Art History, Stoke Bishop
What it is: Exploring contexts and connections within our Western artistic heritage, with a view to increasing our understanding and so the pleasures we derive from it. The subject for the 2021-22 series of talks by the Leader, David Norris, is Art from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages - see the Introduction below.
When it is: Friday mornings at 10.00 for 10.30 am, fortnightly to alternate with Art Appreciation (many people belong to both groups). We do not meet during the Summer and the Autumn 2021 season will start on October 1st.
Where it is: St Mary's Church Rooms, Mariners Drive, Stoke Bishop. We hope that near normal arrangements will be possible, subject to whatever may be the coronavirus security advice at the time.
New members are welcome - we meet in a large hall and normally there would be room for all who wish to attend. However, the pandemic situation may force us to restrict numbers and those were not on the Group's 2020-21 mailing list should apply for a place by emailing Peter Farmer (click on the name).
The Convenor, Brenda Hugill, may be contacted by using the pigeon "send a message" link above right. Access without steps and a hearing loop are available on request.
We study art history through selected works, reproduced by PowerPoint on our screen. Talks aim to analyze and make connections, discussing such questions as: why this subject matter? why represented in this way? how related to earlier works? how did artistic traditions and conventions change as the world changed?
While each season and each session can be enjoyed for itself, you will get most out of the course if you can attend regularly. A small selection of works discussed in each of our previous three seasons can be found by clicking the appropriate link on the right.
Introduction to the 2021-22 Season
Art from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages
The images included with the text below are just a few of those to be discussed during the season. Click on any one of them to enlarge it.
The second century AD saw the Roman Empire at its height and the subsequent period, known as Late Antiquity, was one of its declining power and prosperity. Major changes came with the adoption and growth of Christianity, then with the Empire’s disintegration. Over the centuries leading into the Middle Ages, separate but related artistic traditions evolved in its surviving Eastern part and in the successors to its Western part. We shall see the consequences of the changing purposes for which art was wanted, often with the priority of conveying meaning at the expense of realism.
Marcus Aurelius on Horseback (c.176 AD, 1eft) is a quintessential image in gilded bronze of a Roman Emperor. The lifelike, animated representation shows the kind of idealised naturalism developed from the classical tradition originating in ancient Greece. The Emperor, over life-size, extends his hand in a gesture of addressing his troops, giving an impression of power and authority. The Tetrarchs (c.305 AD right) dates from when four Emperors ruled jointly and typifies a retreat from realism. The four figures are simplified, stiff and rigid, block-like and squat, with heads that are too big for the bodies and feet that are flat on the ground. The purpose was to express the concept of power-sharing, with individuality suppressed for the common good.
Sculptural decoration on the Arch of Constantine (c.315 AD, left) includes roundels transferred from an earlier monument (c.135 AD). Their classical qualities contrast with the frieze below of the new Emperor, shown addressing the people. A later hostile ruler removed his head. The arrangement of simplified figures is an expression of hierarchy. Early Christian art is illustrated by this detail of a carved relief on the Jonah Sarcophagus (c.290 AD, right. The naked Jonah is being thrown from a boat into the sea, where a great fish is ready to swallow him. Along with his story, the composition includes scenes from others, to diverse scales and fitted into every available space on the panel as if in horror of leaving any area empty.
An innovation of Late Antiquity was the inclusion of miniature paintings alongside written words in manuscripts. This page of the Vatican Virgil (c.400 AD, left) shows a scene from the tragic story of the lovers Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, a Trojan prince who had escaped the destruction of his city by the Greeks. An early illuminated biblical manuscript is the Vienna Genesis and this detail (6th century AD, right) is of one of its miniatures. It shows a servant who had been sent on a mission across the desert to find a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac from their ancestral village. Following instructions, he is selecting the first young woman to offer him a drink of water from the well. The image has a sense of movement and gesture, while condensed to the essentials of the narrative.
The church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome is known for its spectacular apse mosaic (c.390 AD, left). Christ is depicted as if addressing us as well as the apostles alongside, who're like Roman senators arranged ceremonially on either side of their Emperor. This mosaic panel of San Vitale, Ravenna (c.548 AD, right) is a product of Byzantine culture, a continuation of that of Rome in the Eastern part of the Empire. With its typical gold background, it shows the Emperor Justinian with his entourage in a ceremonial procession, but as if the participants had suddenly turned to confront us, making it also a static hierarchical depiction of the imperial court.
The illuminations in the Lindisfarne Gospels (c.715, left) are in a Celtic style, well seen in the ribbon and animal interlace patterns that infill some of the letters on this page. Words and decoration are partners in a new aesthetic system having no precedent in the art of antiquity. The Massacre of the Innocents (c.990, right) is a miniature in the Egbert Codex, the oldest and most comprehensive cycle of illustrations in a book of the life of Jesus. The expressions of drama and of emotion make for a powerful representation of the story.
Traditions developed as to how Christ should be represented. This 6th century icon (left), at St Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert, has a naturalism that’s in the classical Roman tradition. The encaustic technique with beeswax as the medium for pigments gives the facial tones a glow similar to that of modern oil paints. The mosaic on the right (c.1100), also of Christ Pantocrator (almighty ruler), is the centre-piece of the main dome of the monastery church at Daphni, near Athens, presiding over every other image in the interior. Contrasting with the icon, his eyes look away sternly and the mouth is cruel-looking, seemingly influenced by an oriental conception of the stern judge
The Nativity (c.1030, left), a mosaic on a concave surface in a church at Hosios Loukas in Greece, is one of a standard set of New Testament scenes that had become the Byzantine norm. Several different parts of the Christmas story are represented, put together with little regard to a sense of real space or relative scales. A trend in the direction of greater naturalism can be seen in the fresco of the Lamentation (c.1164, right) in a church at Nerezi in Macedonia. The tender passion and deep emotion transmitted by the image are enhanced by such expressive devices as the elongation of forms and agitated flickering highlights.
San Marco in Venice has some 9000 square feet of golden mosaic on its walls, vaults and cupolas (c.1180, left), of which the one most in view represents the Ascension story of the New Testament. Courtly Love (c.1180, right), the front of a casket in champlevé enamel, was for some non-religious purpose such as storing jewels, unlike most medieval art that has survived to the present day. It represents the chivalric tradition's code of manners for romantic relationships with a married lady of high rank. The rules of the game required the lady to virtuously reject the knight's advances and she's shown responding to them with an expression of disdain.
The Romanesque church-building boom resulted in a revival of relief sculpture. The Dream of the Three Kings (c.1130, left) is a carving on a capital inside Autun Cathedral in France, just one example of its many expressive sculptures. It’s in Italy that a new trend to greater naturalism was beginning. The Adoration of the Magi (1260, right) is a relief panel on a pulpit in the Baptistery at Pisa. Notice the interaction between the first magi and the infant Jesus, a chubby baby reaching out for his present. The artist, Nicola Pisano, had studied fragments of classical Roman sculptures.
St Francis Preaching to the Birds (c.1260, left) is part of the earliest set of frescoes at Assisi with scenes from legends about the saint’s life. The Franciscan emphasis on real human life and its environment was part of a trend of increasing interest in the natural world and in its creatures. Stylistic innovations by Duccio in the Rucellai Altarpiece (c.1285, right) transformed a traditional Byzantine style by a new emphasis on beauty, a new lyricism and a more humane mother-child relationship. These two paintings illustrate directions in which subsequent Italian art would develop.