Recently a walk around the Seville Fine Art Museum ( a little known Spanish gem) showed just how ornate and sumptuous fabrics from history were. Real clothing is often lost because their fragility doesn’t stand the passage of history, so paintings from 1400’s onwards are a great realistic documentation of the beauty of fabrics which otherwise would be lost forever. Yet it hasn’t always been the way.
In Medieval times, material wasn’t glorified in all its three dimensional realistic beauty on painted form. Fabric was ornate, but more pattern-like and formulaic. We are all familiar with the image of saints, represented with large gold haloes around their head, often in side portrait and avoiding any type of three-dimensional fabric modelling, such as the latest National Gallery exhibition on Giovanni Da Rimini shows.
And Medieval paintings of Madonna were little different – rather than showing the real flowing folds and curves of her dress, Madonna’s cloak was merely a rudimentary bell-shape in paintings, without any realistic folds or ruffles to the cloth. The painter at this time was more concerned with showing the garment as a symbolic reference to the protection that Mary provided. The art had purpose other than the beauty.
And so its true that the classical Roman and Greek statues which represented the folds and fabrics in all their realism as these British Museum examples show, had been long forgotten in favour of christian piety and gold ornate iconoclastic images made for Catholic churches across Western Europe.
When the Renaissance manifested in Italy, thanks to a growing bustle of new artistic thinking on observation and realism, an with a renewed vigour for art as a beautiful, decorative object, artists such as Mantegna pioneered a more realistic approach to perspective and naturalism. This meant that folds on cloth were observed and realistically represented to imagine how Madonna sitting down would affect the shape of her dress, or how a saint folding his arms would affect the curve of his sleeve. We see more and more examples of this technique throughout the 1400’s in Italy (..and through the 1500’s in Spain, thanks to the slower spread of this new thinking through the Pyrenees to the Iberian Peninsula).
This paved the way for artists like Van Eyck and Holbein in 16th century Northern Europe, Bellini and Zurbaran in Southern Europe, and later Bernini and Ingres in European Courts to paint these beautiful documents of textiles which are works of art in their own right.