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Legend has it that Michelangelo was selected to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in an attempt to ruin him. However, this is unlikely. Though it was well known that Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculpter, no one could have doubted his ability to sucessfully complete the ceiling. His exceptional skills as an artist of every sort was not doubted by anyone. Even if it was true and it was an attempt to ruin him. He certainly proved them wrong. The ceiling is an induring masterpiece, one of the most respected of all time. The Creation of Adam, especially, is arguably the most famous painting in history.

The Creation of Adam

480 x 230 cm
1511, Renaissance
Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Subject: This portion of the fresco shows God breathing life into Adam. According to Genesis (the book that the frescoes of this ceiling are based on) God first created Adam, and then Eve from a rib of his. He places them in the Garden of Eden, a place of perfection. God is seen in presumably heaven, surrounded by cherubs and in the crook of his arm is Eve looking down at Adam with curiosity. She is created after Adam and is thus still just a thought or a whim of God's at this point. Eventually, of course, this innocense is gone and the sinners are banished from the Garden, and they, like all humans after, are doomed to sin.

Artist's Work: Michelangelo composes this piece in a very horizontal fashion. It flows beautifully, with the central image being the hands captured just at the moment of touch. God, and his heavenly sphere of angels flows and looks to be floating carelessly in the breeze. The fact that Adam is technically not created yet, but is reaching out to God is representative that man wishes to exist. He reclines naturally and is nude but he does not look crude. Instead he looks innocent. His face is kind and almost naive. The plant matter implies a very earthly surrounding, while the white of the background is representative of heaven. It, like all the otehr works of the ceiling were originally thoguht to have been painted in dull hues, but a cleaning has revealed beautiful pastels instead. God's gentle nature is accentuated by the pink. Shown in other panels and being powerful and perhaps vengeful, he is strongly contrasted here.

Reaction: This is one of the most famous images in our culture, so it is hard to look at it without picturing one of the infinate parodies. However, I have always been fascinated by three portions of the painting in particular. One, the hands. They look so completely effortless, but at the same time convey a great feeling of emotion, especially love. It is no surprise to me that many people have a detailed view of just the hands hanging in their home. It symoblizes the connection between man and God, and the dependence on him. The other is God is powerful but gentle, and Adam is innocent looking: he has not yet been tainted by temptations. That is another thing I love about this. He looks so natural. Almost like a grown baby. He has, after all, just been "born". Most amusingly of all, and probably my favourite, is Eve. She looks so mischievious! Of course if we look farther into the Bible she ends up causing a lot of trouble, but for now she just looks like a little imp. Not evil in any way, just naive like Adam.


Virgin of the Rocks

Leonardo da Vinci
oil on panel
199 x 122 cm
1486, Renaissance
Louvre, Paris

Subject: This painting depicts the Virgin Mary guiding Saint john the baptist towards Jesus who is seated on the ground with the angel Uriel. John has a crucifix in one version. Saint John the Baptist is a very important figure in Christianity. He was responsible for many baptisms in the Jordan River, as he predicted an upcoming doomsday would damn all those who were not bapstized. He was most natbly the person to baptize Jesus, who himself was a follower and supporter of John. Herod Antipas, the man responsible for the later death of Christ, felt that John was a threat and ordered him to be executed. He is often shown in art as having been beheaded. Normally, John is shown as an adult as his time as a baby wasn't nearly as important as that as Christ's.

Artist's Work: This is one of two almost identical pieces by the same name. One is located in the Louvre, and the other in the National Gallery in London. The second work contains a couple of differences, including John holding a crucifix and halos around the heads of all but Uriel. In both works, he makes great use of chiaroscuro (the contrast between light and dark to draw focus). Especially bright are the hands of Mary and the Angel. Mary reaches for Jesus, drawing our attention there. He points at the hand of Uriel who is painting obviously at John. He himself is reaching towards Mary's hands. Thus, our eyes continue is an oblong square pattern. The background is somewhat unusual, containing bizarre looking jagged rocks, giving the painting a feeling of forboding. In Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, it is implied that the baby to the left with Mary is actually Jesus and that controversy was created at the time because Jesus was praying to John. It is also suggested that Mary grasps an invisible head and Uriel motions to be slicing the neck of the infant. Art historians have unanimously agreed that this is extremely unlikely, and that the church at the time had abosulutely no problem with the piece.

Reaction: This painting is distinctly Leonardo da Vinci, and I am not a particularly great fan of his paintings. His faces appear as if his has painted them in a gentle way, however they look almost like someone forcing a smile. The hands are also overly controlling of where one looks in the picture; we are forced to look at each of the children in turn. The background looks almost unearthly, which I don't enjoy next to realistic figures. In fact, a 1957 science fiction story called The Light had a twist where the background turns out to be what the surface of the moon looks like. The way that the people are sitting looks to me to be entirely contrived. While I cannot deny the artistic genius of Leonardo da Vinci, this painting doesn't speak to me on any level. Spiritually, artistically or even from a technical standpoint.


The School of Athens

500 x 770 cm
1510, Renaissance
Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

Subject: This painting is one of several meant to depict the theme of knowledge, in hopes of inspiring those (especially the Pope) who would be in the library. This one represents philosophy in particular. Plato is central, pointing to the heavens. Beside him is Aristotle, gesturing towards earth. They are both quickly spotted as they are locaed in the vanishing point. Each of them are holding their philosohpical and mathmatical texts. It is likely that the young Raphael may not have had an immense knowledge of Ancient Greek philosphy and was probably guided by Bramante and others.

Artist's Work: This work was painted for the Pope's library. The left side is slightly awkward because it had to accomodate a door. The mathmatical perspective is amazing, and the wall really looks like a wall to outside, a wall to the ancient world. Plato is probably modelled on Leonardo da Vinci. Pythagoras, the thoughtful man in purple towards the front is probably Michelangelo. Raphael paints himself to the far right, peeking out. This shows his modest nature. Many other artists of this time would have painted themselves front and center. Raphael sets himself apart in this way. The many philosophers are somewhat recognizable but since no contemporary analysis is availible, it cannot be precisely determined who is who. Some are holding the texts that they have written. Some are shown gesturing or even doing that math that made them famous. Others resemble busts or what popular opinion deemed them to look like. Aside from Leonardo and Michelangelo, other figures may appear in the work. The man teaching his students towards the bottom left may be Bramante. The woman in white, Hypatia considered the first important female philosopher is probably modelled on one of Raphael's mistresses. The figrue that Raphael himself represents is an ancient Greek painter Apelles. Beside him may be the likeness of another of his contemporaries Il Sodoma.

Reaction: I like this piece a lot. Like all of Raphael's works, it has a wonderful realism and feeling that he hasn't had to work very hard for such amazing results. The many philosophers look like they are living in an idealized world. People are bickering, rationalizing, learning. There is order. To me, this just looks perfect. The thought of a meeting of all of these famous minds, artists and leaders is just wonderful to me. It feels like heaven, where all of these men have gone and can live out the rest of eternity learning, growing and talking. Aristotle and Plato, though not moving violently, are clearly walking towards the viewer and it almost makes me feel like I could speak to them or learn from them. It is all very accessible. The painting certainly inspires me... it conjures images on university and beyond. I believe it fulfilled it's purpose amazingly well.

Titian was the most famous artist to come out of the Venetian Renaissance. His work is much different than others at this time because he worked in such away that the brushwork of his art was noticable. This meant that when viewed from up close, his art appeared sloppy to some. However, when viewed from a distance, his work has an incredible realism. He was able to capture fabrics, texture and light in a new and very innovative way. His works ranged from small to monumental, but all of his subjects were painted with extreme expresiveness along with beautiful landscapes. The symbolism is also very prevalent. Portraits, self-portraits, and religious works were all done with great skill. Also very important were his works depicting the Gods and legends of Antiquity. The Flaying of Marcelus, for instance, or Bacchus and Ariadne as seen below.



Bacchus and Ariadne

oil on canvas
176.5 x 191 cm
1523, Renaissance
National Gallery, London

Subject: This oil painting by Titian is one of several mythologically themed paintings comissioned by Alfonso d'Este. This one depicts the tale of Bacchus and Ariadne. Ariadne is the daughter of King Minos of Crete and Queen Pasiphae. Her lover is Theseus, the legendary King of Athens. They are together on the Naxos. However he leaves (the sails of his ship can be seen in the distance) and she is heartbroken. Bacchus, God of wine and parties comes leaping from his cheetah-drawn chariot to comfort her. Behind him is a huge group of many mythical beats and creatures. She looks shocked or fearful of him at first sight, while he is in love with her at first sight. He proves his love to her by making a circlet of stars as a crown for her, immortalizing her as a constillation and winning her heart.

Artist's Work: Titian does a phenominal job here of capturing movement. Bacchus is leaping off of his chariot and looks desperate to reach his love in her time of need. Her time of need is painfully evident as her arm and hand are thrown forward in terrible desperation at her fleeing lover. She is barely clothed: she has just awoken to find that he has escaped. Her face looks pained, used. There are many mythical beasts. They have been interpreted in two (or more) ways. A possibility is that they are his friends. Another, however, is that they are beasts coming to attack Ariadne in her time of vulnerability and he is defending her against them. The more likely explanation seems to be the former though. The painting has two distinct halves, divided clearly by a diagonal line doing from the bottom left corner to the top right corner. The upper triangle is blue, and cloudy. It contains the lovers. Theseus in the distance, Ariadne, and Bacchus. They are surrounded by heavenly blue. On the bottom are the beasts and others. Browns, greens and natural colours dominate here. One man is attacked by snakes, and he is reminisent of Laoco÷n and his Sons, a sculpture of antiquity. The dog is said to be a pet of the Duke.

Reaction: This painting is quite busy, and generally my favourite paintings are much less so. In this case, however, it doesn't cause me to completely hate the piece. There is a lot to look at, and it is all painted in an expert fashion. The man grappling with the snakes has striking musculature, and Bacchus's motion is captured perfectly. Most amazing of all is probably the desperation caught on the shattered Ariadne in both her face and her body language. The trees are also lovely, looking somewhat different than others painted at this time. I believe that Titian's visible brushwork is extremely effective in painting things like clouds, trees and water and so these things all come out very well here. The dog is also shown to be barking. How incredible it is to be able to convey sound through paint on canvas. There is no doubt in anyone's mind that this yappy dog is barking at the satyr. What I like most about the painting is that sorrow is shown, but hope is also shown. I find myself wondering what happens next, my mind pressing play on the paused scene.