Early Renaissance

There’s something magical about getting a glimpse of someone famous in their youth.  Seeing a great leader or film-star as a child, we recognize some of the qualities that will emerge, even as we see a version of that person before they matured.   It may be the clearest look we ever get at their genuine essence.

I feel a little overwhelmed with what I’ve seen.

I have just been to the Art Gallery of Ontario to see the preview of their new show Revealing the Early Renaissance: Stories and Secrets in Florentine Art, that opens this Saturday March 16th, a show created in collaboration with the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.  I’d already been thinking a great deal about the state of the Christian Church:

  • because of the ongoing controversies underlying the drama of the papal conclave
  • because of the thoughts raised by François Girard’s production of Parsifal at the Metropolitan Opera, that seemed to make Wagner’s merging of the grail legend & Christianity into a very contemporary myth (my review suggested that Wagner’s opera seems timely in its depiction of a church in crisis, and in need of redemption).
  • and because I continue to attend church both as a musician and one who has not given up hope (it helps that I go to an exceptional church: but that’s another story)

What must it have been like in a simpler era, when belief was the norm, when no one doubted the church…?  One can ask.  Or one can seek a direct experience of such a culture.

Imagine my experience, then, today at the AGO.  I feel as though I stepped into a time machine, going back to a time before Jesus became the cliché in so many Biblical epics, before anything religious was circumscribed by Dürer or Rubens or Michaelangelo.  Conventions don’t spring out of nowhere, but require generations of articulation and refinement.

At the beginning of the Renaissance?  Artists of any century take their inheritance –perhaps the images & stories they see around them in stained glass, illuminated in books, and in the paintings they had seen—and then seek to elaborate upon that tradition.  I don’t pretend to understand how this works, only that before things become too coded, there must be freedom, which includes the possibility to make “mistakes”.   In the 1300s, before conventions had hardened into the painterly equivalent of dogma, artists had a great deal of freedom.  The Jesus painted by The Master of the Codex of St George, staring dramatically at Mary Magdelene beside a yawning tomb, is expressive in ways we don’t see in later centuries.  The angels surrounding God the Father in Giotto’s Apparition of God the Father are the most human angels I’ve ever seen, bemused, awestruck, and yes, very vulnerable.  Similarly, in Giotto’s Peruzzi Altarpiece we see simply human individuality.

Giotto: the Peruzzi Altarpiece (click to go to the AGO website for more information & images)

It’s as though we’ve had the good fortune to meet Jesus & his angels before they became famous, back when they were still people with human expressions & emotions.

It’s really something one needs to see to grasp.  I am grateful for the explanations & background from the AGO programmers, creating a multi-disciplinary show.  We’re not just seeing art but the background & the reasons why the art was created. They explained to us that the powers-that-be in Florence had the wisdom to create a standard currency, something called the “florin”, in 1252 AD. This paved the way for great prosperity, as trade boomed, the people going to church began to reflect, considering what they might do with their wealth.  Art was a way to possibly gain intercession.  And so, with prosperity came art.

Among the many things you can see, make sure you see the short documentary film that shows something of the process of making a canvas, paint and its gilding.  I never realized before that the gold-leaf (usually in the background) needs to be done first, and that the figure in the foreground is actually a kind of after-thought in some respects, considering how difficult it is to make a proper halo surrounding the head of the saint or angel being depicted.  If you can manage it, see this first, and only then wander through the exhibit, because you’ll have valuable insight into the processes.

The collection assembled for Revealing the Early Renaissance is remarkable, mostly consisting of rare pieces that are not usually allowed to venture outside of Italy.  In his welcome message, Matthew Teitelbaum told us that the show is “the greatest exhibit of italian art to come to Canada.”

This show is paintings and sculpture and stained glass.  And it includes the Laudario of Sant’Agnese which is something like an illuminated hymnal, although to call it that doesn’t do it justice.  The exhibit not only allows us to see the pages, but we hear the music sung as well.  But our relationship with books has become so Spartan, so focused only on the transmission of content that we have perhaps forgotten what books and indeed what art can be.

For example I took this picture to attempt to capture the view of a Messale (an illuminated book of the mass) as if I were looking out at a congregation.  I remember how children’s books always had to have pictures.  As I grew, that became the exception rather than the norm, although –thankfully—art books are a wonderful exception to that dismal rule.

Imagine that you are a priest, celebrating Mass, and now, instead of simply looking at one of our modern books containing only words, imagine instead that you look upon an illuminated volume like this one.

Illuminated Messale (photo: Leslie Barcza)

Illuminated Messale (photo: Leslie Barcza)

As you look out from your pulpit upon a church of faithful, the pictures seem to peer out of the book, as though the book itself were alive, seeking to inform what you sing or say to the congregation.

In the week following the high-profile opening of Patti Smith’s show that drew worldwide attention, it’s a great pleasure to see the AGO crowded today for the preview of this exhibit.  And no wonder.

Don’t miss it.


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