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Religion, Art, and Myth: Themes in Painting

Renaissance art masters and their religious, mythological depictions

Renaissance art of Europe at its peak, or even Early Renaissance period artworks commonly held classical themes and symbolism of Christianity, religion, or mythology. However, a narrower focus forms the framework of this comparative analysis. This examination looks at how painting styles reflect religious or mythological themes in the artistic paintings of Nicolas Poussin, Fra Carnevale, and Rogier van der Weyden.

The time period for Fra Carnevale and Rogier van der Weyden are fairly close, around the mid-15th century, with Carnevale being an Italian painter in contrast to van der Weyden, a Netherlands painter of mostly religious themes. Poussin, a leading French painter of the classical Baroque period, tended towards a mastery of landscapes.

Paintings analyzed

Specific paintings of each artist shall aid the analysis about how each of their painting styles reflects religious or mythological themes.

  • The Poussin work examined is “Mars And Venus” and is representative of the mid-early 17th century conceived around 1630.
  • The Fra Carnevale painting discussed, “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple,” is the subject of his example of style and techniques.
  • Rogier van der Weyden’s striking and transformative “Saint Luke Painting the Virgin” is the basis of completing the third piece in this discourse on comparative religious symbolism.

As a brief sedge-way into exploring each artist’s different expression of sensibilities in religious and mythological expression, it is necessary to explain the history and circumstance into which their paintings were conceived. All three famous artists were introduced to painting well beyond the neoclassical and realist era.

Fra Carnevale’s Greek mythology interpretations

Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini entered the scene under the patronage under the auspices of a Duke in Urbino, Italy.

He later changed his title and name to Fra Carnevale, as Tarr states “to take holy orders a little before 1449” which may have signified his avoiding meat during Lent season (28).

Fra Carnevale developed as a young artist in the shadow and tutelage of Fra Filippo Lippi and grew in distinction from there in the cosmopolitan Italian jewel of Florence. Fra Carnevale also worked as both a painter and an architect in Florence, according to Tarr (28). These activities and contact with Lippi probably help to explain Fra Carnevale’s nearly mathematical precision and a keen eye for perspective in the use of illusion of space and visual tight forms of brushwork. Of the three artists presented herein, there seems to have been more historical records of Fra Carnevale considering the time period.

Religious influences on his art

Mythology from Ancient Greece had persisted from centuries before, and as a result of these many generations of influence could only expect to cast long shadows on the developing Roman Empire, on into the religious cultural atmosphere of Christianity. Art was no exception.

Liebeschuetz explains that mythology and Christianity enjoyed a fairly peaceful ride together in “coexistence in the Renaissance” and while the Christian world could adapt mythology to its literature it seems as art embraced mythology’s rich “treasury of symbols for a great range of human situations” such as pain and suffering, as well as ideas (193).

If you stop and consider the implications it almost seems only natural that painting artists would use the inspiration of dramatic myths, and their passionate personalities, to express the human emotions in color. Shame, dishonor, secrecy, love, holiness, the beauty of seasons, or notions war could be expressed in the painted medium.

Christian world could adapt mythology to its literature it seems as art embraced mythology’s rich “treasury of symbols for a great range of human situations” such as pain and suffering, as well as ideas (193).

If you stop and consider the implications it almost seems only natural that painting artists would use the inspiration of dramatic myths, and their passionate personalities, to express the human emotions in color. Shame, dishonor, secrecy, love, holiness, the beauty of seasons, or notions war could be expressed in the painted medium.

Fra Carnevale’s “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple”

In Fra Carnevale’s “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple” the use of color may be described as a vivid realism. While there are hints of bold coloration in the garments of the retinue in the foreground – that is, the virgin’s entourage – starkly gradual creation of color is well delineated. Fra Carnevale’s obvious training in architectural elements establishes the precision of how light falls into the picture. Your eye is drawn, even compelled to gaze down the corridor of the temple’s columns to investigate other activities.

Even-toned lighting seems to unify the scene although movement is suggested by the various postures. In pagan mythological worship, the presentation of a virgin is part of the ceremony as perhaps in some sexual rite, but Carnevale’s Virgin is painted for the church in Urbino obviously as an altarpiece. It is not clear as to the occasion. Maybe it’s purpose shows a young girl’s introduction to the seriousness of the Christian religion, and its meaning to depict the sobriety of remaining sexually pure. Tarr argues that Carnevale’s figures certainly are “dwarfed by the looming architecture” (29). This may be expected due to his Florentine training, experience, and exposure.

Poussin’s focus on poetic renderings of ancient myths

In contrast to Fra Carnevale’s Virgin painting, Poussin’s “Mars And Venus” is completely devoid of any man-made architecture or buildings of any kind. Set wholly in nature Poussin depicts a portraiture of the mythological composition. The composition feels poetic with the artist’s use of organization with softer edges to the silhouettes. The modeling of Poussin’s figures, while less formal than Carnevale’s religious depiction of a virgin’s rite of passage into a Cathedral-Temple kind of setting, appear not to be self-conscious or concerned with onlookers.

A oneness with nature is suggested by the poses in comfort with nudity, and there is not much sense of movement in terms of actually walking or travel from one point to another beyond personal gestures. Chubby cherubs, apparently in the service of their gods, take the time to hone and sharpen their little arrows against a stone. These Cupids seem to merely be playing with their weapons, fooling around while perhaps a little bored of the lover’s longing, relaxed enrapture of one another.

Some argue the painting leads others to believe he was a devoted pagan. Researchers say this is untrue and compare his renderings to a purist view of classical religion muck like the sculpture of David.

Interestingly, Poussin himself was not a pagan worshiper of mythological gods and goddesses. Liebeschuetz concludes that “Poussin was a Christian,” and used his art works to mostly create a portraiture of “essential Christian truths,” nevertheless the age during which he painted presented an “openness to the language of classical myth,” and as such was an undeniable aspect of the Renaissance itself (194).

Biblical interpretations of mythology

The rich allegory of mythology combined with the ardent figures in Biblical religion probably emerged an unspoken code of artistic freedom and fodder upon which to draw. After all the beautiful displays of paintings particularly by the masters is something most everyone can appreciate and enjoy. Poussin’s Mars and Venus is merely one example of his painting a mythological rendering.

Having done a painting expression of Ovid’s poem, for example and as Liebeschuetz informs, he seems to have been able to grasp a philosophical thread which permeated society at the time about nature’s seasonal evolution and the “beauty and youth” as deriving “their resources from the death of what has gone before” (194).

The painting rests in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and there while one may not readily discern great spatial depth, of perception or clear shadowing, can certainly better observe Poussin’s usage of brushwork. Depictions of Christian ethics and religious beliefs have long since been staples of the field of art, and Renassiance art is known for producing some of the greatest examples of religious art in the world.

Connections to Renaissance art

Christianity, mythology, and religion altogether seem to have pervaded the entire gamut of the Renaissance period, from its inception to post-Renaissance. One way to help understand this characterization is to recognize that today’s modern culture uses rock-and-roll style music for both secular and Christian or religious messages.

Either way, the medium is one and the same genre. The same comparison for the sake of gaining an understanding could be declared of rap or hip-hop style music and different messages. They are both bound within the setting of a common culture. In any case, Poussin did not spend the majority of his life working in his native France.

Oddly enough, Poussin as Mullen concedes, though regarded as the founder and leader of the so-called French School of Art largely “spent almost all of his working life out of his native land” (157).

Unfortunately, Poussin’s good name had been associated with an Art History professor traitor and spy, Anthony Blunt who accordingly to the same aforementioned source was an expert on Poussin. Poussin’s life experience birthed him into the world from the town of Normandy.

Later Poussin thrived in the “Rome[an] version of the Baroque” says Mullen, and quoting Getmain Bazin that he gleaned every drop and was able “to distil honey from every source that was right for him” (157).

Mythological figure drawing and painting from the Enlightenment era seemed the way to go, and once again just as Carnevale, Poussin was purely of the Catholic faith in term of his personal religion. Poussin’s paintings have been compared to the influence of the great Master Raphael.

But Mullen informs that his markedly original stamp was his mastery of landscapes that “endeared him to so many English collectors” (157).

Looking at Poussin’s Mars And Venus you can almost feel and sense the inner spirituality of himself as a painter and the person passions of the gods he depicted. The scene of Mars And Venus strikes the viewer as a bit heavy handed perhaps on the brushstrokes, in terms of lack of minute details in expressiveness in facial expressions. However, the theme in the picture of mythology’s religion is one that is carefree, and sensual. The painting the figures comfortably resting in the wild of nature, use of high-contrast of the orange-ish cloth draped about the female goddess of love Venus against pale skin pulls the viewer’s eye in highlight of the observation.

Rogier van der Weyden and his dramatic style

An example of a highly dramatic, and religious pictorial theme hails from fifteenth century Northern European painter Rogier van der Weyden, of the Netherlands. His “Saint Luke Painting The Virgin” is utterly and absolutely extraordinary. The theme of Jesus Christ’s death and crucifixion passion, though commonly portrayed, makes a unique appearance in van der Weyden’s rendition. Although the painting in its entirety can, and should be taken as a whole, the details and stylized symbolism of relevancy Weyden brings to the table are nothing less than astonishing.

The people’s facial intensity, and true-to-life reflections pull not only the eyes of the viewer into the mournful realism of the scene but somehow attracts the soul to try and capture its religious message. Art historians compare his visual renderings to the masterpieces of renown Impressionist art master Claude Monet. In another painting by Weyden called “Deposition” Jerry Bleem comments in his piece, “Death Watch,” affirms a poignancy referring to it as “an intensely realistic manner” which apparently van der Weyden has a talent for (50).

The common understanding of the religious implications Weyden makes points towards the Eucharist and Bleem acknowledges that the “unbloody” sacrificial death at Calvary is displayed as a contemporary (at the time) “current event rather than a distant moment separated from the lives of the faithful” (50).

Combining emotional impact with Biblical themes

Note the clothing is of 15th-century apparel, and not of Biblical times and one distraught woman actually faints in collapse over Christ’s dead body. Similarly, in Rogier Van der Weyden’s “Saint Luke Painting the Virgin” the realism of breastfeeding the holy baby-child is such that the graphic painting of her exposed nipple clearly brings a remarkable realism to the work. The artist uses a lighter color of her breast skin closest to the nipple to suggest this part of her flesh is not normally uncovered by clothing.

Weyden seems to use localized lighting in the foreground of the subjects, and a blurry edge to the background. In other words, in Carnevale’s “Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple” every detail in the background was equally sharp – thereby deemed of equal importance. Not so in Weyden’s portraiture of Saint Luke painting the virgin.

The idea brings the history and stories of the Bible into the focus of everyday reality. This contrasts severely with Poussin’s picture of the gods Mars and Venus seeming removed from the interference or concern with human affairs. All things mythological are indeed spiritual and religious, but not all religious things are necessarily based upon mythology. Christianity is one case in point, at least in it’s purest theological definition. In any case, the light focus is subtle yet brightly focused upon the Virgin Mother, and seems to ease almost a photographic haze of light radiance unseen in the attendant Luke.

Modern interpretations of older mythological and religious themes

When you think of mythological or religious themes in classical art paintings, what you do think of? In the modern mind this would bring to bear thoughts of the Italian, French, or Flemish Renaissance artists. Apostolos-Cappadona praises Weyden’s compositional paintings as “visual pleasures and symbolic conundrums” and isn’t art supposed to stir something in the eye of the beholder, both in heart and mind? (26). Each work and correspondent figures reflect deeply but different evocations of emotions regarding the situation. It is truly amazing that Rogier van der Weyden, Nicolas Poussin, and Fra Carnevale in comparison on specifics of brushstrokes, for example, may be so varied and yet so similar in merging or distinguishing portraits of religion and mythology. The shared journey of passage from mortal death to eternity can perhaps be linked through the unforgettable works of these artists and others.

Works Cited

Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. “The Space Between Image And Word: The Journey From Rogier Van Der Weyden’s Descent From The Cross To Walter Verdin’s Sliding Time.” Cross Currents 63.1 (2013): 26-43. Web. Academic Search Premier. 24 June 2013.

Bleem, Jerry. “Death Watch.” U.S. Catholic 75.3 (2010): 50. Academic Search Premier. 24 June 2013.

“Classroom Use Of The Art Paint.” Arts & Activities 137.1 (2005): 28-30. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 June 2013.

Liebeschuetz, Wolfgang. “Pagan Mythology In The Christian Empire.” International Journal Of The Classical Tradition 2.2 (1995): 193-208. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 June 2013.

Mullen, Richard. “The Age Of Poussin.” Contemporary Review 266.1550 (1995): 157. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 June 2013.

Simon, Robert B. ‘Poussin, Marino, and the Interpretation of Mythology’, Art Bulletin, 60,1, p.56, Academic Search Premier. EBSCO host, viewed 23 June 2013.

Tarr, Roger. “From Filippo Lippi To Piero Della Francesca: Fra Carnevale And The Making Of A Renaissance Master.” Art Book 13.2 (2006): 28-29. Academic Search Premier. Web. 24 June 2013.

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