This essay will be devoted to a comparison and contrast analysis of the red figure column krater with two scenes (terracotta with slip, 480–460 BC) and Michele Tosini’s Saint Mary Magdalene (oil on wood, 1560s). These works of art are currently exhibited at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The choice of these two art works is explained by the fact that despite their obvious differences, they appear to have a number of important similarities, including their religious themes, social messages, etc. Moreover, both of the works were quite innovative for their time period and reflected the new artistic tendencies becoming popular in the society. The Greek vase offers a complex and multidimensional narrative for its period, and Tosini’s work includes some elements of Mannerism that would later be favored during the Renaissance. Creativity of the artists allows them to find expressive and efficient methods to communicate their innovative ideas to the audience. Different techniques and styles, but analogous themes make these two objects a pair that is worth analyzing and studying.
Pottery and various ceramic objects, similar to this red figure column krater, were very important to the ancient Greek society. These pottery items were used both as ceremonial objects and in everyday life. Such large kraters were usually used to mix water and wine as Greeks did not drink pure wine (Vickers 47). The way these vessels were painted was different in different periods of time, but red images on a black background that can be seen on the case in question were characteristic of the so-called “Golden Age” of ancient Greece (Vickers 49). The sides of this krater are decorated with two episodes from Greek mythology. On one side of the vase, the artist depicted the goddess Iris who pours a beverage to Zeus and Hera, the king and the queen of gods. To the left of Zeus, Hermes is entering the room, probably to bring some news as he was considered a messenger of gods. The figures on the other side – a woman standing between two youths – are difficult to identify. This vessel proves that religion played an important role in the Greek society as such mythological images were extremely wide-spread.
In contrast to the Greek vase, the creator of which is unknown, some information about Michele Tosini does exist. However, he was not a very famous Renaissance painter, so it is scarce. He mainly worked in Florence, sometimes in cooperation with other artists like Vasari (Hornik 19). One of his most important commissions was decorating frescoes of three city gates of Florence (Hornik 27). The painting depicting Saint Mary Magdalene was created during the Italian Renaissance, a period when ancient ideas and values were revived. Artists, intellectuals, and philosophers of this time paid great attention to the Greek and Roman art, looking for inspiration and humanistic ideals. Although it is not possible to find direct stylistic similarities between Michele Tosini’s painting and the Greek krater, it is obvious that they are done with the focus on human beauty and grace. Moreover, these two objects offer their own interpretation of religious themes as Saint Mary Magdalene plays a very important role in Christianity. In accordance with the ideas of the Renaissance, the saint is portrayed in a very humanistic manner. She is looking above, while holding a book in her hand. Her portrait is, first and foremost, a depiction of an ordinary woman who can be identified as a saint only due to a number of symbols and allusions. She does not have a halo and she looks quite realistic. In contrast to the people painted on the Greek vessel, her figure is very realistic and three-dimensional.
In terms of a visual analysis, these works of art also show similarities and differences at the same time. The biggest difference between these works of art is not the artists’ approach to composition, but, as it has already been mentioned, the materials and techniques applied. The vase is made of terracotta, which is a clay-based ceramic that was extensively used in ancient cultures. After the primary sculptural stage, the pottery was put in special oven where it underwent a treatment of very high temperatures (Clark et al. 19). Afterwards, artists and artisans applied the paint. In cases of images similar to the one seen on the krater, artist applied the black paint, leaving the red spaces uncolored. The techniques and materials used for the Greek vase are so different from the Renaissance painting that it is almost nonsensical to compare them. Saint Mary Magdalene was painted with oil paint on a rectangular wooden board. It was the typical way of making paintings and frescoes that were usually used for decorating the walls and ceilings (Tinagli 20).
The composition of the front image on the krater is horizontal and can be characterized by more stability than Tosini’s painting. As this image includes four people, it is split into four almost equal parts with Iris occupying slightly more space than others. This image can be also characterized by a great degree of harmony and balance, as the gaze of the viewer moves freely within the frame of the image without focusing on any specific elements. On the contrary, the composition of Tosini’s painting is vertical and slightly asymmetrical. Mary Magdalene’s head is tilted to the left, whereas in the right part of the painting she holds very important objects that attract the viewer’s attention. This asymmetry is also intensified by an unequal distribution of light and shadow in the painting.
Another obvious difference is the approach to color usage in these works. Whereas the vase is painted only in two colors, Saint Mary Magdalene impresses with a variety of colors and shades. There are some bright red parts, such as the ribbons in the saint’s hair, the book, and the tapestry under her elbow, but in other cases the painter used softer colors – the warm brown of her hair and the grayish green of the dress. Nevertheless, there is one common feature in color usage of these two works of art. In both works, the background is very dark, which allowed the artists to highlight the human figures and make them more important in terms of composition. However, the technique used by Tosini is stylistically different. It is called chiaroscuro and was developed during the first decades of the Renaissance.
However, despite these differences, the two analyzed works of art treat space in a similar way. Both focus on the portrayal of people, so their figures occupy the central place in the images. In the case of the Greek vase and the painting, the bodies of the people dominate the composition and leave almost no space for the background. Although the audience sees only the upper part of Mary Magdalene’s body, there is almost no difference in the way her figure communicates with space if compared to the vase. The heads of the people hit the upper line of the works of art, making them slightly tight and incapacious.
These works of art, despite the fact that they were created many centuries ago, still remain quite important and relevant for the modern culture. They are a great source of information about how the society that created them treated religion in their everyday life and how people used to imagine their deities and saints. Both objects have enormous aesthetic significance. They impress the viewer with artistic harmony, balance, and expressiveness. Moreover, these works or art are important from the philosophic perspective as they allow modern people to feel connected to their history and establish the sense of continuity that is crucial for any society.
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