Are you one of those people who goes to a museum filled with old master paintings only to find yourself stifling a yawn after a couple rooms of only bible scenes. Didn't those old masters ever paint anything else?
Well, if this is an accurate description of you, I'm going to let you in on a secret that will hopefully make those bible paintings more interesting.
Around the year 1300, there was a thrilling revolutionary shift in the style of Italian painting, connected to the developing new philosophy of Humanism.
Humanism is the shift in focus away from exclusive emphasis on heaven and hell, which was common in the Middle Ages, to more interest in life on this Earth. It is the acknowledgement that living is not just the preparation for dying and the afterlife, but had value of its own right. Earthly life is even to be celebrated. This kind of thinking makes me excited, so I can only imagine how thrilling it must have felt to the Italians of 1300, to whom this was all very new and revolutionary.
How do painters go about indicating this shift in philosophy in their paintings? Well, for one thing, they start painting the sky blue.
Giotto, Adoration of the Magi, 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Yup, a blue sky is revolutionary, because the sky as seen from our experience on Earth is blue. With his choice of sky color, Giotto has set his Adoration of the Magi painting here on Earth, in a kind of location you or I might recognize! Previously, skies had largely been painted gold. This was partly because gold was presumably the color of the sky in heaven, and partly because in late middle ages culture, the value of a work of art came in large part from how expensive its materials were, so patrons were partial to gold-leaf skies to show off their wealth. The painting below is a good example.
Guido da Siena, Adoration of the Magi 1270/1280, currently at the Lindenau Museum, Altenburg Germany
Both paintings are of the same story, but Giotto's represents the shift in philosophy to Humanism. His painting shows how painters and patrons alike became more interested in the observation and reproduction of reality on Earth in artwork. And this shift allows the viewer to relate to the painting in a whole new, Humanistic way. So next time you are at a museum of old Italian paintings, notice the color of the sky in the paintings. How does the color affect your feeling about the work, and how might it have affected the feelings of a fourteenth century Italian viewer?