My research areas lie in Western art, with a special interest in the history of Italian art from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. My research subjects are not limited to works of high artistic quality in a general sense. I am especially interested in “images” harbored by people in those days in their daily lives and religious faith, and I am also devoted to the study of the historical and anthropological implications of such images.
In this column, I hope to convey the appeal of artistic appreciation from this perspective.
I assume many of the readers have at least once seen Birth of Venus and Primavera by one of the most well-known Italian Renaissance painters, Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). These art works, which are displayed in art museums today, were originally painted to decorate furniture and household goods in the residences of merchants and bankers in Florence.
Numerous masterpieces from the Renaissance were made to order for the Medici family and other wealthy people. Artists of the day produced art works not just as objects for appreciation. They created paintings and sculptures for religious purposes as well as for decorating furniture and for such occasions as cerebrations and ceremonies, according to the requests of their patrons. In particular, Botticelli, who gained the confidence of the Medici family, was an ideal painter able to produce art works that satisfied the family’s demands.
Various images were used for these furniture and household goods, according to their purposes and uses. One example is a chest with a lid, called “cassone,” which was produced as an item for a wedding. On the outside of the cassone, “public” images were depicted using flamboyant paintings and carvings to demonstrate the wealth of the families during the wedding procession. On the other hand, for images painted on the inner lid, which would not be for public view, nude portraits of a man and woman were often depicted, as the cassone was placed in the ”private” bedroom of the husband and wife after the wedding.
In the society of the time when the succession of the family line was important; a wedding was not simply a “private celebration.” It signified a diplomatic pact between families, in which a politically and economically more advantageous relationship through marriage was sought. It was a “public ceremony” where the connection between the families should symbolically be demonstrated. For marriage, the birth of an heir was more important than anything. It was the most important task for a new wife to give birth to a healthy baby boy as it is a matter of the succession of the family line.
Decoration on the occasion of childbirth is generally associated with images of celebration. However, a variety of images were used to decorate the scenes of childbirth of the middle and upper classes in the Renaissance. These images intended not only to decorate the place of childbirth, demonstrate family status and wealth and celebrate the birth of a child. They facilitated religious services, served recreational and practical purpose and passed on family precepts. The images also played the role of an amulet for fertility and easy labor.
A birth tray (desco da parto) was one of the gifts to congratulate pregnant females and also was a utility article used to carry drinks and food to a bedroom of the women. Some birth trays have a chessboard drawn on the reverse, which was used as a pastime by pregnant females who were forced to stay in bed for an extended period. After childbirth, the birth trays decorated the room to commemorate the birth of an heir or as a work of art.
For images on the front side of birth trays, subjects that praise the power of women were selected, including the Triumph of Venus, the Triumph of Love and Hercules at the Crossroad. These images were probably intended to encourage pregnant females who were to face a major event of life such as child delivery fraught with the risk of death. At the same time, they were believed to have the power to assist the mysterious event of birth of new life.
Meanwhile, images that are contrasting to those on birth trays are depicted on majolica, which was one of the utility articles for pregnant females. While motifs for birth trays take inspiration from religion, myths and narratives, artworks on majolica depict explicit secular birth giving scenes. Lively and vividly depicted is a scene of a midwife removing a baby coming from between legs of a pregnant woman sitting in a birthing chair, along with her maids. As this kind of ware was covered with a lid when it was carried, the decoration painted on the inside of the ware was probably seen only by the pregnant woman and her maids. This is why these direct expressions were allowed.
It should be noted that a certain motif is repeatedly featured for birth trays and majolica ware in common. That is a naked baby appearing on the back side of the birth trays and on the back bottom of the earthen ware. Babies are jumping, crouching, wrestling and urinating. Although their postures and belongings are varied, what is consistent is that the babies are naked. As stated earlier, it was of paramount importance to give birth to a healthy baby boy as a successor to the family line. With this in mind, it is considered that the symbolic image of a naked boy had the spiritual power to induce the successful birth of a healthy boy.
On the contrary, there were some images considered taboo, such as monsters and other grotesque images. Ambroise Pare, a surgeon of Paris, wrote in his book On Monsters and Marvels, “Anything a mother saw during pregnancy affects her fetus.” He mentioned an episode of a mother who saw the image of John the Baptist in animal’s fur during delivery and gave birth to a hairy baby girl. The medical establishment at that time referred to the possibility of evil images disgracing the uterus of a mother and affecting negatively the fetus as “visually contagious disease” and gave warning against the possibility.
Also in Japan, there used to be beliefs that “a baby with reddish birth mark will be born if a mother saw fire during pregnancy” or “a baby with blackish birth mark will be born if a mother saw a funeral.” The idea of preferably looking at favorable images or staying away from undesirable images during pregnancy may have a profound connection with the mysterious aspect of childbirth and the fact that childbirth could be a life-threatening event. People put their wish for a successful birth of a healthy child into the power of the images related to childbirth.
We readily think that works of art should be appreciated as objects of beauty. However, “art” (“ars” in Latin) used to refer to practical art, and it is in and after the Modern Age that “art” became to have the meaning of “fine art.”
Many of the works of art, which are stored in museums and seen as objects of appreciation today, used to be objects of worship, offerings to gods, decoration for celebrations and rituals, or everyday utensils.
The images endowed had spiritual and miraculous power more than artistic value, and stirred different viewer emotions, including, reverence, awe, prayer, curse and spell.
While continuing the study of works prior to the Modern Age through the approach of traditional art history studies, I would like to review how such works thrived and were accepted in the lives of people from the historical and anthropological perspectives.
To examine how particular images were valued in a specific period can also help us to understand what was regarded as beautiful in each time. By exploring the history of Western art, I hope to deepen my thoughts on the rich relationship between images and humanity.
I invite the readers also to feel the daily lives and emotions of people behind works of art.
(This column is as of 2018.)