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The Spirit of Secular Art

Chapter 4

The agonies of spiritual invention

Robert Nelson

Why would a woman sew her thighs together, using a needle and thread? You have your suspicions: sexual perversity and perhaps shock value in the context of art. It could be as simple as a child doing something silly or painfully naughty in order to get noticed. You could have lots of theories. But because you have probably never met a woman who sews her thighs together, you do not really know the answer. It is an extreme act with an extremely uncertain motivation.

The performance, recorded and spectacularly monumentalized in large photographic images, is by Monika Tichacek.1 You only see the outcome of the stitching and not the enactment; but in many cases, a ritualistic scenario is played out with another participant. The photographic language, with its morbid darkness and lighting from the sides, belongs to an erotic genre; and the women exercise their wits on cruelty for the sake of sado-masochistic pleasure. Sometimes, these rituals extend to eating one another. Mouths are bruised and garnished with thorns; face and shoulder are apparently gnawed away and a figure is seen in the act of devouring, like a proud lioness pawing lustfully over her kill. The work that stages this lurid anthropophagy reminds me of the animaliers of the nineteenth century.

Numerous bronze works by Barye and Fremiet and the earlier paintings by George Stubbs show helpless herbivores succumbing to the claw and fang of hungry cats. The genre develops a cruel aesthetic, in which the misery of the victim heightens the glee of the aggressor. It makes death perversely attractive. Cruelty is valorized as natural, as a part of instinct, an urge that the carnivore cannot suppress, any more than it can deny its hunger. But the sculptures of the early industrial period make you focus on the anguish of the horse or doe, which is presented as horribly beautiful.

The artists of the period were able to clinch an archaic sentiment in favour of the precious victim. The fiercest rush of adrenaline in the final moments is seen as sacred, related to the lamb of sacrifice, transcendental and paradoxically full of grace. But no sculptor or painter could ever disentangle the hallowed virtue from a base thrill, a ghastly joy in carnal conquest seized at its height in mortal penetration of the helpless desirable other by the predator. There is an erotic dimension that you recognize with inner perplexity, a troubling elation that sanctifies death with love.

Tichacek’s photographs are absorbing and sensational, titillatingly theatrical in a crazy and eccentric vein. They make you think of Matthew Barney rather than Barye and Fremiet: they do not relate the world of the erotic to another sphere of spirit. For all that, the works are astonishingly stressful and seem somehow to threaten the decorous sublimation of ritual. The best sequences are those where circular holes have been cut in the stockings in ritual preparation for a stitch in the skin: the legs have then been threaded in a beautiful web that makes you think of cat’s cradle (an innocent string-game that seven-year old girls adore), only riddled with pain.

In one photograph, a couple dances; but the woman with free legs hooks her foot in the elasticated mesh, which would send brutal shivers into the inner legs of the encumbered woman. In another sequence, a dominatrix figure attends the victim at the trunk of a tree. The young woman with sown thighs (presumably the artist) sits primly: for she could not easily alter her posture until the stitching is nipped. Meanwhile, the older woman lifts the younger woman’s sequin dress with gnarled authority, making you expect that a final phase might unpick the infibulation and deliver the torment to her satisfaction. One of the images presents the legs like a gateway, with the cat’s cradle connecting them in a symmetrical web, pinching the skin and drawing a series of graphic lozenges in the centre. The angular shape is vaginal in a crazy staggered fashion, dropping a bizarre ladder of abstract openings below the crutch toward the ground. Each tensile window beckons for some hideous maltreatment.

It is hard to unpick the meaning of these works. They could be nothing but a simple rehearsal of sado-masochistic pleasures. Or they could reach toward greater metaphoric or allegorical clout. There is potential for a powerful meaning. The dance with depravity strikes me as possibly more than narcissistic thighmanship. It belongs to a larger critique of the cultural reception of the body, in which the erotic is not seen in terms of ideal beauty but a highly customized subcultural organization of fantasy. This critique occurs in numerous performative works, mostly by women, such as the Australian group of artists, The Kingpins. In terms of cultural history, this is a critique of humanism.

As with Tichacek, the terms of this critique centre on the body. The body is no longer owned by culture (much less God) as an archetype, with its predictable biological function. It is inhabited by filthy thrills, possessed of unseasonal urges; and in the sense that the body represents life, you could say that it is constituted by outrageous desires: my body is inseparable from a psychological animus, intrinsically grotesque and perverse, that endows the flesh with its felt meaning. If I figure the body in art, it must come with the peculiar set of internalized social dynamics that make up my desire, this greater economy—as Freud called it—in which my libido and superego have constructed my ego in relation to the outside world. It makes no sense to segregate the visible flesh as some kind of passive vessel or vehicle or host to be understood as the machinery that carries the psyche. The very distinction of body and mind is a deplorable furphy that prevents the body from being understood as organically intimate with its own life, its energy, its will and desire. The psychological properties, as grotesque as they may appear alongside the objectified conventions of humanist body are celebrated in their lurid richness; and the lustful and adorable spectacle of the flesh (which had for so long been denied its subjectivity) may now be championed through the peculiar and aberrant charge that makes my body relate to another’s.

Humanism, that high achievement of the Renaissance intellect, is now the subject of innumerable critiques of objectification, in art overt, surreptitious and even unconscious; and you could sometimes suspect that no avant garde art is made which is not a critique of the values of humanism. But before we can unravel the spiritual virtues of such critiques, we need to explore the spiritual calibre of humanism itself.

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Art historians and religious enthusiasts have to explain to one another what they mean by humanism. There is sometimes little common ground in their usage. Among fundamentalists, the word is synonymous with a scornful atheism, the perverse idolization of mankind, the promotion of humans above God, indeed the arrogant displacement of God from the cosmos. Renaissance historians, on the other hand, use the word to talk about Christian people of great learning who admired antiquity, studied Latin and Greek texts, enjoyed an impressive curiosity for ancient myth and sought parallels between pagan philosophy and Biblical truth.2

The great artistic resource for this community was allegory. There had always been allegory; it was not a Renaissance invention (as the Greek word testifies) and could even be understood as eminently Biblical inasmuch as the parables are a literary trope of symbolic representation, akin to allegory. The parables are an ingenious method of making higher truths manifest to a relatively uneducated audience but—the prophet hopes—with such poetic magic that the deeper truths are also apprehended with greater pregnancy by the learned who can appreciate the subtle poetic reasons for the layered allusions and their pertinence to the ineffable. When Christ himself speaks in parables, who will contest the suitability of the genre for expressing the workings of providence? Allegory did not have a pagan copyright; it was apparently universal and very suitable, too, for expressing universal truths.

As a rambling but sophisticated philosophical system which reconciles sacred and secular wisdom, humanism forever engages allegory, because allegory is capable of converting dogma into speculation; it is apt for inviting poetic and philosophical inflexions into a pious domain, or for linking certain rigid ideas so that their greater complexity affords an enchanting open-endedness, far from the spiritual closure of dogma. With allegory happily marrying earthly matters to the higher realms, the poet could (a) enjoy a whole sensual world of imagery, (b) expect that it would be capable of extrapolation toward divinity and (c) consider that the imaginative and veiled shadow-boxing of the spiritual in the arena of the physical would prove supremely artistic. The poet can celebrate the heavy breath of the lover, the restless night spent thinking about the beautiful form of the object of desire; and not only can this relishing of lust be construed as an intellectual pilgrimage toward the divine but the poetic intermingling of candour and allusion could yield an artistic masterpiece.

The nineteenth-century historian of Italian literature Francesco De Sanctis says that Dante was Italy’s first poet but Petrarch her first artist.3 There would be several ways to interpret the remark, but something along the lines of allegory makes a useful point of departure. Both writers use allegory; but whereas Dante’s allegories are self-evidently allegorical—and have a patently religious focus in the superintending divine order spelt out in the Divine Comedy—Petrarch’s allegories are initially experienced as ingenuous emotional confession; for he writes about longing in such a sustained and preoccupied way that the allegorical conceit which subsumes all the poems to Laura is stylistically deflected. It is only through having the experience of desire evoked in an incantational obsessiveness that you later appreciate an ulterior energy. Petrarch does not delay the allegorical meaning in order to spend more time indulging in the emotion without religious interference; rather, he creates more free space around the emotional condition so that its link with the religious can be dramatized more fully. It is an inversion of the erotic paradigm by which the deferral of gratification heightens the pleasure: in Petrarch, the spiritual consummation is deferred to strengthen its infusion of your experience through so much sympathetic desire. In particular, the Christian sacrament of penitence can be drawn out with wonderful poetic effect in the extensions of the confessed desire.

The visual counterpart to the allegorical machinations of poets in the early Renaissance is more formal than iconographic. As already noted, painters and sculptors of the proto-Renaissance are absorbed in the labour of creating space around a motif; and this independence lets the motif enjoy a sensory life of its own, even as it is inevitably conscripted into a religious role with which it enjoys a marvellously convoluted relationship. The most memorable and seductive expression of this convolution is the style known as International Gothic, a visual ethos of great flamboyance in which lyrical pictures were configured in panels alongside the prolific use of ornament. In itself, the superabundance of decorative detail, protesting the festive elaborations of architectonic elements rather than the authority of the picture that it frames, can be interpreted as the deferral of dogmatic power.

In International Gothic, artists maintained the effort of the previous generation to create life-like figures; but they conceived all illusionistic spaces within an independent ornamental regimen in the gilded frames. Instead of being held by an even cornice on all four sides, the picture is mounted within a Gothic arch, sometimes with smaller arches springing inside it and often rising on equally elaborate columns with barley-twist motifs and so on. To speak of the picture, singular, is misleading: there was often a whole typological complexity of images locking into architectural niches, oculi and plinths, all similarly ornamented and gilded. The ambitious structure of the frames did not contribute to the illusionistic spaces figured inside them; on the contrary, it created a rather rhapsodic teasing of the perspectival aspirations of each picture, and especially the larger ones whose attempts at rendering space were the more conspicuous. In aesthetic terms, the frames seem to act as a lyrical diversion, accenting the florid and sometimes languid compositions of International Gothic painting.

In symbolic terms, however, the reason for the frames was liturgical. Certainly the appearance of the frames (like that of the paintings) is graceful, refined and courtly, an air which has drawn some viewers to see the chivalrous style as foppish and frivolous, lacking all the gravity of the ‘reformist’ generation around 1300. This judgement is misguided. The complicated architectural schemes of International Gothic were for the sake of the liturgy. Most of the commonly published International Gothic paintings were configured along the lines of altarpieces, that is, church furniture at a most focal part of the celebrations. Although from a distance International Gothic altarpieces seem to constitute a pretty and seductive tickling of formerly severe religious iconography, the intricate festivity of their design is highly functional in a religious context. Sure there is a lightness and somewhat skipping rhythm in the visual texture of these highly permutated objects; but the spread of the architectural frame by the altar suggests a heavenly vision in which the clever little painted illusions are already in their place in heaven; an order greater than their little window attends them.

Artworks had always been commanded by architectural imperatives and, as often as not, the schemes into which pictures fitted were hieratic, defining the relative importance of each work and making each submit to an overarching order. In fact, artworks were seldom autonomous; they generally submitted to the terms of a larger design which, appropriately, would muster the individual energies of all of the spatial configuration within it and create a powerful whole. An example would be the sculpted figures in the portal of a Gothic cathedral. Their columnar direction would contribute to the energies of the doorway, to which they also contributed the symbolic ceremony of ‘entry’ as the textual human sentinels inviting a spiritual ingress to the word of God. And so it is, on a somewhat less august level, with any given painting in the picturesque regimes of International Gothic. The physical subscription, so to speak, of the painting to the architectural whole could be extrapolated to suggest the infallible co-operation of all earthly and celestial things to the greater harmonies of God. Architectural ornament is a language of agreements among minor details toward the most majestic, a reflection, then, of divine order.

By absorbing these architectural principles into the artwork itself, the work becomes a kind of allegory of heavenly will. The difference between the painting and the cathedral is scale and majesty: the painting lacks the tangible might and overpowering awe of the soaring piers and the expanse of the floor answered above by the spatial progression of column, window, clerestory, ribbed ceiling and so on, all striving upward with interpenetrating energies. The altarpiece is intimate, precious, adorable, cute. It is not a building but a painting. It is just that it retains within its essentially planar construction the architectural privilege of conscripting artworks into a greater totality, by analogy to the greater powers of God. The fact that this occurs in such a diminutive spatial ensemble intensifies the allegorical mission. Lesser pertains to greater. The Gothic cathedral was already dramatically great and its pertinence to an even greater order has a remoteness about it which quite matches the sublimity of the architecture. The altarpiece, on the other hand, is but a flourish, a gesture, a most pleasing token; but the great prestige of the altarpiece is its pertinence to God, in other senses no weaker than that of the mighty cathedral.

No one will compare a Gothic cathedral to an International Gothic altarpiece. The contrast is artificial, yet it is worth remembering that before the advent of International Gothic altarpieces, there was no very logical place for a painting in a Gothic church. Where would you hang it? The walls had been attenuated to such a degree that they were literally marginalized to the aisles, a dark area which hardly dignifies them. The whole nervous organic character of the church does not welcome square units propped up here or there; the upward thrust of the edifice repudiates the arbitrary rectangle of illusionistic space, promising a coherent sight ‘through’ the picture-plane. The cathedral directs the gaze ‘beyond’ the concerted definition of a rectangle, driving attention high up toward the stained glass windows with pointed arches or constellations of circles in the rose windows. The International Gothic altarpiece, on the other hand, institutes the picture in an architectural space of its own Gothic character, predicated on the plane and therefore sympathetic to the illusionistic spaces which it frames. The art now commands the ornament rather than the ornament commanding the art. It is a little church in its own right, a shrine within the church with architectonic presence. It goes without saying that the structural role of the frame bears no relation to the shafts, arches and buttresses of Gothic architecture. They are largely superfluous from an engineering point of view. They are assumed by the altarpiece for symbolic reasons.4

Although we must always affirm the integrity of the artwork as a whole (both painting and frame) the interest is in the status of the picture. By merely ornamental contrivances, the ensemble of frame and painting takes on the symbolic values of a house of worship. It is an honour conferred on the ensemble—not on the painting as such—but, on account of the obvious centrality of the picture, the prestige more readily passes to the painting than anything else. The painting provides the whole rationale for the frame. The dynamic between painting and frame works in a celebratory direction in favour of the painting. The hieratic relationship is obvious. Just as the frame contains the painting, the painting contains the holy personages and events. The medium of the saints is superior and is supported by appropriate supplication in the dancing and twisting of the frame.

Art is a stage on which mighty things are contracted to be performed on a small scale. It is not a modest charter. International Gothic altarpieces appear flighty and rarefied; but they are among the holiest thing in the Church—next to the altar itself—and, in their air of excessive gentility, they acquire a certain consecrated boastfulness. They are a sanctuary, a site of powerful spiritual investment, akin to the ancient arc of the covenant or any other noble piece of ecclesiastical furniture which was festively ornamented to enshrine the word in a figurative way. The spiritual achievement of International Gothic is to have taken solemn liturgical elements and absorbed them within an aesthetic, to have abstracted the independent sacramental status of both picture and ornament from their confinement to ritual and embodied them in a synthetic style of fastidious spatial hierarchies.

Pictures had never had this status. Miniature architecture was developed for them. It is allegorical architecture: it proposes that the images assembled within it are not merely isolated pictures of saints and holy episodes but a miniature heaven, a gorgeous gathering of holy things in divine unison. It is multiple stagecraft which enacts the sweetness of holy affinities and alludes, in its sumptuous fiddliness, to the universal harmonies of heaven. The painting ‘happens’ in a theatre rather than a frame; it is larded with connotations of a golden servitude, a world energetically celebrating God through worldly objecthood and, by its internal formal arguments, acquires some of the holiness of its painted content. So here again is the new ascendancy of the material to the spiritual: the stylistic agency to recreate by the altar the enchantment of heaven amounts to the ultimate sacramental prestige. But once again, this occurs through borrowing the vocabulary of a more austere liturgical artistic language—Gothic—in a period which had lost heart for its strenuous formal discipline. The credibility for the new International Gothic style derives from the old order whose liturgical gravity cannot be maintained; but the sacramental calibre of the new art—its ability to create an efficacious sanctified vision—is assumed to be greater because of its self-sufficiency, its allegorical lightness, its apparent freedom from a stony encompassing archaic grandeur.

Renaissance art and design, however, are normally placed by historians in the succeeding period in which the nervous Gothic cues were scrapped in favour of firmer classical roots. Profiting from the perspectival work by artists like Ambrogio Lorenzetti, the Renaissance proper also cultivated a powerful kind of drawing which placed all objects in a logical position, with an optically logical scale, given a fixed viewpoint.5 The simultaneity of both changes is undoubtedly no coincidence and much has been made of the great spirit of reason resurfacing after a hiatus in the middle ages to dominate the art, design and literature of the Renaissance.

As with all the received paradigms of art history, there is some truth in it. But what the innovations take with them from the former spiritual predicates is often forgotten in the understandable focus on technical, formal, stylistic and even iconographic advances. Altarpieces, for example, did not cease to exist, even though very few remain in an International Gothic idiom, such as the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano of 1423.6 It is the famous epoch in which Florentine sculptors, architects and painters—Ghiberti, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Masaccio—would clinch the classicizing enthusiasm of humanism, reflecting a neo-Roman climate in which the formal intricacies of Gothic were all but obsolete and sometimes even despised as dark and sinister, probably for chauvinistic reasons. But while the International Gothic frame ceases to be pursued on a stylistic level, its functional genius is maintained through a stylistic revetment of a classical nature. Instead of the delicate flutter of so many multiple pointed arches, innumerable crockets and pinnacles, the altarpiece would take on the trabeated form of classical architecture, all classical column, classical entablature and classical podium. An imposing example is the Santo Zeno Altarpiece by Mantegna of circa 1460. As in International Gothic altarpieces, the ensemble admits sophisticated typological arguments to ricochet between central images and their predelle, those little images in the lower zones, the structural part of the altarpiece whose architectural role is to form a base or stereobate for the taller pilastered zone above.7

The painting as temple or shrine is carried into the sixteenth century. Most aspects of the history of art are adequately told by looking at pictures and sculptures; but the symbolic and spiritual status of the objects is also revealed by their design, for this speaks clearly of a context of function. The vertical sides of the frame are presented as pilastered walls. The lower horizontal member is conceived as a base which runs underneath the two vertical sides and exceeds them by a small margin. The upper horizontal member is conceived as an entablature, a lintel which similarly runs past the vertical shafts beneath which figuratively support it, in the same way as the verticals rest upon the base below. All joins are right-angles. There are no mitres, which are the traditional way to resolve the encounter of horizontal and vertical in wooden construction. It is the language of the compressive, derived from construction in stone which is the medium of the whole of Graeco-Roman architecture. It is, however, neither the medium of painting nor of framing. The only reason for framing pictures in this way is to make of the flat surface a shrine, just as in International Gothic, but with the greater gravity and clout of the classical language of architecture, entailing heftier landmark status.8

Meanwhile, the framing method known today—consisting of four mouldings of uniform description joined by mitres—was used for a whole host of contexts. Most were secular, especially portraiture. But their use gradually spread and, by the middle of the century, the standard kind of frame known today (albeit with richer mouldings) supplanted the architectural shrines for sacred pictures destined for churches. The reasons for this take-over relate to the enthusiasms generated by the paintings themselves.

Since the epoch of dolce stil novo, painters had made significant steps toward greater accuracy in proportions, greater consistency of light, greater expression of volume, greater logic in the arrangement of space. The labour was undoubtedly intended to endow figures and their environment with a more believable value. Pictures form a more authoritative spectacle in their own right. The improvements in illusionism were clinched, as it were, by the invention of one-point perspective around the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Perspective is a systematic method for establishing the correct diminution in the size of objects according to their distance from the viewer. The process is neither spontaneous nor traditional but intellectual and scientific, concerned with optical logic. The recognition of one-point perspective invoked an imaginary grid in the artist’s perception for charting orthogonals to a vanishing point, the spot where parallel lines in a motif appear to converge if taken to infinity. The implicit grid depends on consistency. There can be no distinctive accenting of horizontals or verticals, no privileging of one part over another. All lines in the grid must equally obey the same criteria for accurately mapping recession into space. This virtual grid is in no way acknowledged or flattered by a frame of compressive weights and different kinds of corners. It calls for even sides for all pictures.

Regular picture frames suited the pictures. If there was no conspicuously hieratic convention of large and small in the picture, why endow the frame with an architectural system of dynamic weights and stresses whose ornamental elaborations narrate the dependence of greater on lesser? These allegories in design are somehow anachronistic. The use of polyptychs also declined, probably because comparisons between pictures in folding planes (and possibly of different site or scale or inconsistent spatial assumptions) seemed to countervail the illusionistic aspiration of each picture. One way or another, the regular frame prevails as does the perspectival rigour of the pictures within them.

From that time onward an altarpiece is never quite an altarpiece in the same way. Sure, they function as a backdrop for the celebration of mass and, on account of the simplicity of the plane devoted to a powerful illusion, sixteenth-century altarpieces have memorable presence. But it is no longer the presence of a shrine; it no longer has the connotations of a house of worship; it no longer miniaturizes through the allegory of ornament the relation between holies and heaven; it no longer figuratively intercedes on your behalf before the majesty of the almighty to produce an intimate theatre of episodic encounters. Later altarpieces are paintings which have a greater impact as paintings. The genre of painting is confident and self-sufficient; it boasts its own faculties of suggesting heavenly spaces and relations and does not need to subscribe to an archaic ornamental order to enact holiness. And, of course, the paintings are successfully holy. But part of their success as sacred images lies in the process of (a) stepping into the sacramental role of old altarpieces, (b) forswearing the ornamental context of the sacred tradition in which sacramental connotations were embedded and (c) appearing to have shed the materialistic appurtenances of the former archaic tradition and more appropriately addressing the spiritual through the primacy of vision.

The spiritual claims of painting would indeed move from the middle of the fifteenth century and extend to the furthest secular realms which could be reached by allegory. From the very moment when painters had an almost infallible perspectival technique, had perfected the rendering of volumes in light and had mastered anatomy and gesture, they paradoxically created scenes with incomprehensible iconography. The first notable case is Piero della Francesca, whose Flagellation escapes the interpretative consensus of any two Renaissance scholars in a given room.9 The figures of men whipping Jesus are obviously enacting the Biblical episode as written. So is the gentleman sitting down, who must be Pontius Pilate, having authorized the punishments. The man closer to us with his back toward us need not be anyone very important. However, the three figures on the right hand side—apparently either implicated in the events or in some way reflecting them in a contemporary context—cannot be explained. No doubt it is allegorical; but the picture is intentionally mysterious. The soffit above Christ is illuminated by a supernatural light, and the picture is rich in ironies, such as the figure of a pagan god presiding pompously over the column around which Christ is tied. In an idiom of scientific clarity in the establishment of space, Piero has nevertheless installed a depth of speculation. Like the equally beautiful Baptism, his Flagellation has the air of being darkly encrypted by a slightly withdrawn personality.10 There may not be a simple explanation for either picture. They are mysterious in content, even though limpid in their visual construction.

Toward the end of the fifteenth century the ambitions of Renaissance painting extend to allegories of secular subject matter. In particular, the paintings of Piero di Cosimo, Botticelli and Bellini present learned riddles which have for some time engaged the wits of scholars to supply interpretations. Even when advanced with erudition and confidence, all theories are somehow suspended by the paintings themselves and, sooner or later, lose the air of finality initially vaunted. The paintings call for a learned hermeneutic response, and scholars have hardly shown vanity in accepting the invitation and attempting to derive sources in ancient literature for their purposeful juxtaposition of mythological figures. But their best attempts remain provisional, for the paintings are allegorical in a poetic way: they resist a single interpretation amid a plethora of possibilities; and this room for ambiguity, along with refined aesthetic nuances, creates their peculiarly pregnant inspiration.

Botticelli is the clearest example, because his work deals with love and therefore lends itself to Neo-Platonic interpretation. The voluptuous beauty of his women in sexually seductive poses and near or total nudity makes clear that his vision of love is erotic. But the subject matter is love in a functional allegorical sense as well; for the figures are identifiably Venus (as in the Birth of Venus and Venus and Mars) and Cupid (as in the Primavera or Spring).11 The gentle painter has installed figures of Venus to tell stories in an oblique figurative way about the agency of love. The interpretations of art historians tend to converge in this; moreover, they favour a broadly neo-Platonic pattern, which emphasizes the role of sensual love in climbing toward intellectual and spiritual excellence, leading undoubtedly to God. The compositional thrust of the Primavera, for example, demonstrates this aspiration. A crude form of erotic energy rushes in from the right: the figure of Zephyr grabs the wood nymph Chloris who, in the encounter, emerges as the goddess of flowers, Flora. Thus the metamorphosis related in Ovid’s Fasti.12 Then, to the left, the goddess Venus (presumably) presides with vertical authority, dividing the composition with an air of equanimity. She gestures lightly toward the Three Graces who dance in a delicate but close and erotic manner. The central Grace is being shot by Cupid who flies above Venus. The beautiful dancing figure turns her head longingly at the final figure on the left, the god Mercury (a kind of god of communication) who, however, does not reciprocate but takes the energy, as it were, and gestures aloft with a rod—his attribute, the caduceus—and stirs the element of heaven. In this sequence, the force of raw passion and desire is transformed by grace under the guidance of a celestial Venus (for she has a star-spangled robe) to become an intellectual aspiration toward the godly.

Through such masterpieces, the art of painting gains inestimable prestige. The new glamour does not derive from usurping Christian belief. Art historians have generally been at pains to point out that there is no contradiction between the content of such pictures (nor indeed any of their possible neo-Latin sources) and Christian theology. On the contrary, the whole impetus of neo-Platonism was to reconcile Christian dogma and pagan spirituality, to find texts from antiquity—such as Plato but particularly Plotinus, much cultivated by the Florentine humanist Ficino—which had already abstracted, as it were, the carnal pantheon of gods to establish a core divinity analogous to the one true God. Philosophers, poets and painters were free to celebrate any of the pagan spiritual intuitions, within the parameters of confirming faith in Christ. The consequence of that celebration was to add to the earthly promotion of divinity, to provide new access to the mysteries, to enlarge the routes of mystical comprehension.13 And, as the language used by philosophers, painters and poets was seductively rich (often centring around the spiritual value of beauty), the magic of the extended pathways was powerful. The imagination gained new spiritual gifts.

What Petrarch had done in the fourteenth century was to elaborate desire as a cue to ascend to holy awareness. What painters did toward the end of the fifteenth century was to identify Christian theology in pagan spirituality, through a host of beautiful personifications and myths. For Petrarch, the perspective was rather cramped and at times contradictory: he wanted to allegorize the processes of sacred adoration through earthly desire; but he also needed to enact the process of contrition, thereby compromising his own allegorical privilege. In the mature Renaissance these anxieties were unnecessary. And because there was no need to agonize excessively over the theological justification of the erotic, the privileges could extend to painters. Artists now had the skills, too, to emulate the styles of antiquity; the work of architects and poets encouraged them; and their great proximity to the physical side of the ideal placed them in an enviable position for allegorizing the celestial ideal with any number of carnal nuances.

Despite intensive private patronage, the structure of the spiritual order did not change in the Renaissance. It was firmly based around the Church and the families who led the Church, none of whom had a concerted will to have the ancestral piety and privileges infiltrated by uncertain arcana. Most of Botticelli’s paintings are religious in a fairly direct convention. Priests remained priests in the Renaissance; there was no backing down or weakening of canon law or any other administrative part of the church, just as there was no deviation from any of the traditional liturgical activities of the cult. If anything, the dominance of religious offices by family oligopolies reinforced the structural stability of the church by a close identification of ecclesiastical and temporal power.

And yet the religious discipline as represented in art seems to have been mollified by a new urbanity. Humanism made for an erudite culture: one wanted to be flattered by exorbitant scholarship, just as one wanted costly palaces with classical façades, cassoni with classical ornaments and priceless objects all’antica. In this ambience of historicist enthusiasm, paintings also had to be learned; they had to show not only a knowledge of ancient iconographies but an inspirational sophistication in manipulating the elements of classical subject matter toward philosophical arguments. The task was probably too ambitious for painters to cope with on their own. Art historians like to posit the agency of a ‘humanist adviser’, a thoroughly schooled poet who could suggest philosophical allegorical schemes for painters to borrow in informing compositions of their own imagination.

In this prestigious undertaking, a whole cosmology is envisaged and laid down for eternity, with the imprimatur of a Churchy family. Once the exclusive preserve of priests in a hallowed tradition, the devising of spiritual iconographies is now contrived by ‘intellectuals’, a humanist partnership of artist and poetic scholar, with a relatively high degree of doctrinal autonomy. Their relish of pagan gods as appropriate symbolic vessels of spiritual edification—no matter how consonant with Christian values—would not have been possible within the old structures of the Church. The praxis of the religion, the worship of God, remained steadfastly within the traditional dogmatic institution whose copyright on such matters no one would ever challenge from outside. But the most dynamic theoria was happening beyond the cloth, so to speak; for the theological insights concerning the deeper transference of divinity were in the province of poets and painters. In their hands, the innovative and inspirational speculations do not have the air of a severe theological discipline but a comely and inventive seduction.

Renaissance allegories appear to transcend dogmatic parameters, to go beyond worship toward contemplation, to take belief into the territory of philosophy. It seems more momentous than it really was. Religious self-referentiality seems to be challenged, to face an onslaught of parallel enthusiasms which take it away from dogma and so weaken its unquestioned hold on the imagination. Any religious idea could potentially be free to take on any doctrinal direction by the prophetic gifts of a humanist poet or painter. Unheard of-power! But there was one proviso, namely that whatever insights were furnished by these scholar-clairvoyants, it should be by way of supplementation—not challenge—with respect to all existing spiritual assumptions.

Artistic autonomy is not yet an imaginable condition. The innovations of allegorical artists lie within existing parameters; they are dependent on expectations of transcendence which were provided long since by the sacramental status of art. The most apparently radical art of the time trades upon Christian sacramental glory. It is a language of redemption and immortality. It represents and purveys an understanding of grace; and it does so with the magic of all of the best art at the time, an intimate sublimity which proceeds from the ‘understanding brush’ as it sympathetically pulls the paint around the exquisitely drawn volumes. The power of the radical subject matter seems to derive from a cache of exotic mysteries running somewhat independently of Christian rituals (which indeed they antedate); but the effect of those mysteries lies in their ability to connect to mysteries which are to a greater or lesser extent still believed. If the representations had been wholly free of Christian connotations, they would be fossils, conjectural specimens of archaeology. They are much more than that; they are animated by contemporaneous knowledge of Christian sacraments.

The Christian sacraments are all exploited in the new magic. If they had been totally ignored, there may have been an aesthetic thrill in by-passing Christian spiritual assumptions; but this would have been a form of witchcraft, a dark ratbaggery reacting resentfully against the hegemony of the Church. The tenor of all Renaissance allegories is harmonious and, with the exception of images such as those of Apollo and Marsyas, they are aesthetically cheerful. They have no axe to grind. Their content is authorized by Christian belief to whose imperatives they ultimately comply. Nevertheless, the glamour of art is greatly enhanced by the apparent audacity of the humanist cause. First, one replaces Jesus with Venus; second, one invests Venus with a Christian redemptive message by way of neo-Platonic allegory; and third, one draws new sacramental prowess from doing all this with the air of prophetic invention, of perceiving higher truth with independence, and hence achieving visionary status.

This is the paradigm which also underlies the wealth of Venetian art after Bellini, the allegorical work of Giorgione, Titian, the Bassani, Tintoretto and Veronese. The art of these masters also makes a historical claim to spiritual invention which, however, is wholly dependent on dominant Christian spiritual axioms for its vivacity and credibility. But with the generation of the High Renaissance, a whole level of force and conviction is added which makes the work of the earlier Renaissance seem modest.

Among the many achievements of the High Renaissance is the enviable establishment of art status. This was no mere ruse of careerists; it was a result of the self-consciousness expressed in artworks of almost megalomaniac ambitions. Admittedly, the artistic attainments are matched with almost equal ambition for fame and greatness, a yearning which today strikes us as somewhat shameless and embarrassing. Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling of 1508–1512 is the earliest example of the superb, the almost arrogant pride of an artist in full mastery of unknown resources of the imagination, unknown confidence and expressive force.14 The ceiling narrates with an air of declaration the creation of the world by God, as well as the first stories of mankind from Genesis; and, particularly in the representation of the virile-looking God the father, the painting takes on the potency of the creator-spirit. The visual emulation of God strikes us as singularly successful: Michelangelo is seen to be doing the divine, enacting sacred history with a fervid belief in its happening; and in the muscular power of the interventions in space with which his figures project the holy drama, the artist offers a properly sacramental rehearsal, sacramental inasmuch as an emphatically physical translation of divine energies which compels psychological involvement in its awesome majesty.15

Massive projects such as the Sistine Ceiling are not the only evidence of the High Renaissance enthusiasm for enacting magnificence. Smaller pictures, such as portraits, sometimes acquire an equal presence by faithfully reflecting the sense of assurance of the great. Look at the Portrait of Pope Leo X by Raphael.16 The powerful Pope presides in an iconic frontal pose, flanked by a symmetrical entourage of two acolytes. The pictorial space is relatively shallow. Raphael proposes an alarming intimacy with the Pope, whose somewhat corpulent embrace of the materials on the table seems to fill up the picture. Behind him are two Cardinals, looking rather more shifty and ambitious than deferential or reverend. The Pope is not concerned about them. He knows that he embodies supreme authority: no one will challenge him and his every pronouncement on doctrine is infallible. Raphael demonstrates this certainty by showing the Pope in a relaxed and relatively informal pose and space. Of course the Pope remains the highest ‘institution’ in western Christendom and, merely by painting him in his cathedra and robes (which could not possibly have been substituted by casual clothes), a great deal of institutional authority is conveyed. But Raphael’s approach begins a kind of de-institutionalizing process by which painting represents the inner character of a person. The focus on the institutional architecture declines and a new penetration of the person replaces it. The figure is scrutinzed as the painting insinuates the analytical gaze into people’s carnal appearance, posture, gesture and habitual behaviour. That celebrated ‘intellectual’ or ‘analytical’ focus of the Renaissance genius is seen in Leo III with a kind of inverted pomposity. It candidly confesses the ambitious temper of the epoch in its very casualness.

The High Renaissance undoubtedly produced some duds but the keynote is set by masterpieces. In them there is nothing tentative or quaint, even when transferred from the aulic clarity of Florence to the intimacy and warmth of Venice. What Florentine artists could do by an aloof grandeur the Venetians would do with sanguine corporality. For centuries the art of the two towns has been compared, typically in favour of Florence by those who like discipline and chastity of form; whereas those who like the suggestion of slap-and-tickle normally hold their tongue but vouch for the ongoing affection for the Venetians by the attention they give to them and also, when artists, by their stylistic emulation.

Iconographically, the Venetians are closer to Botticelli than are the Florentine triumvirate of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael. The Venetians enjoyed learned allegory and painted the pagan gods with the same kind of neo-Platonic richness which belonged to the Humanist tradition around the Medici, though perhaps somewhat simplified and earthy. Titian’s painting of so-called Sacred and Profane Love is a checklist of virtues and vices which belong respectively with two female personifications (personifications of what one does not precisely know).17 The two women sit on opposing sides of a classical well. One of them is clothed: she has a seductive look and, beside her legs on the well, there is a carved image of an unbridled horse; there is a ruined castle in the background and rabbits rooting around in the scrub. On the other side, the woman is naked; but instead of the ruined castle, there is a Church; the horse is replaced by a scene of chastisement and the plague of rabbits by husbandry. Clearly the nude woman is morally superior and is presumably related to the idea of naked truth. But the painting also deals with the erotic and is not so moralistic as to eliminate ambiguity. Both women are lovely and are painted with fulsome dignity; you know that Titian has enjoyed painting them and savouring whatever vices are contingent on whichever is the baser in his personal revaluation.

The privileges of painting are not merely to point out that such-and-such a god may procure a spiritual enlightenment when understood in a sublime way. It is to operate with whatever messages through the visual in such a seductive way that the viewer is drawn into the terms of the illusion—or even the paint itself—to try to divine the ultimate meaning. Ambiguity is not a thing in itself but it is a great commodity of the poetic. As a painter, you have to work within a basically shared understanding and reveal essential lineaments of an idea which are satisfactory on their own. But thereafter, the finer readings can be tickled this way and that; and in this teasing of the subject matter by the expression of its own sensuality, the painting gains an almost outrageous charm. So often in the works of Titian a beautiful woman represents an abstract virtue (as with the personifications above and numerous others such as Flora, even extending to sacred figures) but the sensual appeal which the painter captures spiritually hijacks the work.18

This is not quite like the divine sensuality of the Greeks whose perfection abides in a stony ideal, no matter how judiciously inflected with muscular gestures and the tensile erotic dynamic of bodies. Titian’s eroticism is deliciously insidious: you never catch him painting goddesses but beautiful women; they all look like portraits, with the peculiar characteristics of the person often being repeated in paintings of incongruous thematic material. He has before him—not unlike Botticelli—his favourite beauty and paints her with a finely balanced and tasteful lewdness. You can tell that he wants to undress his women; he wants to peer more deeply into the cleavage and, in one celebrated picture, the Bacchanale of the Andrians, he actually inserts a piece of paper inside a buxom woman’s bodice with his own signature on it.19 When he paints women naked, he gives the impression that they want to make love or have just done so, as with the reclining—and presumably intoxicated—woman in the same picture.

But the ravishment of a Titian painting is not in the beauty of the model alone, nor even the venereal implications of the subject matter; and if it were only that it would probably be Kitsch. The high achievement is to have discovered a technique which internally celebrates the same sensuality, extending the voluptuous manner of painting to the umbrous landscape and ruddy sky. Titian only occasionally makes explicit gestures of love-making through the ‘pornographic’ interlacing of limbs. It is the quality of the painted flesh that makes almost all of his work so erotic. It is equally true of his male sitters in simple portraits. An example is the Portrait of a Man in the London National Gallery, sometimes known as a Portrait of Ariosto.20

The serene countenance turns toward us from a body oriented slightly away from us, with the foremost arm working its way across our access to the pictorial space and resting on the kind of ledge that was common in fifteenth-century painting. The features, the turning of the neck and the imposing sleeve are registered in an oblique light. You can intuit a light source in an unseen window not far away, that softest indoor source which illuminated the bulk of Venetian paintings and would inform the strongly directional lighting for the baroque. As the neck of the sitter passes into shadow, the turning of the surfaces on all axes is registered by several deliberate changes in colour. Tellingly enough, painters use temperature as a metaphor for chromatic relations; they speak of warm colours (in this case earth red, earth orange and earth yellow) passing into cool colours (earth green and earth blue). These transitions are subtle and at times rather disguised by an overall warmth installed in the flesh by warm glazes of siennas or other transparent oxides. But beneath them, the temperature of the flesh varies in finely controlled degrees.

Most of the movements in the temperature of the paint are explained as a logical drawing process, expressing the separate volumetric planes in the motif and their organic integrity. The colour, in other words, accompanies the correctness of the drawing, supplementing the perception of waxing and waning in light to match the different kinds of contour or the degree to which the surfaces move in a parallel or perpendicular direction with respect to the viewer. It would be possible to explain all transitions from a material point of view, if we were prepared to go through the steps in the drawing process, that is, the way in which the eye registers just how the planes of a motif are registered in illusionistic space. But this process, even if rooted in a logical regime of perceptual drawing, has highly sensual consequences and, following the genius of the metaphor of temperature, almost metaphysically moody corollaries.

The chromatic richness of Venetian painting expresses something about skin itself, especially the way in which it is intrinsically warm and yet passes into cold depending on exposure to the ambient elements. The skin has an organic relationship with a number of contingencies, like proximity to clothing or a source of heat. The skin will obviously be warmer if open to a pleasant radiance and will give up heat when left to the breezy emptiness. It is warmer if the muscles are active beneath the skin, cooler if they are idle. The colour of skin is altered by proximity to arteries or gristle or calluses. The hues of the skin relay a whole subcutaneous natural history. Similar things can be said about light. The glow which comes in directly from a window has a powerfully warming effect while reflected light might be stripped of the heat and simply illuminate surfaces in a cold manner. The combination of the warm and cool colours, when judiciously mastered, is an interpretation of the subtle dynamic between organism and the life-giving element of light.21 So complicated are the variables of this dynamic that painters are generally imprudent to make rules about it. As a successful expression of living matter, it verges on the numinous.

Even though today physicists find it difficult to explain how light is simultaneously a particle and a wave phenomenon, we accept the view that it is a material phenomenon and, regardless of our embarrassments of finding the right language to say how it functions, that it has nothing supernatural or ghostly about it. But for past ages the opposite view was held, that light is a vivifying effulgence which obviously emanates from God and whose life-giving properties are a divine dispensation. Materialists though we be, it is hard to resist some thankful consciousness in the background that sunlight is intoxicatingly divine; and even in our industrial epoch Bataille will write a kind of heady hymn to the force of the sun, as if a neo-pagan nature-worshipper.22

To express this ‘gift’ of light, it is necessary to stage the encounter of the kindly element with the fragile and organic body which receives it. As if ultimately the reception of any god-sent largesse is always corporal, the physical boon is only committed to our understanding through feeling it—somewhat sacramentally—through the body. In Venetian painting, light does not merely appear to strike a hard surface, as in Piero della Francesca, but to penetrate a permeable surface. The skin is shown as somehow vulnerable to the light (just as it is vulnerable to cold) which can enter in subcutaneous degrees to share that agency of blood and muscle which also affects the tonality. Part of the effect, at least, is created by the shifting of chromatic tone which argues for the varying terms of the encounter between flesh and light, warming the flesh here and letting it transpire heat there and so on. But this joyful drama of the external element suffusing the inner substance is enacted by the paint in a further invention of technique to which the Venetians probably have a greater copyright than they do with chromatic modelling, which was immanent throughout the tradition and arguably developed in less sensual guises elsewhere.

The peculiarly beautiful penetration of light into the fabric of the skin is paralleled in the paint by using transparent glazes. Oil paint, which was invented in the north in the fifteenth century, enables layers to be floated over one another in thin glazes, using plenty of medium and very little paint.23 If you have transparent colours, you can ‘tint’, as it were, the painted volumes without altering their definition. The technique of glazing is just that: to put colour over painted volumes which are already established beneath in order to make them warmer.

Normally, a figurative painter uses opaque colours to build up illusionstic forms. When the light encounters the opaque paint, some of it is absorbed and some is scattered. The reflected light may be animated by virtue of its combinations of colour; but it is not intrinsically luminous and does not compare with the glow of transmitted light. Glazing, on the other hand, allows the painter to let the light seep into a layer of transparent paint, to strike the opaque colour beneath it and then reflect back up through the transparent layer. The light which bounces back in this way is filtered by the glaze layer and consequently has the character of transmitted light rather than reflected light. The result is a gorgeous luminosity which in some way imitates the glow of real skin in natural light. Having developed the technique, painters would use it for all naturally radiant phenomena, some background buildings picking up the late sun, a pastoral landscape through a window caught by oblique afternoon light, a glittering belt or a shiny metal knob on the hilt of a sword. But when applied to skin, the technique is magically suited to expressing the interaction of light with the carnal; for it inherently mimics the ‘breathing’ of the skin, its reception of light and that sense of the membrane harbouring the light and casting it back to our eyes with the richness of its indefinable colours.

Venetian painters used glazes on all flesh: bony old men and beauties alike are kissed, as it were, with the radiant blessing of Venetian luminosity; for the handsomeness (and vulnerability) of skin is common to all sitters and models, regardless of the evenness of their complexion. If anything, the women of aristocratically paler countenance discourage the painter’s inclination to infuse all painted flesh with a sumptuous depth of colour in the glazing. But a clever painter has resources in light oxides to cope with that ceramic calibre of skin too. In short, who would not have wanted to be painted in this style? There may be plenty of exaggeration in some of our sources, but when we read how the whole of European nobility was attracted to Venice in the hope of having their visages immortalized by Titian, Prince of Painters, we have a sign, at least, of a contemporary view of the painter’s offering.

The painter offers a celebration which goes beyond the vanity of fame; for, in one sense, the sitter is only given what every other figure gets, namely the honour of his or her skin resembling everyone else’s in real life and in real light. But the translation of what God does into the terms of what art does has a kind of sacramental status; there is a ritual of doing, a ceremonial incarnation of flesh in authoritative brushstrokes. The aesthetic re-enactments of form-making had never encroached so far upon the holiness of life, for it now deals with a corporal biological interchange with light. The Venetian painter did not register an ‘ideal’ in the sense of a perfect form—as of the fine-nosed Greeks—but an ineffable beauty about the warm-humoured organism which we share, regardless of the shape of our noses. Consider Titian’s portrait of the nasally proud Francis I: he is still beautiful in the sensuality of his presence.24 The Venetians have a portrait of the human whose physicality reaches beneath the epidermis; and it is universally glowing for all sitters. Beneath their brush, the flesh painted in warm light is celebrated in a way which parallels the consecration of matter for holy purposes.

The new offices of painting are secular; they do not proceed from liturgical incumbencies nor do they apply to sacred images more poignantly than to any private portrait commission. Nevertheless, they bring to all images an expression of great beauty and, in religious terms, a celebration of the most divine aspects of God’s creation; for they attempt to clinch in a visible demonstration those physical things which are capable of spirit, whose agency seems to the pious much more than metaphoric but actually divine. It is as if secular technology proffers the consummation of all the sacred aspirations which anyone could have imagined attending the visual things of this world.

When Venetian painters devise cryptic subject matter analogous to Botticelli’s, the presence of these techniques confers the most powerful mystique on the ideas; for there is an immanence in each personification, a magical trading of sacred elements, which gives to the whole allegory a kind of inspirational loftiness that goes with prophecy. In previous chapters, similar spiritual prestige has been ascribed to other secular techniques (which nevertheless ride upon prior hallowed authorities) but, by the High Renaissance in Venice, the difference reaches another order. With the technical genius of this period, the affinities with a spiritual order of worship are now installed deep within the language of painting itself. It is not a remote and abstract form of iconographic script-writing which provides the fateful links between the secular and the sacred; it is the vision of making itself. And it is in this broad area—let us call it the integrity of art as a visual expression—that we will find the future history of sacramental claims on behalf of secular production.


1     Monika Tichacek, The shadowers, Karen Woodbury Gallery, 4 Albert St, Richmond, Melbourne, 2003; some of the following text is grafted from my review “Don’t try this at home” in The Age (Nelson 2003).

2     For art historical purposes, an important study of the creative interests of Renaissance humanists and their pertinence to Renaissance art see Cast (1988, 412–449). See also Trinkaus (1999, 667–684): from a much broader perspective, Trinkaus’ review article provides concise reflections on major scholarly definitions of humanism and their relationship to the idea of the Renaissance.

3     “L’Italia ha avuto il suo poeta; ora ha il suo artista” (De Sanctis 1970, 255).

4     See Newberry et al. 1990). Premised on the interrelationship of frame design with architectural design and context, this catalogue demonstrates the precise distinctions that can be made between variations on the frame styles of Italian Gothic altarpieces: “But while Tuscan Gothic frames on the whole remained rather austere, as did Tuscan Gothic architecture, North Italian designers and carvers embraced the flamboyance of German and French architectural taste more wholeheartedly. Venetian artists and frame carvers were particularly sensitive to the florid Gothic style of local architecture and to the exoticism of Islamic design, familiar to them through the city’s flourishing trade with the Near East” (Newberry et al. 1990: 18–19).

5     See, for example, Frugoni (1998, 36–78); Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s intellectualism and his status as an innovator are principal themes in this survey.

6     Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423, tempera on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. For close studies in the history of Italian altarpieces and their functions see the authoritative collection of articles in Borsook and Superbi Gioffredi (1994).

7     Andrea Mantegna, St Zeno Altarpiece, ca. 1457–1459, tempera on panel, high altar of San Zeno, Verona. The originals of the three predella scenes of Christ’s Passion are today held in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tours, and the Louvre, Paris. On the landmark status of this altarpiece in the history of Italian painting, see the exhibition catalogue by Martineau (1992, 109).

8     In fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Tuscany, the frames of particular Gothic polyptychs were self-consciously classicized for reasons of religious and more broadly cultural prestige; see Troup (1998) and Hoeniger (1995, 101–126). Nonetheless, this change in frame-forms did not result in a new type of picture equatable with the modern easel painting; see Puttfarken (2000, 98).

9     Piero della Francesca, Flagellation of Christ, 1458–1460, tempera on panel, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino. More recently, see Aronberg Lavin (2002, 96–97) for a concise summary and categorization of the art historical interpretations. This introduces the author’s own interpretation centred on the humanist topos of consolation.

10    Piero della Francesca, Baptism of Christ, ca. 1455, tempera on panel, National Gallery, London. On the ‘withdrawn’ qualities of this image see Verdon (2002, 30–50), an essay which equates such qualities with religious gravity and specific pious contexts.

11    Sandro Botticelli, Birth of Venus, ca. 1485, tempera on canvas, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Venus and Mars, ca. 1485, tempera and oil on panel, National Gallery, London; Primavera, ca. 1480–1481, tempera on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

12    Ovid 1959 Fasti 5.193–220.

13    In this vein, see for example the monographic study by Snow-Smith (1993), which methodically analyzes the Primavera as a work subtly conceived by Marsilio Ficino for the spiritual and philosophical initiation of the young Pierfrancesco de’ Medici.

14    Michelangelo Buonarotti, ceiling including the Creation of Adam, 1508–1512, fresco, Sistine Chapel, Vatican.

15    See Barolsky (2003, 29–55). See also Nagel (2000), who focussed on the sacramental and theological impulses behind Michelangelo’s bold experimentation in his figurative work.

16    Raffaello Sanzio, Portrait of Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi, ca. 1518–1519, oil on panel, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. To impressively convey the self-assurance of the portrait subject also required a certain self-assurance on the part of the artist: see West (2004, 163–164).

17    Tiziano Vecellio, Sacred and Profane Love, ca. 1514, oil on canvas, Galleria Borghese, Rome.

18    See Goffen (1997) for a closely considered argument of Titian’s treatment of female beauty, and female subjects, throughout his career.

19    Tiziano Vecellio, Bacchanale of the Andrians, ca. 1523–1525, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

20    Tiziano Vecellio, Portrait of a Man (A Member of the Barbarigo Family; Ariosto), ca. 1510, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.

21    See Hills (1999) for a multi-faceted consideration of the particular, potent relationships between effects of light and colour in the history of Venetian Renaissance art and cultural production.

22    See, for example, Bataille (1970, 79–86).

23    For background to the history of the painting materials and techniques in Venice see Dunkerton’s (1999) contribution to the catalogue Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Dürer, Bellini and Titian (93–103).

24    Tiziano Vecellio, Portrait of Francis I, 1538–1539, oil on canvas, Louvre, Paris, the first of two portraits of the king painted by Titian.


Aronberg Lavin, M. 2002. Piero della Francesca. London: Thames & Hudson.

Barolsky, P. 2003. “The Finger of God”. In Michelangelo and the Finger of God. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia, Georgia Museum. 29–55.

Bataille, G. 1970. “L’anus solaire”. In Œvres Complètes, vol. 1, Premiers Écrits 1922–1940. Paris. 79–86.

Borsook, E.; Superbi Gioffredi, F., eds. 1994. Italian Altarpieces 1250–1550. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cast, D. 1988. “Humanism and Art”. In Renaissance Humanism, vol. 3, Humanism and the Disciplines, edited by Rabil, A. J., Jr. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 412–449.

De Sanctis, F. 1970. Storia della letteratura italiana, edited by Lanza, M. T., 7th ed. Milan: Feltrinelli.

Dunkerton, J. 1999. “North and South: Painting Techniques in Venice”. In Renaissance Venice and the North: Crosscurrents in the Time of Dürer, Bellini and Titian, edited by B. Aikema, B.; Brown, B. L. London: Thames & Hudson. 93–103. [Exhibition catalogue.]

Frugoni, C. 1998. Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, translated by Pelletti, L. Antella, Florence: Scala.

Goffen, R. 1997. Titian’s Women. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hills, P. 1999. Venetian Colour: Marble, Mosaic, Painting and Glass 1250–1550. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hoeniger, C. 1995. “The Reframing of Gothic Altarpieces During the Renaissance”. In The Renovation of Paintings in Tuscany, 1250–1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 101–126.

Martineau, J., ed. 1992. Andrea Mantegna. London: Royal Academy of Arts. [Exhibition catalogue.]

Nagel, A. 2000. Michelangelo and the Reform of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nelson, R. 2003. “Don’t Try This at Home”. The Age, A3. 15 October, p. 7.

Newberry, T.; Bisacca, G.; Kanter, L. B. 1990. Italian Renaissance Frames. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art. Distributed by H.N. Abrams, c1990.

Ovid. 1959. Fasti 5. Loeb classical library. English translation by Sir James Frazer. London; Cambridge, Mass.: Heinemann; Harvard University Press. 193–220.

Puttfarken, T. 2000. The Discovery of Pictorial Composition: Theories of Visual Order in Painting 1400–1800. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Snow-Smith, J. 1993. The Primavera of Sandro Botticelli: A Neoplatonic Interpretation. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Trinkaus, C. 1999. “Renaissance Ideas and the Idea of the Renaissance”. In Renaissance Transformations of Late Medieval Thought, Variorum Collection Studies Series. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing. 667–684.

Troup, C. 1998. The Image as Body: Reflections on Language and Art Restoration through Neri di Bicci’s Le Ricordanze 1453–75. Melbourne: Monash Publications in History, Department of History, Monash University.

Verdon, T. 2002. “The Spiritual World of Piero’s Art”. In The Cambridge Companion to Piero della Francesca, edited by Wood, J. M. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 30–50.

West, S. 2004. Portraiture. Oxford History of Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cite this chapter as: Nelson, Robert. 2007. ‘The agonies of spiritual invention’. The Spirit of Secular Art: A History of the Sacramental Roots of Contemporary Artistic Values. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 4.14.18.

The Spirit of Secular Art

   by Robert Nelson