The Word Made Visible in the Painted Image

Perspective, Proportion, Witness and Threshold in Italian Renaissance Painting

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Stephen Miller
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge Scholars Publishing
    , January
     2016.
     158 pages.
     $41.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781443885423.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Word Made Visible in the Painted Image by Stephen Miller, organized as an intense compendium, shows us the most beautiful artworks of the Italian Renaissance. The author, through the analysis of different topics (perspective, proportion, witness, and theological threshold), demonstrates how artists produced their artworks and in what way the beholders have acknowledged them, both in the past and today.

The first part (chapter 1), dedicated to the Renaissance culture, shows us the importance of humanism and the devotional context, which the artists inhabited and by which they were strongly influenced. The sources cited by Miller are ancient: Augustine of Hippo, Boethius, and Saint Bonaventure, but also Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi. Giotto di Bondone “broke from the stylization of Byzantine art, paving the way for a new style of painting” (3), and the city of Florence becomes “a focus for the revolutionary artistic events” (3), where Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, and Leon Battista Alberti made most of their works. Very interesting is the small digression on the altarpiece, its function and its evolution over the centuries. From Gothic polyptych, the dominant type of altarpiece developed mainly in northern Europe from the 13th century, to Renaissance Pala, an innovation observable in Florence in the 2nd quarter of the 15th century. The first part closes with a series of examples (six in particular; many others could be given), through which the author guides us, from a purely visual point of view, to understand how with a single word (e.g., Pala “altarpiece”) many different things can be meant. The extremes are well represented by The Maestà of Duccio di Buoninsegna and The Frari Assumption by Titian.

The second part, the body (chapters 2–5), is structured following the key words of the book's theme (perspective, proportion, witness and threshold). These words become the way in which the author analyzes not only some artworks of the artists just mentioned, but also Leonardo da Vinci’s and Fra Andrea Pozzo’s masterpieces. Chapter 2 investigates the formal, almost geometric plane, where perspective becomes the most effective medium for the representation of space. Miller take us to a deeper level, examining “the relation between the virtual space represented in the picture and the real space, in which the painter stood” (32). One efficient example chosen by the author is the fresco of the central nave of the church of Sant'Ignazio by Fra Adrea Pozzo. In this case, the perspective is so well used and "organized" that it does not limit itself to representing a precise space with geometric rules, but transforms itself into a symbolic form that dissolves the real boundaries of the architectural structure and deceives the eye of the spectator, transporting him into a “celestial” and “deceptive” reality (33–35).

In the following chapters of the central part, the author gets more specific. The theme of the section entitled “Proportion is investigated both from a mathematical and philosophical-theological point of view. There are, of course, examples of masterpieces of Renaissance art that corroborate the thesis put forward by the author “the golden ratio helped artists to map out an aesthetic scheme in which the theological content of their work could take a shape and be enacted” (46). This means that, for the first time, the study of mathematics and science enters the artistic field and upsets the canons hitherto followed by artists. The contrast between Renaissance art and contemporary art is also interesting. In fact, examples of works by Euan Uglow, a British painter best known for his nude and still life paintings, are also included to help us understand how these mathematical rules still apply today.

By examining the figure of the Baptist as a witness and a passing figure, Miller wants us to understand that the presence of John the Baptist can take on different shades and meanings. From the herald of Christ's coming, to the witness of death and passion, John helps us to understand better the theme of the incarnation.

How does one interact with sacred space? Whether it is real or imaginary, we always must pass through the threshold between real and imaginary. The great masterpieces of Renaissance art help us in this challenge, but not all of them are so clear to our eyes; “it is this devotional and willing engagement that is the key to our theme of theological interaction and threshold” (78).

The last part, the conclusion (chapter 6), is dedicated to the philosophical-theological explanation of what is “real”, and what is “visible”. In this part Miller, try to explain how important the limit between “visible and visual” is, in the artistic world. Miller emphasizes the most hidden meaning of works of art. The difference between “representation” and “visible” is the mindset that allows the author to affirm that in the theology of art, especially in Renaissance Christian art, the figure of Christ allows a correlation and a juxtaposition between the real world and divine world. Thanks to the Christ’s incarnation, Renaissance artists were able to make the intangible greatness of God visible and tangible. 

The glossary at the end of the volume is useful; it briefly retraces the topics detailed in the text and helps in the understanding the correct meaning of some terms, which you absolutely must know.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Orlando Bernabei is a  PhD student in Cultural Heritage of the Church at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and an Art History Teacher.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen Miller studied for his MA in Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London (in collaboration with the National Gallery, London). His research interests focus on the theology of images and the Incarnation, with emphasis on the period of the Italian Renaissance. Formerly a research editor in the City of London, he is a freelance writer and columnist and lives in North London with his wife and two children.

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