The Changing Role and Status of the Artist 1300 – 1600
To explore the changing role and status of the artist during the period 1300 – 1600 we have first to look at the period of time prior to this. For a thousand years before, Rome had ruled most of Europe, bringing new developments in technology, education and government, but after Rome fell to invaders in 542 CE, Western Europe became stagnant, a period we now term as the Middle Ages. Ordinary people did not venture far from their hamlets. Local lords ruled with fear and intimidation. Learning took place only in religious houses, and generations grew up ignorant, illiterate, and superstitious of outsiders. Artists and merchants during this time formed organisations called guilds, similar to trades unions, giving protection, but also instigating rules and regulations.
Art was seen as a craft, one of the mechanical arts (ars mechanica) and the artist’s main task would have been to paint commissions from wealthy patrons, and painting murals for the Religious to tell bible stories to the population of illiterate peasants. There was a set formula for painting characters from the Bible, using the perspective of meaning rather than natural perspective. In perspective of meaning, the most important things are large and the least important small.
The years 1300-1600 were a time of great social and cultural change in Europe.. By the fourteenth Century, the Black Death had wiped out at least one third of the population of Europe. The Black Death and the Hundred Years War helped bring an end to the Middle Ages. This caused a huge shortage of workers. Subsequently, wages rose along with the demand for workers, serfdom began to fade into history. Higher wages increased the standard of living for many peasants. This in turn contributed to the rise of wealthy merchants, such as the Medici family of Florence. These merchant families would provide the money, resources and the incentive for the Renaissance, (from the French word for ‘re-birth’, first used by 19th Century historians).
Trading with other countries brought a variety of goods and in turn wealth to many cities especially in Northern Italy. Seeing different types of merchandise and hearing of distant lands opened peoples minds and made them more questioning. Religion was no longer the most important part of life, and people started to look in other areas for information.
Artists started to produce more realistic paintings and this new realism was first apparent in the paintings by Giotto di Bondone, 1267-1337 Fig.1 ‘The Mourning of Christ’ shows a very realistic depiction to the viewers of the day. In this fresco he introduced spatial perspective. He replaced the usual gold background with a landscape, and the figures were more human in appearance by actually depicting their feelings of suffering and tragedy.
Giotto, when he was discovered by Cimabue (Cenni de Peppi) he was a simple shepherd boy and it was apparent in his paintings that nature had been his teacher. Giottto became famous during his lifetime, the people of Florence were proud of his achievements. This was a new development, as artists before him, though well thought of, and recommended by their patrons to others but never before had there been a need to preserve their names for posterity.
The social changes that took place during this time were slow, but steady. By the end of the Renaissance virtually every aspect of European society had undergone some type of transformation. As Western Europe slowly emerged from the Middle Ages, new ideas and beliefs about life and its purpose began to spread. This school of thought, known as Humanism was a system of education based on the Greek and Latin classics. These included the release from ecclesiastical authority, the belief that man himself can improve his own conditions without supernatural help and indeed had a duty to do so, were based on the belief that life...
Figure 4 Albrecht Durer, Self- portrait at 22, 1493, Oil on linen, transferred from Vellum, Musee du Louvre, Paris
Figure 5 Albrecht Durer, Self Portrait at 26, 1498, Oil on Panel, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Figure 6 Albrecht Durer, Self-portrait at 28, 1500 Oil on Panel, Alte Pinakothek, Munich
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