Some people may be surprised, as I was, to discover that the High Renaissance (the style of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, from about 1490 to 1525) is not considered fully and authentically liturgical, which is to say, right for the Catholic liturgy. This is not to say that there are not individual works by these great artists that might be appropriate, but they did not form a coherent tradition in which a theology of form had been fully worked out, as was later to happen for the Baroque. Pope Benedict argues that for the most part, the High Renaissance was too strongly influenced by the pagan art of classical Greece, and as such, reveals the self-obsessed, negative aspects of classical culture in a way that is not fully Christian.
As a young man, Titian trained during the High Renaissance, and the influence of this can be seen in this early painting of his, the Enthronement of St Mark. At St Mark’s feet are Ss Cosmas and Damian on the left, and Ss Sebastian and Roch on the right. This was painted in 1510, and one could be forgiven for thinking it was painted by Raphael. Notice how sharply defined all the figures and details are, even down to the floor tiles.
If you compare this with the following paintings, we see how his work changed as he got older. The first is Cain and Abel, painted in 1543; and the second is the entombment of Christ, painted in 1558. In the latter, Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus and the Virgin Mary bring Christ to the tomb, as Mary Magdalene and Saint John the Evangelist look on.
In contrast to the first painting, we can see how diffuse and lacking in color so much of these later painting is. The edges are blurred in many places, and only certain areas have bright or naturalistic color; only the areas of primary focus are painted with sharper edges and with bright colors, to draw our attention to the important part of the composition. The artist cannot apply bright color to the figure of Christ, but notice how he uses the bright colors from the clothes of the three figures who are carrying him to frame his figure. In contrast, the two figures in the background are depleted of color and detail. He wants us to be aware of them, but not in such a way that they detract from the most important parts of the composition. He uses the white cloth draped over the tomb in the same way, making sure that the sharpest contrast in tone in the painting, light to dark, is between this and the shadow of the tomb. The eye is naturally drawn to those areas where dark and light meet, and this is another way that Titian draws our gaze onto Christ.
It is suggested that this looseness of style in Titian’s later works comes about because, as his eyesight declined, he was unable to paint as precisely as he had done as a young man. This may very well have been what forced him to work differently, but if so, all I can say is how well he accommodated his handicap so as to create something greater as a result!
Going forward to early 17th century Rome, Caravaggio is often credited with creating the Baroque style’s characteristic visual vocabulary of exaggerated light and dark. We see deep shadow and bright light before him, but Caravaggio exaggerated it and imbued it with spiritual meaning in a new way. The shadow represents the presence of evil, sin, and suffering in this fallen world; it is contrasted with a light which represents Christ the Light, who offers Christian hope that transcends such suffering.
This can be seen in the painting above of the incredulity of St Thomas. Notice how it is so pronounced that we do not see any background landscape at all; apart from the figures themselves, all is is obscured by shadow. Caravaggio does retain from the visual style of the High Renaissance edges that are sharp and well defined, even if partially obscured by shadow. Other artists studied this and, while adopting Caravaggio’s language of light and dark, to varying degrees also incorporated also the controlled and selective blurring of edges that characterized Titian.
Look at the following painting of St Francis in Meditation by the Flemish artist Anthony Van Dyck, painted in 1632, in which we can see how much he has taken from Titian.