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El Greco’s Penitent Magdalen

In El Greco’s Penitent Magdalen the element that makes the oil on canvas Renaissance in nature is that of the attention to detail. El Greco’s was contrary in his painting, which was a personal part of his artistry and not defined by the Baroque art period. His bodies in his paintings, though in action or even in repose were depicted although with muscles tone, the muscles seemed flaccid, as is the case in the above mentioned painting. The movement of Mary Magdalen is Renaissance, and opposed to the Baroque period in its depiction because it is the opposite of what previous artistic movements has focused upon.

There is the revelation of power in the gathering disciples and in the color palate being manipulated in the painting the subtle tones and the attention to chiaroscuro is what gives the painting a very Renaissance feel (similar to Caravaggio). The viewer’s attention again is draw towards the body; albeit muscular, it is not showing signs of body fat, it is are perfected in its grief, and in the area of opposites, this is what El Greco wanted to capture; the perfect body juxtaposed with very human emotions; the god body paired with humanity as is expertly crafted in Penitent Magdalen.

Juxtaposed with this piece is Titian’s, Rape of Lucretia by Tarquin. represents the high Renaissance in its fluid movement with the body’s movements emphasized with the background. Here, the bodies are not flaccid in quality as in El Greco’s work, but very vibrant in their actions, and strong. The angles of the body direct the viewer’s attention to the action while the akimbo arms of Lucretia allow the viewer to go from that pivotal point on canvas to the faces of the two people with one very intent and the other horrified, which is very different from El Greco’s torpid Magdalen face.

The comparison between these two works of art resemble the expression of emotion which has not been done so fully, nor so intently in these two time periods of the Renaissance (including Mannerism) and the high Renaissance (with Titian). With the Renaissance attention to body angles and emotion, the Baroque period offers a bit more attention to space and color as is seen with Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro effects in Saint John the Baptist. The emphasis on this painting by Caravaggio is about the contrast of light and dark. The viewer is exposed to a very young John the Baptist who resembles the cherubs used in Renaissance art.

The form of the body is full of baby fat and the skin, while having the tonal qualities of Baroque pieces still harbors the darker contours of perhaps the future of the young man (John’s beheading). The shapes used are reminiscent of the Renaissance in the body’s muscular tone, yet relaxed stature and the use of space of the classical Greek contrapposto, in the line curving from the lifted arm, the supporting arm, the line of the back, to the bend of the knee in the foreground. When I saw Caravaggio’s work I was amazed that such color, light, and shadow mixed together could create such a very brilliant canvas.

The one item which made me gasp was that Caravaggio chose to depict the Saint in his younger state while most artists render him being a martyr or paint his decapitated head, Caravaggio painted him as innocent, and young. The use of shadows is also present in Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Young Man. The texture of this painting seems to be rather stiff in comparison to the fluidity of oil used by Caravaggio. Rembrandt’s use of toned down colors is very Baroque in style, while Caravaggio seemed to linger more on the vibrancy of the high Renaissance use of color combinations.

The focal point for Rembrandt in this painting however is very obviously the face as this is where he used his highlighting points and where the ‘rough’ texture of the painting seems to soften a bit. While Caravaggio’s painting was the cherub ghost of the Renaissance mythology, Rembrandt painting a realistic portrait in which the viewer cannot entirely tell is the young man is puckering his lips into a smile or a small sneer, which makes the painting that much more acquainted with El Greco’s love of Mannerism rather than the Baroque period.

Rembrandt’s use of space is classic in design and does not seem to resemble any time period in art as the portrait is a bust of a person with no diagonals except in the turn of the head which perhaps may be considered belonging to the Baroque period considering the use of space invoked. When I saw this painting in the museum I was not as impressed as when I saw Caravaggio’s work since this is a typical portraiture work and does not draw the eye in any lines or coloring excepting the face.

The one thing which caught my attention when I viewed this work at the museum was the spotlight effect that Rembrandt used in depicting the face, and in this fact alone was what made me remember and write about this painting. The Rubens’ painting The Raising of the Cross is similar in fashion to Titian’s portrayal. Both use excellent color combinations to enhance the shadows in the paintings. The highlights on Christ’s body in Rubens’ painting is simply astonishing. The rest of the figures are clad in shadow, especially their faces.

The curious counterpoint to this technique is that Titian uses shadow just as eloquently but with different results. Rubens’ shadows implore the viewer to judge the paintings, the scan the highlighted figure and question why the other figures are caste in shadow. Titian’s painting also begs the question of the shadows but his point is more clearly made; shadow is consistent with grief. If the viewer takes another glance of Rubens’ painting they will see that the shadowy figures’ faces are looking away from Christ in shame while one stares straight at him with wide-struck eyes as if not only in disbelief but in fear.

Rubens was unique in incorporating foreground activity in his paintings. In The Raising of the Cross, there a dog in the foreground interested in the human activity (also, dogs are synonymous with loyalty; albeit, Rubens wanted to incorporate that idea with Christ). Rubens liked to have the human body in action in a specific setting, as has been the case for the previously analyzed Rubens painting. Rubens’ painting had an Italian influence with the male body. Just as Michelangelo depicted the male body in supreme example of humanity based after the Greek forms, so did Rubens want Christ to resemble those same perfected bodies.

Titian’s painting does not do this, but instead, like Velazquez focuses on Christ’s humanity. Rubens had elements of other artists involved with his paintings such as the Caravaggio technique with light, making Christ the holder and light attraction in the paintings, highlighting his person and shadowing the rest. Also, the painting is a hubbub of activity which is reminiscent of Tintoretto’s busy canvases. The body’s of Rubens’ artwork seem to be bursting from the canvas, not only because of their muscle mass but the activity they are accomplishing and the fact that Rubens did not allow the edge of the canvas to dictate the end of action.

One man’s body is cut off, lost to the edge of the canvas just as on the other side another man is constructed in similar fashion. This is not seen with Titian, even though he takes the body in asymmetric alignment with other points on the canvas. Rubens focuses his bodies in a diagonal axis in order to distribute action throughout the canvas.

Work Cited

Janson, H. W. & Anthony F. Janson. History of Art. Fifth Edition Revised. Prentice Hall, Inc. , and Harry Abrams, Inc. , Publishers. New York. 1997.

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