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					                               Botticelli’s Two Paintings of Saint Augustine

       Among the most famous and influential painters of the Renaissance was Sandro

Botticelli. He was born in 1445 and would become celebrated for his technique and magnificent

use of color. Among his most famous works were the mythological paintings of Venus in the

Primavera, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Birth of Venus. Subsequent to his mythical works,

Botticelli’s style moved toward a more traditional religious taste. His earliest surviving fresco is

that of Saint Augustine in His Study located in the Ognissanti Church in Florence. This fresco,

compared with a later painting on panel of Saint Augustine, shows Augustine in a dramatic,

colorful, animated pose surrounded by scholarly objects. The later painting depicts Augustine in a

dark cell working relentlessly on one of his many sacred texts. The reason for the difference in the

style in which Saint Augustine is portrayed is a topic that deserves investigation. There were

several reasons, which caused the paintings to differ so vastly. There are three prominent reasons

for Botticelli’s dissimilar portrayal of Saint Augustine. Botticelli chose to depict Augustine in two

very dissimilar ways due to the influence of the patrons of the paintings, the location of the

paintings, and the social environment of the late 15th century.

       Botticelli was certainly competitive in nature as shown by his earlier painting of Fortitude,

one of the seven virtues, above the bench of the Sei della Mercanzia, a committee of six

judges. Lightbown states that the painting was originally commissioned to Piero del Pollaiuolo,

who also painted the other six virtues above the bench, but fell behind schedule and did not

complete Fortitude (Lightbown, 44). Botticelli was hired to finish the final virtue and his

competitive attitude drove him to outdo his fellow artist’s work. Botticelli’s competitive nature

was again stirred in the creation of his fresco of Saint Augustine. It is quite evident that Botticelli

felt pressure to show his ability to create magnificent work, which would show his superiority as

an artist. Botticelli’s fresco of Saint Augustine was completed in 1480 on one side of a doorway



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                               Botticelli’s Two Paintings of Saint Augustine

on the front enclosure wall in the Ognissanti church in Florence. The space on the other side of the

doorway was filled by a similar fresco of Saint Jerome created by Domenico Ghirlandaio

(Lightbown, 74). The location of the fresco of Saint Augustine across from Ghirlandaio’s work in

the Ognissanti church excited Botticelli’s competitive nature. The fresco of Augustine, compared

to that of Saint Jerome, is rich in color and explodes with realism. The Jewel and Pearl

embroidered miter along with the illusion of the open drawer show Botticelli’s skill as a painter.

His genius is illustrated by the clever inclusion of the Roman clock in the upper corner of the

cell. The hands of the clock point down, which, on the 24-hour Roman clock, indicate

midnight. This helps to convey the meaning of the painting, Saint Augustine’s vision of Saint

Jerome, since midnight was the time of Saint Augustine’s vision. Also indicative of Botticelli’s

skill as a painter is the way in which Saint Augustine’s bodily features clearly indicate his state of

mind. Lightbown indicates that Botticelli is thought to have studied the work of another

Renaissance artist, Alberti, who concentrated on showing the mindset of the figures he painted

through the physicality of the body (Lightbown, 79). For example, in the fresco Saint Augustine’s

hand is placed across his chest to show his surprise while the wrinkling of his brow shows him

deep in thought. Also Saint Augustine’s mouth is slightly opened to portray a sense of surprise or

revelation. In this early Botticellian fresco, Botticelli clearly demonstrates his skill and superiority

as a Renaissance painter.

       Botticelli’s fresco of Saint Augustine is deeply impacted by the environment in which it

was created. In 1480, the Catholic Church had become acceptant to humanism. Both Saint

Augustine and Saint Jerome were considered important scholars and philosophers to the

humanists. Saint Augustine was considered important to them, owing to the fact that he coupled

together ancient Platonic texts and Christianity. Botticelli clearly uses the fresco of Saint



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                               Botticelli’s Two Paintings of Saint Augustine

Augustine to portray a motivated thinker concerned with the connections between ancient and

modern texts by showing him surrounded by texts and scientific devices both of ancient and

modern times. For example, on the stone beam above Augustine is a book that clearly shows the

work of Pythagoras, an ancient Greek mathematician. This helps the painting convey Augustine’s

work as a geometer. Also on the stone beam above Saint Augustine is an astrolabe, a device the

ancients used to observe the celestial bodies. These objects represent two major topics of study for

the ancient Greeks. In addition to the objects characteristic to ancient studies, a Miter, or

headdress worn by bishops and abbots, is also shown in the cell with Saint Augustine. The Miter

clearly indicates Saint Augustine’s position as a bishop. The simultaneous existence of these

objects shows the revival and increasing importance of ancient thought, an idea that was played all

throughout the Renaissance by humanists.

       Stylistically, Botticelli’s second painting of Saint Augustine is drastically different from

the first. First and foremost, this painting was done on panel rather than on a wall. In this painting,

Saint Augustine is shown residing in a traditional monk’s cell. The cell is created from dark stone

and has a barrel vaulted ceiling. In contrast to the multiple books and scientific instruments in the

Ognissanti fresco, this painting contains only two small books on a small stone ledge on the left

side of the cell. Rather than being shown in a manner expressive of his thought, Augustine is now

shown sitting behind a wooden desk on a simple wooden bench. Torn papers are strewn about the

floor of the cell to show the intense effort of Saint Augustine creating one of his sacred writings,

while the expression on his face conveys his sense of being content. Saint Augustine’s solitude is

accentuated due to the fact that the painting is done in a single point perspective originating from

the bottom center of the cell. This lowered perspective creates the effect of strongly separating

Augustine from the viewer. Also, Augustine’s physical shape is blended with his cell by the



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                               Botticelli’s Two Paintings of Saint Augustine

similar shapes of his halo and of the barrel vaulted ceiling. This again tends to create a more

simplistic environment. Another interesting inclusion is the curtain draped along the left wall of

the cell. The curtain helps to create the effect of peaking into a box with an open face, which again

helps to depict Augustine as a solitary individual.

        Botticelli clearly must have had good reason for the drastic differences between the two

paintings of Saint Augustine. There are three prominent reasons for the stylistic change in

Botticelli’s painting. The first and most consequential was that the patron of the latter painting

was an Augustinian Hermit. Lightbown tells that prior to the paintings of Saint Augustine,

Botticelli had created the Bardi altarpiece for the Santo Spirito, a monastery of Augustinian monks

or canons. Also, Botticelli constructed the Convertite altarpiece for a convent of nuns whose

director was the prior of Santo Spirito (Lightbown, 224). The previous works by Botticelli helped

to introduce his artistic skills to the monks of the Santo Spirito, who had again contracted him to

paint a panel of Saint Augustine. The monks of the Santo Spirito undoubtedly chose to have

Botticelli depict Saint Augustine in a manner reflective of their own lifestyles and beliefs. Since

the monastic reformation of St. Benedict, monks had lived a life based on self-discipline, solitude,

prayer, and study. All of these characteristic monastic traits are shown in the painting of St.

Augustine. He is shown alone in a simple, stone cell working feverishly on sacred texts, yet the

expression of his face illustrates his ability to control his emotion. Also, in the painting, Augustine

is shown in the manner traditionally thought of by the Augustinian monks of the Santo Spirito. He

is wearing a red cope, which denotes his position as a bishop as well as the robe and cowel worn by

the monks themselves. This shows the hermits’ belief in Augustine as both a founder of their order

and as a Christian bishop. Clearly the life of an Augustinian hermit influenced Botticelli’s work.

       The second most noteworthy reason for the stylistic change in Botticelli’s work was the



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                                  Botticelli’s Two Paintings of Saint Augustine

political and social problems of the time. Adams states that the second painting of Saint Augustine

was finished sometime between the time of 1490 and 1494. This time corresponds to a chaotic

time in the history of Florence. Not only was there a political revolt but the leader of Florence,

Lorenzo the Magnificent, died. The next ruler was chosen to be Lorenzo’s son, Piero Medici, who

was a poor government official and lost the Medici rule when King Charles VIII of France invaded

Italy (Adams, 236). Botticelli was surely influenced as an artist by the events that unfolded around

him. The second painting of Saint Augustine lacks the outstanding color and appearance of his

original painting, which could be indicative of Botticelli‘s sense of hopelessness during this

time. As with any of the liberal arts, the mind plays the most important role in creation. It is quite

evident that Botticelli’s state of mind was affected by the death and turmoil that took place around

him. When comparing the two paintings of Saint Augustine, one can clearly sense the differing

emotional states of the artist.

       The final reason for Botticelli’s differing depictions of Saint Augustine was the sermons of

a very famous Christian reformer, Girolamo Savonarola. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes

Savonarola as a Dominican reformer who devoted his life to prayer and ascetic practices. In the

early1490's, Savonarola began preaching to the city of Florence. Savonarola was displeased with

the extravagant and luxurious lives his fellow Christians had become accustomed to in

Renaissance Florence. Savonarola immediately began reforming the monastic life such that the

monks would again observe the original rules of monasticism. Savonarola’s influence went much

further than the monestary. His teachings also impacted the lives of everyday Christians. In order

to achieve his reformation, he set an example of a simple strict life of

self-mortification. Savonarola's cell was simple while his clothes were torn and tattered. His

sermons were very moving and he was even able to convince many of his followers to bring fancy



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                              Botticelli’s Two Paintings of Saint Augustine

articles of clothing, luxury items, and ornaments to the monastery of San Marco where they were

publicly burned. Savonarola's influence eventually became so strong that brothers of the San

Marco monastery even went door to door on Sunday's collecting sumptuous articles from the

common people (The Catholic Encyclopedia). It has long been known that Botticelli was deeply

influenced by Savonarola in the late 15th century. Lost in the political conflicts of the time,

Botticelli found his peace through the sermons of Savonarola. His work underwent a noticeable

change in subject and style. The second painting of Saint Augustine is a wonderful example of a

painting that conveys this change. The views and sermons of Savonarola are equivalent to the

latter depiction of Saint Augustine. The cell surrounding Augustine is void of all objects of luxury,

compared to the fresco of Saint Augustine that was littered with objects of opulent value.

       As with any Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli’s work was influenced in a variety of

ways. The patrons that hired Botticelli to paint for them clearly had the most influence over the

style in which the painting was to be produced. . Also influential to Botticelli’s work was his

competitive nature. Though Botticelli’s portrayal of Saint Augustine varies, his work, as an artist

is vastly important in the history of the Renaissance.




                                    Works Cited
Adams, L.S. Italian Renaissance Art. Boulder: Westview Press, 2001.

Lightbown, Ronald. Sandro Botticelli. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.

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                             Botticelli’s Two Paintings of Saint Augustine



Skira Albert, Sandro Botticelli. Switzerland, 1957.

Steinmann, Ernst. Botticelli. New York: Lemcke and Buechner, 1901.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (Volume XIII). Online Edition: Kevin Knight, 1999.




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