The purpose of this research is to examine the changes that occurred in society and the Church because of (or as a reflection of) changes in music and art during the transitional period between late Gothic and Renaissance.
Early Renaissance art was the natural outgrowth of the new humanism which was replacing medieval thought. The world changed a great deal in the period between the ousting of the medieval ways and the upsurge of humanism and the ways of the Renaissance. As E. H. Gombrich writes in his The Story of Art, in the middle of the twelfth century, when the Gothic style was first developed, Europe was still mainly a thinly populated continent of peasants with monasteries and barons’ castles as the important centers of power and education.
The ambition of the Great Bishops’ Sees to have immense mighty cathedrals of their own, says Gombrich, was the first indication of an awakening civic sense of pride in the towns, as opposed to their previous lives as literal satellites of the Church and Barons. But a hundred and fifty years later, small as these first awakenings may have seemed at the time, these towns had evolved into teeming centers of trade whose inhabitants and leaders felt to be increasingly independent of the rule of the church and the feudal lords. Even the nobles no longer lived a grim secluded existence in their fort-like manors, but instead moved to the growing cities. Before he connects the art to the era, Gombrich rightly warns that it is never safe to generalize too freely about periods and styles. It is well to keep in mind that the lines drawn between great eras in social and artistic change are not always clear or stable lines.
Nevertheless the obvious differences between characteristics of the art of coinciding eras can be outlined in a study of this sort.
One of these characteristics, related to the localization of artistic vision (from the Church to the local churches; from the State to the cities) can be seen, as Gombrich states, as exemplified in the architecture of the period under study between late Gothic and the Renaissance. In England, we distinguish between the pure Gothic style of the early cathedrals, which is known as Early English, and the later development of these forms, known as the decorated Style. The very change in names, says the author, indicates the change in vision and taste.
The late Gothic builders of the fourteenth century were no longer content with the ponderous majestic outline of the early cathedrals. They chose to show their skill in decoration, the human touch, and in complicated details. Churches, as well, were no longer the main preoccupations of the architects of this transitional period. In the wealthy and growing cities many secular buildings had to be designed, such as town halls, colleges, palaces, bridges and city gates. The most characteristic pieces of sculpture, says the author, are probably not those of stone, but rather the smaller works of precious metal or ivory, in which the craftsmen of the period excelled, and in which the growth of localization and humanism found expression. Even religious creations by artists, such as Virgins and Childs, were more often intended for private prayer than for public worship. They were meant to evoke love and tenderness, rather than some solemn aloof ponderous truth.
The growing love of painters of this era for similar humanistic sources paralleled the experience of sculptors and architects. Delicate and more varied colored choices and schemes were a central object of the Burgundian school (Berze-la-Ville). This school attempted to imitate the polychromatic brilliance of the Byzantine mosaic, while the Poitou school (St. Savin) used a palette reduced to red and yellow ochers reminiscent of Oriental hues, an alteration perhaps traceable to the influences of the travels of Marco Polo around this time.
As Janson and Kerman, in their A History of Art and Music, write, the merging of Northern and Italian traditions in an International Gothic style, around 1400, was a heavy influence on evolving humanistic experience in sculpture; but painters played the most important role in this development. The “realism of particulars” which was first encountered in Gothic sculpture and later in miniatures, was continued by the workshop of the Limbourg brothers. They were Flemings who, as had Claus Sluter, the sculptor, had settled in France, as a result of the increase in travelling and inter-communications that was another aspect of the changing era. Their work includes a great number of motifs acquired from their travels, and some entire compositions, borrowed from the great masters of Siena and Florence. The Book of Hours that the Limbourg Brothers made for the brother of the King of France contains a group of remarkable calendar pages. Calendar cycles representing the works in the field of each month had long been an established element of medieval artistic endeavor. The Limbourg Brothers, however, expanded such representations into panoramas of man’s interworking with all of nature. The work “October” shows the sowing of winter grains during the month of October. It depicts a right sunny day, and, as the authors point out, for the first time since classical antiquity, the foreground figures cast discernible shadows. Minute details dominate the picture, from scarecrow to footprints, all contributing to the changing impression of life which the people of this transitional era experienced as the Gothic period evolved into the Renaissance. Further describing the contrast between the old and the new, the incoming sense of humanism and the outgoing ways of the castled landowners, and emphasizing the parallel changes that overhauled both society and the arts, the authors write, again, of the Limbourg Brothers’ “October”:
The sower is memorable in other ways as well;
his tattered clothing his sallow unhappy face,
go beyond mere description. He is consciously
presented as a pathetic figure, to arouse us to
the miserable lot of the peasantry in contrast
to the life of the aristocracy who live on the
far bank of the river Seine in their splendid
Janson and Kerman go on to say that the painters were perhaps not making outright social criticism, but they were certainly, for the first time, casting a sympathetic eye on the differences between the long-entrenched aristocracy and the more numerous common men and women who were gaining new understanding and compassion from the artists of the new era.
The two salient features of the Renaissance, say Janson and Kerman, were individualism and humanism. Individualism, a new self-assurance and self-awareness, enabled the artist to claim, in the face of established authority, that the “age of faith” was more likely an era of darkness. Humanism meant a new belief in the significance of what is still known today as the humanities, or humane letters, as opposed to the previous era’s belief in Divine letters, in the study of Scripture. The new humanism included the study of language, literature, history and philosophy for their own sakes, in a secular framework instead of a religious one.
As the authors narrowed their study of the Renaissance to the study of the arts of the Renaissance, they conclude that it is a difficult unclear business to try to delineate where Late Gothic ends and Early Renaissance begins, especially in the field of painting. Some students believe the first Renaissance painter was Giotto, since his work helped revolutionize painting throughout Europe. Later, however, Renaissance painting was brought into full swing by several painters in Florence and the Netherlands. The common aim of these painters was the conquest of the visible world in order to carry their art beyond the confines of the Gothic style, in which pictures had the “enchanting quality of fairy tales where the scale and relationship of things can be shifted at will, where fact and fancy mingle without conflict.”
The “Merode Annunciation” of Robert Campin is a likely example of the Flemish expression of new realism. This work, completed around 1425, for the first time gives the viewer the feeling that he is actually looking through the surface of the work into a spatial world with all the fundamental qualities of everyday life – depth, stability, completeness, and continuity. The painters of the Late Gothic had never attempted nor sought such consistency. Campin sought to tell the truth as it was seen, not as it was imagined. As it was lived by real human beings, not as it was imagined to be, either on earth or in some afterlife. The “Merode Annunciation” carries the viewer abruptly from the aristocratic world of the Late Gothic style to the actual home of a Flemish burgher. Campin transferred a supernatural happening – the announcement of the angel to Mary – into an everyday environment. All these observations tend to reveal the interdependent workings of the changes that were occurring in church, society, and the arts of the era in transition.
Campin was as well among the first to use oils to their full extent as a medium of painting. The entire range of effects, however, was added to more by Jan van Eyck than by Campin. The style of the work done by Jan and his brother Hubert was similar in some ways to Campin’s – the all-embracing love of the visible world, the depth of space, the realistic drapery folds, but the individual forms of the Van Eyck works were more subtle in especially their use of light and color.
Elie Faure, in The Spirit of the Forms, speaks of the “succulent fluidity” of the Van Eycks, alluding again to the cross-influence of growing individualism and freedom of thought and expression between the arts and society. Sheldon Cheney, in A World History of Art, says that the Van Eyck brothers leaped forward, artistically, at a time when painting around them was still “primitive” and conventional, to “camera-eye naturalness”:
They partook of a new curiosity about nature and
they perfected a means of expression flawless and
superficially brilliant. In . . . Hubert’s “The
Marys at the Sepulchre” the various little flowers
can be recognized . . . as nettle and iris, mellein
and teasel, so exact is the rendering; and every
bit of cloth, embroidery, metal helmet, or marble
surface is perfectly characterized as to texture
Gombrich, in exploring the differences between the approximate contemporaries (the Van Eycks and the Limbourgs), highlights the changes that were occurring in expression from artist to artist, and not only from era (late Gothic) to era (early Renaissance). Van Eyck’s observation of nature, says Gombrich, speaking of Jan, was much more patient than was either of the Limbourgs, his knowledge of details more exact. The trees, for instance, of the Limbourgs, were rather schematic and conventional. In Jan’s work:
We have real trees and a real landscape leading
back to the city and castle on the horizon.
(Calling to mind the similar theme of the Limbourg’s
”October” – namely the juxtaposition of “real” life
and the distant reality of the aristocracy.) The
infinite patience with which the grass on the rocks,
and the flowers growing in the crags, are painted
bears no comparison with the ornamental under-
growth on the Limbourg miniature.
All these references are made to make the point that the most obvious and vital of the changes occurring during this era was a growth of humanism, individualism, attention to and love of nature, the human body’s beauty, “real” landscape, and a general turning away from anti-life-on-earth sentiments which had dominated the previous age, and a turning to expression, both social and artistic, in which the faith in Church-sponsored salvation was made more harmonious with love of life on earth and all its detailed reality and circumstance.
Turning to the music of this transitional era, we shall discover similar examples of these same changes. As Janson and Kerman point out, at lest until 1520, and much later in some countries, almost all musicians and composers grew up as choirboys in the Church and then spent much if not all of their later lives working for the Church. With this in mind it is clear that the musicians of the era under study here were much influenced by the so-called “plainsong” or “gregorian chant” which was developed under the reign of the Pope, St. Gregory the Great. Janson and Kerman point out that both these terms are actually misnomers, and that actually Gregory himself was a more or less latecomer to the development.
Nevertheless, this “plainsong, which consisted primarily of chants – recitation on a repeated monotone with only slightly complicated beginning, ending, and punctuating formulas – and “song,” which rose to flights of “rhapsodic elaboration” that can hardly be called plain, – this plainsong was a powerful influence on musicians of our transitional era. The authors say that, in a reaction to the limitations of the plainsong, and in reaction to the growth of humanism and individualistic expression which began as early as 1000 A.D., there began the serious development of polyphony, that is “music consisting of two or more simultaneous voice-lines rationally ordered together.”
The extension of travels and cross-communications between communities, especially pilgrimages, during this era, accounted for the next stage of musical development after 1100. Manuscripts, carried in these pilgrimages through France, included innovations in the plainsong. Master Lenonin of Paris (around 1160) is the first composer in the history of Western music to be known by name still, say Janson and Kerman. In his hands, the older droning organum was drawn out with more notes than ever for each plainsong note. He thus appears, historically, to be the first composer to confront the problem of combining two different rhythms, as well as two different melodies. These innovations are important to our study, for they would have been impossible in an earlier era in which Church activity was considered sanctified to the point where no alterations were thinkable. The plainsong of course was one of the most central aspects of Church service.
The authors then speak of the final phase of Gothic music around 1300, which resembled the latest style of Gothic architecture, in such tendencies as exaggeration and individual virtuosity, in such traits as intricate detailed lacework, and even in the geographical changes, in which the center of both music and architecture was being diffused away from Paris. After 1400 a reaction to extreme individuality in musical innovation set in at last in the direction of a more unified, homogeneous, sonorous texture, an important step in which music moved toward the Renaissance and the modern conception of musical reality.
A polyphonic sound in song by Guillaume de Machaut (c. 1300-c. 1377) ” I can right well,” illustrates the change in musical texture which paralleled the change in architecture and the change in society as a whole. Janson and Kerman write:
. . . the performance involves different kinds
of sound in the different voice-lines; the top
line or soprano is sung or occasionally played
by a recorder, the tenor is played on a medi-
eval fiddle . . . , and the contratenor is
played on a lute. The tenor does not carry a
Gregorian chant, but it treats its original
material . . . The rhythm is intricate, the
melody angular, the harmonies pungent.
Additional innovations in musical development of this transitional era include work done by John Dunstable (c. 1370-1453), in which an improvised polyphony called faburden provided unusually rich and sonorous accents. Dunstable’s “intimate Marian Motet ‘Fair Hast Thou Been’ (presents) a fascinating combination of innocence, intricacy, and limpid grace.” The authors note the tenderness which is evoked by that particular work, and the link which that tenderness has with the evolving humanistic view of religious matters.
The last artist we shall consider, the musician Guillaume Dufay (c. 1400-1474) is called by the authors the main composer of the early and middle fifteenth century. One of the most striking acts of Dufay, an act which incorporates dramatically the entire range of emerging individualism and humanism in art of the era, was included in his “Hail, Queen of Heaven.” In this work, Mary is asked directly to intercede on behalf of “Thy dying supplicant, Guillaume Dufay.” The authors write:
By medieval standards, this humble act was also
an arrogant one: Dufay not only signed his
composition, he included himself in it. This
bespeaks a new self-awareness of his role as a
composer, and a growing respect for the calling
in the world at large.
Bazin, Germain. History of Art from Pre-Historic Times. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1959.
Cheney, Sheldon. A World History of Art. New York: Viking, 1947.
Faure, Elie. History of Art: The Spirit of the Forms.
Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishers, 1937.
Gombrich, E. H. The Story of Art. Greenwich, CT: Phaidon,
Janson, H. W. and Joseph Kerman. A History of Art and Music.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1967.
E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (Greenwich, CT: Phaidon, 1963), pp. 149-150. ↑
Germain Bazin, History of Art from Pre-Historic Times (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), p. 148. ↑
H. W. Janson and Joseph Kerman, A History of Art and Music (New York: Harry F. Abrams, Inc., 1967), pp. 86-87. ↑
Ibid., p. 90. ↑
Ibid., pp. 91-92. ↑
Elie Faure, History of Art: The Spirit of the Forms (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishers, 1937), p. 123. ↑
Sheldon Cheney, A World History of Art (New York: Viking, 1947), p. 632. ↑
Gombrich, p. 170. ↑
Janson and Kerman, p. 218. ↑
Ibid., p. 222. ↑
Ibid., p. 223. ↑
Ibid., p. 226. ↑
Ibid., p. 231. ↑
Ibid., p. 231. ↑