We have looked at dozens of paintings in my art history class, but a few have stayed with me without having to revise and quiz myself on them. In the first few weeks, we were looking at the transition from medieval art to Renaissance art, with reference to the characteristics of Byzantine art – so basically, we were looking at the point when artists began trying to capture reality.
These two paintings are actually part of a diptych, which is double-sided, so there are four distinct scenes that are separate but have an obvious relationship. The man is Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482), Duke of Urbino. As well as being a condottieri, or mercenary (sort of almost like a warlord), he known as ‘the light of Italy’ and made major contributions to the humanist movement through his rule, as well as his patronage and encouragement of artistic and scholarly enlightenment. The woman is Battista Sforza, Federico’s wife, who died before him and from all accounts was very much loved by her husband. These are the back panels:
In my class, there were many interpretations; including one of the paintings being a sort of ‘love tribute’ from the Duke to his wife. In the different panels, there are lots of opposite symbols that could be representative of earth and heaven – the Duke is almost tanned and wearing bright red, a colour of vitality, whereas Battista appears ethereal and alabaster in comparison, wearing pearls to demonstrate not only her wealth but an allusion to the attire usually signifying the ‘regina coeli’ (Queen of Heaven), a status usually saved for the Virgin Mary in art. On the back panels, the Duke and his wife are shown in separate carriages being drawn by white horses and unicorns; he is accompanied by the personifications of Glory, Justice, Wisdom, Valour and Moderation; Battista is chaperoned by Faith, Hope, Charity and Chastity.
I suppose the irony is how easily the symbols could reinvent the meaning of the painting, especially after Battista’s death. There is a dichotomy of earth and heaven, which can suddenly represent life and death. The carriages are shown approaching each other, borne by angels and cupids, yet they are still distant; he is approaching light in his gleaming armour, yet she is headed for the sunset clutching her prayer book. It is strange that the painting doesn’t commemorate any sort of occasion that would warrant a portrait – it’s not a marriage, for example. Nor are the couple shown standing together. The distance between them in the painting, and the opposites that define them, are fairly tragic and bittersweet – especially when you consider the fact that the Duke never remarried, and after Battista’s death he pretty much retired from life in general to just sit in his palace. At least with the portrait, it was hinged down the middle; when closed, their faces would look the same way and they would be side by side.
Seeing the painting, I just imagine the Duke sitting alone in his palace waiting for death; the only thing that could reunite him with the woman he loved.
…I can’t believe I am this much of a geek that I am actually getting all sad and romantic over a painting.