I have found the works in the Late Medieval and Renaissance Room to be invaluable in getting across some of the basic ideas of medieval religious perspectives, humanism, Florentine notions of mathematical proportion and vanishing point perspective, and the transition to secular portraiture. For its part, the Seventeenth Century Room is ideally set up to introduce ideas of Protestantism, the Counter-Reformation, and the “embarrassment of riches” that marked the Dutch ascendance in world trade and empire.
One of my favorite exercises is to bring the students into the Medieval and Renaissance Room and have them examine two scenes from the Stages of the Cross. The earliest picture, the 14th century Siennese crucifixion painting in which Christ is flanked by Mary and Mary Magdalene nicely pairs nicely with a reading from Pope Innocent III in which he excoriates the sins humankind. This Christ is gruesomely pale, with little attempt at realistic depiction, and heavy on the symbolism and iconography of the characters depicted. The extreme emaciation of Christ also anticipates the grim visions of much post-Black Death art.
On the other side of the entry door is a picture of the scourging of Christ from the mid-1500’s in which every humanistic conceit of the High Renaissance is in play: Christ is so well-nourished and muscular that He looks like He just stepped out of the gym. Here, as accompanied by a reading of Pico Della Mirandola’s “Essay on the Dignity of Man,” the human body in all its realism assumes center stage. In addition, the painting contains a fine example of vanishing point perspective and of effective light and shadow. The religious iconography, which so dominates the first painting is now barely perceptible: Only the barest hint of a halo is present and the students have to crowd in very close to see it.
Other paintings I enjoy using are Joos Von Cleve’s “Madonna of the Cherries” and Tintoretto’s “Portrait of a Gentleman.” Both of these are highly instructive in showing the eagerness of artists to display their skills of realistic depiction—in the luxury of the Madonna’s velvet and satin garments, and the depiction of historical characters in contemporary dress—and the new artistic trends toward both individualized artistic fame and notoriety, and non-religious patronage.
In the Seventeenth Century Room, the contrast with earlier medieval and Renaissance sensibilities is so striking that students routinely gasp when they enter. The evolution in skills of realistic and dramatic depiction are, of course, very much on display. But the differences in the way the people portrayed are in some ways even more striking. I usually start with the pair of DeKeyser portraits of a young man and young woman, and ask the students to characterize their personalities and speculate about their religious lives. This gives us a wonderful entry into the Reformation and especially Calvinism. From there we can move into the dramatic “Counter-Reformation” imagery of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden and the Crucifixion painting there. The still lifes [Vanitas pieces], in addition to wowing students with their almost photographic quality, are very useful in impressing them with the increasing global reach of the Dutch in the subjects contained within: citrus fruits, figs, and what appears to be either Chinese porcelain or Delftware—both interesting subjects to expand on in learning about 17th century trade, technology, mercantilism, and empire. Finally, the picture of the soldiers, in addition to depicting the wealth available to them, shows one other interesting commodity: tobacco and pipes as a consequence of contact with the Americas. Taken together, these images paint a vivid picture of the global reach of the tiny Netherlands in the early modern period.
While these are by no means the only paintings and subjects we explore in these rooms they remain staples of my talks in History 151 or 251 on these subjects.