Fossilized Beauty and Breaking Free (Favorites at Washington’s National Gallery, 5)

I’m a fan of all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Donatello, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo), but this work at the National Gallery also made it to my favorites list.

Byzantine 13th Century, Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne, 13th century, tempera on panel. Washington, National Gallery, Andrew W. Mellon Collection. Photo: National Gallery

Byzantine 13th Century, Madonna and Child on a Curved Throne, 13th century, tempera on panel. Washington, National Gallery, Andrew W. Mellon Collection. Photo: National Gallery

This is the “hook” on which I hang my tidbits of knowledge about the Byzantine Empire, which evolved in the 4th century from the eastern half of the Roman Empire, adding a layer of fierce religious dogmatism to the Empire’s bloated bureaucracy. It was a fossilized culture, where change was not welcomed.

But the fossilization did have a benefit: the Byzantines preserved much of the literature of the ancient Greeks and Romans, along with echoes of their visual arts. The Madonna’s throne looks bears a strange resemblance to a Roman amphitheater, doesn’t it? And that sophisticated three-quarter view of the Madonna’s face can be traced back to Greek paintings.

Random snippets of the ancient visual arts seeped from Byzantium back to Western Europe during the Middle Ages, which is why medieval art occasionally veers briefly toward realism. But the massive transfer of knowledge back to Western Europe only began when Byzantine scholars fled as the Muslims hacked away at the brittle edges and then the fossilized core of the Empire. Constantinople fell in 1453.

I’m fond of the Byzantine Madonna at the National Gallery because it helps me remember the nature of Byzantine art and culture – and I’m one of those people who prefer to remember history rather than be condemned to repeat it.

Breaking free

If the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles ever need a fifth member, I nominate Giotto.

Giotto (Italian, probably 1266 - 1337 ), Madonna and Child, probably 1320/1330, tempera on panel. Washington, National, Samuel H. Kress Collection. Photo: National Gallery.

Giotto (Italian, probably 1266 – 1337 ), Madonna and Child, probably 1320/1330, tempera on panel. Washington, National Gallery, Samuel H. Kress Collection. Photo: National Gallery.

Giotto had obviously seen works such as the Byzantine Madonna when he painted this Madonna and Child. But he didn’t just copy them, as so many of his contemporaries did. Like Donatello (see Innovators in Sculpture), Giotto rediscovered innovations that had been lost during the Middle Ages (an astounding feat), then went on to make his own innovations.

What I’ll look for next time

The size of the Byzantine Madonna: I always think of it in the six-inch size of the reproduction Janson (3rd edition), but it’s nearly three feet high.

On the Giotto, the shading of the faces and hands: how are they different from those of the Byzantine Madonna? Rethinking everything, especially conventional details, is one of the points that makes Giotto like Donatello.

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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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