When I first started thinking about doing a pre-1900 list, my mind was fixed on the late 1800s (1870-1899). I am in the habit of filling my lists with albums, films, video games and TV shows because these mediums are utterly dominant in the world of art and entertainment in the 20th and 21st centuries. However, these mediums were nearly non-existent back in those times. Recorded audio wasn’t a thing, movies were only a couple of minutes long at most (far from the blockbusters that we are used to watching today), and games of the video variety were non-existent (it would still be an entire century almost before the first video game appeared).
However, once I started thinking of the different paintings, sculptures, plays, and games that were created pre-1900, my list came together quite easily. But it is also incredibly different from anything I have written before, challenging me to reflect on and write reviews for types of art that I am unfamiliar with and mostly oblivious to. That being said, I am too much of a cinephile not to include any films and 1 film stands tall above the rest pre-1900.
So without further ado, let’s kick this list off…
A revolutionary film from 1896 displaying Loie Fuller’s Serpentine Dance. The dance was typically performed on stage with colored lights shining on the dancer from underneath. In order to simulate the effect of the lights, ‘Danse serpentine’ is hand-painted, frame by frame. The result is something that is magnificent, beautiful, and full of life. Not only the Lumière brothers’ greatest film, but also the greatest film pre-1900. Film-lovers, this is the best 1 minute you will ever spend watching a film.
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli
‘The Birth of Venus’ depicts the wind god Zephyr blowing the newly-born goddess Venus to shore as she stands atop a giant scallop shell. The painting’s beauty comes through its depiction of bodies (subjects) and movement. Hair, clothing, flowers, water… all subject to the laws of motion and interaction. The tilted Zephyr guides our attention towards the waiting arms of the woman on the shore with the trees standing parallel behind her acting as a sort of visual wall marking the edge of the painting. The painting’s accessible visual style and simple concept have made it one of the most recognizable paintings in history.
The Raphael Rooms by Raphael
A suite of reception rooms with frescoes painted by Raphael and his workshop, the Raphael Rooms contain some of the most beautiful and iconic paintings in world history. The picture above is the painting ‘The School of Athens’ (from the Room of the Segnatura) which is arguably Raphael’s most famous and masterful work. It embodies the rebirth of Ancient Greek philosophy during the Renaissance era depicting Plato and Aristotle in the middle, surrounded by other Greek philosophers. The Raphael Rooms are also home to other iconic paintings such as ‘Disputation of the Holy Sacrament’, ‘The Parnassus’, and ‘Deliverance of Saint Peter’. The Raphael Rooms should be considered one of the high points of High Renaissance art.
‘Macbeth’ is Shakespeare near his absolute peak. It is about corruption, power, loyalty, and guilt. Filled with a ton of quotable lines and iconic images, ‘Macbeth’ is also Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy (at least in writing). Macbeth receives a prophecy from three witches that he will one day become King while Banquo receives a prophecy that he will not be King though he will be happier than Macbeth. This leads Macbeth down a destructive path towards Kingship which, although he ultimately does become King, results in his downfall and leads to his death. Macbeth’s unchecked ambition serves as a warning to those who seek power for power’s sake. Do not clutch the dagger as nothing good can come from it.
‘Hamlet’ is one of the greatest character studies in all of fiction, reflective of Shakespeare working at his absolute peak. Shakespeare dives into a deep web of inter-connected themes: existentialism, insanity, relativism, skepticism, and vengeance. Prince Hamlet is the heart of the story as he seeks the truth about his father’s death in order to take revenge on his murderous uncle. But Hamlet struggles with his sanity, forcing him to ponder on death, suicide, and free will (the “To be, or not to be” soliloquy is one of the most recognizable and quotable passages in the entire English language). Hamlet is overcome by doubt, unable to take any real action on his feelings. The play ends with almost nothing being resolved. ‘Hamlet’ is a true tragedy and one of the most influential and important works in all of fiction.
David by Michelangelo
The most recognizable statue of all-time, there is debate as to whether the statue depicts David prior to his battle with Goliath or post-battle, as the statue lacks any sort of reference typically found in depictions of David such as the decapitated head of Goliath. Despite this uncertainty, ‘David’ has become emblematic of individual strength and representative of the physical beauty of the nude male form. The statue is an example of artistic perfection as every detail, every curve, and every inch helps to spring life into the marble representation of an important Biblical figure.
The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci is the archetype of the Renaissance man: paintings, drawings, journals, scientific discovery, engineering, anatomical observations. Leonardo made great contributions to every single one of these fields, exemplifying not only the breadth of his interests but also the depth of his understanding of those interests. It has been over 500 years since his death yet he still leaves people awe-struck by the sheer magnitude of his genius.
One of the best examples of his genius can be found in the instantly recognizable painting pictured above: ‘The Last Supper’. The painting portrays the reactions of the apostles when Jesus says that one of them will betray him. Leonardo uses perspective masterfully as the focus converges entirely on Jesus, who gazes downward with his left hand stretched towards the bread on the table. The painting has a beautiful symmetry to it: there are two groups of 3 apostles pictured to the left and right of Jesus; the 4 panels on the side walls converge towards the back of the room, where two small windows and one large window sit (the large window frames Jesus, the light being used to help draw further attention to him); even the bread on the table is symmetrical. To top it all off, the design of the ceiling adds an extra layer of depth by reflecting the square / rectangular layout of the panels and windows.
One of the most impressive, influential, and important paintings ever created by one of the greatest geniuses to have ever lived. A masterpiece.
Like many games, Chess was derived from a handful of predecessors. However, it wasn’t until the 15th century that the pieces took on their modern form and it wasn’t until the 19th century that the rules took on their modern form. Over the hundreds of thousands of games that have been invented over human history over the thousands of years that we have played them, few games are as masterful and satisfying as this modern form of Chess. The simplicity of its 6 distinct pieces and its 8×8 board offers a depth near unparalleled in other games as Chess has become recognized as one of the greatest competitive games in human history.
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
If ‘The Last Supper’ is a masterpiece then I have no idea what to call the ‘Mona Lisa’. It is a painting of the Italian noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo. There are many aspects of the painting that have been widely discussed including Lisa’s smile, her hands, her gaze, and the background. Many experts have noted the strong resemblance between the way in which Leonardo portrays Lisa and depictions of Mary around that time. Leonardo seats Lisa in front of a background consisting of roads and waters that move backwards into the further icy mountains. Interestingly, the horizontal lines of the painting converge upwards and towards Lisa’s face (more specifically, the horizontal lines of the background are in line with Lisa’s eyes while the roads and paths toward the front of the painting move upwards and inwards).
As for Lisa’s facial expression, it is a triumph of Leonardo’s work in areas of artistic expression and his studies in the human form. Science meets art. Art meets science. They inform one another in meaningful and deep ways. Lisa’s gaze is as mysterious as it is tangible as Leonardo captures both motion and emotion in subtle sweeps of the brush and blends of colours. Her smile is as powerful as it is innovative. Seriously, Leonardo intensely studied not only human anatomy. but also the science behind the mouth and how people smile. Lisa’s smile is a result of Leonardo’s intense research into the functions of the human mouth in its ability to smile and the ways in which our eyes perceive these facial expressions on other people. If you focus intently on Lisa’s mouth, it is difficult to describe it as a smile. But when your focus is guided naturally by Leonardo’s genius, her smile becomes fully realized. Smiles are more apparent given low spatial frequencies compared to high spatial frequencies.
All of this speaks to the subtleties of the painting which become fully realized by Leonardo’s artistic brilliance as well as his scientific genius. ‘Mona Lisa’ is a deeply personal and emotional work that is rightfully recognized as the masterpiece that it is. But Leonardo managed to create something that is beyond a masterpiece. It is a pinnacle of human achievement. It is a testament to the ability of humans to observe, study, and apply great knowledge in the creation of works of art. ‘Mona Lisa’ embodies life itself.
The Sistine Chapel
The Sistine Chapel is arguably the pinnacle of artistic creation and one of the pinnacles of human achievement. The Chapel’s ceiling depicts the Creation, Adam and Eve (including the famous ‘Creation of Adam’), Noah, medallions depicting scenes from the Old Testament, the twelve prophetic figures, and the seven prophets of Israel. ‘The Last Judgment’ covers the wall behind the altar of the Sistine Chapel depicting the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgment by God of humanity. The Southern and Northern walls are covered by depictions of Moses and Jesus respectively.
Each of the paintings in the Sistine Chapel work on an individual level with the standard being “nothing less than a masterpiece”. However, this #1 spot isn’t being given to any painting in particular. It is being given to the Sistine Chapel as a whole because the Chapel’s true reflection of its artistry comes from its being taken as a whole. It truly is the sum of its parts as every shape and colour painted within the Chapel coalesces into a masterful singular vision.
When each individual piece of the puzzle can be considered a masterpiece, the whole becomes something close to artistic perfection. Even as an atheist, the Chapel inspires me with a sense of grandeur, beauty, and awe, instilling a feeling that I have experienced something Divine. All of this without ever having actually set foot inside the Chapel. Perhaps one day, I will be able to walk inside the Chapel and look at the magnificent creations of the great Renaissance artists. But for now, I can only appreciate it via computer screen.
I have chosen a handful of my favourite paintings from the Chapel and pictured them below. Become awe-struck (or not) at the sheer splendor of the Sistine Chapel in all of its great glory.