Vasari wrote that painting was the finest way to communicate. The viewer did not need to be able to read to understand what was being imparted; what lesson was being disclosed.  The viewer could be coerced into being good and go to heaven, or even more exciting, be bad and be eaten and tortured forever by devils in hell. Imbedded in these paintings were a panoply of symbols. Everything from ermine (royalty) to a broken pitcher (loss of virginity) could be read by most viewers. Certainly, the symbols in the churches were there to be acknowledged and obeyed.


Landscape painting was simply the background of the narrative foreground of a pre-Renaissance painting or even a Renaissance one. There is still an inherent feeling that landscape painting is not as rigorous and purposeful as narrative pieces. It is still dismissed as decorative. That space that children leave blank, white paper, between the grass and daisies at the bottom of the page and the sun and clouds of the sky, way up high at the top of the paper.

Portraiture started life as a recognition of the donor, the artist’s benefactor, standing about adoring the Mother and Child in Western art. Then slowly, that portrait became the evidence of a man’ s worth and importance on the worldly stage alone. A portrait meant the sitter had arrived in all his or her splendor of furs and jewels declaring wealth and importance.


Uccello, “Battle of San Romano”

Possessions themselves became subjects to be admired by all: horses, dogs and ships of the line, even prize bulls and cows. They all told the story of the patron’s wealth, without verbal boasting, very tastefully.  Great warriors and potentates had historical paintings of their battles, whether by sea or by land, worked up to be admired as victories or to commemorate sad losses that had been overcome. Think of Lorenzo De Medici’s bedroom with those three huge Paolo Uccello battle scenes of giant blue and pink horses bucking and stomping with their knights brandishing spears on three walls. I cannot imagine any other bedroom so fabulous, even if this  battle- was commissioned by the Salembeni family- but ”acquired” by Lorenzo,  one purchased, two by force!  (The Battle of San Romano was between Florence and Siena.)


Mondrian, “Broadway”

Charles Sillem Lidderdale, The Broken Pitcher

The art work became the treasured object in and of itself, first and foremost as decoration (maybe to remain there to this day). Narration is therefore still important, but now has to be interpreted by experts. This removes it from the common folk and puts a kind of voodoo on it, which remains today. Why are people shy about going into galleries?  They are afraid of being perceived as ignorant, or they feel innately ignorant, because they cannot see the symbols for themselves.  This caused the rise of Art Appreciation and Art Theory classes, and created a new atmosphere in which only the educated are perceived to be able to understand and interpret art. The gallery, the experts, now declare the art ‘s value. Its price, and its beauty, is the only narrative left to us.  

Brita Holmquist