Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Hundred greatest artworks: Deposition from the Cross by Pontormo, Part one



This is the inaugural post (one painting told in three parts!) of the Hundred Greatest Artworks of All Time, with each artwork being individually the single greatest artwork ever created and better than all others before or after.

Yes, that makes no sense. But if you want the sketchy art history education I'm going to be providing in this series you're going to have to roll with it.

This "rolling" will be good practice because you're going to have to do a lot of rolling with things in this series. And on that theme of rolling let us start with the round and humble Oreo.

In Italy, in the 14, 15, and 1600's, there were, generally speaking, three sequential major art periods. For our purposes think cookie, cream, and cookie again.

First, the first cookie, was the Renaissance, which we'll roughly place in the 1400's (though it rather runs on a way into the 1500's). The Renaissance was notable for its balanced harmony, its elegance, and its developing naturalism in service of heightened spiritual, intellectual, and artistic ideals. It's also known for its nearly deified artists: Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael.

Here, have a Renaissance painting. This by Raphael:

Second, the thin layer of cream in between the earlier "Renaissance" cookie and the later "Baroque" cookie, is the art style known as Mannerism. This style, roughly of the 1500's, is the setting for the greatest painting ever made, today's "Deposition from the Cross" by Pontormo. So we'll come back to this 'Mannerism' in a moment.

Finally, the third period, following Mannerism, and so the completing cookie of our sandwich, is the Baroque Period of the 1600's. This style is notable for it's complete command of naturalism, it's drama, and its exploration of greater themes through gritty and authentic visions of the "real" world.

Here is a bit of a Baroque painting by Caravaggio:

So there is your Oreo: An exquisite spiritual elegance and expression on one side. The weight and the rough emotion of reality on the other, holding our mysterious thin layer of cream so perfectly expressed in our greatest painting today, the Mannerist "Deposition".

What is this cream? When can we see this greatest of paintings?

We'll get to it. First:

What are these cookies?

Think of the two cookies as complimentary. Both are substantial, emphatic, defined, and respected periods in the history of art. The two of them, Renaissance and Baroque, belong perfectly together in the evolution of artistic progression. After all, painting developed the ability to portray things so that they looked astonishingly like real life, and as they created an ability to convey in two dimensions the appearance of the third (this all in the Renaissance), wasn't the most inevitable and natural thing that painters would begin to paint the World as we recognizably know it and feel it to be (The Baroque)?

And yet, strangely, between the two, like the cream of our Oreo, something infinitely strange inserted itself, a step forward we could not have imagined;  Mannerism.

So what is Mannerism, and what happened?

We will finally dive into the answer to that tomorrow. But in preparation I leave you this emblematic piece of Mannerism, "The Madonna with the Long Neck", by Parmigianino. This strange cream between the two cookies is where we will pick up the story tomorrow.

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