Continuous Narrative in Art

What is meant by the "Continuous Narrative" in art?  Many artworks contain a "narrative" or representation of an event.  The continuous narrative is a way to tell an entire story within one artwork, the same characters show up repeatedly in order to give a timeline of events in the story.  Often the same groups of characters are shown right next to each other in the same painting or sculptural frieze. 

These side by side scenes can be thought of as pre-cursors to modern day comic strips.  They weren’t shown in different panels, but this would have been understood by contemporary audiences to be telling a story.

Column of Marcus Aurelius, detail, bottom three bands of helical relief 
Emperor's campaigns against the Germans and the Sarmatians. 180-185 A.D., Rome
photo- © Simone Ramella / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

This was used as far back as ancient Assyrian and Babylonian art and remained popular throughout much of art history to depict an entire event from start to finish.  The Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome has one long sculptural frieze that winds up the entire length of the column.  The column shaft measures nearly 100 feet (29.62 meters) long.

It is nearly impossible for a viewer on the ground to look up and see the entire story and know what is going on.  The sculptors took this into account and made each band slightly wider as it wound up the column.  The heads of the figures were also shown slightly larger than proportionally correct so that they could be recognized from below.

As this column shows several military battles where the Romans were triumphant, the same soldiers and military commanders are shown over and over again.  Objects such as trees, rivers, horses and architecture help separate and frame each scene.

Column of Marcus Aurelius, c-193 A.D., Rome
photo- © Matthias Kabel / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

The technique of continuous narrative was used frequently in Renaissance painting.  A good example of this can also  be found in the large devotional panel by Gentile da Fabriano which shows the adoration (seen below).  
 Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
egg tempera and gold leaf on wood panel

The main scene shows the three Magi (or three wise men) as they have come to give gifts to the newborn Christ child.  However the Magi are shown in miniature in the scenes above, from the first time they see the Star of Bethlehem to the entire journey they make.  We can see the star several times as well and it ends up glowing like a golden orb over St. Joseph's head in the central scene.

In the detail (below) we can see a close up of the left arch of the painting and can make out the three Magi seeing the Star of Bethlehem for the first time.  In each of the other two arches the viewer can follow along with their journey.
Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
detail of the central upper register of the panel 

St. Peter is seen three times in the fresco below.  This fresco by Masaccio is especially interesting as the story does not occur from left to right as in most examples, but jumps from the center to the left and then to the right.  This biblical story was very well known, so the contemporary viewer would not have been confused by this.  The story begins in the central portion of the frame when the tax collector asks for the temple tax and Christ tells his apostles that they need to find money to pay the temple tax, he turns to Peter and tells him to look in the mouth of a fish in order to find the coin.  This event of course is a miraculous one.

Part two of the story takes place just to the left of the main action, St. Peter is wearing the same blue robe but has set his golden sash aside for a moment while he looks for a fish in the sea.  Then part three of the story jumps over to the right hand side where after finding the coin as Christ has said, St. Peter pays the tax.  Again to help the viewer keep track of St. Peter, he is shown wearing his blue robe and gold sash and the tax collector is the only person wearing a short tunic.

The Tribute Money, Masaccio, 1425, fresco, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

In his famous fresco cycle in Santa Maria Novella the artist Ghirlandaio has also used continuous narrative.  Remember from earlier blog posts that Ghirlandaio was in fact the teacher of Michelangelo.  Michelangelo was a student in his workshop during the time that these frescoes were being painted, so he would have worked on these as well.

In the panel showing the birth of the Virgin Mary, the birth is concentrated in the lower right hand portion of the frame.  However the Immaculate Conception (which refers to the fact that Mary's mother St. Anne was impregnated by just a kiss from her husband Joachim) is shown to us in the top left hand portion.  Therefore St. Anne is shown twice in the same room.  However that was understood by all to have occurred at two different times within the same story; even though each event took place nine months apart.

Immaculate Conception and Birth of the Virgin Mary, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-90
Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

In our final example (below) we are seeing the Rest on the Flight Into Egypt.  The artist David shows us that this is his theme rather than a typical portrait of the Virgin and Child by showing the holy family in the background in the woods.  By seeing two versions of Jesus and the Madonna, one in the foreground and one in the background, the viewer understands that they are both scenes in the same story.  The riding of the donkey is always understood in Renaissance painting as being part of the flight into Egypt from the Biblical story.

The use of the same figures in one panel, which David employs quite subtly in this work, is yet another example of the continuous narrative in art.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Gerard David, 1512-15
oil on wood panel, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Now that you have learned about the use of the continuous narrative in art you will certainly notice many other examples.

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