I’m not ascending particularly well these days. It’s a process… But the word itself made me think of a painting by Matthias Grünewald, one of a series of paintings I’d really like to see in real life some day; the Ascension of Christ, part of the Isenheim Altarpiece.
Long, long ago when I was in high school, and dreaming of being an artist, before my art teacher told me I had no talent (grrrr), I was watching a lecture on the history of painting. It was the usual thing, that painting advanced over time — that once people were not capable of rendering realistic human forms (the Egyptians and Etruscans) but as they got more skillful with their tools, they were able to make realistic looking people. Humans did very well in their enlightened, realistic-human-art-rendering state until the fall of Rome and the descent of the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages were dark because (one reason) humans were no longer able to render realistic human forms and retreated to the primitive paintings of the Byzantine Period. Medieval art was the child of the Dark Ages and, thanks God the Renaissance came along and lifted those benighted artists out of the slough of darkness and into the light, giving us Michelangelo and Leonardo who were able to render realistic human forms. We know all this to be true because primitive cultures — such as India and China — did not render realistic human forms.
There is so much wrong with all this, but I bought it at the time.
Of course, art historians “claimed” Giotto for the Renaissance… Two Renaissance painters for whom my “teacher” had no slides were Matthias Grünewald and Piero Della Francesca.
A lot has been written about these two painters — more than I’ve read since it’s as annoying as reading about politics to read painting criticism. For myself, I love their work. Aldous Huxley called Della Francesca’s The Resurrection of Christ “the greatest painting in the world” and wrote an essay explaining why. I’ve read it, but…
I can explain why I like the work of these two artists. There is simply something unique, strange, about them. There is, for me, a reason to engage. I can say that Grünewald’s palette attracts me because it’s similar to mine when I’m painting something from the inside of me vs. outside which evokes a very different palette.
But the key attraction to me of both these painters is mystery, something beyond the surface, something deeper than the stories their paintings are supposed to tell.
My favorite painting by Della Francesca is The Flagellation of Christ. There is something very challenging about this piece, challenging beyond the story or the painting’s composition, challenging because of those two things.