This article is based on an excerpt from my book How the West Was Lost. I remembered it, having recently seen a few exhibitions (invariably interesting) and read the reviews of them (not so).
The Renaissance is widely believed to be the birth of modern art. But there’s death inherent in birth, and the Renaissance proves this. For it partly reflected and partly set in train a fatal shift from God to man as the centre of the universe, thereby placing a delayed-action bomb under the foundations of our culture.
Now that the bomb has gone off, we could do worse than ponder the Renaissance from that perspective – and I use this word advisedly, both in its general and specifically artistic meaning. For during the Renaissance perspective became a painter’s tool of the trade.
Perspective placed the artist at the vantage point of individual vision and created an illusion of endlessness. Yet perspective isn’t reality but make-believe. It’s not so much the ultimate, scientific arrangement of space as a statement of belief in the exclusive truth of a scientific arrangement. In other words, perspective fakes reality to make it agree with a set of scientific principles that were taking on an ever-greater importance.
Extended use of perspective reflected an increasing shift from theocentrism to anthropocentrism. At some point man began to overstep the line beyond which lay the solipsistic belief that he himself was at the centre of the visual – and therefore philosophical – universe.
Believing that the ‘invention’ of perspective represented progress as compared to mediaeval art is naïve. More accurate would be an understanding that acceptance of perspective reflected man’s growing anthropocentric arrogance.
For, by the time the Renaissance arrived, perspective was old hat. Dürer acknowledged as much by stating in the introduction to his book that a reader familiar with Euclidean geometry needed to read no further.
Quite apart from Euclid, we mustn’t think that Hellenic and mediaeval artists could have failed to notice that lines of vision converged as they travelled away from the eye. They were perfectly aware of this, and acted on that knowledge extensively – but not in high art.
Perspective was known in ancient Greece, but there it was used in applied arts only. For example, the stage sets for Aeschylus’s plays in the fifth century B.C. were executed in perspective. The Greeks accepted this: theatre to them was frivolous. The truth lay elsewhere, so why not use the self-evident falsehood of perspective in the backdrop?
Mediaeval painters also knew perspective, and yet chose not to use it. They saw perspective as a fake that was unworthy of their higher purpose. Instead, mediaeval, particularly Byzantine, paintings relied extensively on reverse perspective, with parallel lines drifting further apart as they moved away – or else converging as they moved towards the artist.
Thus, the further from the artist’s eye a figure was, the larger it got, especially if it was a divine personage. This corresponded to the perception of the figure of God as the most remote and yet by far the largest of all – large beyond any human understanding.
Mediaeval artists didn’t regard themselves as God-surrogates. Their paintings were an exercise in prostrate humility, not arrogant self-assertion. When that began to change, the use of perspective grew.
Characteristically, it was mostly mediocre painters who were the first to rely on perspective dogmatically. The great ones, while acknowledging the existence of perspective, often complemented this plane of vision with others, where the rules of conventional single-point perspective no longer applied.
Even if we look at the evolution of just one artist, some interesting observations can be made. For example, Giotto, widely seen as the first ‘modern’ painter, started life as an agnostic wag, a Whistler of the late Middle Age.
During that period, Giotto used perspective extensively, though not with the same unswerving devotion that characterised most Renaissance painters. As he grew older, however, Giotto became a deeper, more spiritual man. Amusing his friend Dante by bawdy epigrams was no longer enough; more and more he searched for the meaning of life.
In the process, Giotto’s use of perspective began to decline; his vision was no longer that of a self-satisfied man. He was now attempting to understand how God might view man, rather than the other way around.
The Renaissance, and the period immediately after it, was the swan song of painting, and it was so because of the growing secularisation of art – hinted at by the universal use of perspective. As often happens with swan songs, the sound was so much more beautiful for being a dirge.
However, the greatest artists of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance periods, such as Leonardo and Rembrandt, continued to defy the soulless, scientific constraints of perspective. Their vision would not be squeezed into a proto-modern straightjacket.
Perhaps as a reaction to the Renaissance, the Spanish masters, particularly El Greco and Zurbaran, treated the device of perspective as they treated a colour in their palettes: one of many.
Walking through the Prado, one is transfixed by a Zurbaran painting depicting the artist himself as a minor saint struck by a vision of St Peter nailed to the cross upside down. In spite of being in the background, Peter is noticeably larger than the saint in the foreground.
To emphasise the hagiographic pecking order, the artist shows the minor saint in three-quarters from the back. And yet both his praying figure and the barely shown face convey the impression of passionate spirituality. At the same time, the crucified St Peter dominates the canvas not just by being its centrepiece but also by ‘violating’ every known law of perspective.
Rational arguments in favour of the scientific and therefore more ‘realistic’ nature of perspective as compared to the vision of the mediaeval masters are as misplaced as arguments in favour of atheism.
“Obviously,” sneers a modern chap convinced of his scientific rectitude, “when, say, Duccio, shows three walls of a palace at the same time, he demonstrates his ignorance of the laws of perspective. It’s impossible to see three walls at once.”
The answer may be that yes, it’s impossible. But likewise it’s impossible to see two walls at once, or even one. What’s possible to see at once is a tiny fragment of one facet, and arguably even that fragment is not seen ‘at once’.
What Duccio is thus showing isn’t a naturalistic depiction of a building, but the image of it that the artist sees in his mind’s eye. The painter seems to say that God would see the building this way, and it would be blasphemous for a mere mortal to argue.
Since Duccio is a greater artist than, say, Canaletto, his vision of a Siennese palazzo presenting three facets at once is ultimately more real than Canaletto’s picture-book depictions of Venetian palaces. Traditional Western vision was spiritual, not just optic.
Verticality in music is a rough parallel of perspective in painting. One dominant voice, presumably the composer’s, relegating all others into the background again may be a misrepresentation of the workings of the higher inner voice. The assumption is that, just as it’s self-evidently impossible for the human eye to see both covers of a closed book at the same time, so it’s impossible for the human ear to hear several voices at once.
The counter-argument could run along the same lines as above: of course it’s impossible. What is possible, however, is for an artist to weave multiple voices into the fabric of a seemingly horizontal aural canvas of spiritual infinity.
And as with painting, one can learn a lot by contemplating great artists who find themselves at the watershed of two different visions of the world, one inspired by faith from the start, the other initially driven by humanism.
What Giotto was in painting, Bach was in music. But although both were straddling the line of demarcation between the old and the new, Giotto looked mostly ahead, while Bach looked mostly backwards.
At the beginning of his career, Giotto was thus the first modern, which is to say humanist, artist. On the other hand, Bach was the last of the great composers who subjugated their personality to God’s and their art to God’s glory.
Giotto was the beginning; Bach, the end. And just as a tree bears fruit after its seasonal peak, so did our culture deliver ultimate greatness towards the end of its life.
Painting reached its peak in the seventeenth century, when the art of Spanish, Flemish and Dutch Baroque had taken over from the Italian Renaissance, having first learned from it. The painting of that period was largely a response to the pseudo-religiosity of the Renaissance.
For most of the Renaissance painters, religious subjects were merely an excuse to paint bodies, faces or landscapes. However, not any young woman breast-feeding a baby is the Virgin, and not any three men or two men and a bird are the Trinity.
The more human did divine figures appear to be, the nearer was God moving to man. Towards the end of the Renaissance, the distance had got so short as to be imperceptible, a relationship familiar to students of Hellenic antiquity but abhorrent to men of faith who were still not extinct.