For centuries, artists were tasked with painting images (icons) of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Viewers believed that these likenesses had been created miraculously, and artists were able to give their work a sense of authenticity by adhering closely to images that were reputedly painted by Saint Luke, or by some other holy means. Over the centuries, Byzantine icons stayed true to these early images. Although there was considerable exchange between Europe and the East, the sack of Constantinople by Western European and Venetian crusaders in 1204 brought a wave of artwork from the Byzantine capital to Europe. Early Italian painters initially remained faithful to Byzantine models, but they soon broke away from the tradition, introducing personal and regional styles to their work.
During the Renaissance, artistic practice became more codified through treatises as well as through critical awareness of differences between artists and regional styles. Around the middle of the sixteenth century, Giorgio Vasari, the Italian artist and art historian, wrote a magisterial history of the lives of Italian artists that assessed Italian painting from the previous three centuries.
One of the most important artistic categories was the altarpiece. The works in this gallery testify to the wealth of materials and techniques employed by carpenters, painters, and sculptors in making these sacred objects. In early panel paintings and polychromed wood sculpture, gold leaf and punched detail were employed to decorate the robes of holy figures. The rich and dense quality of prized blue pigment, which was derived from lapis lazuli sourced in Afghanistan, was often used to depict the Virgin’s cloak. Costly gold was tooled and polished to create luminous, unworldly backgrounds; over time, these gradually gave way to ultramarine skies.
The movement of material goods from East to West anticipated the traffic in works of art between the Old and New World. Itinerant objects like the ivory Crucified Christ, a Netherlandish-type crucifix possibly made in the Philippines by Chinese craftsmen for Catholic patrons in New Spain, remind us that the Renaissance’s flowering of the arts was fueled in part by unprecedented global exploration and growing colonial ambitions.