Jacob Burckhardt and Jules Michelet saw the Renaissance as a surge of civilization booming out of the darkness of the Middle Ages. This vision of the intellectual, social, political movement which begun in the 14th and lasted to the 16th century is more and more contested. The explanation given today is that the developments of the Renaissance were most certainly resulting from the maturation of the Middle Ages society. What is sure is that Italy, and especially Tuscany, had the propitious conditions to become the cradle of those transformations. A central gateway in the Mediterranean Basin, Tuscany welcomed all artistic and scientific influences. As the heirs of Greece and Rome, Tuscans explored their antique patrimony and revived classical ideals of beauty. In the vacuum of power left by the confrontations between the Church and the Holy Empire, they developed despotic powers but nurtured the most democratic structures of that time, the Cities-Republics. This is above all in art that the spirit of the Renaissance found its best realization: examination of the visible world, mathematical approach, talent, of course, were some of the meanings artists used to conduct their quest. Each artist was then contributing to this collective exploration. So this is here a tribute which is rendered to Lucca Di Tomme and the (unknown) Master of the Lanckoronski Annunciation who, with many others, fashioned a different world and gave to man a new dignity.
The Crucifixion - 1365
Lucca Di Tomme
21in x 13 in -Tempera on panel - Museum of the Legion of Honor
What instantly strikes the viewer is the feeling of intense emotion Lucca Di Tommes painting carries. Vivid colors and a shining gold sky radiate a certain violence; crowds, rising arms and lancets, body movements create agitation; poses, tragic gestures and solemn stares transmit a sense of drama. This immediate impact involves the viewer as an emotional participant in the scene as his feelings echo the pain of the figures.
A closer study shows however that the force of these tragedy and confusion rest on a rigorous structure. The painting, a rather small rectangular horizontal surface depicts the Crucifixion. Cut in its middle by the vertical cross bearing Christ, the scene is divided in two equal parts in which Lucca respects the conventions: he has placed the mourners, or saved, on the left side, the soldiers, those who will be damned, on the right side. The groups face each other while they contemplate the cross. This vis-à-vis posture creates a confrontation which amplifies a tension already manifest in the central upright of the cross. In terms of composition, each group perfectly mirrors the other one. Golden haloed saints, who beside Christ represent the most prominent people of the scene, step into the foreground before the crowds. This is the case on the front left side, where Marys collapse, embodying the distress of the scene, is supported by two holy figures. Almost entirely concealed, another holy figure rises the arms in a gesture of desperation, while a fourth one approaches closely the cross to implore Christ (see Left Detail). On the front right side stand the apostles Peter and Paul respectively distinguishable to their gray and dark bear. Both of them supplicate Christ, giving the impression to wait for directives, puzzled by the heavy responsibility they have now, as founders of the Christian Church, to conduct men toward salvation. Another frontal figure seen from the back talk to the company, a disordered cluster of helmets and coifed heads from which lancets and banners emerge. A sort of tumult seems to spread among the soldiers as if the message that they have crucified Gods son was being diffused in the troop (see Right Detail). In contrast, silence and regularity are reigning over Marys followers. Heads may overlap but they do not spring from this disciplined body: these are the flock of Christian sheep.
Even if Lucca adopts a medieval linearity to develop his narrative, he must have been a sharp observer of Giottos paintings. Not only crowds, overlapping figures, clustered head, back turning figure are reminiscent of Giottos mastery to create the sense of space, but the body treatment Lucca applies to the frontal figures seems to be directly inspired from Giotto. Though here too, Lucca is not totally released from a medieval shyness. He works with light, shadow and colors in order to bring depth and volume to his characters, but the clothes still conceal the bodies and the drapery still fall into tubular rigid folds.
Another Giottos legacy is the introduction of landscape, as an active element in the story. Dark promontories frame the scene. They arise from the background, behind each following group that they oppress, driving them and thus the viewers gaze to the focus of the painting: Christ on the cross. But they follow too an ascending slope, leading to the open sky and setting free the cross which can spread out its arms.
In Christs depiction, Lucca remains faithful to the Christian pattern of the Crucifixion. The loneliness of the body on the cross illustrates Christs suffering; blood flowing and running down along the cross symbolizes the redemptive power of his sacrifice; the extension of the cross recalls the triumph of the Church, the domination of the Spiritual over the Temporal, and the promise of the Eternal Salvation (see Center Detail). Lucca has elected a Byzantine approach to depict the central axis of his composition. Christ, isolated inside resplendent gold, is portrayed in the Manera Greca. Elongated and thin body, emaciated face and body lines marked in a greenish waxy shade, which contrasts with the beautiful saturated colors.
The effectiveness of this painting an eloquent narrative and a stirring drama shows how much Lucca Di Tomme has been able to draw from all the different experiences of his predecessors in order to demonstrate human emotions, the concern of his time.
The Annunciation (?)
Master of the Lanckoronski Annunciation - 1445-1450
14in x 8in - Tempera on panel - Museum of the Legion of Honor
It is not possible for the museums visitor to skip this painting because of its extraordinary serenity. Quietness and silence filling the atmosphere are translated into a delicate and daring balance of colors which demonstrates that the artist is really the Master the title announces. The whole scene is captured in one glance, due to the small size of the surface; it is said to have been a predella, and so, as part of a major altarpiece, a work of secondary importance. It is however a persuasive testimony of the artistic achievements which occurred during the 15th century.
The event, the Annunciation, takes place inside an architecture. All the attributes of this highly codified Christian imagery are there: Mary, wearing her traditional colors pink under a blue cloak, the angel Gabriel winged and dressed in pink over a white alb, ray of light and white lilies symbols of Marys purity, the white dove, representing the Holy Trinity, the altar, supporting the Book of Devotion and the tablets of the Old Law.
The gray-stone architecture, a loggia, is a model of classical sobriety. Horizontal and vertical lines define geometrical planes which are disrupted by the repetition of rounded arches and thin columns. The overall light is stressed in different gray surfaces by sharp edges; on the contrary, when grabbed by the vault ceiling of a corridor or nurtured inside the small circular niches, it is curved into a smooth blend. Dragged along infinite oblique lines in the direction of an invisible vanishing point, the viewers gaze collides against an imposing altar which stands slightly off-centered on the right. This linear and structural perspective is challenged by another one whose spiritual components lead to Mary, the focusing point of the narrative. Thus, the angel Gabriel, his wings still thrilling, steps into the room from an open door and heads with assurance toward Mary. In the same way, the white dove precedes the divine ray of light which flows from an arch, and disperses its radiation over Mary. Here she is, sitting along a wall. Hands joined with devotion, bending her head in a gesture of deference, eyes closed with obeisance and humility, she appears vulnerable beside the massiveness of the altar. This is a sacred moment, whose density is released like a respiration by the openings in the architecture disclosing portions of trees and skies.
Thanks to the art of our Master, lightness and refinement emanates from what could have been a very austere and highly conventional painting. The whole harmony of the composition rests on the control of a subtle equilibrium between different elements. For example, the perfect gray color of the architecture evoking the Tuscan piedra serena infuses an overall serenity: no color cast is allowed for the edifice. On the other hand, few, but highly saturated colors are used for depicting the actors of the story. The dresses are pink. Marys cloak is blue. Gold is saved, either for the sacred attributes halo, wings, beam of light, vase of lilies, altar, or for the festooning of the clothes. And the floor, as the leading pathway to the event, is painted in a beautiful salmon pink coat. In the same manner, the artist has opposed to the immobility of the surrounding structure a range of movements which animate the scene. The beam of light, the dove and the Angel Gabriel suddenly irrupt into the space. The falls and folds of the clothes follow the motion or outline the position of the bodies. Similarly, the physical light glides along the slippery surface of the walls, but it models the bodies and casts a significant shadow behind Mary, when it becomes divine.
It is fascinating to realize that the Master of the Lanckoronsky Annunciation has been able to orchestrate such a serene and exquisite scene whose impact surpasses the religious experience it represents. Its simplicity conveys a sense of meditation, tranquil contemplation and beauty which must have infused like it still does today new confidence and hope into the men of the 15th century.
Contrast and similarities
Many characteristics oppose the two paintings. They share almost only one trait, which is however so important that it encompasses all the differences.
In both paintings, the theme is a central Christian subject matter: the conception and the death of Christ. Each artist remains very respectful with the conventions, by the use of attributes codifying those themes. But the Crucifixion and the Annunciation tells the viewer more than the Christian scene they depicts. With a profusion of colors and figures, Lucca Di Tomme speaks about emotions, feelings, compassion and pain; with a subtle balance between colors and lines, the Master of the Lanckoronsky Annunciation speaks about contemplation, peace, harmony and beauty. Both of them relate through their art their concern for human emotions. This is what makes them belong to the family of the New Man of the Renaissance, in spite of their differences. Adding to their skills, on the ground of the knowledge of the past, both of them have been able to integrate new pictorial experiences and to capture innovations, achieving thus a beautiful and moving synthesis. Lucca Di Tomme for example has retained Duccio and Giottos lessons: he has adroitly implemented the sense of space. He has too been able to convey the intensity of emotions by a just placement of wonderful briliant colors. As for the Master of the Lanckoronsky Annunciation, the new linear perspective has been for him the occasion to create a new dimensional environment as part of the human event.
The noticeable differences between the two paintings are more a matter of composition, pictorial choices and depend on contemporary evolution. Lucca Di Tommes painting still has this medieval touch, with identical facial types, concealed bodies, linear narrative, overwhelming gold. Though he still paints gold but only as a reminder of holyness The Master of the Lanckoronsky Annunciation has reached a lightness by the use of perspective which helps him to extend the space, and by the introduction of classical standards.
At the first sight the Crucifixion displays an intense and the observer may suppose out of control emotion, when it is actually built on a very precise symetrical structure. At the opposite the Annunciation which announces a world of rational geometry, finally reveals a delicate sensibility.
We, people of the end of the 20th century, should be thankful to artists like Lucca Di Tomme and the Master of the Lanckoronsky Annunciation. As artists of the Renaissance, they have given us one major component of our freedom: choice. By questioning the world, they have open for us new ways toward new alternatives. Their spiritual and intellectual investigation has helped to discover a new world, where mans place in the universe was redefined and new roads toward a better life were at last possible.