Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Other Renaissance, or There Is No Ninja Turtle Named Claus Sluter

(Fourth in a series about D&Dish art)

"With a few exceptions, however, Vasari's aesthetic judgement was acute and unbiased.[citation needed] "
St Anthony from Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece. Why did no-one
ever tell you that art was totally fucking Warhammer?
Because Vasari, that's why.

In the crime novel "Who Killed Everyone's Interest In Art History?" the villain is a man named Giorgio Vasari. However, he also invented art history and did a great deal of the groundwork for the whole rhetorical and social frame that makes us see "art" as a special thing that people do that we should talk about at all. As a working painter whose rent is paid by the continuing mercantile machinations of the international gallery system, I just may owe him my job.
I repeat: this man did not want you to hear about this
giant bludgeoning eagle monster.

Vasari's major work was called "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects" and it:

-Was published in 1550
-Invented art history
-First applied the specific term "Renaissance" to what was going on in Italy then
-Helped put Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo on the pedestals they currently occupy
-Has an amusing anecdote about Paolo Uccello and cheese
-Contains a lot of mistakes
-Is fun to read
-Was kind of a piece of pro-Florentine propaganda

"Paolo Uccello would have been the most gracious and fanciful genius that was ever devoted to the art of painting, from Giotto's day to our own, if he had labored as much at figures and animals as he labored and lost time over the details of perspective; for although these are ingenious and beautiful, yet if a man pursues them beyond measure he does nothing but waste his time, exhausts his powers, fills his mind with difficulties, and often transforms its fertility and readiness into sterility and constraint, and renders his manner, by attending more to these details than to figures, dry and angular, which all comes from a wish to examine things too minutely; not to mention that very often he becomes solitary, eccentric, melancholy, and poor, as did Paolo Uccello."

A deposition by Rogier Van Der Weyden
The Italian Renaissance was big on painting baby Jesus.
the Northern Renaissance was big on painting dead Jesus
Although much of what he did was simply record ideas people had already had for a while, the shadow created by Vasari's record is very long. Thales invented philosophy, but people don't still think everything is made of water. Vasari invented art history, and people do still think the Mona Lisa is the best painting ever. There are even people who don't like looking at the Mona Lisa and yet feel like it's still objectively "good" in some way they lack the expertise to describe. There are very intelligent and perceptive people all over the world who are intimidated into not trusting their own eyes when they look at art because of things he wrote 500 years ago. Vasari is the most successful One True Wayist in world history.
Rabbit by Albrecht Durer, or--as Vasari called him in
Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects--
"Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Book"

Part of the Italian Renaissance painters' continued pre-eminence is due to the early (if halting and uneven) adoption of innovative realist techniques like perspective, chiaroscuro, sfumato, careful anatomy, and the not-inconsiderable fact that the cities they built are, to this day, still very beautiful due to the influence of their Renaissance buildings--but part of it's just politics and luck.

Let's assume, despite 500 years of evidence to the contrary, for just one moment that pictures actually can speak louder than Vasari's words, :

Here is Michelangelo's Moses done circa 1513-1515
And here is Claus Sluter's Moses, done over a hundred years earlier:
Whatever else you might think, Sluter's wise and horned Jew is way more metal than Michelangelo's.

This is because while the Italian Renaissance was largely a reaction against the symbolism, suffering, and icy clarity of the International Gothic style (the tail-end of Medieval art), the Northern Renaissance was largely just a continuation of the International Gothic with more sophisticated techniques.  I mean no disrespect to the draftsmanship of Leonardo or the many magnificent sculptures of Michelangelo when I remind you: these were still people who looked at Gothic cathedrals and didn't like them.
Jean Fouquet
The great change in Italy was not so much in improved technique (which had been slowly evolving all over the continent since 1300 ) but in taste--and after 1000 years of fear of an angry god, the new Italian sensibility--where Mary was all Disney and round and friendly and held our savior like a radiant and fleshy bowling ball--was the hip new thing.
By the Limbourg Brothers, pre-eminent purveyors
of the International Gothic 
One of the themes of religious painting in the Italian Renaissance was the abandonment of symbolism and detail in favor of humanistic and sentimental themes. This would result in a lull--or at least recategorization--in monsters in art in the following centuries. They typically were pushed into service as foes in mythological paintings, and also made their way into natural history illustrations.
Michael Pacher, Austrian. This painting could be titled
"Bizarre Northern Renaissance Foreground Event
Intrudes On Otherwise Pleasant Italian Renaissance Day"
Reliably D&Dable subjects around this time include St George:
Rogier Van Der Weyden. Totally not giving a fuck
how big you think a horse's head is and putting
an awesome castle on a weird crag because he
fucking can.
Carpaccio. And definitely click to enlarge.
...the Expulsion from Heaven…
Pieter Breugel's Fall of the Rebel Angels

(detail) He'd been specifically commissioned to imitate Bosch
in this painting.

…and the Temptation of St Anthony--who is always depicted as set upon by weird demons:
Good old Hieronymous Bosch
Close up. Because: Death With A Lyre On A Freak Emerging From A Tomato
The Temptation of Anthony theme is itself something of a shibboleth in the unending Western culture war of Art as Excuse To Bore People with Sweetness & Light vs Art As Awesome Inventive Freakshow. The Nazis actually declared Grunewald's Anthony-depicting Isenheim Altarpiece "Degenerate" in their era for being too badass and when Gustave Flaubert fathered all the worst tendencies in the modern novel with Madame Bovary it was because a pair of his boring friends had just heard him read his mind-blowingly hallucinatory Temptation of St Anthony ("Since then I have dwelt in the deep pools left by the Deluge. But the desert grows vaster about them; the winds cast sand into them; the sun devours them; -- and I die upon my couch of slime, gazing at the stars through the water.") and promptly told him to write something boring instead.

So anyway, the upshot for D&D fans is that the Northern Renaissance with its twin and opposing manias for precision and invention is basically the best treasure trove of "What This Thing Actually Looks Like" art outside of purpose-built modern fantasy illustration (much of which is consciously or unconsciously influenced by the art of this era) I mean, check it:
Durer, man, Durer.
…and, likewise, the sort of colored-light-blurriness and ritual vagueness and weightlessness of corporate fantasy illustration is derived from hazy recollections of the Italian Renaissance.

In the end, though, quality knows no real borders. Here's Nicola Pisano being awesome:
…and, y'know, this thing Michelangelo did is pretty good...
That is a seriously dead guy right there--and it's achieved not with blood-spray theatrics but rather with minute attention to positioning--the way Christ's body lays is not just believable (a little more believable than Van Der Weyden's deposition above) but it uses that new believability to push forward to being articulate--it is a pose that tells you at every moment (the armpit, the upper arm, the wrist, the knees) where the weight is going. It reminds you of death in a new way that art--all the skulls and twisted faces of the previous millennia notwithstanding--had not yet been able to do. It puts a new tool in everyone's toolkit going forward.

And, god, we haven't even got to Jan Van Eyck yet:
click and enlarge you fool
Look at that NPC. Look at his very specific face. Look at that floor--isn't it cool someone had that floor back then? Look at that rug. Look at that armor. 

Alright. See you next time.


  1. Yep, yep, yep. Love it when you riff like this, its why I read the blog.


  2. Knight, Death and the Devil, Now officially my favourite piece by Albrecht Dürer

  3. Fun stuff. All too many people assume that medieval/Renaissance men imagined rather staid monsters: dragons that looked like those in the Monster Manual, giants that were simply big humans, etc. Do a google image search for medieval depictions of monsters. Browse through the results. Medieval man populated his imagination with stuff that could have been created using a random generator of D&D monsters, or stuff that could be found in Weird Tales.

  4. Whaou ! I wish that a black/death metal band used that horned Moses head as a cover pic.

    Zak, forget about the dreay Flaubert, and go full Victor Hugo, whose life is as metal as his works !

    Better, get Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine poetry !

    A man (Baudelaire) who wrote les Fleurs du Mal (the Flowers of Evil) might catch your interest.

    The life of the 3 enfants terribles of 19th century French literature is also metal as hell !

    1. This may shock you….but I have read books other than the ones I mention on the blog, Yann.

      Quite a few, actually.

      And, really, Flaubert's Temptation is not dreary at all. Much better than Bovary.

  5. Rather that shocked, I am pleased to read that you are already familiar with the writers I wrote about.

    My assessment of Flaubert must be colored by the ennui that my French teachers induced in my formative years when they spoke me about him.

    1. Flaubert is a victim of his own tedious Madame Bovary as well as a long campaign among the worlds' literature teachers to promote it as his only book worth reading.

      Temptation is 10000 times better. It's online you can go check it out.

  6. Trust me on this, French literature is the victim of French literature teachers (I speak as a Frenchman there).

    Thanks for your advice, I will check it out (maybe I have already read but I can remember).

  7. Claus Sluter's is the metallest Moses indeed, yet Michelangelo's is less static, and movement was one of his main focus I guess

  8. is Vasari the reason everyone thinks the Mona Lisa is good? i have always wondered about that

  9. Of all the paintings, I find myself particularly inspired by the Bruegel the Elder. The whole may not be easy to decipher but the detail is killer, I just love the composition of that open-mouthed puppet/animal/slipknot mask half covered by a cloth just below the angel in golden armor (see detail). Combine the head with the cloth and you got yourself a fresh & mighty fine monster.

    Also, if it wasn't for the horns, I'd swear Claus Sluter's moses was a statue of Rob Zombie.

    Thanks for the selection, Zak.

    1. "the angel in golden armor". Fuck me, that's obviously Michael.

  10. Moses was a tiefling? that rabbit is traveling from artifact to artifact, sometimes killing people. he is all like "knee it and I will make you a knight" but probably he will cut off your head. Seriously though, thank you for this art class. I needed it. I think I can say that.

    1. Rabbits are the secret sign of awesome

  11. Simply brilliant, Zak.

    What are the odds you could get together with Taschen or someone like that and publish these essays in a lavishly illustrated volume or series as the Book of Weird Art or something? Not because I don't like the blog format - text search, downloadable images, etc - but because, if I am going to have large, heavy books lying around my home for people to peruse, I want them to be this awesome.

  12. These art history posts are really inspiring me!

    Do you know why Moses was horned in those sculptures?

    1. Mistranslation in early versions of the bible. You can google it for details

  13. Apparently the guy behind Death in that Bosch is the original handbasket-rider to Hell.

  14. That crazy castle on a crag existed.

  15. Yes, there are many awesome crazy Castles on weird crags in Germany.

    You are an 8th century axe wielding warrior, and while you relish fighting, and enjoy it, your lord and master the Duke of some state ending with the letters ia has just ordered you to take that castle owned by a Baron of another state ending with the letters ia.

    The castle itself is crazily perched on a narrow sliver of rock and the only way up is a single-file footpath that leads to a barred door.

    In your mind you are going ...nope, ....Nope, ....NOPE!!!! as your horde prepares for this attack.

    The only thing you can really think about is your own gruesome death as the Castle defenders rain down arrows, heavy rocks, hot oil, and boiling water as you try to figure out a way to get in.

    mano-a-mano, one on one, you are an excellent fighter. But trying to take this crazy looking castle on a crag...

    nope! ...Nope! ...NOPE!

  16. Lorelei

    Schloss Nueschwanstein

    Schloss Hohenzellern

    Chateau de' Monsegir (France)

    Burg Eltz and Burg Trutzeltz, twin castles that protected each other (This photo taken from the hilltop ruins of Burg Trutzeltz, which was obviously assaulted and taken.... nope... Nope!... NOPE!!!

    Schloss Schönburg

    Schloss Vaduz

    Bled Castle (Slovenia),

    Burg Gutenberg



    Schloss is Castle in German
    Burg is Mountain in German

    Many of the German castles are just named after the crazy mountain they are on.

  17. Here...even better, all the Crazy Castles on hills and cliffs in Germany Google can find