2019 SCSC Annual Conference, St. Louis, MO
IAS-Sponsored Session

Fiat Lux: Giovanni Bellini and Andrea del Sarto on Art, Religion, and Science.

Sterling Studio 6
Friday October 18, 2019, 8:30am-10am

Organizers: Steven J. Cody, Purdue University Fort Wayne and Eric R. Hupe, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts

Chair: Meredith J. Gill, University of Maryland, College Park

Light is essential to the visual arts and to vision itself. Over seventy years ago, Millard Meiss drew attention to the ethereal representation of light in fifteenth-century painting, arguing for it as “a major pictorial theme.” Indeed, Renaissance artists used the effects of light to engage with notions of divinity, sacred wisdom, and visual experience. But how does one talk, in any serious manner, about something that is fundamentally intangible? The ethereal nature of light presents a challenge for the artist who attempts to depict it, the beholder who attempts to appreciate it, and the art historian who attempts to study it. In focusing on two of Italy’s artistic luminaries, this panel serves as a forum for the exploration of light’s formal, symbolic, metaphoric, and scientific dimensions, as a step toward reconstructing the rich fifteenth-century context in which art, religion, and science found a common language in light.


Eric R. Hupe, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts
“Standing in the Light of God: Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert”

Giovanni Bellini’s painting of St. Francis now housed in the Frick Collection is arguably one of the greatest Renaissance paintings in North America. With arms outstretched and mouth parted, as if exhaling a great sigh of exaltation, the lone figure steps into the effulgent light that miraculously appears overhead. The eminent art historian Millard Meiss claimed that we were witnessing a “stigmatization by light.” While it is unclear whether Bellini intended to represent a specific event from the saint’s life, he did prove that “light could become a major pictorial theme in art.” Nonetheless, scholars often overlook the painting’s luminous feature. This paper relates Bellini’s image to Franciscan theories of divine illumination and light metaphysics. In particular, I am interested in exploring how these theologies of light relate to the science of of perspectiva, which artists were also embracing as they heightened the pictorial naturalism of their images. I focus on Bonaventure’s luminous text, the widely popular Itinerarium mentis in Deum, to explore the meditative aspects of the painting and its connection to ideas of optical theology.

Steven J. Cody, Purdue University Fort Wayne
“Andrea del Sarto and the Splendor of the Luco Pietà”

A radiant light falls on the saints who gather around the dead Christ in Andrea del Sarto’s Luco Pietà (1524), revealing a rich array of ravishing colors. This paper presents Andrea’s light and color as an expression of “splendor,” a term that resonates within several intellectual traditions. These traditions range from theories of optical science to Christian theology. I am thinking primarily of Leonardo da Vinci’s meditations on reflected color, but also of how St. Augustine and other religious authors explain the Incarnation and the Eucharist. My presentation thus interprets Andrea’s altarpiece as an especially sophisticated commentary on the mysteries pertaining to Christ’s body, just as it offers up new possibilities for thinking about Andrea del Sarto as a painter.

Christine Zappella, The University of Chicago
“The Meta/Physics of Light, Confraternal Worship, and Andrea del Sarto’s Monochrome Life of St. John the Baptist

From 1510 to 1526, Andrea del Sarto, a member of Florence’s Confraternity of St. John the Baptist, labored in the confraternal cloister on his monochrome fresco cycle depicting the life of the brotherhood’s patron saint. I argue that, exploring the phenomenal and spiritual potentials of monochrome painting, Andrea designed and executed the frescoes with the brothers’ religious practice and sacred experience in mind. I maintain that Andrea engaged in both conceptual and artistic terms with the meta/physics of light (lux, lumen), the optical dynamics of the transmission of color, and the bodily act of sense perception. I contend that, thanks to the paintings’ monochromy, the changing conditions of light over the course of the brothers’ gruesome penitential rites worked dialectically with the fresco’s surface to become a metaphor for the Christian mysteries and salvific epistemologies that were espoused by disciplinati confraternities in Renaissance Italy.

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