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Function and Genesis of Cast Shadows in Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Painting

Gerd Mathias Micheluzzi | Marietta Blau-Grant

Pietro Lorenzetti, Last Supper (Detail), c. 1319, fresco. Assisi, San Francesco (Basilica inferiore, southern arm of the western transept)

Ever since the late 19th century, cast shadows were regarded as constitutive elements of mimetic concepts of art and, in this respect, as distinctive features of Renaissance painting. Accentuating pictorial lighting and central perspective as necessary preconditions, recent art historical research has assumed that cast shadows' post classical return was provoked by iconographic requirements, most prominent within the Cappella Brancacci (c. 1424–27) – especially Masaccio's St. Peter Healing with his Shadow. In contrast, medieval painting was mostly considered as shadowless. Hence, the supposed early modern return of cast shadows was predominantly presented as a creatio ex nihilo.

Although this general assumption is challenged by several authentic examples of trecentesque cast shadows, art historical research treats them as exceptions, restorative interpolations or simply ignores their existence. Thus, biased approaches have veiled a tradition, which does not match the dualistic model. As a result, our knowledge about such a basic element of the pictorial organism like cast shadows is still remarkably limited.

By shifting the focus to formal and functional aspects of cast shadows, the dissertational project aims to shed light onto developments and basic conditions, which may have served as a starting point for early Renaissance artists. Comprising several case studies, dealing with hitherto neglected examples of early Christianity, late medieval and early Renaissance painting as well as with literary sources like Dante's Divina Commedia or natural philosophy, it will be shown that mimesis was not the peak of a linear evolution but rather one out of a variety of functions, which cast shadows were able to fulfill.

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