Florence Baptistery (Italo-Byzantine)

Location: Battistero di San Giovanni                                                                                                                                                                                             Artist: Anonymous Venetian Artists, Meliore, Coppo di Marcovaldo,                                                                                                                                     Date: 1266-14th century                                                                                                                                                                                                                Medium: Mosaic

An Italo-Byzantine mosaic depicting the Biblical story of the flight to Egypt

The Flight to Egypt, from the Florence Bapistery.

This particular portion of a much larger mosaic seems a somewhat minor thing to concentrate on for my first piece, but it perfectly exemplifies the height of Italo-Byzantine art, just before the point where it begins to drift towards Renaissance styles.

Mary and Joseph are on the flight to Egypt with their infant Jesus, and the backstory and continuation can be found in adjacent panels—this is just a narrative point. The artistic style and the content, despite the complete unnotoriety of this particular piece, is fascinating.

Located in Florence, the Baptistery that contains this mosaic is now considered a branch of Basilica Santa Maria di Fiore. The structure was built in the 4th or 5th centuries, and the mosaic ceiling–which bears the heaviest Byzantine influence–was crafted in the 13th century by a largely anonymous group of Venetian artists, though it is known to include the handiwork of Coppo di Marcovaldo and Cimabue (Museums of Florence).

The particular panel which we focus on is only the smallest fraction of the larger mosaic, but is nonetheless a great example of how the Byzantine and Florentine artists’ styles meshed. The eastern influence on their portrayal of Mary and her child is immediately obvious in the ornate background, as well as in the unrealistic, more two-dimensional portrayal of the setting. The characters, though static, are nonetheless relatively lifelike compared to classical Byzantine work, demonstrating the influence of the Italian artists, particularly Cimabue, who was one of the more famous artists to contribute to these mosaics. Giotto’s master, Cimabue was heavily influenced by the eastern style, but pioneered the move towards naturalism and away from the more abstract and severe styles that had preceded him (Spencer).

This mosaic is a decent representation of this Italian artistic trend, as one can see the effort towards detail in the characters, while the animal and the background both hit the eye a bit more two-dimensionally. The faces in particular demonstrate human expression, dimensions, and detail that are noticeably more refined than their earlier Byzantine and Italo-Byzantine counterparts.

Mary is slightly off-center, mainly so as to put Jesus into the exact focus of the mosaic frame. The infant Jesus, meanwhile, is swaddled in red to complete the blue and red ensemble that Mary is generally clothed in, blue symbolically representing royalty (Mary’s queenly status) and red symbolizing divinity, or the presence of God.

Perhaps the most singular element of the thematic portrayal, however, is the inclusion of Joseph, who is typically left out as not essential to the Biblical story. His appearance here, however, is simply by necessity of telling the tale; one will generally not find him left out of the flight to Egypt motif, though Mary and infant Jesus tend to be the most popular figures when a specific narrative frame is not required. Even here his position is decidedly behind the donkey carrying Mary and Jesus, holding a goad to keep the animal going. However, motion-wise he appears static, and seems more affected  by the Byzantine notions of movement than the Italian ones. The rest of the picture—the donkey and the boy leading it—both display quite clear motion, but Joseph not so much, perhaps designed so in order to reinforce his duty to be an instrument of God through passivity rather than action.

Sources Used

Gothic Mosaic 13th Century. Digital image. Lessing Photo Archive. Erich Lessing. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <http://www.lessing-photo.com/dispimg.asp?i=15030558+&cr=2&cl=1&gt;.

“BAPTISTERY OF FLORENCE.” THE MUSEUMS OF FLORENCE. Web. 07 Apr. 2012. <http://www.museumsinflorence.com/musei/Baptistery_of_florence.html&gt;.

“Mosaics in the Baptistery, Florence (1240-1300).” Web Gallery of Art, Image Collection, Virtual Museum, Searchable Database of European Fine Arts (1000-1850). Web. 07 Apr. 2012. <http://www.wga.hu/html_m/zgothic/mosaics/7baptist/index.html&gt;.

Spencer, John R. “Cimabue (Italian Painter).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 13 Apr. 2012. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/117871/Cimabue&gt;.

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