Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Incredulity of St. Thomas, Oil on Panel, 1572, Giorgio Vasari, 1511-1574
The High Renaissance took place in the last quarter of the fifteenth century and continued into the early part of the sixteenth century. By the time Giorgio Vasari was nine years old, however, many of the noted artists were no longer living. The exceptions were Titian and Michelangelo (who lived to be almost ninety years old). Renaissance advancements in art were now left to be sorted out by the next generation. Vasari regarded himself as part of the Renaissance; believing it continued until the death of Michelangelo (1564) and that he and his generation were part of it. In a broader sense he was correct but art historians today use the term “Mannerist” when referring to sixteenth century artists. Unlike artists of the prior century, it was not necessary for Mannerists to be pioneers in finding solutions to technical problems of art. Instead, they often used their abundant skills to emphasize style, dramatic effect, and virtuosity.
When Vasari was young, his precociousness was noted and he was selected to be schooled with members of the prominent Medici family; as an adult this contact was invaluable to his career. When Cosimo I de’ Medici funded changes at the Church of Santa Croce, Florence, he chose Vasari to be the architect and painter. Vasari painted scenes from Christ’s Passion – as well as events that followed – for the private chapels of the Church; the “Incredulity of Thomas” was painted for the Guidacci Chapel. Thomas, having said he would not believe Christ was resurrected until he himself saw the wounds on his hands and side, is shown with Jesus at a gathering with disciples. Vasari leads our attention immediately to center stage where Christ stands bare-chested with arms wide apart as though to say, “Go ahead, see for yourself.” Thomas examines the wound on Christ’s side as people rush out from a background door to also look. Angels have arrived and are floating above, and cherubs are on either side of the arch. The dramatic lighting and hand gestures of Christ and those in attendance add to the theatricality to this scene.
Giorgio Vasari was immensely famous during his lifetime but now he is cited more often for his writings on the lives of artists. The necessity to rely on secondhand sources at times resulted in a few points of misinformation but on a whole, his work provides invaluable insights into the art and artists of his time.
When reference is made to the “High Renaissance” and the time period is elusive, it may help to know Christopher Columbus was a contemporary of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo. While they were making art, he was sailing. “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”
Hovak Najarian © 2013