Themes in Painting
The biggest patron of the arts in the Middle Ages was the Church. Nobles might commission a book of hours or a tapestry, but they did not often commission a fresco or other painting. They might commission a sarcophagus but not usually a statue. A wealthy non-noble almost never commissioned art. Guilds might commission a stained glass panel or chapel. That was about it.
This changed during our period. Nobles began commissioning what we might call personal art: decorating their palaces with paintings or even, in the late 1400s, having portraits painted. Wealthy merchants began doing this as well. A nearly simultaneous development was a renewed interest in the classical world, led by humanists. Taken together, there emerged a market for non-religious painting, and these took three major forms.
One was what I call civic art: something commissioned by a city (usually) that was meant to be viewed by the citizenry. It might be in the city hall or in a public plaza, and it nearly always illustrated some victory in battle or some great leader or at least a symbol of the city. Such art was heavily historical in subject matter.
A second type of secular art was the portrait. We start to see this in paintings where the artist puts his patron and even his patron's entire family into the picture. Later (late 1400s) there emerged the individual portrait, a great favorite of patrons and artists alike. Individual portrait painting simply didn't exist in earlier centuries.
A third type was the classical theme. Here, artists portrayed gods and goddesses, or scenes from ancient legend or (less often) ancient history. Even in paintings with non-classical themes we find artists by the late 15th century putting elements of classical architecture into otherwise modern or Biblical scenes.
The sum effect of all this was to make fifteenth century painting far more diverse and far more interested to look at that painting from earlier centuries. The next pages illustrate this. We'll begin with this picture by Cimabue, which dates to around 1300.
Cimabue was one of the first of the Renaissance painters (he was because Giorgio Vasari said he was, in his 16th century book "The Lives of the Artists"). This one is a "Madonna enthroned" or "Madonna in glory", a standard theme. This shows happened after her death, when she was enthroned in Heaven.
Let's play "spot the Franciscan". Do you see the stigmata?