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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Influence of "Laocoon"on Michelanglo's Frescoes in the Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo's first known work after 1506 are the frescoes he produced for the Sistine Chapel, commissioned by Pope Julius the Second. After disagreements with the Pope on the form the work was to take Michelangelo was allowed to create his own designs and work began in 1508. The frescoes were completed four years later in 1512.
If we can make the comparison, Michelangelo and the "Laocoon" sculptors must share a similar approach to their work. Both have a cultural/literary narrative source and must first imaginatively visualise from it. This implies choices about which parts of the narrative to represent and why those particular choices and in what manner.
In the main panels at the apex of the ceiling Michelangelo, where formerly he seemed to avoid dramatic high points, now chooses those most dramatic incidents of the biblical Genesis. The division of light from dark, the division of water from earth, the creation of the Sun and Moon, the creation of Adam and Eve. However he omits the story of Cain and Abel and goes to the story of Noah and the Flood.Michelangelo finishes at Chapter 9: verse 23 the "Drunkenness of Noah". The design reverses the biblical sequence of "the Great Flood" and "Noah's Offering". This decision perhaps also indicates Michelangelo's desire,like the "Laocoon" sculptors, to treat the narrative in the most dramatic manner possible presenting the most dramatic and significant parts of the narrative in the most dramatic settings.
Michelangelo's choice of narratives could also be said to represent his interest in the nude but here his interests and the narrative can be neatly "married" since the nude can be introduced as an integral part of the narrative without losing the dramatic force of the narrative. The nudes and figures also share a similar conception of proportion to the "Laocoon" figures.
If it could be said that Michelangelo uses the "visual form" of "Laocoon" to portray man in in a drama of divine intervention he uses it in a way the "Laocoon" sculptors could not. "The Creation of Man" for example ignores the biblical description and introduces gestures and figures that suggest Michelangelo's interpretation of the spiritual and historical (to Christians) significance of the event. The right hand of God touches Adam, his left hand touches a figure that appears to be the infant form of Jesus, linking past and future events. It could be said that aspects of the "Laocoon" unacceptable to the christian artist, polytheism and mankind "unredeemed" form the philosophical antithesis of the Chapel frescoes while its "formal language" (the high drama, the use of exaggerated proportion) become its thesis. This definition could help to interpret the iconography of a work that presents a spiritually christian drama in "historical form". For the christian artist the biblical act of creation precedes all earthly events and therefore the civilizations of antiquity. God creates all men and, after destroying mankind in the Great Flood, all men, though not yet "redeemed" share God's covenant through Noah.
This "history" is continued in the bronze medallions at the side of the main panels. The main panels are surrounded by "Ignudi" some of whom hold what appear to be tasselled cloths others the bronze medallions. The "Ignudi" are possibly used emblematically as "Antique Form" that "reveal" the christian drama. Below the main panels biblical prophets alternate with sibyls from antiquity an at this point the "history moves forward pointing toward the birth of Christ. Below the seers and prophets the spandrels show boys who will be future kings of Israel. Below them the lunettes show the ancestors of Jesus.
In conclusion perhaps a comparison could be made between two variations of a subject Michelangelo treated before and after 1506. The "David" of the Sistine Chapel,"David Killing Goliath" shows the narrative source dramatically treated. The figure of David is clothed,his size.in comparison to Goliath, small and undistinguished. In contrast to Michelangelo's earlier David all overt references to Greek models disappear, the Sistine Chapel David is now an actor in a larger drama of divine intervention in the affairs of men.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On Religion

It is a very pleasant and seductive thought that when you die you go to Heaven and are re-united with all your loved ones gone before you. But as consumer advocates tell us, if something looks or sounds too good to be true....it probably is.
A.H.

Monday, January 10, 2011


It is thought that about 600 B.C. the Greeks became acquainted with Egyptian sculpture and from them took a method of composing a figure and a system of proportion. Nothing is known of the underlying motives for the early Egyptian system of figure composition. It may have been mainly a convenient technical method of designing a statue ( keeping an essentially top heavy figure stable ) or perhaps carried a wider theory of the human figure. The arms held firmly at the side with clenched fists and one foot forward does give a sense of both "aliveness" and resolute purpose.
However Greek sculptors began to diverge from the Egyptian model soon after it became established in Greece.the posture of the figure and a consideration of proportion were retained but a general stylistic progression emerged toward greater naturalism.
This process can be readily seen in the kouros figures produced in Ancient Greece between about 610 B.C. to 450 B.C.
This tendency toward greater naturalism inevitably led to the disappearance of the pre-conceived posture of the archaic kouros. The figure began to be conceived with greater freedom and more naturalistic observation of the body appeared. A Roman copy of an original Greek bronze The "Doryphoros" by Polykleitos ( the Spear Carrier) shows clearly this blend of observed naturalism and proportion.
That the work partly results from direct observation is indicated by the articulation of the body, suggesting an exact moment in action, in the detail of the hand grasping and muscles tensed or relaxed according to weight distrubution. That a proportional scheme is also present is indicated by the fact that altough of "heroic" size the figure retains a human proportion within itself.
Assuming it is a faithful copy, compared to figures of a later date, the planes of the body are simplified tending to stress individual parts with a resulting lack of sensousness in the surface.


Over time surface was given greater consideration and culminated in works like "Marathon Boy", believed by some to be the work of Praxiteles the most famous of later classical Greek sculptors.

All three of the previous examples have some fundamental things in common. Each concerns itself with a single nude male figure. Each could be said to be a synthesis of naturalistic observation of living models and an abstract canon of proportion. If works like these can be said to be one development from the kouros figure perhaps the sculptural group treating a legendary event is another.
"Kleobis and Biton" may be an example of an archaic Greek treatment of a legendary narrative. Kleobis and Biton were young Argives whose mother was a priestess of Hera. On the occasion of a great festival in honour of the goddess the oxen who were to pull the wagon taking their mother did not arrive from the fields in time. The brothers yoked themselves to the wagon and pulled it a distance of 5 miles to the temple.The assembly of people at the temple praised the youths, the men commenting on the brothers strength, the women for their devotion to their mother. Their mother prayed to the goddess that her sons would be granted the highest blessing men could attain. the brothers lay down in the temple precinct after their exertions and never woke again. (Be careful what you wish for ?)
None of this narrative can be deduced by looking at the figures.The only visible clue being almost identical statues conceived as one work. The archaic method of figure composition shapes a definition of the brothers as commemorative rather than narrative in spirit.
Grouping figures in an historical,legendary or mythical narrative required an approach different from that used in "the Argive Twins".The greater freedom in methods of composing figures as naturalistic observation was included in sculpture initially supplied that approach. However using cultural narratives as a source for visual works also reshapes that approach and its results. Sculpture or painting tends to be limited to illustrating one point in a narrative that must define the narrative source clearly. Events from mythical or legendary narrative cannot by definition be directly observed. The artist must "re-create" the action through memory or imagination or both. An artist must therefore first conceive the action they wish to define, thereafter observation of the living model is used to "realise" this conception. Accordingly a work with narrative as its source may/must embody something of an artists personality. Assuming artists have a choice, one moment of action from many moments of action must be selected. Implicit in such selection may be interpretations, judgements, preferences, sympathy with or understanding of particular narratives or moments of narrative.
"The Bride of Pirithous attacked by a Centaur" from about 460 B.C. shows these differences in comparison to the "Agive Twins". We can be sure the artist could not observe a centaur attacking a woman. The centaur, composed from combined observations of men and horses, is the most obvious piece of imaginative re-creation, although the sculture is conviningly conceived and rendered rather than observed. Unlike the "Argive Twins" a pyschological relationship is expressed between and among the figures. This is also reinforced through contrasting details like the bearded centaurs and the non-bearded face of Apollo. This neccessity to show pyschological relationships between and among figures requires their bodies to perform a double function. The figures must express an "atitude" and receive consideration as part of a larger unit. Through narrative the notion of "unity" must be considered, since narrative partly shapes the manner in which ideas can be expressed through figures.






"Laocoon and his Sons" could be said to represent one "logical" outcome of the imaginative re-creative approach approach to the legendary/mythical narrative. Here the sculptors conception is applied with a thoroughness that excludes almost any naturalistic observation. Both the figures and the medium are manipulated where this is felt to aid in visual expression equivalent to the narrative.

Everything serves the double function as visible representation of the event and an artistic/expressive device. The snake crushes the figures and animates the spaces between them.The figures appear to be trying to free themselves from the grip of the snake but the postures are subtly stylized. For example the boy on the right thrusts up and out with his left leg down and back with his right arm. The boy on the left turns his torso outwards and his lower body inwards. The Laocoon figure thrusts out and down with his right leg up and back with his left arm. The figures of the boys are also interesting in that if we look at their height we might judge their age to be perhaps ten or twelve years old. If we look at their physique we might judge them to be five to ten years older. To increase the sense of the boys innocence the sculptors perhaps needed to portray them as children. To increase the sense of crushing snake verses muscular power the Laocoon figure is given an exaggerated physique. To retain a unity between the figures the boys are given a physique that approximates that of Laocoon. The nudity of the figures also shows stress and strain in a way that clothed figures could not, this coupled with the minute rendering makes the action appear very "real"
The "Laocoon" is also significant in a wider historical context. Lost after the disintergration of the Roman Empire "Laocoon" was rediscovered during achaelogical excavations in Rome at the time of the Renaissance and became one of the sources for renaissance knowledge of ancient art. It was seen by Michaelangelo just before he started work in the Sistine Chapel

Sunday, January 9, 2011

After the Greeks were conquered by the Romans many Greek art works, in the form of copies or originals, were taken to Rome. These art works were lost, discarded or ignored after the disintergration of the Roman Empire. However with the growth of Christianity in the west, with Rome as its centre, and consequent emergence of a christian art gradually awakened interest in Greek solutions to artistic problems.


One area of common ground between christian artists and artists of antiquity was the desire to give visual form to cultural narratives. Artists of antiquity, considering visualization of legendary/mythical narrative and a christian artist using biblical sources share similar artistic problems (jewish and muslim artists never visualised from sacred texts). Greek and christian narratives share similar features. Both are concerned with humanity and with human actions.In both gods take human form. Christian art was open to influence from antique art through the common ground of narrative but shaped by a christian outlook.


Michelangelo's contact with antique sculpture and thought began after his introduction, in 1490, to the house of Lorenzo De Medici. At this time a group of scholars associated with Lorenzo were studying and reviving interest in Greek and especially Platonic thought.Toward the end of the 15th century Greek literature was being translated and between 1475 and 1500, amongst others, Homer,Aristotle,Isocrates and nine plays of Aristophanes were published.



However prior to 1506 Michelangelo's work appears rather as series of recurring interests and themes. The nude, the figure, the antique and the christian seem shaped by theme or each other rather than narrative. Small figures of saints in marble Petronius and Proculus (the christian) "The Battle of the Centaurs"(the antique). Even the "Pieta" of 1498-1499 while both are figures from the Bible they are not drawn from particular narratives but are rather expressions of christian sentiment using biblical figures in thematic relationship. They are, perhaps, closer in approach to antique works like "Eirene and Plutos. The figures perform symbolic and philosophic functions.








Even in a work with an identifiable narrative source, "The Battle of Cascina"(now known only from copies of his cartoon) Michelangelo's interest in the nude is chosen in prefence to other possibilities. By choosing an incident from the day before the actual battle. It shows soldiers surprised by a false alarm while bathing in the river Arno.


A similar view could be expressed in a discussion of "David". The only work before 1506 drawn from Old Testament sources. "David" appears similar to the "heroic" Greek nude, althletic and over life-size and shares the concern with observed naturalism and canons of proportion. In order to acheive this, overt references to biblical narrative are played down. The nudity of David and the selection of a moment before/after the killing of Goliath rather than during gives the resemblance to antique form. "David" could be said to present a "biblical hero" using antique models.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Greek Lessons for Renaissance Italy

After the Greeks were conquered by the Romans many Greek art works, in the form of copies or originals, were taken to Rome. These art works were lost, discarded or ignored after the disintergration of the Roman Empire. However with the growth of Christianity in the west, with Rome as its centre, and consequent emergence of a christian art gradually awakened interest in Greek solutions to artistic problems.


One area of common ground between christian artists and artists of antiquity was the desire to give visual form to cultural narratives. Artists of antiquity, considering visualization of legendary/mythical narrative and a christian artist using biblical sources share similar artistic problems (jewish and muslim artists never visualised from sacred texts). Greek and christian narratives share similar features. Both are concerned with humanity and with human actions.In both gods take human form. Christian art was open to influence from antique art through the common ground of narrative but shaped by a christian outlook.


Michelangelo's contact with antique sculpture and thought began after his introduction, in 1490, to the house of Lorenzo De Medici. At this time a group of scholars associated with Lorenzo were studying and reviving interest in Greek and especially Platonic thought.Toward the end of the 15th century Greek literature was being translated and between 1475 and 1500, amongst others, Homer,Aristotle,Isocrates and nine plays of Aristophanes were published.



However prior to 1506 Michelangelo's work appears rather as series of recurring interests and themes. The nude, the figure, the antique and the christian seem shaped by theme or each other rather than narrative. Small figures of saints in marble Petronius and Proculus (the christian) "The Battle of the Centaurs"(the antique). Even the "Pieta" of 1498-1499 while both are figures from the Bible they are not drawn from particular narratives but are rather expressions of christian sentiment using biblical figures in thematic relationship. They are, perhaps, closer in approach to antique works like "Eirene and Plutos. The figures perform symbolic and philosophic functions.








Even in a work with an identifiable narrative source, "The Battle of Cascina"(now known only from copies of his cartoon) Michelangelo's interest in the nude is chosen in prefence to other possibilities. By choosing an incident from the day before the actual battle. It shows soldiers surprised by a false alarm while bathing in the river Arno.


A similar view could be expressed in a discussion of "David". The only work before 1506 drawn from Old Testament sources. "David" appears similar to the "heroic" Greek nude, althletic and over life-size and shares the concern with observed naturalism and canons of proportion. In order to acheive this, overt references to biblical narrative are played down. The nudity of David and the selection of a moment before/after the killing of Goliath rather than during gives the resemblance to antique form. "David" could be said to present a "biblical hero" using antique models.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

" Laocoon and his Sons" the medium and the figure manipulated

"Laocoon and his Sons" could be said to represent one "logical" outcome of the imaginative re-creative approach approach to the legendary/mythical narrative. Here the sculptors conception is applied with a thoroughness that excludes almost any naturalistic observation. Both the figures and the medium are manipulated where this is felt to aid in visual expression equivalent to the narrative.

Everything serves the double function as visible representation of the event and an artistic/expressive device. The snake crushes the figures and animates the spaces between them.The figures appear to be trying to free themselves from the grip of the snake but the postures are subtly stylized. For example the boy on the right thrusts up and out with his left leg down and back with his right arm. The boy on the left turns his torso outwards and his lower body inwards. The Laocoon figure thrusts out and down with his right leg up and back with his left arm. The figures of the boys are also interesting in that if we look at their height we might judge their age to be perhaps ten or twelve years old. If we look at their physique we might judge them to be five to ten years older. To increase the sense of the boys innocence the sculptors perhaps needed to portray them as children. To increase the sense of crushing snake verses muscular power the Laocoon figure is given an exaggerated physique. To retain a unity between the figures the boys are given a physique that approximates that of Laocoon. The nudity of the figures also shows stress and strain in a way that clothed figures could not, this coupled with the minute rendering makes the action appear very "real"
The "Laocoon" is also significant in a wider historical context. Lost after the disintergration of the Roman Empire "Laocoon" was rediscovered during achaelogical excavations in Rome at the time of the Renaissance and became one of the sources for renaissance knowledge of ancient art. It was seen by Michaelangelo just before he started work in the Sistine Chapel



Greek Art-Classical-The Bride of Pirithous Attacked by a Centaur

"The Bride of Pirithous attacked by a Centaur" from about 460 B.C. shows these differences in comparison to the "Agive Twins". We can be sure the artist could not observe a centaur attacking a woman. The centaur, composed from combined observations of men and horses, is the most obvious piece of imaginative re-creation, although the sculture is conviningly conceived and rendered rather than observed. Unlike the "Argive Twins" a pyschological relationship is expressed between and among the figures. This is also reinforced through contrasting details like the bearded centaurs and the non-bearded face of Apollo. This neccessity to show pyschological relationships between and among figures requires their bodies to perform a double function. The figures must express an "atitude" and receive consideration as part of a larger unit. Through narrative the notion of "unity" must be considered, since narrative partly shapes the manner in which ideas can be expressed through figures.




Sunday, January 2, 2011

Greek Art-From Crude to Classical-"Kleobis and Biton" (*The Argive Twins) and "Marathon Boy "



Over time surface was given greater consideration and culminated in works like "Marathon Boy", believed by some to be the work of Praxiteles the most famous of later classical Greek sculptors.

All three of the previous examples have some fundamental things in common. Each concerns itself with a single nude male figure. Each could be said to be a synthesis of naturalistic observation of living models and an abstract canon of proportion. If works like these can be said to be one development from the kouros figure perhaps the sculptural group treating a legendary event is another.
"Kleobis and Biton" may be an example of an archaic Greek treatment of a legendary narrative. Kleobis and Biton were young Argives whose mother was a priestess of Hera. On the occasion of a great festival in honour of the goddess the oxen who were to pull the wagon taking their mother did not arrive from the fields in time. The brothers yoked themselves to the wagon and pulled it a distance of 5 miles to the temple.The assembly of people at the temple praised the youths, the men commenting on the brothers strength, the women for their devotion to their mother. Their mother prayed to the goddess that her sons would be granted the highest blessing men could attain. the brothers lay down in the temple precinct after their exertions and never woke again. (Be careful what you wish for ?)
None of this narrative can be deduced by looking at the figures.The only visible clue being almost identical statues conceived as one work. The archaic method of figure composition shapes a definition of the brothers as commemorative rather than narrative in spirit.
Grouping figures in an historical,legendary or mythical narrative required an approach different from that used in "the Argive Twins".The greater freedom in methods of composing figures as naturalistic observation was included in sculpture initially supplied that approach. However using cultural narratives as a source for visual works also reshapes that approach and its results. Sculpture or painting tends to be limited to illustrating one point in a narrative that must define the narrative source clearly. Events from mythical or legendary narrative cannot by definition be directly observed. The artist must "re-create" the action through memory or imagination or both. An artist must therefore first conceive the action they wish to define, thereafter observation of the living model is used to "realise" this conception. Accordingly a work with narrative as its source may/must embody something of an artists personality. Assuming artists have a choice, one moment of action from many moments of action must be selected. Implicit in such selection may be interpretations, judgements, preferences, sympathy with or understanding of particular narratives or moments of narrative.

Naturalism in Greek Art

This tendency toward greater naturalism inevitably led to the disappearance of the pre-conceived posture of the archaic kouros. The figure began to be conceived with greater freedom and more naturalistic observation of the body appeared. A Roman copy of an original Greek bronze The "Doryphoros" by Polykleitos ( the Spear Carrier) shows clearly this blend of observed naturalism and proportion.
That the work partly results from direct observation is indicated by the articulation of the body, suggesting an exact moment in action, in the detail of the hand grasping and muscles tensed or relaxed according to weight distrubution. That a proportional scheme is also present is indicated by the fact that altough of "heroic" size the figure retains a human proportion within itself.
Assuming it is a faithful copy, compared to figures of a later date, the planes of the body are simplified tending to stress individual parts with a resulting lack of sensousness in the surface.

Greek Art-The Emergence of Greek Sculpture

However Greek sculptors began to diverge from the Egyptian model soon after it became established in Greece.the posture of the figure and a consideration of proportion were retained but a general stylistic progression emerged toward greater naturalism.
This process can be readily seen in the kouros figures produced in Ancient Greece between about 610 B.C. to 450 B.C.

Greek Art-Ancient Greek borrowings from Egyptian sculpture


It is thought that about 600 B.C. the Greeks became acquainted with Egyptian sculpture and from them took a method of composing a figure and a system of proportion. Nothing is known of the underlying motives for the early Egyptian system of figure composition. It may have been mainly a convenient technical method of designing a statue ( keeping an essentially top heavy figure stable ) or perhaps carried a wider theory of the human figure. The arms held firmly at the side with clenched fists and one foot forward does give a sense of both "aliveness" and resolute purpose. Early Greek sculpture copies the both the stance and the arms held at the side. (See Kleobis and Biton)