Still Life - Antecedents - Middle Ages and Renaissance

Middle Ages and Renaissance

By 1300, starting with Giotto and his pupils, still life painting was revived in the form of fictional niches on religious wall paintings which depicted everyday objects. Through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, still life in Western art remained primarily an adjunct to Christian religious subjects, and convened religious and allegorical meaning. This was particularly true in the work of Northern European artists, whose fascination with highly detailed optical realism and symbolism led them to lavish great attention on their paintings' overall message. Painters like Jan van Eyck often used still life elements as part of an iconographic program.

The development of oil painting technique by Jan van Eyck and other Northern European artists made it possible to paint everyday objects in this hyper-realistic fashion, owing to the slow drying, mixing, and layering qualities of oil colors. Among the first to break free of religious meaning were Leonardo da Vinci, who created watercolor studies of fruit (around 1495) as part of his restless examination of nature, and Albrecht Dürer who also made precise drawings of flora and fauna.

Petrus Christus’ portrait of a bride and groom visiting a goldsmith is a typical example of a transitional still life depicting both religious and secular content. Though mostly allegorical in message, the figures of the couple are realistic and the objects shown (coins, vessels, etc.) are accurately painted but the goldsmith is actually a depiction of St. Eligius and the objects heavily symbolic. Another similar type of painting is the family portrait combining figures with a well-set table of food, which symbolizes both the piety of the human subjects and their thanks for God’s abundance. Around this time, simple still life depictions divorced of figures (but not allegorical meaning) were beginning to be painted on the outside of shutters of private devotional paintings. Another step toward the autonomous still life was the painting of symbolic flowers in vases on the back of secular portraits around 1475. Jacopo de’ Barbari went a step further with his Still Life with Partridge, Iron Gloves, and Crossbow Arrows (1504), among the earliest signed and dated trompe-l'œil still life paintings, which contains minimal religious content.

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