Saturday, April 27, 2019

Egg tempera is the painting medium of the saints; oil is for profane moderns

Well, a whole week away in Rome and Santa Marinella! The glorious liturgy of the Church for Triduum, including the pre-1955 Good Friday (four hours that flew past!), Easter feasting and evenings with friends. It's more excitement than I'm used to, that's for sure.

Bertie is certainly glad I've brought the Lap home with me.

Getting started on a New Thing

But one big practical reason to go to the City from time to time is the presence of the art supply store that sells ALL THE THINGS!

Poggi on the Viale Trastevere, I learned, has all the things needed to do classical, original-materials egg tempera painting. Right down to the fancy-schmancy agate burnishers and stamping tools, Armenian bole and all manner of arcane sizing and finishing potions for gilding and to decorate the gold. I'm not quite at that stage yet, being determined not to bite off more than I can chew with this learning curve. Strictly going one step at a time.

But I did take one pretty significant step forward.

No more commercial acrylic gesso for me!

Pictured, left to right, are about 400 g of rabbit skin glue granules, 1 kg of "polvere di marmo" - Carrara marble dust - that has a completely different texture from the regular Bologna gypsum - and a jar of ready-made True Gesso (that I'm not too sure about). The marble dust has the highest recommendations from the experts who are doing all the research re-constructing this medium. The difference is quite pronounced; marble has a texture like extremely fine sand or even fine-granule sugar or salt, while the gypsum is more like the chalk dust that used to collect at the base of the classroom blackboard.

Egg tempera painters call the rabbit-skin-glue-marble-dust/gypsum kind, "True Gesso" (always capitalised) to distinguish it from commercial acrylic gesso. The difference is rather like the difference between egg tempera painting and oil painting in general. Acrylic gesso is Novusordo gesso, a profane, modernist outgrowth of Protestant gesso.

It's a bit of palaver to make and apply, but I think that really just adds the value of authenticity to the work. And there's nothing more fun than learning something ancient and arcane.

Lost arts are the best arts.

How the Protestant/Secular revolution really happened...

Koo Schadler, the recognised queen of traditional egg tempera research and technique - whose book a kind benefactor bought for me recently - says something quite profound about the transition in the art of Christendom in the early 1400s...

In one of her articles on her website, "History of Egg Tempera Painting" she notes that the transition from egg tempera to oils was one of the things that changed our civilisation from a Christian to a profane or "secular" one.

"Greater realism suited the less spiritually oriented, more scientific and humanistic culture of the Renaissance."

It wasn't merely the usual story we all know - that society was changing from other factors, that humanism was being born in Europe through the influence of ancient texts newly re-discovered at the Spanish Reconquista. It was the influence of northern European painters, using oils, producing artworks of a completely different - profane - nature brought down to Italy.

"Northern European painters were not as immersed in an egg tempera tradition, and their guilds were not as beholden to a particular school or working method. Northern Europe also had a history of an early form of oil painting behind it [Byzantine/Christian Greek]. Thus it was in the north that more experimental materials and methods began to develop. In his book on the lives of famous painters, the 16th c. historian Giorgio Vasari credits Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck with single-handedly creating the revolutionary technique of oil painting. In actuality the use of drying oils in easel painting can be traced back to a long and gradual development.  
"Oils were used in decorative painting and as protective coatings throughout the middle ages, probably earlier. These early oils were generally dark, thick, and not well suited to easel painting. But by the 1400s texts began to appear that described how to refine drying oils to make them lighter in tone, faster drying and have better working properties. 
"A commercial renaissance was taking place throughout Europe and with it came the distribution of the new materials, methods, and the paintings that resulted. 
By the late 1300s to early 1400s, northern European painters were working partly or entirely in oil.1 Slow drying oil paints blend more readily than fast drying, linear tempera. This makes it easier in oil to paint smooth transitions and three-dimensional forms. Because of its higher refractive index, oil is capable of darker shadows than can be achieved in tempera. Whereas tempera must be applied in thin layers, oil can be applied thickly (impasto), which contributes opacity to lights and highlights and makes them “pop”.  
"In other words, oil is better suited to creating natural light effects, atmosphere and more realistic imagery in general. Greater realism suited the less spiritually oriented, more scientific and humanistic culture of the Renaissance." 

- Panel paintings prior to 1400 are most likely pure egg tempera.  
- Panel paintings from 1400 to 1500 can be either pure egg tempera, or a combination of tempera and oil, or pure oil. The later in the 1400s the work was painted, the more likely it is oil (although not necessarily). More linear brushwork indicates egg tempera; more smoothly blended, atmospheric work indicates tempera grassa or oil.  
 - By the early 1500s nearly all panel paintings were executed in oil (with the exception of icons). 

I blame William of Occam for this too.

It really does explain a lot, particularly about why the northern Renaissance art of more or less the same period as the Italian art has such a markedly different tone or "feel". The subject matter is still broadly the same, since it is mostly the still-intact European Catholic Church doing the commissioning. But the northern painting of Jan van Eyck (c. 1390 – 9 July 1441) is already of a completely different nature - and obviously a completely different purpose - from that of Fra Angelico whose dates, 1395 – 1455, are about the same. And it's pretty significant, I think, that Fra Angelico has been beatified by the Church where his contemporaries, often much more famous and lauded to us moderns as "innovators," and later Italian painters like Leonardo and Raphael, are not.

It all rather hearkens back to what I was saying before about why modern "sacred art" - even when done by consciously devout modern Catholics for authentically Catholic reasons - fails in ways that we modern people have a hard time understanding clearly.

"This is why these modern "sacred art" paintings that try to "humanise" sacred persons using modern visual standards fail as sacred art. This is a function of Modernism, both in its artistic and theological expressions; the urge to de-sacralise the subject by naturalising it. But naturalistic visual language has become so ubiquitous - the photograph is now the only visual standard - that modern viewers of sacred art, while they may be aware that these works fail to do what they're advertised to do, fail to do what the art of Fra Angelico did, they often do not understand why."
The point with sacred art is not to depict the subject - the Virgin Mary or an angel, for instance - as looking like a particular person, but to depict a completely different order of reality, one that "eye has not seen..." and which cannot ever be fully grasped by the human mind in this life.

These details of paintings by the great transitional (late Gothic/early Renaissnce) sacred painter, Duccio Buoninsegna, (c.1255/1260 – c. 1318/1319) clearly show the development of Italian sacred art from its Byzantine roots. All the "canons" of proportion and form are present.

It is hard not to recall reading this article by Koo Schadler that the Protestant Revolution, that protocatastrophe that led us into all this modern misery, didn't start in notoriously secular and materially wealthy Florence.


It is good to be home

And there's lots to do. Going away for a week at the very moment the spring is making everything spring leaves you with lots and lots of work.

Beds to finish filling, things to turn over, cantaloupe, hollyhock, nasturtium and squash seedlings to plant out...

Home is best.

Now the question is, "Do I let him stay on the worktable while I'm gessoing and painting?"

On the one hand, Bertie has only just established this as his Spot. Poor chap has been a bit displaced while the other two are more assertive. But cat hair in the paint...


I should have known. Poor old Bertram just can't catch a break.



Fr PJM said...

Where do water colours fit in to this anti-modernist analysis? And charcoal sketches, like that one of Thomas More?

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

In sacred art before the Northern Invasion of profane oils, there were two things: wall paintings and panel paintings. Panel paintings were mostly done in egg tempera. I'm not sure how long there have been watercolours as we understand them now. The medium is mostly just pigment - the powdered stuff that makes the colour - and gum arabic, a medium for art that has been used a long time. I don't expect a painter of Duccio Buoninsegna's time would have recognised "watercolours" as a genre of painting, as we understand the term. We must remember that painting was a skilled trade; one apprenticed and then did it for a living. Our modern way of looking at it, with painting as a hobby for lots of people with loads of time on their hands, is a pretty modern thing all by itself. That said, I think what we might call "watercolour" - a type of paint made from gum arabic or other water soluble media - might have been in use for manuscript paintings.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Charcoal sketches, as well as the silverpoint drawings (a whole big deal of preparation needed for this) and the use of sanguine, a naturally occurring mineral that is like red chalk, as well as all sorts of temporary media for drawing were commonly in use as preparations for paintings. of course, Leonardo's notebooks are famously full of sketches and drawings of his observations from life of all manner of things, as well as his designs for various engines of war, theatre designs and lots of other things. We have plenty of sketches and drawings from other well known artists as well. That famous drawing of the Madonna and St. Anne with the infant John the Baptist and the infant Christ was so renowned that it was carried in procession in the city of Florence. But Leonardo never got around to doing the painting. Charcoal was the standard material for drawing from time out of mind.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

But I don't think it would have crossed the mind of anyone before the modern period to present a mere drawing as a finished work of art. They just didn't think of art the same way. Art was never there for its own sake to be admired. Still less was it the kind of weird ego-festa we see surrounding modern cult-"artists". Art was there to serve a practical function.

tubbs said...

"...that protocatastrophe that led us into all this modern misery, didn't start in notoriously secular and materially wealthy Florence.”

Yet the leaders of the Deformation all worshipped the Florentine Savonarola.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

They thought he was a clandestine Calvinist. And so his legacy has been deformed. St. Philip Neri (a Florentine) was also a big fan.

David Bertrand said...

The forms of the Medieval paintings are idealized, caricature-like. The Renaissance figures are slavish copies of the models. So our attention is drawn to the model's personality.
I much prefer the Medieval.

Anonymous said...

Two questions arise :

- Does this mean that modern techniques are in essence unsuited to religious artwork ?

- Is modern religious art an oxymoron ? Are contemporary artists essentially incapable of producing anything truly religious ?

I can't help but take issue with this, because it would somehow mean that Providence has barred us from something so integral to spiritual life; that we are reduced to looking back to past greatness, forever barred from partaking in it, except in producing copies.
It just doesn't seem right.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I don't know. But it's something to think about. Probably a Byzantine would say yes. The question starts with a modern assumption, or at least a Latin/Western assumption: that producing exact copies of a single type of sacred art is a bad thing.

And Providence never took "classical" or traditional sacred art away from us. It's been there all along. Just ask the Byzantines.

David Bertrand said...

Question one, yes because they're incompatible. Modern techniques are down to earth and gritty.

Question two, yes. We are not living in an age of Faith. The clients don't want truly religious art. The spirit is missing.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Let's definitely be as negative as possible. That's always very helpful.

David Bertrand said...

We could be positive if the Pope and Bishopric consecrated Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary as she commanded.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

We can be positive because the Logos became Man, died and was resurrected. And these things are true.

David Bertrand said...

You're right, of course.
But I've been waiting since 1960 for the Popes to do what they were supposed to do. Sob.