Naturalism and Medieval Art

When I saw Bartolommeo Bulgarini’s The Crucifixion in the Smart Museum, one big question stuck out to me. Why does it look like that? The heads of the characters seem slightly out of proportion, lodged at awkward and unnatural angles; their hands are rendered in awkward and contrived poses; and Jesus’s torso and legs seemed oddly elongated and alien. These kinds of representational inconsistencies were present in the illustrations we saw in special collections, too, and seem to me to be a feature of a lot of the medieval art we’ve seen throughout the quarter. Why does another painting that was on display during our visit to the smart museum, Francesco Fontebasso’s The Martyrdom of St. Catherine, which was painted four hundred years later than Bulgarini’s The Crucifixion, appear so much more life-like? Did knowledge and the technology of painting evolve so much in four hundred years that Bulgarini was able to paint what Fontebasso wanted to but could not? Or was Fontebasso, as a medieval artist, simply interested in other aspects of representation and less caring of how perfectly naturalistic his painting looked? 

Francesco Fontebasso's The Martyrdom of St. Catherine.
Francesco Fontebasso’s The Martyrdom of St. Catherine.

If, as Valentin Groebner describes in Defaced: The Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages, medieval art (and particularly art which depicted the crucifixion) was supposed to appear gruesome and confronting precisely to inspire pious compassion and contemplation, then wouldn’t it make sense for these artworks to be as realistic—and therefore as gruesome—as possible? He describes that

“The explicit bodily agony of the Man of Sorrows … was intended to move the beholder and inspire compasio. Through hyper-realistically painted wounds and the emphasis on blood, ‘proper’ pictures of the crucified Jesus were supposed to allow the beholder to feel the pain of the Redeemer in pious empathy and affective piety.” (Groebner, 93) 

Here gruesomeness is linked to piety and practices of worship through immediacy and intensity, where the corporeality of Christ in these pictures was intended to reflect the corporeality of the viewers and move them to emotion and compassion. And though late-medieval people in the 15th century saw these depictions as “highly repulsive,” (Groebner, 111) the affective significance of realistic and visceral suffering remained equally important, just instead as a means to instill fear and horror in the faithful and motivate worship by accusation and threat, instead of sympathy. 

One answer to this apparent tension is provided by Allen Feldman in the introduction to Archives of the Invisible:

“The photopolitical archives and releases the historical violence of light as a metaphorical power of truth claiming, facticity, objectification, exposure, erasure, and appropriation by the will to know. The photopolitical is a neologism of the Greek phos and politea that implies a political economy of phos and aphos, apparition and disapparition, for within this economy non-light (aphos) is as much a constitutive practice of power and privation as is light. Nonlight is not darkness, which is still an experience of photosensitivity, but a formation of insensitivity mediated by the historical and political abysses cast by light.” (Feldman, 8)

Namely, that these images (and more broadly, medieval christian literature) are interested in non-light rather than light, and they respond to a non-light “formation of insensitivity” towards pressing spiritual concerns of sin and absolution rather than dealing with light itself—which is related more to “truth … facticity, objectification,” which in this context relates to the naturalistic accuracy of artistic representation. The didactic emphasis on non-light in medieval art is an emphasis on the importance of being pious and practicing christianity (as well as an aid to do so, insofar as gruesomeness equals compassion and piety), rather than on perfectly depicting a naturalistic rendering of these scenes. The concern of medieval art on non-light is especially apparent in medieval literature. Visions of Hell, for instance, describes obviously untrue and unrealistic occurrences that are moving and evocative precisely because they depart significantly from reality. The same is true in medieval paintings, which depart from naturalistic representation in order to focus on specific themes of suffering and worship, which are important in creating visceral and performed reactions of worship and piousness. 

Fontebasso, Francesco. The Sacrifice of Iphigenia. 1749.
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia by Francesco Fontebasso. In lieu of a good photo of The Martyrdom of St. Catherine

Art historian Meyer Schapiro provides another answer by calling into question the very existence of a tension between naturalistic depiction and the theological goals of this art by describing how naturalism is a specific and modern norm that is projected erroneously on medieval art:

“The analysis and characterization of the styles of primitive and early historical cultures have been strongly influenced by the standards of recent Western art. … In the past, a great deal of work, especially representation, was regarded as artless even by sensitive people; what was valued were mainly the ornamentation and the skills of primitive industry. It was believed that primitive arts were childlike attempts to represent nature—attempts distorted by ignorance and by an irrational content of the monstrous and grotesque. True art was admitted only in the high cultures, where knowledge of natural forms was combined with a rational ideal which brought beauty and decorum to the image of man. Greek art and the art of the Italian High Renaissance were the norms for judging all art.

With the change in Western art during the last seventy years, naturalistic representation has lost its superior status. Basic for contemporary practice and for knowledge of past art is the theoretical view that what counts in all art are the elementary aesthetic components, the qualities and relationships of the fabricated lines, spots, colors, and surfaces. … Perfect art is possible in any subject matter or style. A style is like a language, with an internal order and expressiveness, admitting a varied intensity of delicacy of statement.” (Schapiro, 291)

This last statement which relates the style of an artwork to a language provides a salient link back to the class. We talk in class about old English phrases and the metaphors and wordplay that are unique to it, but do not necessarily hold it to the lexical standards of modern English. Kenning’s such as word-box are interesting and relevant to the poetry we study, and we don’t care that it might be confusing or nonsensical in modern English. In the same way, and as Schapiro points out, Renaissance-era standards of naturalism in art are, to an extent, an irrelevant metric to impose on medieval art, which fail to capture the more important intentions of the artist and the original audience of the work. 



Feldman, Allen. Archives of the Insensible: of War, Photopolitics, and Dead Memory. The University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Groebner, Valentin. Defaced: the Visual Culture of Violence in the Late Middle Ages. Zone Books, 2009.

Schapiro, Meyer. Style.

Bulgarini, Bartolommeo. Formerly attributed to Master of the Ovile Madonna (also known as Ugolino Lorenzetti). The Crucifixion. c. 1350.

Fontebasso, Francesco. The Martyrdom of St. Catherine. c. 1709 – 1769.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *