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Catholic Religious Art



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    At the early beginning of the 16th century, which is the époque of High Renaissance, was painted Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin by Raphael, and regardless of brilliance of the outstanding artist, still we can read a distinctive manner of the period in this masterpiece. Another composition is analogous painting of famous Rubens, who represents the Baroque outlook. Because of the similar religious motive chosen by these two artists, it is exceptionally convenient to see the transformations in the art form.

    Catholic religious art had been developing from the strict dogmatic iconography, influenced by Byzantine samples, through the illustrative schemes of Medieval art (contrary to Byzantine, it had no theological canon, but preserved the main patterns of representation), and historically to more independent and liberated artistic expression. Hence, Raphael, in his representation of Assumption, follows the figurative patterns of iconography, especially in compositional structure, color, and gestures, nonetheless, appeals to a classical (Antique) model of representing a human body; thus his interpretation is more free in respect to religious canon. A hundred years passes, and Peter Paul Rubens, still working within scriptural motives, represents Assumption in more unrestricted manner, so we can even hardly define the religious episode, painted by the artist: who is that woman in a white dress? – she is so unlike the Virgin from the Raphael’s painting, that we may doubt if she is Mariah.

    First, we can notice how the composition had changed. The work of Renaissance artist is clearly organized, according to the Medieval idea of reading a world as a book. By a thin horizontal line of clouds Raphael divides the space of his painting into two parts: upper and lower. Thus, we can easily read the division between Earth and Heaven. The composition of Renaissance Assumption traces to the principles of iconography, therefore our perception should be closer to reading, than to seeing: the gestures, the postures, the identification of personages, and finally, the recognition of the whole episode must be “readable”. Consequently, the arrangement of figures, as the entire structure of the masterpiece, is straight, regular, composed, and clear. In addition, as the space of work is crowned with the semicircle, we can notify that Raphael’s Assumption was made specially for a chapel. It means that the work of Raphael was strongly attached to church tradition. In comparison, the Assumption by Rubens makes an impression of quite secular art. It refers to religion only due to the choice of the subject, but certainly it was intended for adornment of apartments and esthetic delight. The strictness and straightness of the composition breaks, and although the common structure retains, there is no more clear division between upper and lower, as everything seems to be in a movement and development. The composition of Rubens’ work could be described as a spiral whirl, and so the Assumption of the Virgin looks like a kind of a mystical trick: a divine whirlwind takes her out of her tomb and coiling around elevates to Heaven. Disposition is not regular any more, though impetuous and stormy.

    Raphael and Rubens represent different approach to the color. Raphael is guided by a symbolic meaning of the color and preserves the iconographic order of color combination. Here we can easily recognize Jesus, as he is dressed in blue and purple, and his mother – her closing is of the same colors. The mastery of Raphael lies in the selection of refined tints: for example, the artist uses not a plain blue, but injects a delicate gray shades. As for Rubens, he does not pay much attention to the religious canon. He follows his own sense of color, according to his esthetic preferences, and we must admit, he appears in this work as an exceptional colorist. The Virgin in Rubens’ Assumption has lost her canonic dressing, she is clothed in the pale garments. The main law of Rubens’ using of color is a general harmony of a picture, and nothing should be marked out with any dissonance. Therefore, even the central figure of the composition – the Virgin – subordinates with the color of the whole picture. The key paints, used by Rubens in this work, are: ochre, dark brown mars, red, and pearly white. The artist allocates these paints in accordance with harmony of the whole composition, not relating to the roles of personages.

    Light and shadow in Raphael’s Assumption point to the Renaissance clarity and simplicity. There we can observe an even distribution of light and lucid atmosphere. The contrast between light and dark is rather high, in order to emphasize a regularity of a Renaissance perspective and highlight the objects. Rubens’ use of light and shadow in his Assumption is highly sensitive, more subtle, and not so plane as in Renaissance art. The general impression of a painting is rather gloomy, uneasy, and unstable, in contrast to Renaissance rational clarity. It reflects troubled, even depressing, condition of Baroque spirit.

    By an example of the given two paintings we can view the movement of the art form from the conventional and idealized representation to the mimetic reflection of reality. Assumption painted by Rubens looks more naturalistic comparing to the one of Raphael. Nonetheless, none of two Assumptions are nature-like, the postures and gestures of the figures look overestimated and forced. Whereas in the Raphael’s painting clothes seem to be too idealized and tranquil, as if it is an idea of clothes, not a real one, – Rubens’ representation of clothes is, so to say, over-affected, it is flying and whirling in some kind of ecstasy.

    The question of idealism and naturalism in art representation is closely related to the distinction between the époques, the difference between Renaissance and Baroque outlook. This we can trace by such details in the works of art as gestures, postures, and elements of setting. As we may see, Raphael operates mostly with signs and symbols. Better to say, he even represents the composition as a page in a book, where the elements of this composition appear as letters. The postures and faces of the Apostles signify a restrained astonishment and respect, they either keep the hand at heart, or point to the event. The hands of Mariah are laid together in a gesture of a humiliation, her head is bended to her divine Son. Jesus is represented in such a way, that we can clearly see what he is doing: crowning the Mother. Angels raise their hands and play musical instruments to praise the Virgin. Eight seraphims above, arranged in a strict order of symmetry, make an impression of some schema, the symbolization of the Heaven forces. As for the ground, where the Apostles stand, it is surprisingly flat, with no traces of stones or grass – as the surface is not a ground, but only symbolizes the ground. As well, the scenery on the rear rather symbolizes the Earth, contrary to Heaven, than literally represents any real landscape: the same we can tell about the decorative clouds. The gestures and postures in Assumption by Rubens do not deal much with such kind of symbolization. The Baroque work of art is a space of emotional expression, where some symbols are scattered around, but not the total structure is symbolic and book-like. Thus, raised hands of Apostles do not signify, but express the astonishment. And so, the body of the Virgin reflects dramatic changes happening to her. The gestures of angels, who crown Mariah, are not readable as signs, these chubby bodies are just caught into a whirl. As Rubens separates his masterpiece from the Christian symbolism, the tomb appears not as an element of the religious story, but as a dark symbol of death, common for the macabre Baroque culture.

    In general outline, we can point out the contrast between the exceptionally dramatic representation of Assumption by Rubens and regular and composed work of Raphael. This effect is reached by a number of means, such as use of light and shadow, composition, gestures, and also the images of human bodies: classically calm (which appeals to the antique tradition) in Raphael’s work and rough, plump in Rubens’ masterpiece.

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