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26 June, 2013
Architecture and Painting
Being a painter, I suppose I'm a more prone to writing about painting than any other art form. However, as regular readers of these ArtyFacts will attest, I also like architecture, sculpture, interior design, photography, and motion pictures. However it occurred to me the other day that without architecture, we would have little in the way of painting (or most other art forms, for that matter). It's true. Did you ever wonder why we have very little painting still surviving that is more than 1,000 years old? That's because there's little in the way of architecture surviving today that is more than a thousand years old. And inasmuch as painting was almost solely a means of decorating interior architectural surfaces until about the time of the Early Renaissance, it's plain to see the connection between the two. Moreover, whether painted on walls or merely hung on them, paintings need architecture to preserve, perfect, and define their being.

This fact also accounts for why so much surviving art from earliest times is religious. For the most part, only religious architecture survived wars and political upheavals while at the same time being seen as worthy of the tremendous efforts needed to preserve it from the ravages of time. And in preserving the outer shell, the inner worth was also preserved. One has to wonder how many churches, chapels, even cathedrals have been preserved as much for the great art they contained as for their religious worth. And if this is true in the religious realm, think how it must be doubly true in secular architecture where the initial purpose of a structure's being built, its style, and its practical features, are outdated perhaps in less than a century. Many such structures, from the outside at least, are architectural monstrosities, yet because of the art housed within them, they still stand, now museums, inns, restaurants, and other tourist destinations.

In at least one case, the painters' art even saved an architectural structure. Around 1508, the initial architect of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome, Donato Bramante, wanted to tear down the Sistine Chapel and build a new, and no doubt better, private chapel for His Holiness Pope Julius II. They consulted Michelangelo, in Rome working on the Pope's tomb at the time. Even he conceded that the poorly proportioned structure, built just a generation before as much as a fortress as a chapel (the walls at the base are some six feet thick), had no redeeming architectural qualities whatsoever demanding its preservation. And what art there was on its walls at the time was mediocre at best (by Renaissance standards) and in relatively poor condition. However, in the midst of starting a new cathedral and facing the upcoming demolition of the old St. Peter's Basilica as the new one literally rose around it, the Pope had neither the stomach for tearing down such a perfectly good church (built by his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV) nor the budget for putting up two new ones. So instead, much to Michelangelo's dismay and distress, the Pope commissioned (indeed demanded) that he "fix" the errors of the chapel's original architects by decorating the ceiling in such a manner to minimise, if not totally conceal, them. It was a fortuitous decision for painting, if not architecture, and a much cheaper alternative given the little Michelangelo was paid for the task. Though he got off to a very reluctant, rocky start, over the next four years, the Renaissance sculptor turned painter rose to the occasion and succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
17 May 2001

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