Art History Refresher #1: On the lack of realism in Renaissance art

So, as promised, here are some highlights from the National Gallery in London. The National Gallery offers great free guided tours three times a day, which I have occasionally joined and which have taught me much about the art collection. The guides often don’t just show you the famous works in the museum, but rather some lesser known paintings. This is really nice because you learn more about the art and each tour is different. I’d like to share some of this with you occasionally. For now, I’ll discuss two paintings from the National Gallery: ‘Apollo and Daphne’ by Antonio del Pollaiuolo and ‘Christ taking Leave of his Mother’ by Albrecht Altdorfer.

Firstly, I want to discuss this 15th century oil-on-wood work by Italian painter Antonio del Pollaiuolo. This painting depicts the story of Apollo and Daphne from Roman poet Ovid‘s ‘Metamorphoses‘. The story goes as follows: Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, mocked Eros, the god of love, for wielding a bow and arrow while just being a small child. Eros wasn’t too pleased with this, of course, and plotted a plan for revenge. Now it’s important to note that the god of love had two types of arrows, of gold and of lead. When shot with an arrow of gold, it caused the victim to fall madly in love with the first person he encountered. When shot with an arrow of lead, however, it would cause him to intensely hate the next person he met. While Apollo was dwelling in the vicinity of the nymph Daphne, daughter of the river god Peneus, Eros shot Apollo with a golden arrow, but Daphne with a leaden one. Thus, as soon as Apollo saw Daphne, he fell in love with her, while Daphne was repulsed by him. Apollo began chasing Daphne like a madman across the woodlands Now, I must explain that Daphne had before begged of her father Peneus to be allowed to remain unmarried and chaste and he had promised to ensure that . So when Daphne called upon her father for help to get rid of Apollo, he changed her into a laurel tree. In this painting, you see the moment Daphne starts changing into a tree, while Apollo has just caught up with her.

In the late 15th century, when this painting was made, such depictions of classical mythology where very popular as decoration in Florence. Quite typical from those times, is the fact that such myths were depicted as thought they happened in the present time. In this case, this can be seen from the robes worn by Apollo and Daphne, which are definitely not typical ancient Greek clothing but instead what Italians might have worn during the Renaissance. Also, the scenery in the background looks quite Italian. These aspects made the story more accessible and relatable to people viewing the painting at the time.

I’ve always been very interested in Greek mythology, and I think this little picture (it is actually really small!) gives a pretty funny, somewhat absurd interpretation of the Apollo & Daphne story. (go here for an interesting article on the comedy in this picture) A more famous depiction of this story is Bernini‘s sculpture which can be found in the Galleria Borghese in Rome (see above; note: haven’t actually been there yet 😉 ). As you can see, this depiction is a lot more dramatic and provocative. After all, this sculpture was made about 150 years after the painting. At the time the painting was made, the fact that Daphne’s leg is showing through her dress was already thought of as very provocative.

Moving on, next is a 16th century painting by Bavarian painter Albrecht Altdorfer. This painting is called ‘Christ taking Leave of his Mother’ and depicts the moment where Jesus and his disciples travel to Jerusalem where Jesus will die. The lady in blue in the middle, who has fainted, is Mary, Jesus’s mother. Fun fact: all five women depicted in this picture are called Mary: Mary Cleophas, Mary Salome, Mary Jacobi and Mary Magdalene (that must have been confusing).

I know the picture above is small, but you might have noticed the bunch of tiny tiny people hunched up in the lower right corner of this picture. These were most likely the (rich) commissioners of this picture. In this era, it was very common for painters to paint the commissioners of a picture into the painting. This was a way for rich families to show off their piety, but also to ensure that priests would pray for them when seeing the picture – religious works such as these would normally hang in churches.

The main priority in this painting was clearly to capture the emotion of this moment, not to depict it realistically. Anatomically, the bodies aren’t quite proportional (the size of the Virgin Mary’s feet!! :o). Also, from the glimpse at the intense sky through the arch it looks like a volcano just erupted or something. This might be an omen for Jesus’s death to come. Albrecht Altdorfer was actually mostly known as an excellent landscape painter. He was of the Danube School, a group of painters from the Danube region who painted expressive landscapes. This can also be seen here, from the intense sky, and the lavish flora in the background. More evidence for the lack of realism here is the fact that the landscape doesn’t look like the Middle East at all. I mean, I don’t think you’d find many fir trees there, as can be seen in the picture. Also notice the mountains in the background, they kinda look like the Alps! 😛

Well, I hope this has been educational! I’m planning to give some in-depth info on paintings I like more frequently. Let me know what you think!

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