Renaissance Iconography

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An Analysis of Iconography and its Importance in Italian Renaissance Art

Mariah Garlitos

Art 323
Margaret Goehring
November 30, 2012

Upon first glance at a work of art we are tempted to distinguish recognizable figures and apply a deeper meaning to them. It becomes a sort of challenge to figure out what the artist intended for their audience to get out of their work. As we examine particular pieces of art, focusing on art of fifteenth century Italy, we come to realize Italian artists used a set of recurring symbols and gestures that denote particular people, places, or ideas. It is important to understand the aim of Italian Renaissance art in order to interpret the purpose of such commonly used symbols. Religious works of art were generally meant for a public audience, most likely common churchgoers. Because it was meant for the general public, who were often more likely than not uneducated and unable to read, it was important for images to be easily recognizable and meaningful. Works intended for altarpieces or in religious contexts were not meant to be icons for worship but rather reminders of important information or to prompt an action for worship or prayer. (Baxandall, 40-43). It is for this reason that artists of the time refer to common use of particular iconography to portray certain figures or ideas; they needed to make their subjects and their meanings clear to the audience. It is important to know and understand the iconography behind fifteenth century Italian art in order to fully understand the narratives that the artists are attempting to portray. This was also a time when the study of psychological qualities was becoming more prominent. Artists began to use gesture and body language to transmit messages that before were transmitted through icons. It is important to also understand the interpretations and meanings of the more understated non-verbal ideas of the time. Symbols, in terms of iconography and gestures, are crucial to understanding the narrative and purpose of art of the period, however evolved with the progression of humanism in art. We often encounter, in the study of art, pieces that would inherently lack meaning if the exclusion of a certain object or identifying material were to occur. It is safe to say that without the proper tools to decipher the meaning of even the smallest objects, we lose a certain ability to fully understand the narrative and purpose of the work as a whole. It was particularly important during the Renaissance to include identifiers for the audience to determine what the narrative of the work was and be reminded of its importance to daily life. (Baxandall, 56-66). These symbols often included objects, a certain use of color or lighting, and identifiable saints or people. Gentile da Fabriano ,The Adoration of the Magi, tempera on panel,1423, Uffizi, Florence Gentile da Fabriano ,The Adoration of the Magi, tempera on panel,1423, Uffizi, Florence The use of objects as clues to the narrative and meaning of a particular piece of work is one of the most prevalent and recognizable features. Particular items were consistently used in fifteenth century Italian art to evoke a particular thought, feeling, or identity. We can examine the use of popular symbols such as the halo or botanicals and how these images were crucial to cultural understanding of the overall work. The use of the halo to denote a holy figure such as the Virgin Mary, Jesus, or a saint was used long before the Renaissance era. It became an important symbol for the general population to recognize holy persons in art. This kind of imagery was popular in altarpieces of the period, a work that would receive high volumes of viewers. Haloes helped the masses to identify the key subjects and stories associated with the piece and assisted them in contemplating and understanding the purpose of worship. (Stemp, 36). If we examine such works as The Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano, 1423, we see a...
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