How to Read Bible Stories and Myths in Art
Decoding the Old Masters, From Giotto to GoyaBook - 2009
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Classic Western Art was most often influenced by religion, the stories found in the Judaic Tanakh (or Old Testament of the Christian bible), the New Testament, and the pagan religions of the Greek and Roman world. Known as ‘history painting’, it was considered prestigious and difficult, as not only the characters needed to be imagined and interpreted, but the emotions of a single moment in their stories had to be captured – like a snapshot, but with great artistic license. Paintings might have been meant pedantic, or flattering, or – as with Greek and Roman myths – meant to amuse and delight, or to caution (in the case of early myths which were often brutal in nature). Often painters would interpret a story based on the context of their own lives, or the political situations around them, so there is often more than one story being told when one examines a piece of classical art. For example, in Rogier van der Weyden’s The Entombment of Christ, the figure of Nicodemus is widely believed to be a portrait of Cosimo de Medici, who may have commissioned the work. In Abraham and the Three Angels by Rembrandt, the figure of Sarah, who is the subject of the Angels’ visit, is shadowy and in the background, as women were not permitted to join men at table. In this collection, de Renck reproduces a painting in full and in colour, gives the source story which inspired it, enlarges certain details, and highlights background notes of interest. In some cases, he groups reproductions of more than one painting on a subject so audiences can compare artistic results, as with the three paintings of Judith’s beheading of Holofernes, by Andrea Mantegna, Boticelli, and most gruesomely, Caravaggio. There is no code to decipher in these paintings, but having the right background and context makes them all the more enjoyable, and so How to Read Bible Stories and Myths in Art is recommended for any art-lover, or anyone about to embark on a trip where art galleries will be on the itinerary.
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