(piano music playing) Steven: We’re in the National Gallery in London, and we’re looking at Masaccio’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned. It dates to about 1426.
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It’s one of the most important paintings in the history of Western art. Beth: Yes, (laughing) it’s a very important painting. It achieves a degree of naturalism that had not been seen in hundreds and hundreds of years.
Although it’s in a, kind of, gothic frame, with a pointed arch, the classicism that’s so evident that Masaccio is looking at, we have those attached Corinthian columns on the throne, and then the figure itself, the monumentality of Mary, it’s hard not to see the classical sculpture there, too. Her lap looks so 3 dimensional, we have light coming from the left, illuminating her drapery. Steven: The picking up, again, of the promise Beth: Of Giotto? That’s right.
So, Giotto begins this really important transition toward a much more human and experiential rendering of the human figure, of Christ, of Mary, and then this continues on for a couple of generations, but then it stops mid-century, some say because of the Black Plague, economic issues, etc, and then, in the first quarter of the 15th century, here with Masaccio, you see the promise of Giotto, in a sense, fulfilled, but he’s got tools, at his disposal, that Giotto did not. He’s got linear perspective. Beth: Thanks to Brunelleschi. Steven: (laughing) That’s right, who just had developed Beth: A system for representing an illusion of space on a flat surface.
Steven: And Masaccio is the first artist to really incorporate this outside of the realm of architecture. Beth: Right, and we can see the orthogonals, or the diagonal lines, that seem to recede into space in the throne itself, and, so, there is a real sense that Mary is seated inside a structure that makes sense. In the past, we have often a decorative fabric behind, or a curtain, or a screen, behind Mary that was very flat, like the flat gold background.
It’s really a funny moment here, because Masaccio is giving us things that are old. We’ve got the gold background that one expects in an altar piece, but then there’s, really, very believable (laughing) natural throne created by these linear perspectives. Steven: And look at the traditional flat halo that surrounds Mary’s head. Compare that to his more innovative halo, for Christ, that’s actually seen at an angle.
Beth: Right, which is foreshortened, right? So, it’s a halo, which is an unreal thing, Steven: (laughing) in existent space. It’s very odd. And then we have these angels in the background, on either side, who are partially covered by the throne, so we have a sense of depth there, which is very important.
And then the 2 angels, in the front, hold foreshortened lutes that they’re playing in heaven, so a further sense of space and depth, and, of course, this whole interest in space and the naturalism of the body, this is the revolution of the early Renaissance. Steven: There’s also a, kind of, intimacy. We began to see it in the 14th century Beth: Yes. And Christ is really interesting.
Christ is nibbling, you’ll notice, his 2 fingers are in his mouth. Beth: He looks much more like a baby than in the past. Steven: He does.
He’s not a small man in this case. But, he’s actually got a head that’s appropriate in scale to his body. He’s chubby, and he’s nibbling as a baby might be.
He seems to have a little handful of grapes, which is actually really important, because that’s a foreshadowing of the wine that he will refer to, that is the basis of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, when he says, “This wine is my blood,” and, so, even in the joyful and tender moment we have a reference to the end of Christ’s life. Beth: The blue paint here, that we often see Mary wearing, is really so vivid. Blue was the most expensive kind of paint. It was made from lapis lazuli, and, so, it’s Mary who is enclosed in that beautiful blue.
Steven: I think you’re absolutely right. I think that important relationship between the figures really gives a point of access for the viewer, and I think that was increasingly important in the Renaissance. There’s another reference to Christ’s ultimate death, in that squiggly pattern, in the step just below the throne, and that’s a decorative form that was often carved into Roman sarcophagi, and, so, that is a reference to Christ’s eventual entombment, and another foreshadowing of Christ’s death.
Down at that step, there’s another hint, and that is, just in back of the angel on the left, playing the lute, you’ll see that, just to the left of his wing, there is a shadow cast, and, since the light is coming from the left, it suggests that this panel was not originally meant to be seen in isolation. It was probably part of a polyptych; there were several other panels, and there may well have been some standing figures to the left. It’s just a, sort of, a clue that the painting, and the way, the orientation of the painting, is not as it had been originally. Beth: So, there might have been another figure, and you’re saying that that’s the shadow cast here? Steven: That would be cast by that other figure.
Beth: And shadows had not been painted since the ancient Romans. Masaccio is doing something so revolutionary here. Steven: Those shadows help to create the sense of volume and mass, and it’s what makes both Mary and Christ feel as if they are here in front of us, as solid forms in space. Beth: And helps make that connection that you referred to before, between us, as human beings in the world, to exist in space, who are 3 dimensional, and figures who are very much like us, although they’re the divine in the space of the painting. (piano music playing) .
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