W is for Window Painting

Cosmé Tura, Virgin & Child 1453. Photo from wikimedia.

First of all, on the surface which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen.

Leon Battista Alberti

Fenestra aperta. The window to the outside. It seems such a simple idea to paint light falling into a room, a mirror on the wall, or a landscape through a window. But it was new in the Renaissance. Windows themselves were changed, and the new technology and advances in understanding of mathematics spilled into painting.

STEM becomes Art

Alberti—architect, philosopher, and artist—was as famous for his ideas as his creations. But his idea about painting through the window inspired many of the painters who came after, from Da Vinci to Raphael. He was helping create the new idea of perspective, to help artists think of their canvas as a reflection of the world outside. But to be able to use that idea required a simple thing: the ability to see through the window.

Enter the Venetian glass makers: the guild, the island of Murano, sequestered and jealously guarding their secrets. I’ve mentioned before that the glass makers were a monopoly. The artisans were wealthy, but you could not leave the guild. Assassins were dispatched if a glass maker left with the secrets. Glass making technology improved significantly the early Renaissance, often shown in museums as elegant and sophisticated glass objects from Murano. But, just as significantly, the technology led to thinner, clearer glass–for windows. Everywhere.

Murano glass, revered for delicacy, also would lead to better windows. Photo by kajmeister.

As also happens, the technology became a little cheaper, so that it wasn’t just the dukes and popes who could afford thin, clear windows, but the merchants and rising middle class. As it happens, eyeglasses had also been invented in the late 13th century. Between the desire to read things off the printing press (raising the demand for eyeglasses) and these clearer windows, people could see better. More light would enter the room. That changed what the painters would see.

Image courtesy The Arrow In The Eye by Michael Kubovy, Christopher Tyler and WebExhibits.

Windows on the World

Alberti didn’t invent the idea of a perspective, but he, Brunelleschi, Della Francesca, Pacioli, Da Vinci, and all the crew that hung out in Florence, Rome, Urbino, and Milan in the 1420-1480s advanced the ideas. When you looked at something far away, you needed to flatten the images so as to create vanishing points, foreshortening–3D turned into 2D. They also described all the math required to get there. (See letter S.)

Painters played with it ad nauseum, so the Renaissance paintings are suddenly full of interior scenes that look outward as well. Art historians and curators can wax lyrical about the mechanics of the works and how proportions are varied to suggest distance. Plus, if it’s a Van Eyck, like the Virgin of Chancellor Rolin, you can take a magnifying glass and see details in the back of the painting. But the notion of painting the outside from inside emerges because people could see outside.

Jan Van Eyck, Virgin of Chancellor Rolin, 1435. Wikimedia.

A Simple Matter of Light

Light and shadow had been painted before, but having more light in a room also changed the game. Painters like Caravaggio made light and shadow convey meaning. Here when Jesus and the light from the window call St. Matthew away from the tax collectors. And in the gruesome beheading of John the Baptist, windows themselves became a feature that characters in the picture could look through, as two onlookers peer through a barred window on the side.

Caravaggio, the Calling of St. Matthew, 1599. Wikimedia.
Caravaggio, The Beheading of John the Baptist, 1608. Wikimedia.

But the Flemish school worked to catch up with the Italians. Soon, paintings by Vermeer and De Hooch would feature that pale milky coastal light filtering through those Northern European windows. De Hooch’s The Visit shows window, light, and even other paintings on the wall, blurred in contrast with the faces at the table. They are eating oysters and lemons, so apparently this is a brothel scene. Those devil-may-care Flemish!

De Hooch, The Visit, 1657. Photo from metmuseum.org.

Through the Window: Here, Catch

Even aside from light and perspective, the idea of the scene being seen becomes a part of the action. Turés portrait of Virgin and Child plays with the whole idea of a window and its view. The painting is housed within an elaborate frame (see version at the top of the post) gilded and carved in wood by another craftsman. But then the artist centers the Madonna within a second, painted frame, over which her gown drapes. The sleeping baby is fidgeting and his feet appear to be coming through the painting–catch!

Accademia – Madonna dello zodiaco – Cosmè Tura 1453

She herself is seated as if on the window sill created above the frame. The halo above Christ catches part of her veil, and her halo seems to come into the room as well. Of course, the painting is full of symbolism as well: he is sleeping but limp, suggesting him held by his mother after the crucifixion (the pieta). The verse on the painted windowsill says “Waken your son, sweet holy mother, to make my soul happy at last.” Awakening Christ thus would refer to the Resurrection as much as to this baby.

Probably better to keep it about the Resurrection. Because everyone knows you should never wake a sleeping baby.

3 Replies to “W is for Window Painting”

  1. This is fascinating! I never thought about how the use of better glass would lead to more windows, which would lead to a total change in what painters would see and therefore what they painted! This sentence sums it up, I think: “But the notion of painting the outside from inside emerges because people could see outside.” A simple concept, yet mind-blowing. By the way, I LOVE the paintings of Caravaggio.

    1. I didn’t know about better glass either until I started the post! And I’m a big Caravaggio. Judith and Holofernes, one of my favorites. Thanks for the comment!

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