Editor’s Note: David Clayton, author of The Way of Beauty, is publishing a series of blog posts about the art in his book. Below is a reprint from his blog The Way of Beauty, used with his permission.
Most of the images in my new book, the Way of Beauty are reproduced in black and white. For any readers who wish to see them in colour, the publisher, Angelico Press has posted all of them on the book webpage, here (scroll down past the reviews and you’ll see them). I plan to do a series of postings highlighting these paintings, indicating their importance in the book and also offering a little more about the artists and the history of the painting itself.
The first featured is the Alba Madonna by Raphael. I used this painting in the book to illustrate the idea that the geometric shape can be used to enhance the beauty. In this case it is the idea of unity which is communicated through the circular shape. As I explain in the book we know that Raphael was aware of the idea of number symbolism and of traditional harmony and proportion and that he used it in his paintings. He incorporated these elements into his designs not because he wanted to build in a secret code, but rather because he felt that they were intrinsic to the subject portrayed and so would enhance the beauty of the painting, perceived intuitively, and its power to communicate the truth.
This particular painting shows Our Lady with the young Jesus and John the Baptist. Raphael’s work characterizes the High Renaissance style of the early 16th century and it’s style is drawn, consciously, from that of ancient Greek and Roman statues and art – the facial features of Our Lady for example, bear a striking resemblance to a classical Venus. This painting reflects another departure from what was the norm in Christian sacred art for centuries, and that is to place the figures in a landscape that is painted so as to create the illusion of space. The gothic and iconographic styles for example would generally have had a flat background in order to communicate the heavenly dimension that is outside time and space. He paints in oil paint because this is a medium that has special properties (in contrast to egg tempera or mosaic) that helps the artist create the illusion of space .
Raphael uses perspective very skillfully – the objects in the distance are smaller than the objects in the foreground. He also uses colour perspective. The more distant the object is, the bluer it gets. I always thought that Raphael had exaggerated this until I spent time in Italy myself. There is something about the Italian landscape itself that makes this effect more pronounced than I was used to seeing in England. This effect doesn’t come out in photographs so strongly as it appears in nature, and as Raphael, Leonardo et al faithfully reflect in their paintings. I did wonder if the reason for this was that the Cyprus and olive trees that dominate the Italian landscape have a bluish green foliage, but I don’t really know why this should be.
One last story in connection with this painting. It is in the National Gallery in Washington DC. Once some years ago, when visiting the gallery I was admiring it and thought I would take a photograph for my own use. I had been told by someone that the gallery had recently changed their policy and you were now allowed to do so. This is quite a common policy now, but at one time it was unknown and I was skeptical about whether it was really true. So tentatively I took my camera out and glanced up to see a security standing at the door. He didn’t seem to be objecting so I carried on. I was just sizing up the composition of the photo when I felt a tap on my shoulder. The security guard was standing next to me. I was ready to be chastised and so was about to explain that I had been told by something that this was allowed. Before I could do so he spoke: ‘Excuse me sir, but I think you’ll find that the photograph will turn out better if you use the flash.’
In fact even with the flash, the photo wasn’t good enough – you can still see the shadow from the overhead lights on the photo I took:
So here’s a better version of the picture for you to study. For even more understanding of the High Renaissance style of art by my book, the Way of Beauty.
—JAY W. RICHARDS, Editor of the Stream and Lecturer at the Business School of the Catholic University of America said about it: “In The Way of Beauty, David Clayton offers us a mini-liberal arts education. The book is a counter-offensive against a culture that so often seems to have capitulated to a ‘will to ugliness.’ He shows us the power in beauty not just where we might expect it — in the visual arts and music — but in domains as diverse as math, theology, morality, physics, astronomy, cosmology, and liturgy. But more than that, his study of beauty makes clear the connection between liturgy, culture, and evangelization, and offers a way to reinvigorate our commitment to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in the twenty-first century. I am grateful for this book and hope many will take its lessons to heart.”