Linear Perspective through the Renaissance - Daniel Nguyen

This gallery includes representations and examples of the development and impact of three dimensional space, also known as linear perspective, throughout the Renaissance period, about 1400-1600, and in this case 15th century Italy.

Christ child and Mary are located in the far left, and are being offered gifts by the Three Wise Men or Magi, who are dressed in sumptuous costumes and carry extravagant gifts for the Christ child. Larger in size and more in the far front are the most important figures. Lines of horses can be seen in the background (top), more distant, and they get smaller and smaller as they approach the castle at the top. This represents the various stages of the journey of the Magi's journey. At the bottom one can see other scenes from the journey of the Magi. In the bottom, one can see three dimensional perspective in the architecture and the mountains. The bottom right panel displays architecture as a background to add depth, as early as this painting's date, 1423. This technique would be followed and used by many Renaissance painters to come. I do not believe Fabriano invented this technique, but at this time, early 1400's, it was customary to utilize foreground and background.
We skip to 1470 (there are remarkable examples of growth of linear perspective between these years however), with Cossa's Annunciation. Framed by wonderful classical architecture, the archangel Gabriel tells Mary about the birth of Jesus. You can see that Gabriel is closer to the bottom, and more upfront, and on the left. Mary is pushed further back. Multiple layers build all the way to the back, showing the sides of buildings as if we are there. Pay particular to the use of shadows to add to this depth as well.
Here is an example of a drawing, or outline of linear perspective via the workshop of Mantegna in the Flagellation of Christ. As you can see in the pavement, and ascending lines, the floor is laid out for placement of each figure. We can see how he drew those to be in front, and those to be placed in the back in relevance to the floor. The closer the figure, the larger he is drawn. The further the figure, the smaller he is drawn. You can also see how shadows are used to create a back wall, and also to make objects such as the shield on the right, to be three dimensional in shape.
One of the finest examples of shadow to create more realism in three dimensional space, Messina's St Sebastian features St Sebastian's youthful body being pierced by numerous arrows, as blood drips. An arched bridge remains behind him. You can see that his figure and the tree takes up the whole vertical line and space from top to bottom. The arched bridge holds people drawn in smaller figures, but not absent of detail, watching along. On the left, a soldier lies down to nap, and a foreshortened figure behind him holds a baby in her arms. If you section out the small parts of the painting, it is a painting in itself, like many other Renaissance works at this time. The details stretch out far into the back and clouds hang above. The camera, or the way the view is angled, is pointed from a low angle, or aiming from the feet up. We can also see the direction of light in the shadow of St Sebastian's feet. There is also a shadow under the soldier's stick on the bottom left, underneath his stick, suggesting that the son is coming from the left. These shadows add greatly to the three dimensional space.
In Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi, we see a culmination of human figures, architectural framing, and mountainous landscapes. Jesus and Mary are in the center, not too far out front, and not too far back, but dead center in the whole three dimensional space. They are surrounded by the Magi and others, dressed in different colors, and unique in gestures and poses (though similar pose). Layers of mountains pad the setting, and disappear into the back, fainting away slowly, layer by layer. As you can see, the darkest greenest mountains are closer, and faintest, bluest mountains appear to be further away. This is the use of color to increase linear perspective and depth of field. The brightest colors, and most colorful outfits and costumes are in the front of the painting, and also located most toward the bottom. The higher you go, the further away the objects appear to be. The lower the figures are in the painting, the closer they are.
This is Andrea Mantegna's Christ as the Suffering Redeemer. Here we can see the placement similar to Leonardo Da Vinci's and Raphael's greatest masterpieces. The christ figure takes up almost the entire space, and is placed large, center and front. And it is surrounded by lush landscapes. Trees, mountains, clouds, and even a small cut-out on the right if you look closely. He sits on a pedestal, but rather sitting closer to us, like on a ledge, it appears as if he is sitting on top of the entire plains of grass and fields. It is almost as he is levitating. Intentional? We do not know. But the effect that he is right with us amongst the beautiful fields, gives us a floating effect, partly due to the angels above him. Also notice the yellows in the sky, suggesting sunrise or sunset. This is painted in the golden hour, a unique and bold decision. The blue in the sky is also a very clear and brighter blue.
I take you to some sketches and drawings by Raphael's master and teacher, Perugino, whom Raphael will learn from to basis his great works to come. A familiar scene, the Adoration of the Shepherds, displays where to place your figures, and how small, or large to draw them to convey three dimensional space. I thought by showing the drawing, we are able to witness and study the placement of figures without the distraction of colors. Enjoy.
I am not sure if this is Leonardo Da Vinci's actual sketch, but it shows how to use lines and windows for three dimensional space nevertheless. Notice how the windows fall into the backdrop by decreasing its size, length and width. Also notice the outlining of the rooftop, and how its texture is used to frame and balance the objects that take place in this room. Without the texture in the roof, the room would seem too large, or perhaps too empty. You can also see the ever so-known landscape within the last windows behind Jesus.
We know Raphael as a great master, so I am not afraid to show one of his quick sketches. Here is the Madonna and Child in a landscape. Similar to the many other works where the figure is center, large, and forefront, we can easily see the surrounding depths and landscapes that will evolve around Madonna and the Child. Amazing how rough this looks, and how this outline will turn out into a fully fleshed idea. We can use our imagination to imagine the plains, the fields, the trees, the grass, and the skies that will encompass the surroundings. Will there be a cutout, a small event somewhere in micro-size? We will not know until the final painting. Raphael was one of the greatest of small "scenes" and such "cut-outs". Visit some of the largest museums to witness some his other linear perspective masterpieces such as The Marriage of the Virgin (1504) and one of my favorites, The Fire in the Borgo (1514), in which the detail is spectacular and out of this world. There you will also see the finest displays of the use of classical architecture to frame a painting.
A more refined sketch, here is Michelangelo's Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist. It is easy to see that the closer figure is deeper and darker in penciling than the figure behind. With pencil, we can also see how he uses shadows, underneath the draperies and in between arms and legs, to better convey his perspective. We do not yet see the surroundings, but as you can see, those are penciled in much lighter and fainter than the main subjects. We can also predict that the surroundings will not be a grassy landscape filled with trees. And there may not be a sky above, nor will there be clouds.
I would like to end with a colored painting by Caravaggio, not that he was the final say in Renaissance, but because of his use of blacks and colors. The use of shadows are at an extreme here, with blacks completely framing the painting. In the Sacrifice of Isaac, one cannot even see the table that he lays upon. The bald bearded man takes the largest space in the painting, almost 3/4 of the whole left. Despite this dreaded scene, we are contrasted with a beautiful sunset on the top right. A painting portrayed to be captured in the golden hour, we can also see a miniature castle on the right, of course, we know that this technique has been around as early as 1420, if not earlier, and in fact, in deeper detail. So enjoy, I know I did not include a whole 50 years of Renaissance delight, but with exploration, you will see that the early pioneers knew much more than one would expect, that yes, Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michalangelo did not come up with these ideas. Thank you for partaking and visiting my gallery. - Daniel :)
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