We all know them: Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Caravaggio. These were the big players, the Old Masters. Caravaggio gave us drama, Michelangelo perfection and Da Vinci, well, honestly, everything. Da Vinci did not stop with the paintbrush. He gave us military inventions, sacred artworks and anatomical research. His multitude of codices contains the purest of observations through his faith in nature. He believed that whatever we observed could be translated into man-made structures and devices. Michelangelo was an artistic genius. He produced the very symbols that maintain their firm position as the foundation of religious imagery. His Pieta represents the ideological merge of the opposing Renaissance ideals of classical beauty and naturalism. He was the one to use artwork as the visual proof for a societies social change.
In late 16th and early 17th century Italy, Caravaggio threw us headlong into works of art depicting gripping religious scenes. He was deemed the most famous painter in Rome. I suppose his artistic reputation preceded his criminal one. Even killing a man in 1606 still didn’t delay his painting career. His contributions to art were centered on his ability to elicit in the viewer a feeling of alliance with the church. He was known for his high contrast and treatment of light and dark. At this time, the church was in the midst of reasserting its power. And lucky for them, Caravaggio knew how to wield power, with a paintbrush. He was their key to convincing the masses of the timeless validity of the Christian faith. Caravaggio’s imagery extended a forceful hand to those in need of an ideological system on by which they could make sense of their life.
After all of these fabulous contributions, so what? How has time digested these great legacies? How do Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Caravaggio still live with us today? We need to understand how later artists interpreted their methods. Take Van Gogh. He thrived on paradox, his motto always being, “in sorrow, yet ever joyful.” One may say he is simply crazy, or one may more deeply realize that art is not intended to find clarity.
Art is the search. We come to realize artistic development as an organic phenomenon. Art history depicts the great journey through which brave souls hope to say something bigger than themselves. Whether art was inspired by personal reasons or societal ones, its images stand through layers of time. And what occurs in this time is what the Old Masters were the first ones to dictate. That is their power. They were the trailblazers who fearlessly discovered what it meant to produce artwork, what it meant to break new ground. And from there, new generations of artists had a starting point from whence to structure and discover their own personal words and visual interpretations in relation to their day’s cultural climates. And so, a tradition of using visual imagery and creative thinking to archive a people’s history began.
The all too common saying “out with the old and in with the new” has no meaning in art. Because in art, what is old was once new, and what is new was once old. It is impossible to forget the Old Masters. They opened the doors for the eternal cyclical renewal of legacies, the content of our very essence.