Many of the early Italian paintings were originally parts of altarpieces, a form that first appeared in Italy in the thirteenth century as new attention was focused on the altar by changes in the liturgy, church architecture, and the display of relics.
Painting on wooden panels had not been common in the West, but by this time the gilded and painted panels of elaborate altarpieces had begun to join—and would eventually overshadow—fresco and mosaic as the principal forms of decoration in Italian churches. Western artists working on panel turned for inspiration to the Christian East, adapting the techniques, style, and subject matter of Byzantine icons. For Byzantine Christians—and Orthodox Christians today—the icon was a true copy of its holy model. Theologians used the analogy of a wax impression and the seal used to create it to describe the relation between an icon and its subject. Because they depict a holy and infinite presence, not the temporal physical world, icons avoid direct reference to earthly reality, to specific time or place. Instead, backgrounds are dematerialized with shimmering gold, settings are schematized, and figures often appear timeless and static.
Icons are devotional images—windows through which viewer and holy subject make contact. Church decoration was also meant to instruct the faithful, however. And in the West, this role came to foster styles that could, in effect, tell a story. Church frescoes and mosaics—and now panel painting—illustrated the lives of Christ, the Virgin, and saints. New religious orders, especially the Franciscans, who renounced their possessions to preach in villages and towns as Christ had done, stimulated interest in the human life of holy figures. Artists sought to capture the world of everyday experience with greater verisimilitude, relying less on an “ideal image in the soul” to work instead from what was seen by the eye.
Among the first and most important artists to move in this direction was Giotto. Recognized as a father of “modern” painting, he was the first Western artist since antiquity to capture the weight and mass of bodies moving in space, making them three-dimensional with light and shadow. He abandoned the decorative pattern and complicated line of Byzantine art; his forms are heavy and his shapes simple. And as if to match their convincing visual form, Giotto animated his figures with human psychology. Renaissance critics contrasted Giotto’s style, which they termed “Latin,” with the work of his Sienese contemporary Duccio, whose inspiration was Greek.
In a letter to the Venetian doge, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) asked the mosaic artists be sent to work with the master, also dispatched from Venice, engaged to create the apse mosaic in San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome. This is evidence of the Romans’ dependence on foreign mosaicists. Unfortunately, the mosaic in question has not survived undamaged. Like the structure itself, it had to be completely redone after the devastating fire in 1823, although a few original fragments were preserved.
In the apse calotte, Sts Luke, Paul, Peter, and Andrew are gathered around an enthroned Christ, with the donor pope kneeling at his feet. In the base register, for the first time in Roman apse mosaics since the sixth century, the obligatory frieze of lambs is missing, replaced by the empty throne surrounded by two angels and the apostles.
The icon is in the typical Byzantine pose of the ‘Theotokos Hodigitria’ (Mother of God) who indicates the way, with her son on her left arm. The Virgin, wrapped in a dark blue mantle, stands out from the gold ground; the Child is wrapped in a red cloak decorated with motifs imitating pearls and precious stones.
The icon is in the Chapel of the Crucifix, San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome.
This fragment from the apse mosaic of old St. Peter’s represents the head of Pope Innocent III.
In Tuscany, mosaic decoration was rarely employed until the middle of the thirteenth century. A surviving example is the façade mosaic at San Frediano, Lucca. It depicts the Ascension of Christ in a Byzantine style. Angels bear the throne of Christ upwards, while the Twelve Apostles look on from below.
This Venetian-Byzantine mosaic represents the elongated, stylised form of the Virgin, her hands raised in blessing. She emerges in isolation from the golden ground of the mosaic.
A mosaic of the Last Judgment covers the whole of the west wall of the Santa Maria Assunta at Torcello. It was made in two stages, in the twelfth and thirteen centuries, by Venetian-Byzantine workmen. In this period as a rule, depictions of the Last Judgment were placed on entry walls, as here.
The upper part of this detail shows the ranks of the blessed giving praise to God. At the bottom, the bearded patriarch on the left is Abraham, at his side are the Virgin praying, the Good Thief crucified with Christ, holding the cross of salvation, the gate of Paradise, and St Peter.
Around the middle of the thirteenth century there were no major papal initiatives in the area of church building and decoration. The situation changed only with the accession of Pope Nicholas III (1277-1280). In around 1280 he built the Cappella Sancta Sanctorum next to the Lateran, and decorated it not only with porphyry columns, coloured marbles, and wall paintings, but also with a mosaic in the vault above the altar. It pictured a Christ giving benediction inside an aureole supported by angels, and busts of saints appeared in the lunettes. The name of the mosaic artist is not known, but it has been noted that his work is similar in style to some works created by Jacopo Torriti and his workshop more than a decade later.
The apse mosaic in San Miniato al Monte depicts Christ in Majesty. In addition to the enthroned Christ giving benediction, it includes the Virgin as intercessor and St Minias presenting a crown. An inscription dates the mosaic to 1297.
The mosaic depicting the Coronation of the Virgin is above the main portal, inside of the Florence Cathedral. Christ is crowning the Virgin and blessing her at the same time. Angelic musicians, cherubim and seraphim surround the two. In this iconographic context the inclusion of the evangelists’ symbols is highly unusual.
The work on the apse mosaic in Pisa Cathedral started in 1301. The decision to commission a mosaic may have been influenced by the fact that large new apse mosaics had been completed in Rome only a few years before, and the vaulting mosaics in Florence’s baptistry were nearing completion. The Pisans may have hoped to compete with any of these. They first contracted Francesco da Pisa, but three months later they turned to the famous Florentine Cimabue, who would direct the project until January 1302. Nearly two decades later, in 1321, the mosaic was finally completed by Vicino da Pistoia.
In the mosaic, an enthroned Christ fills at least half of the available surface. He holds an open book in his left hand with the inscription EGO SUM LUX MUNDI (I am the light of the world). With his right hand he is giving benediction. He is flanked by the Virgin, who has raised her hands in intercession, and St John the Evangelist. Cimabue designed the John figure, Vicino da Pistoia the Virgin. Francesco da Pisa conceived the enthroned Christ, whose drapery seems more old-fashioned.
This elaborate tomb by unknown artists in the presbytery of the Basilica exemplifies how sculpture was combined by mosaic.