The Middle Ages? What Middle Ages?

October 13, 2010

There’s a thing that’s been bugging me about my last post… You may not even have noticed it and the following may seem excessively pedantic and tedious to you but, well, here we go…

As you probably recall, in my previous entry, I started off by writing about medieval painting in general and then went on to speak in more detail of two particular examples from Vienna: The so called “Hasenhaus” and the house in Bäckerstrasse 12. Both of these examples, however, date to the first quarter of the 16th century, a time that by most standards would be defined as “early modern” rather than “medieval”. By that time, in Italy, what we’ve come to know as the Renaissance was well underway. Actually, it was almost over: By 1520 both Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci were deceased! In central Europe, though, things were a bit different. Sure, some of the more avant-garde artists there had already heard about that exciting new stuff that was going on in Italy and tried to copy it. But the larger part of them was content to carry on in their good old, accustomed gothic style. And while an elitist circle of humanists went crazy over the works of Cicero and Tacitus most people still preferred to read (or hear) the tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It’s a bit like, say, the year 1992 in the history of rock music…

The muse Clio, Head of the History Department on Mount Parnassus, holding the original sheet music to "Smells like teen spirit" (Fresco dating from ca. 1520 in the Casa Cavassa, Saluzzo - that's in Italy so the painting counts as "Renaissance art" despite the painter's somewhat original grasp of the female anatomy)

Most people will agree that 1992 saw the beginning of a new, albeit short era in rock music, i.e. the era of Grunge. That year, Nirvana were the hottest thing on the planet, their breakthrough album Nevermind hitting the number one slot in the Billboard charts, while Pearl Jam’s Ten made it to number two. If you look at that year’s singles charts, though, things were a bit different: Here, those up and coming Seattle bands were still outshone by the likes of Guns N’Roses’ November Rain or – dare I say it – by Mr. Big’s To be with you. So anyone writing a history of 1980’s hairspray rock would need to include the year 1992 as well, even if by then the 80’s were definitely over and rock music was just about to run out of hairspray…

What I’m trying to say is: By 1500, even in Vienna, the Middle Ages were over, but many of the paintings produced around that time still have a “late gothic” feel to them and belong to the history of medieval art just as much as they belong to the Renaissance.

[End of tedious footnote to previous post]

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