“Paint me like one of your Biblical icons”

Although nowadays we are well accustomed to the idea of entering into a gallery and choosing a painting, it was not until around the 19th century and the emergence of artistic movements such as impressionism when artists began to paint for themselves and not solely when they were commissioned to do so. Ella Khalek looks at the motives behind patronage. 

Patronage is the commissioning of a particular piece of art. Although each patron would likely have had an individual, specific reason for requiring an artwork be made, 15th century Florentine patron Giovanni Rucellai discussed the typical motives of patrons. He stated that these were as follows: the pleasure of possession, to serve the Glory of God, to honour the city, self-commemoration and the pleasure of spending money wisely. Many of these can be applied to two famous religious works painted within 200 years of each other; Gentile de Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi and El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz, but arguably more so to the former given that the latter was commissioned as a commemoration of a particular event and so had a more specific role.

In 1423, the Adoration of the Magi by Gentile de Fabriano was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, who was the head of an international bank and one of the richest men in Europe. Strozzi was one of the wealthiest Florentines of the time and was thus in a similar social position to Rucellai. Bankers made money by charging interest, and this was considered by the Church to be the sin of usury – it did not fit the concept of ‘just price’, as the bankers didn’t do anything for their money. The Church justified their position with Scripture, and that ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God’. The wealthy bankers were therefore told that they had to spend their money on the Church, in order that they die shriven. One of the motives of Strozzi was thus to gain favour with the Church and therefore Rucellai’s idea of an active piety.

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Gentile de Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi

Presumably the clergy had agreed on the focus of the work before it was painted, but some art historians have brought attention to the fact that the Adoration of the Magi was a popular subject matter in Florence in this period. It has been suggested that it was a covert way for the wealthy to point out the rather hypocritical stance that the Church was taking, given that in this scene Jesus accepts the lavish gifts of the Kings. The subject of The Adoration of the Magi is also significant to Strozzi, given his involvement in the Florentine Confraternity of the Magi. A Confraternity was a group of men who were religious but not monks. They normally helped to look after individual churches such as by providing the choir and arranging religious festivities. Once every five years, on epiphany, the Confraternity of the Magi would hold a procession and the most important member would be on his horse, symbolising one of the wise men. The patron of the Florentine Confraternity of the Magi was Palla Strozzi and so his position in the painting, holding the falcon behind the third King, is justified. However his depiction in the scene also fulfils Rucellai’s idea of self-commemoration. It was believed in the 15th century that prayers made for ones soul after death would lessen their time in purgatory and therefore by placing himself in the altarpiece he is perhaps asking people to remember him in their prayers.

This painting was intended for Strozzi’s private chapel, which was a customary and fashionable asset for the wealthy as a site for burial and family commemoration. Although the richest man in Florence, Strozzi still exhausted his inheritance. The Adoration of the Magi was his single biggest expense and with its elaborate, gilded frame and heavy use of expensive pigments such as ultramarine, the altarpiece cost Palla Strozzi 30,000 florins. As such a lavish painting was a way to establish his family in society, another motive of Strozzi’s was the pleasure of possession. Thus, Strozzi’s motives behind his commission of this altarpiece are encapsulated by four of Rucellai’s five suggestions.

El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz (painted between 1586 and 1588) has a more specific function, in that it was commissioned by a member of the church to commemorate victory in a court case. The citizens of Orgaz had been refusing for four years to pay the annual donation to the monastery and the Church of Toledo, which had been pledged by the Count of Orgaz over two centuries earlier. Núñez, the parish priest responded, beginning a litigation against the citizens, which was decided in his favour in June 1569. In order to create a permanent record of this victory and to celebrate the restitution of a financial obligation to the church he commissioned a Latin epitaph be composed as well as El Greco’s painting.

El Greco's Burial of the Count of Orgaz
El Greco’s Burial of the Count of Orgaz

The Count of Orgaz had died on 9 December 1323 after a noble life dedicated to good works. According to a legend at his burial St Stephen and St Augustine descended from heaven and buried him in front of an audience of dazzled spectators. This was the scene which El Greco was commissioned to paint. The scene is brought up to date; the figures are in 16th century dress and the scene has all the attributes of a contemporary funeral including six mortuary candles and a processional cross held by the sacristan. The moral for the 16th century citizen was that works of charity and veneration of the Saints would result in the reward of heaven after death. It was supposed to encourage contemporaries to follow Ruiz’s example. Indeed, in the legend, the Saints who came down said; ‘because of your good works and your honouring the saints we do this’.

The Commission document states ‘and above all this shall be painted an open heaven of glory’. The form of the painting of a square and a semi-circle above is appropriate to the shape of the building but also a geometric representation of heaven and Earth. The format helps us to understand the meaning, as the Earth is typically represented as a cube – due to a Biblical passage that discusses the four corners of the Earth – and the hemispherical dome is the vault of heaven following an idea dating back to pre-Christian times. In the upper part Christ, clad in white and in glory, is the crowning point of the triangle formed by the figures of the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist. Heaven is evoked by swirling solid, icy clouds and the saints are tall, elongated and ethereal. El Greco is supposedly responding to a book called Treatus on Painting that had just been published in 1584. Lamazzo’s book was the handbook of mannerist art theory and said that the shape of the flame was the most beautiful. Therefore by using this form for the figures in heaven, they are rendered as the ideal of beauty. Rucellai suggests the glorification of God as a patrons aim and in Nùñez’s commission for the heaven of glory, and in El Greco’s consequent portrayal of heavens perfection, he is fulfilling this.

Nùñez himself appears in the painting on the right, conducting the funeral service. This could be a continuation of the concept of bringing the scene to the contemporary day or could be said to pertain Rucellai’s idea of self-commemoration being one of the motives of a Patron. Indeed, having won the Court case, Nùñez had a justification for commemorating himself on ensuring that the good works of the Count of Orgaz continued. Although this commission has a more specific and particularly religious role, it does appear to fulfil many of Rucellai’s motives; Nùñez is honouring his city by celebrating the victory, glorifying God with the depiction of heaven and the Catholic doctrinal messages, and the work could be considered to be self-commemorative. Through Rucellai’s description of partronage, we in the modern day can gain a better understanding for the reasons behind the great works of art.

Words by Ella Khalek

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