Limited Freedom


Caravaggio, Christ at the Column (The Flagellation of Christ), c. 1607

by Marcia B. Hall

I have always been fascinated by the paradox of limited freedom, both in life and in art. Architects and designers, unlike painters in the modern world, are constrained by the requirements of the commission. I. M. Pei’s superb East Wing of the National Gallery of Art had to be shaped to the awkward triangular plot adjacent to the original building. Pei used the restriction of the site to inspire the design for his building, where he replaced the customary rectangle with the triangle. What he produced is a visually exciting and dynamic space, a worthy shell for displaying the National Gallery’s collection of modern sculpture and painting.

Painters of sacred images in the Renaissance were similarly constrained, by the requirements of their patrons, by tradition, and by the requirements of the Church. The patron wanted an innovative work of art that would enhance his social standing and his image in the community at the same time that it would gain salvational credit for his family and himself. If the commission was for a work that would adorn an altar in a church, it had to serve the devotion of the faithful who would worship before it. The imagery had to be recognizable then; it could not be fanciful. If the Renaissance artist departed too far from the prototypical image, passed down through the ages and in medieval times often believed to have been based upon a portrait likeness of the saint, he did so at the risk of sacrificing recognizability. If the worshipers were going to address their prayers to the saints in the image they had to be able to identify them and identify with them. Artists today have no such common ground on which to communicate with their viewers.

Difference engine: East Building of the National Gallery of Art, 2019 (CC)

When I teach the Renaissance to today’s art students, the first lesson—and sometimes the hardest for them to grasp—is that the unbounded freedom in which they operate simply didn’t apply then, and yet these artists, Fra Angelico, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Michelangelo, produced the masterpieces we so admire. The question I asked myself, which underlies this book, is: How was it possible for these artists not merely to transcend the limitations placed upon them, but to translate those limitations into the stuff of creative masterpieces?

In this book I brought together two longstanding interests, each the subject of an earlier book. I had begun my career studying painters of the Counter-Reformation in what had originally been my dissertation (Renovation and Counter-Reformation, Oxford, 1979). I then turned to painters’ use of their materials (Color and Meaning, Cambridge, 1992), where I examined the technique of Renaissance painters to understand how they manipulated it for expression. Delving into their use of color, which was then still a neglected subject, was an archetypal lesson in the “paradox of limited freedom.” With hardly more than a dozen pigments, used unmixed in the early days of the Renaissance, such an artist as Fra Angelico produced his glowing altarpieces. (Duccio used nine pigments for his enormous double-faced Maestà in Siena.)

When I began thinking about this book I was struck by the coincidence and the ironic conflict of two events of 1563. On the one hand, Duke Cosimo de’Medici in Florence agreed to sponsor the first academy of artists, L’Accademia del Disegno, an undertaking that was noted outside Florence and quickly broadcast. A few months later major artists in Venice including Titian, Tintoretto, and Palladio were applying to the academy for membership. Symbolically the academy represented the arrival of the artists at a status equal to that of the poets, a status they had been struggling to attain since Alberti in the early fifteenth century, and vigorously promoted by such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci and ‘Il divino’, Michelangelo. On the other hand, late in the same year, the decrees of the Council of Trent were approved. They contained directives for artists enjoining them to be mindful of the devotional function of sacred images and warning them that if any image in a church was judged inappropriate the bishop would order it revised or removed. The ecclesiastical authorities, after centuries of laissez-faire, were announcing the intention of policing the production of the artists. Thus in the Accademia freedom was being granted and, from Trent, it was being constrained. How, I asked myself, in this conflicted situation, was it possible for some of the greatest masters of all time: Titian, Tintoretto, Barocci, El Greco, and Caravaggio to produce pictures that brilliantly fulfilled the restrictive requirements of the Council of Trent and at the same time broke new artistic ground? The answer for me lay in the revolution they enacted in their use of materials and techniques.

Fra Angelico, The Last Judgment, c.1425

In the 1980s the medieval scholar Hans Belting had pointed out to us Renaissance art historians what should have been obvious but wasn’t, that the concept of a sacred image as a work of art was something new in the Renaissance. I found that I needed to go back to the beginnings of the Renaissance to study how the artists had managed the tension that resulted from the requirements of the Church and the requirements of art. They had not always negotiated it to everyone’s satisfaction. The patron would in many instances have encouraged his painter to push the envelope, to create something new and attention-getting. The Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola, in the midst of the cultural explosion of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s Florence, sounded a discordant note that nevertheless resonated with a substantial proportion of the populace and anticipated the concerns of the Council of Trent when he criticized the worldliness and ostentation of contemporary church decoration. The accusation of abuse of images that was leveled at the Church, first by the Catholic Erasmus and then with increasing stridency by Protestants, had to be answered from within the Church hierarchy. One German Catholic defender of images, Hieronymus Emser, complained that beautiful images drew attention away from the saints they represented to the work of art. He suggested, presumably with tongue in cheek: “It would be much better, if we followed the example of our forefathers and kept really bad images in the churches, in this manner much money would be saved and God and the beloved saints would be more honoured, than with these new ‘tarts’, which we now have before our eyes” [quoted Sacred Image, p. 21].

The Church came to recognize that in sacred images sensuality, a byproduct of the artists’ new skills in verisimilitude, could distract the worshiper from devotion. So what was the proper role of sensory stimulation in devotion? In the middle of the sixteenth century painters like Parmigianino were making images of the Madonna in fashionable coiffure and semi-transparent drapery that could be said to emphasize her humanity, but could also be found sexually alluring. Luther, who had entertained banning all sacred images as Calvin and Zwingli would do, determined instead to allow images that instructed the worshiper in doctrine. These altarpieces set before the viewer veristic and unglamorized actors and scrupulously avoided appealing to the senses through the means of art.

When the Tridentine assembly drew up its decree on art it specifically banned anything lascivious and required that sacred images should be didactic and affective. These painters, Titian et al, were inspired and invigorated by the specification that they should spur devotion in the viewer. What the academy in effect granted them, the freedom to interpret their subjects as a poet might, they focused on creating images that aroused the emotions and invited the viewers’ participation. The painters exploited all the means available—color, chiaroscuro, composition, perspective and the manipulation of space, brushstroke—in this new, liberated, but directed atmosphere. Rather than a climate of fear and admonition, I see the post-Trent period as one of great diversity in which well-intentioned experiments were embraced and encouraged.

Parmigianino, Madonna and Child With Saint Zechariah, c. 1533

Questions the book does not examine, but that I’m thinking about now, were addressed by a couple of the Counter-Reformation writers of treatises on art in the late sixteenth century who were attempting to interpret the implications of the Tridentine decree. They asked: Must the artist be a devout believer to produce an effective and affective sacred image? And they might have asked the obverse: can only a work of art induce the desired state of devotion? Does kitsch work? A quick check of the Internet would suggest that the modern devout prefer kitsch to art. Sentimental images, that is images that offer escape from the self by eliciting an excessive emotional response, far outnumber the Bellinis and Mantegnas and Raphael Madonnas that put in occasional appearances on these sites. If you Google: Images, “Jesus Christ,” you will find in the first eleven pages a Caravaggio on page 7, and a Rembrandt on page 11 (though there is a smattering of Byzantine icons). The rest, I submit, is kitsch. Is the devotion induced by images lacking the restraint of art authentic religious experience? In images, is “art” necessary to excite devotion?

Evidence from the sixteenth century is contradictory: Saint Philip Neri sat for hours in front of an altarpiece of the Visitation in his church (Santa Maria in Vallicella, Rome) by the painter Federico Barocci. In the examination of witnesses for his canonization it was attested that Neri would be found there collapsed in a state of ecstasy (out of body experience, but not out of control). On the other hand, Saint Teresa of Avila underwent a sudden and dramatic conversion when she saw a statue of “a much wounded Christ” of unidentified authorship. I worry, as an advocate for art, that it was one of those pietistic vernacular carvings that were then and still are common in Spain. Michelangelo, perhaps predictably, insisted that only great art could inspire, but that it could truly inspire: “Often badly wrought images distract the attention and prevent devotion, while those which are divinely fashioned excite even those who have little devotion or sensibility to contemplation and tears and by their austere beauty inspire them with great reverence and fear” [Sacred Image, p. 270].

In our world, where emotional highs are sought by all kinds of means, from drugs to chambers of horror to loveless sex, these questions bear on issues outside the realm of religion. What distinguishes an experience that enlarges and enriches us from one that depletes? The Renaissance adopted the concept of decorum from classical rhetoric to determine appropriateness—those limits again. Decorum sets boundaries but encourages creative freedom within them. Reduced to a synonym for etiquette in the nineteenth century, decorum is not a word or a concept in good odor today. Do we have another, or is it symptomatic that we do not?

About the Author:

Marcia B. Hall is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, and a specialist in Italian Renaissance art.