The Cultural Significance of Color: Absorbing Professor Compton’s Lecture on Early Florentine Altarpieces

20140910 Florentine ColorsIn early September I had the pleasure of attending Professor Rebekah Compton’s lecture entitled “The Glory of Color: Pigments in Early Florentine Altarpieces” in the College of Charleston’s Simons Center for the Arts. By using Giovanni Dal Ponte’s Madonna and Child Enthroned as a means to introduce the subject and as a central point of reference, the professor’s discussion essentially provided insight into 14th century Italy and the process of creating elaborately colored altarpieces. Before the lecture, I had considered my own knowledge of altarpieces to be minimal at best; to me, they were merely a common religious decoration popular in age-old churches.  Several minutes into the lecture, I quickly realized the subject is much more complex than it initially seems to be.

Professor Compton began her lecture by introducing the work as one that be studied without traveling to Italy. Madonna and Child Enthroned is easily accessible for viewing just two hours away from Charleston at the Columbia Museum of Art, making the topic more relevant to an audience mostly comprised of college students.  She continued by discussing the artist of the work, Giovanni Dal Ponte, and that his love for extravagance through color was shared by many in the Proto-Renaissance.  Professor Compton explained that the ideology of the time involved “Worship with Images,” and in doing so, religious art achieved three main goals: telling a story, reminding viewers of that story, and “exciting the heart.” According to Professor Compton, decorating these individual and elaborate chapels funded churches, while also commemorating specific guilds and families. Ponte’s heavy use of metallic silver indicates that the altarpieces may be honoring a group of sword makers or armorers.

Professor Compton later details the complex process of embellishing a 14th century altarpiece, beginning with the selection of wood according to the artist’s budget. The wood was then prepped with a material called gesso, allowing the artist to sketch the design of the altarpiece on the surface before sending the work off to a gold or silver smith.  As explained by Professor Compton, finely shaved pieces of gold, or gold leaf, were used to illuminate certain areas of the altarpiece. The material was expensive, difficult to produce, and long lasting, so therefore the product was highly sought after to add to altarpieces’ extravagance. She passed a small container of gold leaf throughout the lecture room in order for the audience to truly see the delicate and luminescent nature of the leaves.  I was absolutely amazed that the material in the container was used to cover such large spaces on altarpieces.

The final portion of the lecture discussed the vibrant and wide-ranging pigments used to color a 14th century altarpiece. Like the gold leaf example, Professor Compton continued to interact with the audience by passing several pigments around the room. Each pigment was derived from a unique source, with some being more expensive and rarer than others. The finest red pigment of the time, for instance, came from a dried Indian insect known as Red Lake. The great lengths taken to use the best materials possible are indicative of altarpiece’s cultural significance in the Proto-Renaissance world.

Overall, I found the lecture to be an enlightening and a comprehensive approach to a subject that plays an integral role in historians’ understanding of Christian art. Learning about the elaborate and time-consuming methods used to construct works such as Madonna and Child Enthroned make the pieces more meaningful to me as I look back on the significance of altarpieces and their contribution to art history.  Colors add a spiritual element to these works that could not be achieved by any other sorts of means.  By incorporating this idea while also referring to Giovanni Dal Ponte’s Madonna and Child Enthroned, Professor Compton successfully intrigued and educated the audience in her September lecture.

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