Crisis and the creation of great art

Social upheaval has often been a catalyst for artistic change - the Renaissance was no exception.
Lamentation for the Dead Christ. Fresco by the artist Giotto (1267-1337).
Lamentation for the Dead Christ. Fresco by the artist Giotto (1267-1337). Credit: Mauro Magliani for Alinari/Alinari Archives, Florence/Alinari via Getty Images
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Social crisis has often been a catalyst for artistic change, so much so that I wonder if there might be room for an alternative history of art. The history I have in mind would consider the development of painting and sculpture (and for that matter architecture) not as a gradual metamorphosis of styles – from medieval to Renaissance to Baroque and beyond – but as a series of convulsive responses to the cataclysms of the historical past.

This is certainly, I think, a fruitful way to think about the origins of Italian Renaissance art, which might reasonably be regarded as the fountainhead of the Western art tradition as a whole. No one can question that a great change swept through the painting and sculpture of Italy from the early thirteenth century to the middle of the fifteenth century. In short, a new art was born at that time: one that turned away from the extreme stylisation of Gothic, on the one hand, and the transcendent abstractions of Byzantium, on the other. This new art emphasised the suffering humanity of the adult Christ, dying on the cross, just as it emphasised the helplessness of the infant Christ in the manger, newborn baby of a refugee family forced to flee from a tyranny so severe that it condoned the massacre of innocent children. It made visible the pain of his mother, forced to witness the torture and death of her son, taken from her at a cruelly young age.

This art of pain, pathos and drama looked new and unfamiliar to late medieval eyes, although it drew inspiration from the distant past. It was rooted in a naturalism for which the chief precedent was the statuary of ancient Roman times, which survived in abundance, albeit often rather damaged, all over Italy. It is no coincidence that the greatest innovators in the field of early Renaissance sculpture, the father-and-son team of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, came from Pisa (whence they took their name), where such remains were particularly numerous and well preserved. They can still be seen today, in the form of the numerous sarcophagi carved with classical myths and legends that line the Campo Santo, a cloister erected on the site of an ancient Roman burial ground, the relics of which were preserved as curiosities from another world.

Looking at the masterpieces of the Pisano workshop, such as Nicola’s mid-thirteenth century bas-relief of The Adoration of the Magi, which decorates the pulpit in Pisa’s Baptistry, or Giovanni’s slightly later relief of The Massacre of the Innocents, on a similar pulpit in the church of Sant’Andrea in Pistoia, it is clear that they borrowed from the sarcophagi of their home town so extensively as to have regarded Roman sculpture of ancient Rome as their art school, or academy. Nicola’s Virgin Mary resembles a Roman goddess; Giovanni’s tangle of agonised mothers resisting Herod’s death squad recall the struggling bodies of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his sons, fighting off serpents. What Rome gave to Pisano, father and son, was a new and distinctly un-medieval sense of the human body as it might be realised in art: a body endowed with substance and flesh; a body capable of movement; a body realised in art, but so convincingly realised as to compel belief.

The innovations of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, in sculpture, were shortly followed by Giotto’s great leap in painting. The two were not unconnected: Giotto knew and admired the work of his predecessors from Pisa, so much so that their work might have been his own art school. The figures who animate the walls of the Arena Chapel in Padua, Giotto’s most perfectly preserved cycle of frescoes, have such weight and monumentality that they look less like real people (to my eyes) than sculptures come to life. In scenes such as the Lamentation the emotional effect is all the stronger for this: when Mary grieves, it is as if a statue has burst into tears.

The great shift in form and sensibility embodied by such work is clear and obvious. But what lay behind it? What was its cause? The question goes unanswered in many histories of art, even many specialist studies of the Renaissance. The most compelling explanation is that the artists of the period were responding, with great urgency, to a social emergency.

The late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries were a time of wrenching change in Italy. The feudal social structures of the Middle Ages were collapsing and a new mercantile society was emerging. The process has been compared to a mini-Industrial Revolution, a phrase which does scant justice to the extent of upheaval facing many, especially the poor, at the time. In the flourishing cities of Tuscany, Florence in particular, new methods of textile production led to a sudden and massive expansion in manufacturing. Large factories and workshops were established around the river Arno and its tributaries, and many thousands of impoverished agricultural labourers – their plight worsened by successive crop failures, repeated outbreaks of plague and resulting widespread famine – flocked to the cities in search of work. They were paid a pittance, but that pittance was still preferable to the total uncertainty of life in their old peasant communities. The new textile industrialists needed their labour but were not prepared to house them. There was no space for these crowds of wage-seeking refugees in the medieval warren of streets that made up the cities of the time. So they lived outside the walls, in vast makeshift settlements of wood and canvas: dwelling places of the terminally desperate that were Renaissance equivalents to the shanty towns of modern cities like Mumbai or Mexico City. They had little food and poor shelter. Disease was rife, healthcare virtually non-existent. 

The poor in every crisis need their spokesman, and in early thirteenth-century Italy that spokesman was – it has often been so – a man born into the very ranks of those responsible for their plight. Francis of Assisi was the son of a wealthy textile merchant, who renounced his birthright to take up the life of an itinerant friar ministering to the needs, above all, of the new urban poor. The essentials of his legend are well known: his calling to faith by an image of Christ which miraculously spoke to him in a tumbledown church; his charismatic preaching; his communing with nature, recorded in lyric poems known as ‘The flowers of Francis’; his receiving of the stigmata, miraculous wounds like those of the crucifixion, burned into his flesh during a retreat on Mount Averna. Less well known is the transformative effect of his teachings on the art and architecture of the Christian church in Italy.

Francis recognised that the poor of his time needed an image of Christ – and an idea of Christ – very different from that which prevailed in the churches of the day. They needed a Christ in whom they could really believe, a Christ who could allow them to dream that their own sufferings, like his, were a path to redemption; a Christ whose story they could follow, scene by scene, as if in a comic book, and in so doing find consolation for their own pain and suffering. Francis’s spiritual revolution led to a corresponding revolution not just in the imagery of the church but in the very structure of churches themselves, as buildings.

His conviction that the image of Christ should be made more immediate, more real, more visceral, had its most immediate effect on depictions of that central event of the Christian story, the crucifixion. Before Francis, it was customary for artists to depict Christ on the cross as a smiling, beatific figure, unscathed by his ordeal: transcending his death before it has even happened. This type of image, perfected over centuries by generations of painters working in what art historians have called the Italo-Byzantine style, was known as the Christus Triumphans, Christ Triumphant. After the impact of Francis’s teachings is felt, the image of Christ on the cross changes accordingly. Artists no longer make him look detached from the instrument of his torture. He writhes against the nails that pierce him, his body assuming the serpentine contours of agony. His brow furrows and his gaze loses its serenity, becoming tormented and anxious. Sometimes his eyes are tight shut, screwed up in anguish. Tears run from his cheeks, and his wounds bleed. This post-Franciscan image of the crucifixion was known as the Christus Patiens, Christ Suffering.

The best place I know to see and feel this transition, from a triumphant to a suffering Christ, is the Sala dei Crocifissi in the little visited Pinacoteca of Pisa, ‘the room of the crosses’, where a number of crucifixes from the twelfth to the fourteenth century, which once stood in modest local churches, have been gathered and planted in the gallery floor like so many trees. What they collectively reveal, in shades of feeling that move inexorably from serenity to agony in the course of just a few decades, is the Before and After of art in the time of St Francis. The new agonised Christ was the exemplary image, the figurehead so to speak, of troubled times. This was not just powerful art, it was also helpful, and healing. The idea that their God had suffered as they suffered was a source of great consolation – as Francis knew it would be – to those struggling to make sense of lives that might easily have seemed hopeless.

Francis, together with the other charismatic friar of the period, St Dominic, also enacted a revolution in church building. The cathedrals and baptistries of great Italian cities such as Florence were built with a Byzantine sense of magnificence and otherworldliness: their construction was of fine polychrome marble while their decoration, carried out by teams of mosaicists from the Greek East, might take half a century or more. But Francis and Dominic (and their followers) needed to build many new churches, and they needed to build them quickly. The people they wanted to help could not wait fifty years to be saved. The average length of life for a man from the new urban underclass was somewhere in the early thirties (a lifespan not much longer than that of Jesus Christ). So the Franciscans and Dominicans built not in marble, but in brick, raising their churches on simple post-and-lintel frameworks of timber. The simplicity of the resulting structures is still striking today. They are rather like boxes in cruciform shape, designed to accommodate as many people as possible.

Under the influence of the friars, who well understood the power of the image, these churches became boxes filled with stories: the stories of the New Testament, told by painters in pictures of great clarity, as sharp in colour as in emotion, so that  people who could not read might nonetheless be touched by the truths of the Bible. The church walls were plastered and fresco cycles were painted into the wet plaster. Fresco was preferred to mosaic for the same reasons that brick was chosen over marble: cheapness and speed. Such was the genius with which successive generations of Italian painters employed the medium that it was eventually adopted everywhere, even in churches or chapels intended for the rich and powerful, rather than the poor (the Sistine Chapel, painted in fresco by Michelangelo, is a case in point). But its origins lie in a particular response to the plight of a particular group of people, who were poor through and through. Fresco itself is dirt-poor, being after all no more than earth pigment fixed to a wall: the original arte povera.

Using such methods, an entire church for a congregation of thousands could be built and painted in less than a year. Such large churches were totally different in appearance and in kind from the large churches that had preceded them, which were built over many decades or even centuries and dedicated to the glory of God. These new churches turned those old priorities upside down. They were not built for God but for men and women who needed God in their lives, or at the very least the experience of Christian mercy. They were emergency refuges as well as places of worship. Every Franciscan foundation contained a hospital and a pharmacy, as well as a soup kitchen, so when famine came or when plague struck – as it did with depressing regularity throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, sometimes carrying off as much as half of a city’s population – the friars would at least be in a position to help. 

The locations of these churches also expressed the intentions behind them. Stand outside more or less any great Franciscan or Dominican urban church from the thirteenth or fourteenth centuries and you will, almost invariably, find yourself on what was once the perimeter of the city: this is true, for example, of the Franciscan churches of Santa Croce in Florence and San Francesco in Pistoia, as it is of San Domenico in Siena. Why should this be so? Because these churches were not built to serve the city dwellers but the migrant labourers huddled in makeshift housing at the edges of the city. To save people living at the margins of society, Francis taught, you have to make your dwelling with them.

In essence, Francis’s message was clear and straightforward. He believed passionately that Christianity was a religion of and for the poor: had Christ himself not favoured simple folk like Peter the fisherman when choosing his disciples? had he not preached to the poor, and fed them with loaves and fishes? had he not said that the meek will inherit the earth, and that it would be easier for a camel to pass though the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven? Therefore the Church itself should avoid ostentation and magnificence and should minister above all to the poor – to whom Francis and his followers referred as ‘the living images of Christ’. Religious art, accordingly, should speak the language of those poor people. It should be direct and immediate and easy to understand. It should be realistic, in order to compel belief in the stories of the Bible: because belief in those stories is faith, and faith is what saves.

The conviction with which Francis and his likeminded contemporaries preached that message was the driving force behind Renaissance art in its earliest and most vital phase. And all of it – Francis’s personal sense of mission, as well as the new buildings, the new paintings and sculptures created to serve that sense of mission – was born out of a moment of crisis.

Much the same might be said of many other great shifts in the history of art. Would Dutch art of the so-called Golden Age, with its peaceful landscapes and gentle celebrations of domestic life, breathe the same air of nervous and idealistic optimism had it not been for the eighty years of war with Spain that preceded it? Could the turbulence of French Romanticism have ever stirred into being had it not been for the upheavals of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars? Could the English Gothic style have developed its own peculiarities – seesawing between morbid nostalgia for the medieval past and visions of a dystopian future – had it not been for the trauma of the Industrial Revolution, the birth of the modern metropolis and with it the spectre of a new, nineteenth-century urban poor?

I am sure there are lessons to be drawn from all this, but I personally do not subscribe to what might be called ‘the cuckoo clock argument’ – the glib idea put forward by Orson Welles in The Third Man, that tumult and conflict (as in Italy under the Borgias) produce great art, while peace and understanding (as in Switzerland) produce only trivia like cuckoo clocks. Thinking like that leads to another glib misconception, namely the belief that good or interesting art is a silver lining to every cloud of crisis. The times might have been bad, but look on the bright side: at least they produced some good books to read and some wonderful pictures to look at. I think that is the wrong way to see it. The truth is more complicated.

Moments of crisis have a way of making people – some people, at least – rethink their lives, re-evaluate their relationships with others and reconsider their values. At such moments art is naturally revitalised and is almost bound to ask searching questions with fresh intensity – for the simple reason that art is always the mirror of a broader human consciousness. I would be very surprised if our own, current crisis did not yield similar results. I also think that although our troubles cannot be equated with those facing thirteenth-century Italy, many of St Francis’s beliefs deserve renewed consideration. What he had to say about the inequality between rich and poor, and about man’s relationship to the natural world, seems as true today as it did eight hundred years ago.

Andrew Graham-Dixon

Andrew Graham-Dixon is one of the leading art critics and broadcasters in the English-speaking world. He is the author of numerous books on subjects ranging from the art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance to the present day, including A History of British Art (1994), Renaissance (1999), Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (2008) and Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane (2010), which was shortlisted for the UK's most prestigious non-fiction book award, the Samuel Johnson Prize.

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