The Ten Greatest Paintings of the MillenniumNear the end of each year, or century, or in this case Millennium, writers like to go back over the year(s) and dote on the most historic events having taken place, defending their choices, outlining for the historically illiterate some of the background of these events. Sometimes, for a change of pace, they focus just on individuals, or even places or things, and expound on the circumstances and why they were chosen. In the same vein and in view of the fact that there are few surviving paintings more than a thousand years old, I'd like to propose my own personal list of the ten greatest paintings of the last thousand years.
In promulgating a list of the "Greatest" paintings ever painted, I should like to mention the criteria I've used in doing so. First of all, the overall quality of the work, not just for its time but for all time was considered. How does the work rate gauged beside both previous and later work? Second the influence of the individual painting and that of the artist in general over later artists. Did the work have a lasting impact on the course of art history? And third, I considered the various works and their popular standing amongst those who appreciate art but are not "absorbed" by it as are artists and art historians. The list admittedly has some tendency to be more heavily weighted by "modern" works simply because there are so many more paintings and painters in the modern era and with the increased pace and ease of communication now as compared to the distant past, they've had a much greater impact on us as artists today.
10. Giotto: Lamentation over the Dead Christ, 1304-06, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy. This is just one scene in the fresco cycle covering The Life of Jesus which decorates the chapel. Undoubtedly the most influential painting of the Medieval period, largely responsible for the resurgence of fresco painting during the Renaissance, remarkable in its pathos, it's audacious handling of grouped figures, movement, colour, and composition.
9. Caravaggio: The Calling of St. Matthew, 1597, Contarelli Chapel, San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. The first of three in a series covering the ministry of the tax collector turned apostle. Famous for its dramatic, Baroque use of light, realistic modelling of figures, and its profound, narrative qualities. The best of the three paintings, this series was responsible for spreading Caravaggio's name and influence all over Europe.
8. Rembrandt van Rijn: The Night Watch, 1642, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Considered to be Rembrandt's best work, this painting broke the mould insofar as group portraits at the time were concerned. Newly cleaned today, the painting stands up well as the best Northern Europe had to offer.
7. Edvard Munch: The Scream, 1893, Kommunes Kunstsmalinger, Oslo. Though painted in the last century, this painting has become an icon for the pounding stress and strain of this century, grappling with the horrors of war, economic and ethnic desperation, social and personal psychological conflict.
6. Edouard Manet: Luncheon on the Grass, 1863, Musee du Jeu de Paume, Paris. Probably the most revolutionary painting on the nineteenth century, with this work, Manet sounded the opening shot in the war between Modern Art and the Academics by skilfully combining elements of classicism, Realism, Impressionism, and even photography.
5. Jackson Pollock: Blue Poles Number 11, 1952, Australian National Gallery, Camberra. Considered by many to be Pollock's best work, the painting marked the zenith of the Abstract Expressionist movement, striking out on a grand scale with its colour and movement far beyond anything seen or done before or since.
4. Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa, 1503-06, The Louvre, Paris. This mysteriously smiling face has become synonymous with art itself. It is certainly the most famous painting ever painted, and arguably the most influential portrait of all time.
3. Vincent van Gogh: The Starry Night, 1889, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Without question, this work has come to represent the best of the best from this beloved, but troubled genius. The painting was to influence the expressive use of colour and paint for several generations of international artists during the next half-century or more.
2. Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d' Avignon, 1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York. The painting is a ground-breaking landmark for Modern Art as well as Picasso himself, delivering a loud, strong, breathtaking departure in style, composition, and subject matter that is still being felt in art today.
1. In choosing Michelangelo Buonarroti's Sistine Chapel Ceiling as the greatest painting of all time, I could not help but consider the fact that it is the most universally beloved and admired painting in the world, especially in the light of its restoration a few years ago. Moreover, it is not merely one, but a whole art gallery of over a dozen major masterpieces, (and scores of minor ones) brilliantly composed into a massive, permanent, one man show of the highest calibre, painted under the most miserable physical circumstances imaginable. In spite of its prodigious population of nude and semi-nude figures, even school children are aware of its story of Genesis told in such expressive splendour as to be "awesome" in the current adolescent vernacular. At the time of its completion, school children weren't the only ones who found the work awe-inspiring. Thanks to the restoration efforts, only in this era can we get a feeling for the truly awesome impact this incredible spectacle must have had on clergy and laity alike.
On the other hand, Michelangelo was not without his critics, roughly dividing into what we might think of today as "conservatives"--those who were shocked by the widespread nudity he employed, and "liberals"--those who didn't particularly mind the humanist nudity, but were totally dismayed by the radical, writhing, unclassical, almost painful contortions through which the sculptor-turned-painter put his figures. Of course, when it came to controversy, Michelangelo was hardly blameless. He dared to depict the serpent in the Temptation of Eve as a female figure. He blatantly portrayed an almost obscene nakedness in the Drunkenness of Noah. And, in the panel depicting the Creation of the Sun and the Moon, he not only repeated earlier, groundbreaking depictions of God himself, but had the audacity to portray him from the rear, perhaps even for God, not his most flattering side.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
4 July 1999