. Stained Glass
Italy was a century ahead of the North in murals and mosaics, a century behind in architecture and stained glass. The art of painting glass had been known to antiquity, but chiefly in the form of glass mosaic. Gregory of Tours (538?-93) filled the windows of St. Martin’s with glass “of varied colors”; and in the same century Paul the Silentiary remarked the splendor of sunlight as filtered through the variously colored windows of St. Sophia’s at Constantinople. In these cases, so far as we know, there was no attempt at making pictures with the glass. But about 980 Archbishop Adalbero of Reims adorned his cathedral with windows “containing histories”;17 and in 1052 the chronicle of St. Benignus described a “very ancient painted window,” representing St. Paschasius, in a church at Dijon.18 Here was historiated glass; but apparently the color was painted upon the glass, not fused into it. When Gothic architecture reduced the strain on walls and made space for larger windows, the abundant light thereby admitted into the church allowed—indeed, demanded—the coloring of the panes; and every stimulus was present to find a method of more permanently painting glass.
Stain-fused glass was probably an offshoot of the art of enameled glass. Theophilus described the new technique in 1190. A “cartoon” or design was laid upon a table, and was divided into small sections, each marked with a symbol of the desired color. Pieces of glass were cut, seldom more than an inch long or wide, to fit the sections of the cartoon. Each piece of glass was painted in the designated color with a pigment consisting of powdered glass mixed with varying metallic oxides—cobalt for blue, copper for red or green, manganese for purple…. The painted glass was then fired to fuse the enamel oxides with the glass; the cooled pieces were laid upon the design, and were soldered together with thin strips of lead. In viewing a window of such mosaic glass the eye hardly notices the leads, but makes of the parts a continuous colored surface. The artist was interested in color above all, and aimed at a fusion of color tones; he sought no realism, no perspective; he gave the queerest hues to the objects in his pictures—green camels, pink lions, blue-faced knights.19 But he achieved the effect he aimed at: a brilliant and lasting picture, a softening and coloring of the light admitted to the church, and the instruction and exaltation of the worshiper.
The windows—even the great “roses”—were in most cases divided into panels, medallions, circles, lozenges, or squares, so that one window might show several scenes in a biography or theme. Old Testament prophets were pictured opposite their New Testament analogues or fulfillments; and the New Testament was amplified from the apocryphal gospels, whose picturesque fables were so dear to the medieval mind. Stories of the saints were even more frequent in the windows than episodes from the Bible; so the adventures of St. Eustace were narrated on the windows of Chartres, and again at Sens, Auxerre, Le Mans, and Tours. Events of profane history rarely appeared in stained glass.
Within a half century of its oldest known occurrence in France, stained glass reached perfection at Chartres. The windows of that cathedral served as models and goals for those at Sens, Laon, Bourges, and Rouen. Thence the art crossed to England, and inspired the glass of Canterbury and Lincoln; a treaty between France and England specified that one of the glass painters of Louis VII (1137–80) should be allowed to come to England.20 In the thirteenth century the component parts of the pane were made larger, and the color lost something of the vibrating subtlety of the earlier work. Painting in grisaille—decorative tracery with thin lines of red or blue on a gray monochrome base—replaced, towards the end of that century, the color symphonies of the great cathedrals; the mullions themselves, in ever more complex designs, played a larger part in the picture; and though such window tracery became in its turn a lovely art, the skill of the glass painter declined. The splendor of stained glass had come with the Gothic cathedral; and when the Gothic glory faded, the ecstasy of color died away.