Altarpieces and Art, Berlinghieri’s, Byzantines, Christ and Creativity; Some Art History


The Saint Francis Altarpiece by Bonaventura Berlinghieri is medieval in nature, and reflects the Itlalo-Byzantine style of painting, maniera greca, or the Greek Style, that dominated Italian art throughout the Middle Ages. Although a precursor to the humanistic renaissance, it serves as an excellent example of not only the transitory state of art during the Middle Ages, but of a transitory period of man. The style of Berlinghieri and many of his predecessors is said to be characterized by a strict formality, linear flatness, use of shallow spaces, with an emphasis on the spiritual[1]. Berlinghieri utilizes each defining characteristic of the Byzantine style in his depiction of Saint Francis, who stands in the center of the panel, bearing the wounds of Christ, flaked in gold; painted only a decade after his death[2].

He adorns a clerical garb representative of the Franciscan Order and is hedged by an angel on either side, whilst the linear flatness and carefully arranged space symmetrically guides the eye scene by scene. The movement from event to event contrasts the stiffness of the central saint, increasing his significance as the Christ-like founder. Berlinghieri is depicting the saint’s life in an artistic form similar to the illuminated manuscripts, with which one may assume he was familiar; similarly, it acts as a comfortable artistic representation of the Sacred, as the iconographic style was left nearly unscathed for hundreds of years.

Each stage on the panel depicts an important event of St. Francis’ life, giving the painting more verve than the typical Byzantine icons of the Middle Ages. The six distinctive scenes, ranging from stigmatization to angelic presentation, would, I imagine, produce an atypical effect for the Italian congregation – the art is functional in a shallow space – rendering each stylized symbol and scene with emotional efficacy. This psychologically impacting representation, in relation to the prominence of religious orders in Italy, serves also as an example of devout, fraternal promotion. Four of the six scenes depict miracles, furthering the holiness of fraternity and Francis. Berlinghieri’s panel acts as a representation of the artistic form and religiously bent approach of the Italo-Byzantine style.


Humanism’s role in the development of the Italian Renaissance is central. It was a code of civil conduct, a theory of education, and a scholarly discipline more than it was a philosophical system. The sole reward sought by the humanists was fame, as sainthood was for the pious. The creative individual and the art produced were adapted into the city-state politics; the artist and art produced were as important to the evolution and maintenance of the society as any other profession or study. This perception holds optimism in humans, believing them to be inherently endowed with dignity and natural world-shaping abilities. The progression from the stoicism of the Middle Ages to the emerging naturalism of the following centuries in identifiable in a pair, father and son, whose countering pulpits tell of two common trends of subsequent art– an interest in all that is antiquity, and a budding acceptance of the beauty of human and natural forms.

The 13th century sculptor Nicola Pisano (c. 1220–84?) exhibits an interest in classical forms unlike any of his predecessors, evident in his marble reliefs and ornaments for large pulpits, the first of which he completed in 1260, for the baptistery of Pisa Cathedral.[3] The humanism prevalent in Sicily, under its king, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, most likely influenced Nicola during his artistic upbringing – classical tendencies were found in the environment of Italy, where artists were acquainted with ancient Roman works, such as the sarcophagi – from the side of which the large rectangular relief panels of Pisano’s pulpit appear to have been removed, if slightly altered.

But, this Classical influence was still a candle in the dark. Nicola Pisano’s son Giovanni Pisano responded in a more radical and emotional manner. He carved more naturalistic figures, with supple and slender bodies loosely arranged, clothed in sinuous, swift draperies, that twist and bend with greater animation and emotional expression than the placid Annunciation of Nicola, whose figures seem paralyzed[4]. Nicola Pisano may very well be the father architect of the Italian epoch, the author of the revival culminated by Michelangelo.[5] The sculptors began to experiment with new forms of exploring the creative vortex, and by doing so carved the air, casting a path for the many artists to come.


By request of Philip the Bold, a patron of the arts, Broederlam was appointed court painter for the years of 1381–1409[6]. He painted both the outer panels and inner polychrome decoration of at least two altarpieces intended for the chartreuse de Champmol. They represent four biblical scenes: The Annunciation and The Visitation (left) and The Presentation of Christ and The Flight into Egypt (right). The exterior panels of the altarpiece painted by Melchior Broederlam show an unusual combination of different styles, and religious symbolism. An altarpiece is comprehensively defined as

a carving, painting, sculpture, screen or decorated wall made for a Christian church altar,  the table at which mass is said. They vary enormously in size and conception, from tiny portable pictures

to huge structures embracing the arts of architecture, sculpture and painting. Normally, the altarpiece rests on the altar, but it is also found behind or even above. The centre of the altarpiece

features a depiction of Christ, the Virgin Mary or a saint, with the side panels generally showing scenes relating to the life of the central figure. These are presented chronological order and can be

read like a comic strip. The backs of the side panels are almost always painted, giving a finished aspect to the altarpiece when closed. [7]

These altarpieces derive much of their artistic influence from the early iconographers.

ICON, is the Greek word EIKON meaning image. It is the reflection of God’s reality.

The icon is the prayer in colour, the bridge that unites our soul with Heaven.[8]

Icons are deeply spiritual works of art meant for the veneration of Saints, or Holy people, in the eyes of the devotees. The most faithful are apt to prayer a prayer similar to this, in order to consecrate their icon before creating it.

Thou Who hast so admirably imprinted Thy features on the cloth sent to King

Abgar of Edessa, and hast so wonderfully inspired Luke Thy Evangelist:

Enlighten my soul and that of Thy servant; Guide his hand that he may reproduce

Thy features, those of the Holy Virgin and of all Thy saints, for the glory and

peace of Thy Holy Church. Spare him from temptations and diabolical imaginations

in the name of Thy Mother, St. Luke, and all the Saints. Amen.[9]

These works of art eventually stemmed controversy amongst the church, leading to the Iconoclastic period of the 7th-9th centuries, during which icons were viewed as heretical, and reasoned to be idol worship. Nonetheless, their influence was widespread amongst the artistic and religious communities alike.

Artists are become more interested in representing deep recessions of space.

A distinctive aspect of the work is the arrangement of sacred architecture in two of the four scenes. These two possess the unique quality of openness and perceptual contraction, which lead the viewer both in and out of the buildings, from forefront to landscape to golden background, in an oblique and fragmentary, lucid obscuration of the realm of the Soul. Although the portrayal is unique, it is not entirely convincing:

He uses the gold background to link the four scenes together, but achieves this aim at the expense of visual coherence, for such an abstract heaven does not really square with the attempt at perspectival space. The function of perspective is to define a three-dimensional world in which the visible and the real are one. Over the centuries that followed, artists would come to understand and exploit this potential in an increasingly clear manner.[10]


The Well of Moses is full of complex symbolism.

Sluter’s six sided hexagonal Well of Moses, a portal built on a pre-existing well, symbolizing the Fountain of Life, is formed of six prophets holding books and/or scrolls; the six begin with Moses and continue in laevorotation to David, Jeremiah, Zechariah, Daniel, and Isaiah. Moses rests directly beneath the face of Christ, and adorns horns, symbolizing the mistranslation of karnu panav, rays of light, in the Old Testament. There also reside six angels above each respective prophet. A crucifix crowns the well, while below it rest the Virgin Mary, St. John, and Mary Magdalene.

[3] Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: The Western Perspective. Twelfth Edition.

[5] Nicola Pisano and the Revival of Sculpture in Italy. Contributors: G. H. & E. R. Crichton – author. Publisher: Cambridge [Eng.] The University press. Place of Publication: Cambridge, Eng.. Publication Year: 1938. Page Number: 1.


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