The Semantics of Symmetry in the Art of the Renaissance

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Throughout this course the ideas of religion, shapes, mathematics, symmetry and perspective have been examined within numerous works of the Italian Renaissance and reflected upon during passionate discussions over the semester. In Heninger’s article The Semantics of Symmetry in the Art of the Renaissance he discusses many of these same ideals. The integration of these concepts within Renaissance art was a deliberate message to the viewer. Proto-renaissance works are an appropriate example of this; displaying a lack of naturalism these images focus more on the ideals than the representation of the human form. Later Renaissance works, although more naturalistic, still embody the awareness of an inner meaning but was also a ‘[…] transition period between those who sought to lead a life of the spirit [from those who sought to] lead a life of the senses, and its art reflects both attitudes’ (Heninger 306). Most works created during the proto-renaissance, from about the thirteenth century to the early fifteenth century, stressed symbolism and an internal message more than naturalism and perspective. This is the ‘substance’ in which Heninger references in his statement ‘at the same time that Pater made art the end-all and be-all of life, he emptied it of substance’ (286). Walter Pater’s view of art is that it ‘[…] should induce an immediate,

intense emotion without the necessity of cerebral analysis. Intellectual effort, in fact, not only clutters but undermines the art event,’ when in fact intellectual effort is what the proto-renaissance was about entirely (Heninger 285). This notion is apparent in works like Berlinghieri’s Saint Francis Altarpiece in that the depiction of Saint Francis is almost two-dimensional giving him a flat appearance. Berlinghieri’s placement of Saint Francis in the middle of a gold background that lacks any perspective or depth makes him look as though he is floating in the space. The absence of naturalism is not due to the artist’s lack of talent but the piece was created to invoke thought about Saint Francis’ life. The stigmata illustrated on Saint Francis and the halo around his head was meant to demonstrate to the viewer that Saint Francis held a predominant role in that religious era. Henninger narrates that ‘indeed, works of art are our best means of achieving the much-desired divino furore’ (289). Divino fuore translated to divine frenzy meaning a state a contemplation in which a person enters communication with God that brings an intellectual pleasure. The back panel of Duccio’s Maesta, Noli me Tangere, depicts Mary Magdalene reaching out to touch Christ following his resurrection. Noli me tangere, meaning don’t touch me, as Christ tells Mary Magdalene that he is no longer of this world. Christ’s clothing gives a golden sheen portraying his other worldliness. The Maesta also shows the living and

the dead as portrayed with one living tree, bearing fruit, and one dead tree to correspond with the death and resurrection. ‘From perceiving the artifact’s external appearance, we move to an increasing awareness of its inner form, and eventually to participation in its idea;’ both the Saint Francis Altarpiece and Noli me Tangere are visually appealing but the imagery integrated within is meant to continually remind the viewer’s soul of divinity (Heninger 290).

As time progressed art moved from the proto-renaissance into the period of the Renaissance imagery of the divine was illustrated more so through mathematics, shapes and perspective rather than symbolism. Brunelleschi’s Church of Santo Spirito is architecturally designed to resemble a Latin cross with a symmetrical transept. The dimensions of the side chapels and the chancel are equal-sized squares and two of those squares are equal to the length of the nave. ‘Since the godhead behind this cosmogony is good, his creation will image a comparable goodness, a comparable perfection, insured by the exercise of symmetry’ (Heninger 301). In...
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