Art has always been an important tool for understanding various eras and their influence. It has served as a reflection of the times during which it was created and for this reason, art is considered a very sensitive medium. It quickly absorbs the changes that witnesses in the surrounding culture and society. It is impossible for art to remain static and uninfluenced in the wake of societal upheaval. Renaissance art therefore is a completely distinctive breed as it reflects the massive transformation in political and religious mood of the society. It depicts the changes that Renaissance era underwent. While some painters paid closer attention to political problems that occurred during 14 and 15th century AD, others focused mainly on religious changes. These changes are most prominent in the several Renaissance paintings that depict Virgin and Child theme.
Unlike the dogmatic nature of religious beliefs observed during medieval era, Renaissance introduced a certain degree of detachment and dispassion to religion. Instead of viewing man as the victim of fate, Renaissance paintings of Virgin and Child clearly show man as greatest achievement of God. Osmond (1998) writes: "Renaissance painting and sculpture reveal changing attitudes of humanity towards its place in the world. In contrast to medieval theology casting man as worthless, Renaissance thought viewed man as the ultimate creation of God, therefore possessing intrinsic dignity and value. Works depicting Jesus as the supreme manifestation of the human and the divine emphasize this perception."
Virgin and Child was the one theme that repeatedly appeared in paintings of Renaissance period. The reason behind this obsession is not clear however it is believed that the primary inspiration for this trend came from Leonardo Di Vinci's painting Virgin and Child. Other famous painters including Italian painters Sandro Botticelli, Antonio Corr and Netherlander Jan Gossaert carried the theme forward thus immortalizing the subject forever. The Virgin and Child theme is grounded more in secularity of religion than is otherwise believed. We notice that these paintings do not reflect any kind of sentimentalism in religion. Instead a dispassionate approach is adopted and the paintings thus reflect the reawakening of man and his perception about his status in the Universe.
Virgin and Child paintings must not be studied as religious paintings, for man and not God is the real subject in these paintings. We may argue that since the theme is religious in nature, the paintings must have some religious undertones. However this is not the case. The painters have chosen this theme in order to accentuate the importance of man in relation to God and His Universe. Instead of considering man a worthless object like some medieval painters did, Renaissance artists included Jesus in their work to depict the worth and value of man. Roberta Olson (200) focuses on the Renaissance paintings of Virgin and Child and observes that these paintings depicted "the prevailing naturalistic aesthetic and increasing secularity" and accentuated the "lessening of religious demands made on works of art and an increased sensitivity to artists (the individual creativity factor" (pp. 83-84). This sounds like an odd assertion since Virgin and Child is an essentially religious theme. However closer analysis reveals that this theme was chosen to highlight man as an important part of the universe who is absolutely nothing worthless as medieval thinkers or painters depicted.
Renaissance paintings were thus characterized by a sense of human worthiness and personal freedom that religion couldn't restrict. Virgin and Child paintings thus depict a strange paradox. On the one hand, the theme is religious and is also presented in highly conventionalized form; on the other the culture itself was moving towards increased secularization. Fusing the two apparently distinctly thinking patterns, we notice that Virgin and Child paintings were actually less about religion and more about the significance of man depicted by the Child whose birth was a miracle. "Renaissance thinkers stressed man's intrinsic value and dignity as a being created in the image and likeness of God. Related to this was a pervasive desire to pursue a direct relationship with the Divinity founded on personal mystical experience and/or the study of Scripture, early church writings, and even pagan texts reinterpreted in Christian terms."
Botticelli's painting, 'Virgin and Child with Angels' clearly reflects this thinking. The painting was given a Gothic touch to react against the scientific naturalism of painters like Masaccio. Despite its religious theme and biblical significance, the painting doesn't make the viewer think about the religious connection. Instead one admires the grace of the female figure, the strange sadness on the faces of the angels, a delicate sentimentalism that emanates from the unique background and the decorative use of line. Sufficient use of light in the background highlights the bodily and facial expressions of the subjects. Instead of using oblique, divergent lines, the painter has created depth in the background with the help of light that comes from various different points and instinctively draws our attention to the figures in the foreground. Close attention has been given to the unity of the image. The painter has deliberately tried not to localize the painting. This was a trend established by Leonardo whose Virgin did not belong to some specific period in time. Similarly Botticelli uses costumes and architectural design in such a manner that no historical allusion can be detected. Looking closely at the Virgin painting under consideration, we notice that the architecture in the background doesn't specifically appear to allude to the design prevalent in 14 or 15th centuries. Instead it has both an ancient and modern touch to it, which gives an element of timelessness to the painting. An important thing in the painting is the grouping of figures. Botticelli was known for decorative stylization of movement that is clear from various different things in the painting including the way human figures are grouped, the attention paid to details, the classic pose of the Virgin. All these highlight the originality and expressive quality of Botticelli's work.
Gossaert's painting 'Virgin and Child' is again an interesting Renaissance work, which depicts the culture's swift movement from sentimentalism to secularization. The female figure in this picture is again not given a religious touch and the painter has instead focused on beauty and grace of a female body. Mabuse was known for the right method of painting a nude female figure and Virgin and Child was a subdued example of how the painter viewed a female body, regardless of the actually theme. It is from such works that historians detected a delicate fusion of changing cultural norms and artistic movement of the Renaissance. Gossaert's use of color also adds an amazing depth to the painting. The rich colors are in sharp contrast to subdued color palette in Botticelli's art. The placement of figures and the landscape are also unique as Kavaler (2000) observes: "The strategic placement of kindred forms helps lend a sense of unity to the marvelous structure; their relative complexity corresponds to their height and nearness to the center, a scheme that implies direction and, consequently, purpose. The subtle intimation of ascent in the order and placement of tracery forms accords with comprehensive reading of the small triptych; the dense illusionistic carving seems like some fantastic choir screen marking the threshold to a paradisial landscape beyond..." Gossaert's painting is though similar in theme as the Italian painting, still we notice Netherlandish touch in his work, which is absolutely missing from the similar paintings by Italian artists. Apart from certain differences in the use of light and color, we also notice that Gossaert's approach to the female figure and the overall theme differs when compared to the work of Botticelli and Correggio. Despite secularization of theme, both Botticelli and Correggio took pains to retain the innocence of the female subject, something that Gossaert's Virgin…