LBST 321


Visual Art Module: Modes of Artistic Representation


Lisa MacLean



In this Visual Art Module we will explore the concept of the altarpiece through an examination and discussion of Early Christian, Medieval and Renaissance paintings which celebrate the central tenets of the Christian faith. Such altarpieces served two very basic functions: to articulate the culture’s spiritual values and to inspire religious reverence. A painted, sculpted or assembled panel usually placed above and behind a church altar, the altarpiece’s size, shape, style, and location have symbolic significance, as does each element of its composition. Altarpieces may be composed of a single panel depicting, for example, the Virgin and Child or the crucifixion. More frequently, however, they are triptychs (tripartite), with the most important persons or ideas represented on the largest, central panel. On either side of this central panel are two other panels, each side of which contains different pictures. These two panels are hinged on either side of the central panel and can be closed over it. Often the altarpiece will have an additional small panel along its bottom (called the predella) which illustrates one of the stories from the New Testament. (See attached illustrations).


Given that the altarpiece celebrates a culture’s or an individual’s most cherished values, your task for this Module will be to create an altarpiece which celebrates your own philosophical, spiritual and/or religious values.


Historical Background


Between approx. the 4th and the 15th centuries Christian thought shaped the cultural and social landscape of Europe. Christianity permeated political and personal life, social institutions, economic relations, the understanding of the natural world, literature and art. While the Classical world view held by Plato and Aristotle was that the cosmos was rational, ordered, moral, purposeful and could be known by human reason, the world view of the church was what we could call in contrast supernatural, that true knowledge was only possible by Divine revelation. That the most  important experience in Christianity is an inner, spiritual one is visually realised in early Christian church interiors such as this mosaic from Galla Placidia.


Slide    Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (425 AD)


The cathedral interior is analogous to the human soul and the world of the spirit and as such is elaborately decorated to indicate the beauty of the soul and the spiritual experience. An important thing to note here is that the human figures in this art do not look realistic - they are flat, symbolic forms which exist not in the three dimensional world of matter but in the spiritual world illuminated by God’s Divine light, symbolised here by the use of gold.



Slide    Chartres Cathedral (ca 1200 AD)


The early Christians had thought that the last judgment was imminent and that Christ’s second coming would occur in their own lifetimes. However, after 1000 AD the world did not end and philosophical and religious thought shifted from a focus on the next world to a focus on this world. For St. Thomas Aquinas, the order and beauty of the created world was an affirmation of the intelligence of God. The study of nature could provide a deeper appreciation of divine wisdom and the recognition of nature’s order enhanced human understanding of God’s creativity. God creates an orderly universe and human reason is God-given. To strive for human values then was also to promote the Divine will. We see this synthesis of divine and human in the architecture of the gothic cathedral; its vertical shape points heavenward, moving the eye upward, up the columns, pointed arches and spires towards the Divine. The elevation of the human eye from the last point of the physical building towards the sky signifies union with God. And in this union, the things of this world blend with those of the next - physical and spiritual are united (that is the theory, in any case).


By the end of the middle ages, the older Christian structures of belief began to collapse. With the Renaissance, the orientation of society changed. Rather than a focus on an afterworldly destiny, the focus for most people was now on this material world. Human life began to hold an immediate, inherent value, in and of itself, rather than as preparation for a spiritual afterlife. Interestingly, the Renaissance took place in the midst of chaos and upheaval. Beginning in 1348, the black plague swept through Europe and destroyed 1/3 of the population, undermining the balance of economic and cultural elements that had sustained medieval civilization. Confronted with the prospect of death by disease or warfare, some people thought that God had forsaken them. Others saw the plague as God’s retribution on a sinful humanity. Still others, happy to have been spared, engaged in a frantic drive for self-fulfilment and celebrated being alive.


Slide    View of Florence


The wealthy urban classes who survived the plague saw their prosperity as a mark of God’s favour. For these people, cultural artefacts became both a means of investment and a means of celebrating themselves. The patronage of art came to be seen as a civic virtue, a way of celebrating one’s family, one’s city and one’s state. The pride of these merchants and bankers was reflected in images that celebrated individuals and their social circumstances.


Humanist thinkers and artists, looking back to the writings of Plato and Aristotle, affirmed with these ancient philosophers a cultural and intellectual viewpoint which celebrates the dignity and worth of human beings, the excellence of human reason and the human power to determine, express, and achieve all that is good for human beings. Renaissance Humanism restored to human beings the capacities and strengths which the medieval world, in its focus on the afterlife, had denied or ignored.



Slide    Johannes Vermeer The Astronomer (ca 1668)


Renaissance thinkers asserted the power of human reason to know the truth of reality. Reality, according to this new view, was neither divine nor transcendent, but accessible to and knowable by human reason. Reality was accessible to the human sense of sight and truths could be known by basing theories on observation and experimentation. An example of this new viewpoint is evident in the science of Astronomy where, as we shall see, the new and careful astronomical observations of Copernicus overthrew the old Ptolemaic system. In the visual arts this attitude, which we may call “scientific naturalism”, is evident in painting’s realistic representation of the material world based on detailed and accurate observation. Many Renaissance painters and sculptors were also architects, mathematicians and scientists.


The cultivation by famous Renaissance artists of a distinctive and unique individual style helped them acquire patronage, fame and fortune. An enormous amount of money and social energy was poured into the arts during the Renaissance, equivalent to the nineteenth century investment in technology and the 20c investment in new information technologies.


Slide    Piero della Francesca The Ideal City (1470)


The function of Renaissance artists was to imitate nature by depicting what they saw as realistically as they could. For them, mathematics, especially geometry, was the key to achieving realism in painting. The pictorial system of linear or mathematical perspective was invented in early 15th century Florence by Brunelleschi and the architect and artist Leon Battista Alberti. It was developed to simulate the three dimensional characteristics of the real world on the two-dimensional surface of a painting. While art during the Middle Ages was largely symbolic and intended as a glorification of God, during the Renaissance art became more realistic, based on the accurate observation and delineation of the natural world. Artists attempted to render space, depth, mass, and volume more realistically, that is, as they appear to the eye. Realism replaced the medieval emphasis on symbolism in which objects of the material world were symbols of a higher spiritual reality. 


Linear Perspective


Linear perspective was developed to give paintings an illusion of depth. It is a technique for simulating the three-dimensional characteristics of volumetric forms and deep space on a flat two-dimensional surface. Linear perspective developed from the observation that parallel lines going in one direction away from the viewer must be seen as converging toward a single point on the horizon known as a vanishing point. Placed within this system, at intervals along these assumed and converging parallel lines, objects are scaled in their sizes to diminish in relation to their distance from the picture plane (the front surface of the painting). See the attached illustration of Raphael’s Fire in the Borgo for an example of how to find a painting’s vanishing point.


Atmospheric Perspective


Slide    Leonardo The Madonna of the Rocks for an example of this technique.


This was a system known to both the Romans and the Chinese in ancient times and also used by Northern Europeans. Atmospheric perspective employs blurred outlines, loss of detail, alternation of hues toward cool colours (blue, green, violet), diminution of colour saturation (vividness, intensity of colour) and contrast - all in proportion to the distance of the object from the viewer. Leonardo da Vinci was a master of this painting technique.

The function of Renaissance artists was to imitate nature by depicting what they saw as realistically as they could. Mathematics, especially geometry, was for them the key to achieving realism in painting. Linear or mathematical perspective was introduced by Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 - 1446), a sculptor and architect, around 1425. It was further developed by the painters Paolo Uccello (1397 - 1475), Piero della Francesca (1416 - 1492) and Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519). For Leonardo, painting was a science that dealt with the geometry of surfaces. In his Treatise on Painting he wrote “Let no one who is not a mathematician read my works” and “Practice must be founded on sound theory”. Realistic paintings constructed in accordance with linear perspective began to appear about 1430.


Implications of Perspective Painting


Perspective is a system, an abstraction, a convention used to represent reality - it does not simply mirror what is, it constructs a realistic-seeming visual space that comes with certain philosophical presuppositions.


Slide    Botticelli Annunciation    Example of Linear Perspective


1. The subject of the perspective painting, even if a Madonna, saint or angel, is definitively placed in this world rather that symbolically in the next world. Thus, in a perspectival rendering we are not looking at the divine world of the spirit but rather the material world of the here and now. This emphasis implies that the painting’s subject is considered to be on the same social or spiritual level as the observer, thus giving the painting’s observer the status of a divinity (if that was the painting’s subject, as it often was).


2. The convergence of lines to a vanishing point on the painting’s horizon is mirrored in the convergence of these same (imaginary) lines to a point located at (on) the observer’s eye. This unification of space flatters the spectator as he or she becomes the centre of the painting’s universe. (See figs. 10-10 and 10-11 attached).


3. The painting’s closed form (convergence of lines to vanishing point on the horizon and to the eye of the beholder) implies that nothing of importance lies outside the painting and that the whole of the picture can be taken in with a glance. This further implies that nothing is beyond the grasp of the observer, that all can be understood with relatively little effort and thus that the human viewer has the omniscience and omnipotence of the divine. In addition, a painting’s use of geometry in its design suggests that the material world has a rational order that can be described in terms of simple geometric forms such as the circle, the square and the rectangle.


4. By its organization of lines and planes, linear perspective assumes that everything is seen from a single optical vantage point. (See again figs. 10-10 and 10-11 for an illustration of this principle) This ideal eye is monocular, singular, fixed and disembodied. The point of view towards which the painting is organised is actually that of the artist, although it is made to seem as if it were also that of the observer. In order to correctly apprehend the painting, the observer must take up the position prescribed for him or her by the artist. Perspective painting implies a disembodied eye - God’s eye - because, as we know, real human embodied beings have two eyes which blink, see different things, and become blurred and tired. In this way, the vision of the artist is equated with the vision of God, just as his (or infrequently her) creative ability is equated with God’s.


The worldview presupposed by Renaissance linear perspective is that of empirical science. The world is no longer a divine text but a mathematically regular spatio-temporal order filled with objects that can be observed from without by the dispassionate eye of the neutral researcher. The philosophical position most clearly aligned with this visual regime is that of Descartes, whose conception of clear and distinct ideas seen on the mirror of the mind could be considered a philosophical translation of the perspective visual system. Just as all the objects in a perspective painting are clear, solid and fixed, so too are the ideas which Descartes contemplates on the interior mirror of his mind.


Slide    Piero della Francesca The Flagellation (1460)   Example of Linear Perspective


Having said all that I do not mean to suggest that artists no longer painted religious imagery. That was not the case. Artists such as Piero continued to represent Christian themes but in ways that were influenced by the new scientific and humanistic views of the Renaissance. Piero was fascinated by geometry and mathematical proportion. Here the flagellation of Christ takes place in a well-lit interior room, while outside three foreground figures converse. The figure of Christ is 7” high, based, in a ration of 1:10, on what was then thought to have been Christ’s actual height, 5’10”.


Slide    Raphael School of Athens  (1508-12)    Example of Linear Perspective


Just as Plato and Aristotle had placed human beings at the centre of their philosophy, so too did the Renaissance humanists. The work that most explicitly shows this classical revival is Raphael’s School of Athens, painted for Pope Julius II at the Vatican between 1508 and 1512. The Pope saw Christianity as the culmination of both Jewish religious thought and Greek philosophy and wanted this theme depicted. With the representation of a convention of ancient philosophers in the official apartments of the Pope in the centre of the Vatican, the heart of Catholicism, the philosophy of the Ancients is symbolically absorbed by Christianity. The central figures in this enormous work are Plato and Aristotle, just as their philosophy was central to the Renaissance classical revival. Plato on the left, a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, points to the heavens, the site of the Eternal Forms, while Aristotle points to the Earth as the ground of all experience. Plato is holding the text of the Timaeus and Aristotle holds the Nicomachean Ethics. On Plato’s side appear the ancient philosophers concerned with theoretical and metaphysical ideas and on Aristotle’s side those concerned with physical science. In the lower left the mathematician Pythagoras writes while his servant holds up a harmonic scale “Music of the spheres”. Herakleitos (a portrait of Michelangelo) broods alone (Herakletitos’ sayings: All things are in a state of flux; you can never step into the same river twice). Diogenes sprawls on the steps. (A member of the Cynic school of philosophy, Diogenes adopted an extravagantly simple mode of life and rejected civilised customs). In the right foreground Euclid, a portrait of the architect Bramante, stoops to demonstrate a proposition on a slate while the astronomer Ptolemy holds up a sphere. On the very far right Raphael depicts himself amongst the mathematicians and scientists. Artists of the renaissance were among the period’s most accomplished mathematicians.


Slide    Bernini St. Teresa in Ecstasy (1645-52)     Example of Baroque style


The counter-Reformation of the late 16th and 17th centuries saw a return to strict Church doctrines, the excesses of the Universal Inquisition, witch-burnings, the mysticism of Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and the rise of the Jesuits. Gianlorenzo Bernini was commissioned to create a chapel dedicated to St. Teresa (canonised in 1622). He shows her in a state of what looks like erotic ecstasy about to be pierced in the heart by the angel’s arrow. Gleaming gilded bronze rays descend from the heavens and the whole sculpture is bathed in light from a concealed window glazed with yellow glass. The chapel dedicated to Teresa combines architecture, sculpture, painting and stage-like design to create a total work of art in which each piece merges with the others and all are integral parts of the entire artistic conception, much like today’s installation art. The mysticism of the Counter Reformation was reasserted at a time when the discoveries of science were threatening the official doctrines of Catholicism. Catholic churchmen believed that if the mechanical image of the world as matter in motion were generally accepted the sense of mystery would be drained out of the cosmos. So the new mysticism was not so much concerned with abstract theological notions as with concrete religious experience revealed through vivid imagery. The emphasis on sense experience as the means to excite religious feelings found expression in the arts where architectural, sculptural, pictorial, literary and musical illusions and allusions to transcendent ideas could be made to seem real to the senses. The mystical world view could be reasserted through aesthetic imagery.


Slide    Pozzo St. Ignatius in Glory (1691)      Baroque


While Renaissance perspective painting assumed a single, stationary transcendent eyeball as its viewer, baroque painting both assumed a body in motion as viewer and represented bodies in motion. Its favourite compositional forms were spirals, curves, twisting shapes that seemed to embody the dynamic principle of the universe. In this ceiling painting Andrea Pozzo makes the walls of the church seem to soar upward so the vaulting of the church nave becomes that of heaven itself as St. Ignatius ascends in a whirling spiral toward figures symbolising the trinity.  Baroque art celebrates the dazzling, disorienting, and ecstatic. Baroque vision has been called “mad” - it explores the heights and the depths, the mysterious, the dynamic, the mystical.


While continuing to look realistic, baroque painting has a different kind of look than Renaissance painting. Where Renaissance painting tend to be cool, crisp, with clearly-delineated forms and an evenly and rationally lit surface, baroque painting had a shimmering soft-focus look which emphasise the sensuality of the surface.


However, even though science and human reason attempted to comprehend and master the mystery of the universe, certain inescapable facts seem always to remain beyond human abilities to master them: time, change and death. For the people of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, religious faith continued to provide a consolation for the fact of human mortality and universal decay, a consolation that most of us in the twentieth century no longer embrace.




1471-1527       Renaissance in Rome

1508-1512       Michelangelo paints the Sistine Ceiling

1517                Beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Germany

1534                Counter Reformation begun

1542                Universal Inquisition established

1543                Copernicus De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium

1564-1642             Galileo Galilei

1596-1650       René Descartes

1616                Galileo told by pope not to teach or defend researches confirming

Copernican theory

1633                Galileo called before the Inquisition




Altarpiece: A painted, sculpted or assembled panel placed above and behind an altar to inspire religious devotion.


Assemblage: The technique of creating three-dimensional works of art by combining a variety of elements into a unified composition.


Background: The area of a painting’s composition which appears to be behind the forms represented to be closest to the viewer.


Colour: Three primary colours or hues: red, yellow, blue. Three secondary colours: orange, purple, green. Each primary colour has a complementary colour composed of the other two. For example, the complement of red is green (yellow mixed with blue). The secondary colours are made by mixing the primaries together.

Composition: A painting’s arrangement of elements or components.


Content: A painting’s subject-matter, ideas, story.


Expression: The combination of form and content that gives an art work its meaning and significance.


Figure: Usually a painted representation of a human being.


Foreground: The area of a painting represented to be closest to the viewer.


Foreshortening: The effect of three-dimensionality made in two dimensions by basing representation on the principles of continuous decrease in size as objects recede in space. Objects closest to the viewer are the largest; those farthest away are the smallest.


Form: The total arrangement, structure and expressiveness of the piece of art.


Fresco: Wall and ceiling painting on fresh (fresco) moist lime plaster with pigments ground in water so that they are absorbed directly into the plaster as it dries. In fresco painting only enough plaster is applied to the wall surface as can be painted in one day. Pigments added after the plaster had dried are said to be applied a secco (dry).


Triptych: Three-part painting, panel or assemblage. In an altarpiece triptych, the two side panels often open and close over the central panel and have images on both sides.


Vanishing Point: In linear perspective, that point on the horizon toward which parallel lines appear to converge and at which they seem to vanish.


Some information for the foregoing from William Fleming, Art and Ideas, 1980 and Morris Kline, Mathematics: A Cultural Approach, 1962.


Outline of Module


Session One:


1. Slide Show - Examples of Medieval and Renaissance art. Examples of altarpieces (Slide List attached)


2. Group drawing exercise to various kinds of music. For each of the different kinds of music you will have the opportunity to create a non-representational (abstract) drawing that captures or reflects the mood/content/theme/feelings of the music played. Take note of the theme or feeling of the music and see how that theme is articulated in the music’s form. Then try to develop a visual analogue of that form. For example, if the music is choral, orderly, harmonious, slow etc., then you might use orderly composition, harmonious groupings of colours, soft, gentle marks etc. to reflect that music. The idea is to simply let the arm, hand and eye move intuitively to the music played, trying to express its feeling in visual form.  Since some of the pieces are quite short, you should work quickly.


Please bring the following supplies to the first session.


Several sheets of paper (at least 11” x 17”). This may be any kind of paper; newsprint, kraft paper, construction paper, cheap white paper


Things to make marks with: pencils, crayons, pastels, coloured pencils, conté, charcoal etc. (dry media only please)


Session Two will an open period to allow you to work on this project in the lab or at home.



The Assignment


This project asks you to do the following:


1. Given that the altarpiece celebrates a culture’s or an individual’s most cherished values, your task for this Module will be to create an altarpiece which celebrates your own philosophical, spiritual and/or religious values. For the purposes of this assignment, select from the artistic styles discussed above the one most appropriate to convey your ideas.


2. Using the information provided in this handout, as well as any information you have gleaned from your reading, viewing and listening thus far, to translate your ideas into a visual format. The altarpiece may take any appropriate form: two-dimensional, three-dimensional or some combination thereof; painting, sculpture, mixed media, collage; found objects or attachments, assemblage; large, medium or small; mobile or stationary. It may be made from anything you think works to convey your ideas. The altarpiece foundation, the support on which you will paint, attach things etc. may take the form of (but is not limited to) wood, canvas, styrofoam sheets, plastic sheets, heavy paper, doors, windows, mirrors, wooden fruit or vegetable boxes, sheet metal, junk.


3. Give the piece a title. Prepare a brief (one or two page) typewritten account of the project that answers the following questions: How does it fulfil the task assigned? Why has it been created in this particular way? If the piece were to be displayed where would be the most appropriate place? (Over which altar should it appear?) Who is its audience?



Altarpiece Art Lab


Slide List


1. Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (425 AD) mosaic

Gregorian Chant: Haec Dies (c 590-604)          (Norton CD1 No.1) Text. P.71

“This is the day/which the Lord hath made;/ we will rejoice and be/glad of it.

O give thanks to the/Lord, for He is good:/ for His mercy/endureth/forever.”


2. Chartres Cathedral c 1200 AD France      Notre Dame School: Haec Dies  c 1175

(Norton CD 1, No. 3) 




3. View of Florence    Palestrina, “Pope Marcellus Mass” 1567 Norton CD 1 No. 17 (text. P. 98)

“Glory be to God on high,/and on earth peace to men/of goodwill/We praise Thee./

We bless Thee/ We adore Thee/We glorify Thee/ We give thanks for/Thy great glory/

Lord God/heavenly King/ God, the Father Almighty/ O Lord, the only-begotten Son,

Jesus Christ/ Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father”


4. Johannes Vermeer The Astronomer

Piero della Francesca The Ideal City 1470 AD


5. Leonardo, Virgin of the Rocks 1482 AD

Josquin  1470sAve Maria….virgo serena

“ Hail Mary, full of grace/The Lord is with you, gentle Virgin


Hail, whose conception/ Full of solemn joy,/ Fills the heaven, the earth,/ With new rejoicing/ Hail, whose birth/ Was our festival/ As our light-giving rising light/ Coming before the true sun/ Hail, pious humility,/ Fertility without a man./ Whose annunciation/ Was our salvation”.


6. Botticelli, Annunciation 1489


7. Bernini, St. Teresa in Ecstasy, 1645        


8. Pozzo, St. Ignatius in Glory, 1691           

Bach, A Mighty Fortress is Our God 1715 (Baroque) (Norton CD 1, #26) text. 149


9. Simone Martini, Annunciation 1333   10’ x 8’9” Medieval


10. Giotto Maesta (Majesty) early 14c    Late Medieval/proto-Renaissance  

“What Child is This?”  Jessye Norman, CD 1 no. 8


11. Masaccio and Masolino, Virgin and Child with St. Anne and Five Angels 1425 175 x 103 cm Proto-Renaissance


12. Masaccio  Trinity  1427   Proto-Renaissance

Bach, “Erbarme Dich” (St. Matthew Passion):

“Have mercy, my God/ for my tears’ sake;/ Look hither/ heart and eyes/

Weep bitterly before Thee/ Have mercy!”


13. Fra Angelico, Virgin and Child Enthroned 1430  189 x 81 cm Early Renaissance


14. Fra Angelico, Linaiuoli triptych side panels opened 1433  Early Renaissance


15. Fra Angelico, Linaiuoli triptych side panels closed  1433   Early Renaissance


16. Detail of side panel Linaiuoli triptych


17. Fra Angelico, San Domenico Altarpiece with predella


18. Fra Angelico, Annunciation, Cortona with predella


19. Fra Angelico, Madonna Enthroned  1440


20. Fra Angelico, Deposition

Panis Angelicus Jessye Norman (CD 1# 12)


21. Jan and Hubert Van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece open 11’3” x 14’5”  1432

Handel, “Messiah” Hallelujah Chorus (Norton CD 1#38)


22. Matthias Grunewald, Isenheim Altarpiece, 1515

“Messiah” “I know that my Redeemer liveth”


23. Raphael Sanzio School of Athens   1508-12