'Picture in Focus': Glossary

A list of terms to launch you into the world of Renaissance art and the ancient Greek and Roman myths that inspired paintings such as Diana and Actaeon.

Antiquity

Attribute

Deities

Diana

Foreshortening

Humanism

Masterpiece

Mythology

Ovid

Patron

Perspective

Poesie

Renaissance

Vanitas

Venice

Antiquity – The history and culture of the ancient empires of Greece and Rome from about the 8th century BC to the 6th century AD. The philosophy, poetry, plays, mythology, art and architecture from this era were highly valued during the Renaissance. Artists such as Titian often included Roman ruins, Greek costumes or their own interpretations of an ancient myth in their paintings.

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Attribute  – An object in a painting that is associated with a particular character so that people can recognise him or her. For example, Diana's attribute is the crescent moon, which reminds us of her association with Luna, the moon goddess. Saints have attributes that explain their roles or the way they died. Saint Bartholomew, who was skinned alive for preaching the Gospels in the early days of Christianity, is usually shown with a knife or holding his skin in his hand, as a reminder of his martyrdom.

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Deities – Another word for gods and goddesses is 'deities'. Some religions have a single, all-powerful god or deity such as Jahweh in Judaism or Allah in Islam. While in ancient Greece and Rome, people worshipped many different gods and goddesses for blessings and protection, believing that the gods had control over everything. For example, the Romans would pray to Ceres, goddess of corn, for good crops and Neptune, the water god, for protection from drought.

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Diana – Think of her as a collection of goddesses rather than a single goddess. The ancient Greeks worshipped her as Artemis, the goddess of the wild wood, a virgin huntress and protector of wild animals. Later, adopted by the Romans, she was renamed Diana, and was worshipped as a combination of three goddesses: Luna (the moon and sky goddess), Diana (the earth goddess) and Hecate (the goddess of the underworld). Diana was also known as the goddess of chastity (virginity) and carries a shield to protect her from Cupid's arrows.

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Foreshortening – If an object is 'foreshortened', it is shown to be smaller the further it is from the viewer and vice versa. This mimics the way the human eye sees three-dimensional objects and is a technique of creating perspective in a two dimensional drawing or painting.

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Humanism – During the Renaissance, there was a hunger for knowledge and culture from the ancient empires. The discovery of ancient texts by philosophers such as Plato (Greek) and Cicero (Roman) taught people that they could influence their destiny by gaining wisdom. This idea was more appealing than the medieval belief that people could only experience happiness after death and that God (not humans) had ultimate control over all life. The belief became known as humanism, as it centred on the idea that humans could create their own happiness and success.

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Masterpiece – The term 'masterpiece' comes from the final piece of work that apprentices made at the end of their long training period. If the piece of work was good enough, the artist or craftsman could set up as a 'master' in their own right. An 'Old Master' is a term widely applied to painters and their works which come from the period between the 13th and 18th centuries.

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Mythology – Myths date back to the beginning of humankind, when people told stories to make sense of the world and themselves. Myths were passed down through generations by word of mouth. Myths are about the lives of humans, animals, gods and goddesses. The stories explain the mysteries of life, such as the seasons and the creation of the universe. They also deal with what it is to be human: moral tales and explanations of birth and death. 

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Ovid – The Roman poet Ovid's book 'Metamorphoses', which retells Greek and Roman myths, inspired Titian to paint 'Diana and Actaeon'. Ovid was born in 43 BC at Sulmo, near Rome. At the age of 50, he was exiled to Tomis on the Black Sea (see Delacroix's painting Ovid among the Scythians'), where he died in the year AD 17. The poem 'Metamorphoses' is almost 900 lines long and is a collection of stories, based on the theme of 'change'. 'Metamorphoses' means 'transformations' in Greek. Ovid's tales were as well known as Bible stories in Titian's day and were a popular source of inspiration for many artists during the Renaissance.

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Patrons – Patrons are people who pay artists to produce original art. In Titian's time, all artists needed patrons to make money and survive. Some patrons would ask for specific art such as a portrait of themselves or a sculpture of a mythological character. King Philip II of Spain was Titian's patron. He commissioned Titian to paint a series of paintings, giving Titian free rein to explore his own ideas for the paintings. Titian based his paintings on mythical tales from ancient Greece and Rome, inspired by a book called 'Metamorphoses', by the Roman poet Ovid.

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Perspective – Perspective creates an illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional surface. Objects in the background appear smaller than those in the foreground.

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Poesie – 'Poesie' literally means 'poetry'. Titian used the word to describe a series of six paintings he painted for King Philip II of Spain, his patron. By using the word 'poetry', Titian was expressing the view that he was more than just a painter. Thanks to Philip's trust and respect, Titian had the freedom to combine his talents as a painter with his understanding of ancient mythology –  he based all six paintings on stories from Ovid's 'Metamorphoses', an epic poem that retells stories from Greek and Roman mythology.

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 Renaissance – 'Renaissance' means 're-birth' in French. It describes a period from the 14th to the 16th century when European artists, writers and thinkers 'rediscovered' the culture of ancient Greece and Rome that had been hidden for almost a thousand years. They were fascinated by ancient philosophy, poetry, theatre, mythology, architecture and sculpture. Before the Renaissance, artists were craftsmen who produced religious art for churches and monasteries. As the medieval way of life was left behind, artists were no longer limited by the Church. They were free to paint portraits of important people and work on their own interpretations of mythological stories, philosophical ideas and biblical narratives. The artist was now a storyteller, poet, philosopher and theologian all at once.

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Vanitas – 'Vanitas' paintings were still life paintings that contained a variety of symbols of death. They were religious paintings and were thought to encourage people to think less of this life and more of how they could ensure a good life after death. During the Renaissance, popular symbols of death were skulls, decaying fruit and hourglasses to show that life is short. There were more obscure symbols too, such as musical instruments, to represent the idea that life is something we can't keep hold of and disappears into the air like a piece of music. In earlier times, artists had depicted the resurrection of Jesus as a reminder of life after death for Christians. But images of Jesus in paintings were banned in the 16th and 17th centuries in certain parts of northern Europe during the Reformation – and this is how Vanitas paintings came about.

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Venice – In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Venice, along with Florence and Rome, was one of the most important centres of art in Europe. Venice was a rich and prospering maritime republic, which controlled a huge sea and trade empire. Cargo boats travelling from the East were filled with exotic spices, silks and pigments. These would arrive in Venice first, so Venetian artists had the first pick of the best quality pigments to use for their paints. Titian was the most successful painter of his time in Venice and he painted when Venice was at the height of its supremacy in the arts. 

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