Tomorrow we depart Europe for Thailand and afterwards, Australia.
Amongst all the experiences and images from the last 8 months, it is the cultural diversity and the history of Europe – embodied by The Renaissance era – which are the domiant mental souvenirs I take with me – rather than the scenes of utter bruality from The Ukraine which have dominated European news outlets this year.
The Renaissance has loomed large during my time in this part of the world: the rebirth of European culture, in which Northern Italy played a major role. Commencing in the 16th century, The Renaissance was a time when artists, writers, and philosophers broke free of the old norms inherited from the Middle Ages and a suffocating, dogmatic Christianity.
This cultural revolution produced a welter of new ideas in the arts and a spirit of humanism. Ironically, although it presaged the modern era, it drew its inspiration from the past – and in particular from the artists and philosophers of ancient Greece.
These three paintings, all of them done in the early 16th century, capture the spirit of The Renaissance and its subtle yet unequivocal challenge to the existing norms.
Portrait of a Lady, Sandro Boticelli
The city states of Northern Italy produced a welter of brilliant artists.
Born in Florence, Sandro Boticelli’s Portrait of a Lady portrayed a woman in a way never seen before: not as a kind of surogate version of the Holy Virgian Mary – as was normal during the Middle Ages – but rather in terms of femine beauty with clear elements of feeling and sexuality. Here was a radical new idea of painting: of displaying human beings rather than symbolic images. The detail, linear outlines and colours also spelled a break with the past.
This is a beautiful woman whose beauty is something which we modern human beings can recognise.
Portrait of an African Man, Jan Mostaert
Jan Mostaert was a little known Dutch painter hailing from the city of Haarlem. He was an outstanding painter in the technical sense but was not known for any originality.
Mostaert’s Portrait of an African Man, is one of the earliest and the only individual portraits of a black African that has survived.
We do not know who this man is.
His rich clothes, gloves, and sword indicate his important status. The insignia on his hat and bag allude to possible Spanish or Portuguese origins.
Whatever the case, this is a portrayal of a black man as someone with humanity and dignity and not a slave, a servant, or a curiosity. This is a man of colour with dignity and presence.
This is a human being like you and me.
Giovanni Bellini ‘The Lamentation of Christ’.
Bellini was a Venetian painter and here is one of his great masterpieces in its unprecedented portrayal of one of the oldest religious scenes in the world. Jesus, Mary and John are portrayed as real human beings with emotions rather than icons of an institionalised religion. In the drama of Christ’s murder and the intense suffering of Mary and John is a powerful symbol of the sufferings of the human race at large. In this sense the painting was timeless, relevant to the sufferings of human beings from whatever time period, place, religion or ethnicity.
Christ is a man who has suffered a terrible injustice and been arbitrarily executed. His fate and that of Mary and John is just as applicable to the human lot in today’s world as the ancient.
Here is the basis for our modern western ideas about ‘universal human rights’ and compassion for the world’s poor and oppressed.
In these three paintings, the break with the Middle Ages – dominated by the Papacy and crusades against the Moslems in the Holy Land and Spain, as well as against heretics within Europe – is unmistakable. A society and religion which has imposed a straight jacket on humanity for centuries is now being challenged by non violent means: art and ideas.
This is the baggage I take with me as I depart Europe.
Nothing to check in. No passport required.
Light as a bird.