If you’ve been following my posts for a while, you’ve noticed that in the winter
time, while in the States, I’ve been giving presentations on La Romita and
the art of the Umbrian hill towns.

The beauty of the paintings available to us in Umbria is sometimes
breathtaking.  Just walking into the various chambers of a church like the
Saint Francis Basilica in Assisi or Orvieto’s Cathedral can be
transformative.  The fresco painting is on a massive scale.  The walls and
ceilings are literally covered with images; swirling colors, stars glowing
from shadowy blue skies, angels engaged in aerial combat with hideous
demons, gods and goddesses and saints and sinners on a scale which must
have inspired Cecil B DeMille.

San Brizio Chapel Ceiling

Orvieto Cathedral - San Brizio Chapel - Luca Signorelli

But these works are everywhere in Umbria,
most often hidden in the dark recesses of the most unprepossessing church in the tiniest town.  In some cases what remains on the walls is fragmentary, while in others, after simple cleaning, the works seem almost new.  Images jump off the walls and confront our ideas of religious art and the place of art in our histories and in our lives today.

Obviously there are many valid ways of “reading” these works of art.  In
the experience of many art forms: music or writing or painting, a good part of the enjoyment lies in finding clues to the artist’s actual
inspiration; to their intentions…in arriving at a tangible connection with
the artist.  Poetry, with its private, symbol laden verse, lends itself
easily to these explorations.  Our favorite poets are often the poets
we’re able to understand the best, whose private language resonates with
us…writers who seem to understand us.  A similar process can inform our
appreciation of the works of Perugino or Lo Spagna or Pinturicchio.

The narrative art of the early renaissance in central Italy was part of a
humanist flowering, regardless of its obvious religious subject matter.
Umbria’s most famous native son, St Francis of Assisi,

Giotto - St Francis Gives His Mantle to a Poor Man

believed that God uses beauty to attract souls.  Of the many reasons artists have been drawn to Umbria over the last seven hundred years or so, beauty is probably paramount.  Francis embodied perceptions of nature that we’d probably call humanist and naturalist today.  He loved the simplest wildflowers, wrote poems to rain and sunshine, spoke lovingly with birds and beasts, followed crusaders into the Middle East to try and stop the wars.  The Church never knew quite what to do with him; his views bordered on the heretical and his calling was to rebuild the church from its foundations.  Perhaps their smartest move was to leave it to the artists.

The Roman Catholic church in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries was a decidedly secular institution, intent on maintaining and expanding its
corporal power and wealth.  It was under attack, not only by Princes
leading powerful armies, but by reformist religious movements all over
Europe, straining to return it to its original spiritual purposes or, in
some cases, to change its direction radically.  The artists of this period
were also breaking free from constraints, both societal and artistic,
moving from the flat iconic art of the Byzantine era toward forms and
colors and techniques that had been all but lost during the dark ages.
They were harkenning back to the newly rediscovered classic Greek and Roman
respect and admiration for the natural human form, and functional, if
monumental architecture.

To best appreciate the great renaissance narrative painting still on display today in both churches and municipal buildings throughout Umbria, it is certainly not necessary to “read” the art solely on religious terms. The church clearly used narrative painting to impart important stories to the illiterate masses, but the act of creation that put paint on the walls presented challenges to the renaissance artist that were probably quite similar to the challenges faced by artists today.  Except for a few superstars, the artist’s life was not easy and the same mixtures of quirkiness and creativity, passion and obsession that drive today’s artists were present in artists many centuries ago.  From the reports we have from writers of the time, (mainly Vasari), these were not largely religious people.  Some, like Perugino, were defiant atheists. Michelangelo and Leonardo had famously contentions relationships with the Church,

Fra Filippo Lippi - Self Portrait- Spoleto

church, and the painter Fra Filippo Lippi, a Carmelite monk, abducted a beautiful young nun as his model and sexual partner.

These works of art can be appreciated in much the same way that we experience modern art.  The works are remarkable in their use of color and
composition.  They include almost photo-realistic witness to everything from costumes to customs, from table manners to hairstyles, along with perfect renditions of the long vanished skylines of medieval cities.  We can find beauty idealized in much the same way we find it today in fashion
photography, stylized sensuality imbued with power and compassion.  In the
cases of the deities and saints they depicted, the artists were
unconstrained by the authenticity of long-dead countenances, and their nods
to iconography were far less important to the work itself than they were
to clerical patrons.

The Catholic Church, from the time of Constantine, was a temporal as well
as religious power and the history captured in these paintings and frescos
is a history of idealized Christianity certainly, but also a record of
schism and betrayal, of war and intrigue, and perhaps most of all, a
record of a higher purpose of and for humanity itself.

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