27 August, 2006

94. How clever is this?

The flatter and quite heavily stylised type of mosaic work that covers so much of the interior of St Mark's cathedral - similar to the picture of St Mark in his coffin in my post a couple of days ago (scroll down to #92) - is filled with narrative and symbolic meaning. It developed into a medium of great power, that could communicate its message even to an otherwise completely illiterate audience - a bit like comics without speech balloons. This was the very effective way that mosaic was used here up until the late 14th century or so.

When the early Renaissance artists began to understand how to use perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensional space, visual art became much more concerned with the appearance of the subject and the fidelity of the illusion, and less with the image's symbolic meaning or narrative function. So the later mosaics on both the inside and the outside of the cathedral are much more realistic representations of figures and other objects in space, but in other ways less interesting than the earlier works they replaced.

Ruskin (who I know I quote quite often but that is because he is such a quotable curmudgeon) greatly admired the Byzantine-style mosaic work. He thought the later mosaics were better than whitewash - but only just.

I can understand his point of view, particularly when you look at some of the syrupy schmaltzy images produced in the later Baroque and Rococo periods, with angels and cherubs that have now become such a cliche that they would look more at home on cheap greetings cards than in one of the world's greatest cathedrals.

On the other hand, just look at this example of Renaissance mosaic work from inside St. Mark's cathedral museum for a moment. Whatever the subject matter of the whole piece, aren't these a simply awesome pair of mosaic knees?

These are not just Byzantine outlines of limbs, these are totally convincing three-dimensional legs, legs sculpted and modelled with bones in them, with strong muscles and tendons flexed and holding upright the superior trunk and head of this man with the large sword at his waist. Whoever the artist was, he wasn't guessing at what legs looked like, he had looked hard at them. He knew how they worked and why, and he was able to arrange tiny little chunks of glazed tile in just the right way to convince you that they are flesh and blood.

Imagine the work that went into preparing the materials before he could even start to make this picture. There are at least fifteen, maybe even more shades and tints of this exact fleshtone in a precise gradation of density from darkest to lightest. Heaven knows how many glaze mixings and firings it took to get the colours of the tiles just right. Then they would have to be cut up into tiny pieces of an almost uniform size. Then with tweezers, the artist would have to select each piece and place it just exactly so in a bed of mortar.

I don't know who the artist was, but I have to admire his extraordinary skill with this fiendishly difficult medium.


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