After reading a significant portion of Leon Battista Alberti’s book On Painting, I think the most intriguing idea in this text would probably have to come from Book II, and that is the idea that painting brings religion to a whole new level, and that painting itself adds more value to generally any religious relic. Alberti uses Book I to discuss specific technical details of painting, specifically mathematics, but begins to explain for the spiritual and emotional value of painting in Books II and III.
He also explains that painting gives a face to the religious figures we worship, and that any person depicted in a painting (religious or otherwise) will go on living for a very long time after they are gone through their painting of them. I would first like to discuss Alberti’s initial idea that painting enhances the practice of religion by making it more tangible. It’s no secret that the Catholic church especially has a monopoly over sacred imagery through painting.
Religious art of any kind was heavily regarded during the 14th and 15th century, and I would argue that painting was the most popular medium. Not only most popular, but probably the most highly regarded. Referencing Cennini’s The Craftsman Handbook, we find out that painting was regarded as a medical practice because of the similarities between grinding pigments to create color and grinding certain ingredients to make medicine, so we also know the task was revered.
Cennini also believe painting was a gift from God bestowed on certain men, and that it was almost necessary in that sense to use their gift of painting for the church first and foremost. Religious art was not only important to add visual wealth to the church, but ancient writer Trismegistus quotes : “Man, mindful of his nature and origin, represented the gods in his own likeness” (Book II, page 63). Perhaps the most important part of religious art, in the catholic church or otherwise, is the idea of giving a face to the gods being worshiped.
One can only imagine how wildly different the church might turn out to be had the likeness of a crucifix had never been drawn, sculpted, or otherwise painted. What would happen if no church goer ever saw the “face” of Jesus? Would the catholic church even be successful in the 14th and 15th centuries? After all, the catholic church was very adamant about perpetuating the idea of Heaven and Hell, and almost “scaring” people into believing in a divine being. It’s almost silly to think of the catholic church scaring people ithout successful imagery of eternal life as well as eternal damnation. Of course, painting was not only used in the church. Though arguably the most famous works from the 14th and 15th centuries were religious paintings commissioned by the church, painting took on a completely different life when used to archive one’s physical appearance and wealth during the time. Alberti believes that painting “represents the dead to the living many centuries later, so that they are recognized by spectators with pleasure and deep admiration for the artist” (Book II, page 60).
I am reminded of portraits of wealthy citizens, clothed in rich colors and fabrics, eating fruit, playing the piano, or pretty much anything to identify them as someone wealthy and therefore someone who was able to participate in these pleasures of life. It’s also no secret that only the wealthy could afford to commission painted portraits of themselves, so a majority of the medium we see today consists of the things I listed above. Through painting, the faces of the dead go on living for a very long time” (Book II, page 60). Alberti considered this a gift, and considered men who could paint well very lucky because they had the power to not only archive the faces of human beings living at the time, but to also imprint an image of God in our hearts and minds because “painting has contributed considerably to the piety which binds us to the gods, and to filling our minds with sound religious beliefs” (Book II, page 60).
Alberti stresses the religious importance of painting, and our ability to put a face to the name, so to speak, when it comes to worshipping our respected gods. He also describes painting as a way to remember, and a way to keep people alive who have long passed by capturing their likeness through painting. After having read half of this book, I think above all else, Alberti views painting as a gift from God, like many men did during his time.
It is something to be revered, practiced, and ultimately loved by those who are passionate enough to pursue it. “This art, then, brings pleasure while you practice it, and praise, riches, and endless fame when you have cultivated it well. Therefore, as painting is the finest and most ancient ornament of things, worthy of free men and pleasing to learned and unlearned alike, I earnestly beseech young students to devote themselves to painting as much as they can” (Book II, page 64).