Over five million people last year visited New York's famous Metropolitan Museum of Art-and many race through its quarter-mile length. At 2 million square feet it's three times bigger than the Louvre in Paris, so tourists who try to do too much end up with aching feet, glazed eyes, and a checked-off list of masterpieces quickly viewed-but little sense of how artists grappled with the problems of their era and, by blasting common assumptions, influenced our own.
Artist Rob Zeller agreed to meet me at the Met and point out a bit of what I (lifetime total of four courses in art history) would otherwise miss. Zeller, 42, was born in New Orleans, went to a Lutheran school, garnered degrees from the Boston Museum School of Fine Arts and the New York Academy of Art, goes to church in Brooklyn, and is married with one child and many excellent paintings that are viewable at robertzeller.com.
We started in a gallery filled with paintings created about six centuries ago in the style that art historians label International Gothic. Zeller set the scene: "The Crusades are finished. Europe, despite the diversity of languages, has pretty much a monolithic culture." Painting and sculpture instruct people who cannot read and are of course without television, film, or photography: "Since few people have personal knowledge of Scripture, the Catholic Church dominates the education of the public about the gospel by controlling the production of the artist."
Zeller pointed to "Madonna and Child" (1445-1450) by Stefano di Giovanni (known as Sassetta) and noted that medieval "art was conceptual, not perceptual," since its goal was to teach the Catholic view of Scripture and not to show the world as an individual artist perceived it. Zeller praised the "incredible beauty" of the International style and pointed out that "the artists conformed to its aesthetic standards, not the other way around. We in the West have seemingly always valued individuality in our artists over the norms of the community, but it was not always so.
"The Catholic Church at that point paid and controlled artisans and guilds, enforcing strict limitations on both content and style. And yet, "seeds of dissent" were already sprouting: The advent of printing presses after 1450 meant that people who now could read the Bible for themselves would water those seeds. Zeller compared the Church-funded work with "Portrait of a Man" (1475) by Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes, a painting that still emphasizes personal piety but also shows a real, observed person: It's "an individual's take on another individual, not a nebulous saint. It's the beginning of portraying real life with real light from observation."
Furthering this change was a technological one: Many artists began to use newly developed oil paint rather than egg tempera, an older method of painting that requires mixing natural pigments with egg yolk. Since tempera is opaque and dries quickly, artists can't create smooth gradients and other effects as they can by applying layers of translucent oil paint. Providentially, as a theology emerged that saw everyday life as important, the advent of oil paint made detailed depiction based on direct observation more attainable.
What started before the Protestant Reformation became more intense after 1517: "You begin to see the artist with an individual voice, not necessarily in the service of the church." Lucas Cranach, for instance, at first made a name for himself by painting female nudes that were hugely marketable among northern European noblemen. As the Reformation unfolded, his friendship with Martin Luther placed him firmly in the center of the action in Wittenberg. Cranach, who became known as "the Court painter of the Reformation," produced portraits that showed individuality such as "A Man with a Gold-Embroidered Cap" (1532).
At that same time, artists such as Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo di Mariano) were still producing idealized figures such as "Portrait of a Young Man." Zeller calls such Italian art "conceptual" (rather than perceptual) realism because Bronzino adhered to the tenants of Mannerism: Instead of "really studying his model," he produced an idealized and highly stylized portrait very different from the Northern European portraiture that emphasized quiet piety.
Significantly, Bronzino's subject was not a Bible character or a churchman but "a young man with a lot of money and more pride than piety. He's almost looking at you with disdain. . . . In Northern Europe there was more understanding of depravity and need for salvation, but this fellow does not seem to be aware of his state of moral decay."
The view that life in the world has significance is clear in Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel's "The Harvesters" (1565), a vast panorama of people-some industrious, some lazy-going about their everyday activities, with God's bounty to be enjoyed, and a church as one part of the landscape but not the center. Bruegel produced earthy, unsentimental, but benevolent depictions of peasants rather than lords, and his landscapes showed that the earth had value and beauty not merely as a backdrop for depictions of sainthood and warfare.
Zeller wanted to show one more artist before we concluded. He explained that painters in parts of Europe wherever the Catholic Church retained control tended to stay conceptual rather than perceptual. They tried to reconcile the classics with Christian scholasticism by painting saints in terms of Platonic ideals of beauty and perfection. Zeller criticized that tendency: "If you don't paint 'warts and all,' you have to wonder how Christian it is."
And then came Caravaggio (his birth name: Michelangelo Merisi). Zeller sees him as "revolutionary in two major respects: his dynamic use of light and shadow in creating a composition, and his use of 'commoners' in depicting the saints instead of using idealized portraits that were classical or aristocratic in nature." Some Catholic church leaders disliked Caravaggio's gritty realism, but they admired his drama and his use of light and darkness. Caravaggio received commissions but also garnered lots of rejections.
"The Denial of St. Peter," which Caravaggio painted using oil in 1610, reversed the idealization by which good guys were always handsome and bad girls ugly. "Peter looks like a bum on Skid Row" Zeller said: Meanwhile, his "accuser is beautiful, with a face usually reserved for the Virgin Mary, but her motives are evil. She wants to get Peter arrested." Caravaggio was showing the real world, one in which books cannot be judged by their covers. When Mel Gibson planned The Passion of the Christ, he asked his cinematographer to make the movie look like the paintings of Caravaggio.
All of these artists-Sassetta, van der Goes, Cranach, Bronzino, Bruegel, Caravaggio-educated broad publics in how to look at man and God. Visual artists today play much less a role in educating the public, Zeller noted, "and mainly by choice. Artists now mainly seek not to be understood by the public at all. [They] want to carry on a rather exclusive conversation with their fellow artists" and others who share the same language and ideas.
Zeller has received foundation grants, exhibited in galleries around the United States, and founded a classical art school, so he could do well in exclusive company, but he's not happy with the state of art or the response of some fellow artists: "What saddens me is that many artists who are Christian maintain and participate in that culture of exclusivity. I don't think such a worldview is reflective of a Christian calling.