Devotional images

1. Changes in iconography 2. Pietà
3. Man of Sorrows 4. Icon portraits
5. Hortus conclusus 6. Blending of themes
7. Nativity 8. New ideas
9. Prayer-books 10. Migration of artists

1. Changes in iconography

One of the gravest problems of a period so fraught with crises was that the traditional forms of religious life began to fall into disrepute. The Christian Church's system of power and ideology had been shaken. It was on a personal and private level that religion found a new motive force. The changes in the iconography of Christian art and, connected with this, the appearance of a new type of picture designed to serve the needs of private worship, are evidence of the demand, increasingly spreading in ever-growing circles, that religious life should be more profound and intimate than before.

The most important innovations of content and form in art, inspired by faith full of emotion, were intended to enable the spectator to become devoutly involved in the scene represented. This purpose could be achieved, first of all, by scenes into whose spirit and reality he could enter, above all by the Passion, the story of the most human sufferings of Jesus, with the events awakening compassion. A similar role is played by the Virgin's maternal joy and sorrow. But the two prevailing principal types of religious painting up to the fourteenth century - namely the narrative or hieratic representations of stories - did not satisfy the spectator who was not interested in the sequence of biblical events, and did not want to admire God from a distance but desired to identify himself emotionally with a particular scene. This demand had motivated the transformation of pictures of the traditional type into devotional ones. This principle was applied to narrative compositions by singling out and stressing a single moment in the original sequence of events, and then emphasizing its emotional rather than its historical overtones. (See this process in Christ Carrying the Cross by Master Thomas.) Thus the unapproachable, timeless and hieratic pictures become imbued with universal human emotions, and create in them an atmosphere in which the spectator can submerge himself and meditate contemplatively upon the emotional impact of the scene before him. Compositions produced in this way could be adapted - by an exchange of motifs or a shift of emphasis - so that variants of the same theme are often totally different in their impact and implications.

2. Pietà

It was from the Lament over the Dead Christ and from the Deposition from the Cross that the representation of the Virgin holding the dead Christ originated - the scene now often known as the Pietà. The theme, which cannot be traced back to any liturgical text, was described with great passion and drama by the mystical visionaries who wrote during the second part of the fourteenth century. About 1400, sculptures and paintings which were lyrical in their mood and thus highly conducive to profound and devout meditation appeared with increasing frequency.

3. Man of Sorrows

As early as in Byzantine art the half length figure of the Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrows) existed as a devotional picture. It showed the naked figure of Christ, with a bleeding wound on his breast, his head bowed in acquiescence. Variants of this symbolic image, which amalgamated several episodes of the Passion, became highly popular at the end of the fourteenth century. In Master Francke's Vir Dolorum Christ is looking sorrowfully at the spectator. He is standing on his own feet, the angels with their dark blue wings only supporting him. Through this presentation they virtually appeal to the devout observer to be showing compassion for him. Thus the angels have, as it were, the role of intermediaries too. As reminders of the sufferings Christ had to undergo are the two nails jutting out from the cross, the crown of thorns, the scourge, as well as the spear, the sponge, the birch-rod and the pole (which were used during his scourging), all of which the kneeling angels are holding in their hands. On the other hand, his pointing to the wound on his breast has connotations of the resurrected Christ or the Redeemer of the Last Judgment.

In "Jacques Daliwe"'s drawing, a Vir Dolorum, with all his limbs broken, appears like a vision in an aureole of angels to the Virgin and St John, who are seated on the ground. The two lamenting figures were taken from the scene of the Crucifixion, and the motif of Christ's crossed hands is derived from representations of his body lying in the tomb. The instruments of torture evoke the torments of his death, whereas the Book of Life points to Christ, the Judge of the Last Judgment. The meditating figures of the Virgin and St John seem to connect the spectator with the suffering Christ and provide an example of meditation.

The heart-rending representation of the Holy Trinity, which is an example of the so-called Gnadenstuhl (Throne of Mercy) manner of representation, originated from the depiction of God the Father together with the Vir Dolorum (or by substituting for God the Father the figure of the Virgin from Pietà scenes, or that of Joseph of Arimathaea in representations of the Descent form the Cross).

In most cases, the devotional pictures of the period isolated the half-length figure of Jesus from the sequence of the narrative. Indeed, this compositional form fulfilled perfectly the demands of worship of the late Middle Ages, since it focused attention to the most expressive parts of the human body, in particular the face and the hands, and it was especially suitable for revealing fine nuances of emotion. By bringing the picture close to the worshipper it created the right conditions for an intimate dialogue. The broken body of Christ in the work of the Master of the Votive Picture of Sankt Lambrecht would, as it were, fall into the spectator's space unless it was supported by God the Father. The angels' wings crossing the frame also suggest the immediate proximity of the scene.

4. Icon portraits

On the other hand, icon portraits of Eastern origin were, simply on account of their bust-length form, a priori lacking in spatiality or spontaneity. These rigidly frontal poses and abstract holy pictures, with no mundane connections whatever, were completed and humanized by late medieval art. Whereas in the case of representations which had become separated from their narrative contexts were raised to a more general psychological level, in the case of icons the procedure was just reversed, because the abstract faces became imbued with human feelings. That is how the glorious Mother of God of heavenly majesty became transmuted to a gentle and loving mother, and the serious Child Jesus, who previously had been an infant only in his dimensions, became a natural, playful little boy. These Madonnas with their sensuous beauty descended to the earthly level of those devout human beings, who were full of hope and needed the Madonna's protection. The eyes of the saints no longer gazed into the distance. The Madonna and Child in St Vitus Cathedral in Prague turn to the spectator; she stretches out her arms holding the Child towards the people, as if exhorting the kneeling congregation to piety.

5. Hortus conclusus

Artists working about 1400 popularized in a variety of ways the theme of the so-called hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, in which the Virgin, surrounded by angels and saints, appears in a flower garden enclosed by a wall. Medieval hymns would often evoke the same celestial vision, but in painting it only appeared when the everyday milieu of people and the countless marvels of nature had been admitted to the sphere of devotional art. In these usually small, enchanting paintings the joys of earthly life are blended with a profound, manifold symbolic content. The orchard of the Master of the Upper Rhineland is the idyllic milieu of a cheerful aristocratic company, but, at the same time, it also conjures up the Paradise of Heaven. All its motifs are depicted in a virtually tactile way and yet they are symbols glorifying the Creation, Mary the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of the Saviour, as well as praising the various virtues. St Michael, who appears meditating in melancholy manner and looking at the spectator from the bottom right side of the picture, may exactly express the spiritual attitude in which a believer of the period approached the painting.

6. Blending of themes

It is also noteworthy how in the case of this new type of painting, the devotional picture destined for private worship, different themes became intertwined quite naturally and subsequently separated again. The same phenomenon can also be seen in traditional genres. In the composition of the Lament over the Dead Christ by the Master of the Rohan Prayer-book, the figure of the Virgin fainting with sorrow and with arms hanging down lifelessly, merges the elements of three scenes: Mary, fainting in the scene of the Crucifixion; Mary of the Lamentation, opening her arms wide to embrace her dead Son for the last time, and finally, the lifeless figure of Christ, as He is taken down from the cross in the Deposition. Raising his knee St John almost catches the Virgin in his lap, thus saving her from falling down whereby this group of two figures triggers off the association with the Pietà. The motifs springing from other contexts and blended in an exceedingly original way are, of course, not only borrowings of forms. They also enrich the emotional content of the scene, turning the instantaneity of tragedy into a protracted state of sorrow.

7. Nativity

It was an increasingly frequent phenomenon in the art around 1400 that artists and those who commissioned work from them drew upon their own imagination and did not rely solely upon pictorial traditions, definite literary sources or theological concepts. For this reason the International Gothic style - preceding the Italian Renaissance - was an important stage in the process of emancipation of the fine arts. It was only in the case of one theme, that of the Nativity, that research has revealed exact literary sources, which had already appeared in the Italian trecento and were represented increasingly often around 1400 from a novel approach. Once the Virgin appeared to St Bridget, a fourteenth-century mystic, and revealed to her that she had not been lying in bed but kneeling as she gave birth to Jesus. This vision inspired the pictorial representation of the mother praying above her Child and thus superseding the previous depictions of the bed where childbirth takes place. With this iconographical transformation the scene grew more mystic and accordingly more conducive to profound meditation.

8. New ideas

The emergence of independent sets of ideas in the fine arts indicated that works of art began to dispense with the constraints imposed on them by religion and society. The diminishing effect of scholasticism and the crisis of the religious Weltanschauung had the consequence that the former commissions of the Church and her monumental programmes which embraced the whole universe had lost their topicality by the end of the Middle Ages. The art of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was destined for the whole community of the faithful and met the requirements of official church rituals. But art could no longer direct the way to increasingly individual divine services, which emerged at the end of the fourteenth century. "In that period the Gothic style was not characterized by cathedrals any more, but rather by small oratories and chapels suitable for intimate, private worship. It was no longer monumental murals and not even large, decorative tapestries that revealed the tastes of princely patrons, but rather small triptychs and tiny pictures in which . . . by means of the miniature architecture of the frame the represented scene and the objet d'art became amalgamated into a single, fragile, decorative unit." (Bialostocki). In the Romanesque period and in the classic Gothic style the huge cathedrals had seemed to encompass all branches of art. Later, at the time of the International Gothic style, sculpture and painting began to have a life which was independent of architecture. The main emphasis of the decoration of churches too was transferred to the sculptural embellishment of doorways and from monumental stained glass windows to polyptychs which contained elements of all branches of art. These usually consisted of mobile, painted panels, which would cover or reveal the central, sculptural decoration.

9. Prayer-books

In addition to small-size devotional pictures intended for personal use, prayer-books prepared for laymen also served the needs of private worship. Both were free of the constraints of liturgy as they were outside the sphere of the Church's jurisdiction and therefore both their contents and their pictorial compositions could develop more freely. The individual taste of the person commissioning the work as well as artistic invention could assert themselves more freely in them. Although these works of art were devotional objects conveying religious themes, in their evaluation - beyond their material value - aesthetical points of view played an ever increasing role. In Jacob Burckhardt's opinion collecting works of art sprang from the way in which people had small domestic altars made for their own use, or else they bought them and presented them to each other.

10. Migration of artists

The mere fact that artistic style in the years about 1400 could become international demonstrates a loosening of the social bonds which had previously curbed the scope of works of art. A homogeneous artistic idiom could spread all over Europe because creative artists had been freed from the limitations the Church, their patron, had imposed upon them. Artists could leave the workshops of great cathedrals and either enter the service of princely courts or become independent entrepreneurs. (When the urban guilds had grown strong enough in the early fifteenth century, the period of the International Gothic style came to an end, and distinctive local styles emerged. From this point, the pattern of development in Italy was different from that in the northern countries, for it was there about 1400 that the disintegration of a long-established system of guilds took place; consequently, the careers of a growing number of masters followed a pattern different from that which had prevailed under the guild system.)

A migration of artists and works of art, never experienced before, began with the encouragement and financial support of the extraordinarily cosmopolitan aristocracy, which practically constituted a vast family with branches all over Europe. Vying with one another, lords would send illustrated manuscripts, tapestries or smaller easel paintings to their adherents and opponents. They would often take their painters or sculptors with them on their journeys or send them with their recommendations from one distant court to another in order that the artists should benefit from the exchange of ideas and experiences. All this travel gave artists the opportunity to establish contact with one another, which inevitably led to artistic practices which explored their own rules and developed independent answers.

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