Recently I visited the museum of Fine Arts in Houston, a museum so large that it inhabits two multi-storied structures– to take it all in would require at least a full day of dedicated time.
The museum is a magical place for me because it was the first art museum I ever visited as a child, and it houses works of art that have made a deep impression on my development as an artist and as an art enthusiast. Near the end of a long afternoon perusing the museum’s numerous galleries, I wandered into the European Art exhibit.
Having never experienced the grandeur of European renaissance art in person, I was under the impression that the Renaissance art gallery would be a sleepy part of the museum that I would breeze through quickly, but the luminous gold-plated renaissance pieces were calling my name from across the hallway.
I was amazed that colors laid down on the canvas by a master painter nearly 600 years ago were as vivid as though they had been painted minutes before. The overwhelming bold pattern in the fabric which commands your attention to the foreground of Antonio Vivarini’s piece “Virgin and Child” stopped me in my tracks.
In this piece, Vivarini depicted the virgin wearing shades of red and blue combined with a large organic pattern on the fabric, which indicated to his 15th century audience that she was a person of extreme wealth and nobility. The large scale of these lavish elements points to the reverence that many medieval and renaissance artists were trying to convey about religious figures.
The longer I stood admiring the mastery of these artists, the more I was awed by the level of detail and craftsmanship that goes into each piece. To begin, an artist would partner with a master carpenter who would build the wood panel on which the paintings were created. The carpenter would prep the painting surface through a lengthy process that involved putting down layers of handmade adhesive, linen, and gesso until the raw wood was transformed from its rough natural state to a perfectly smooth slate.
From there, the work of the artist began with a charcoal outline of the painting, followed by careful application of thin, pounded gold sheets to create the “gold ground” of these paintings from which they got their namesake.
After the gold was placed, the artist would pound intricate details into the smooth gold surface, creating relief patterns. This process is most commonly used to apply textured patterns to draw the eye to the halo of religious figures.
Finally, the tempera painting process could begin, the artist would skillfully mix egg yolks and vibrant powdered pigments to create the vibrant paints that can maintain their color for centuries.
Lost in the details of these masterpieces with closing time nearing and the hope that I wouldn’t get locked into this massive museum overnight, I heard the faint sound of music in the distance. Curiously, I chased the noise from room to room until I stumbled upon a live rehearsal for a performance that the Houston Opera was having later that evening. The baritone sound of the opera singer amplified the charm of the gallery and created a magical out of body experience that brought the artwork to life. In that moment, it felt as if I were living inside the paintings, and the experience completely changed my perspective on Renaissance art for life.