Conférences : Alexander Nagel, « The Scales of European Painting », Madrid/en ligne, 2-30 novembre 2023

Scale—not measurable size, but the sense of relation to size—fundamentally shapes relations between people and material works of art. In the case of painting, scale is a primary means by which depicted worlds meet the viewer’s experience, suggesting possible new configurations of social, political, and environmental relations. During the period 1300-1600, European painting underwent a series of radical reinventions—the emergence of new picture categories, new roles for drawing and new modes of scalable image-replication, new pictorial techniques and supports, as well as new approaches to virtual space—developments that produced continual experimentation with scale, as painters attempted to coordinate new modalities of painting with the viewers and real environments they served.

All these problems are familiar to us today, as we struggle to coordinate our immersion in our various small picture devices—phones, tablets, computers—with our experiences “in real life.” These lectures follow from the premise that these problems of scale interference—what it might mean to live in scale and out of scale with our images—are not new. Painting in the West after Giotto engaged in an open-ended series of experiments with scale, a long history of adaptations and negotiations inside pictures and also a series of efforts to manage the relation between virtual spaces and the real spaces of their viewers. This is the prehistory of our current efforts to manage the relationship of our images and devices to our lives. During the sixteenth century, the commitment to presenting figures at “life scale” took hold, with profound consequences for the history of European painting.

  • 11/2/2023 at 7:00 p.m: Reinventions of scale in early European painting

Painting formats underwent many changes after the 13th century, prompting an active managing of the problem of scale, an understudied problem in the history of art. The painted altarpiece was something new in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the devotional image for domestic use or for travel was an invention of the fourteenth century, cabinet pictures arose as a new category in the fifteenth century, and easel painting on canvas, what was to become the gallery picture, emerged in the sixteenth century, becoming the established format for painting for the next four centuries. For each of these formats, the questions arose: How large should the figures be? How are relationships among figures of different sizes to be managed in relation to picture formats and depicted settings? How do all these decisions shape the painting’s relation to the environment it serves? We follow these questions by considering a number of paintings of the Annunciation to the Virgin, including the ones by Robert Campin and Fra Angelico in the Prado. This lecture introduces the notion of scalability, how drawings allowed iconographic formulas or specific compositions to be transferred from one support to another, and from one scale to another, as can be seen in a number of paintings by Rogier van der Weyden and his followers. The lecture also offers some considerations about the dependence of the discipline of art history on photography, a reliance that largely neutralized the consideration of questions of scale.

  • 11/16/2023 at 7:00 p.m: The life-scale revolution in European painting

To pass from the rooms of the fifteenth-century European painters into the sixteenth-century rooms is to enter a different world. One noticeable shift is a basic increase in size. This lecture proposes that this was not only a matter of paintings and the figures in them getting larger but a shift to a new scale principle: the pictures got larger in order to accommodate figures whose size is to scale with our bodies as we stand before the picture. Life size figures were familiar in sculpture but rare in European painting before the late fifteenth century. The idea that figures in paintings should be to scale with the bodies of viewers became an urgent concern for European painters of the early sixteenth century, eventually becoming an organizing principle for painting of the next two centuries and beyond. We will explore the mechanisms and logic of the shift to “life scale” by considering works such as the Prado’s copy after Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve and various works by Titian in the Prado, as well as works by Andrea del Sarto, Rosso Fiorentino, Jan Gossaert, and many others who came after.

  • 11/23/2023 at 7:00 p.m: Gods and humans, God made human

Why are humans the size they are? What does the fact of their being the size they are mean for their relation to the world, the cosmos, and the divine? This lecture develops the previous lecture’s introduction of the problem of life scale in European painting of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by considering paintings that confront humans and gods. We will consider Titian’s mythological paintings for the Spanish King Philip II, the so-called Poesie, and some related works. For Renaissance painters, a prototypical artist was the evangelist St. Luke, who purportedly painted Christ and the Virgin from life. Paintings by Rogier van der Weyden, Giorgio Vasari, Francisco Zurbarán show St. Luke as a painter with these subjects, staging basic problems of scale. All of these discussions bring us to a consideration of Velázquez’s Hilanderas and his Christ crucified.

  • 11/30/2023 at 7:00 p.m: Giants and little people

Human or human-like creatures were not always the size they are now: the Bible and ancient traditions all over the world tell of times when giants walked the earth, or even shared it with humans, meaning that current human scale is only one way for human-like beings to inhabit the world. The relativity of human scale was newly affirmed by the discovery and exploration of lands in the Far East and across the Atlantic, where it was said that giants lived, even now. This lecture proposes that the ancient and newly current lore of giants came into new visual focus within the new regime of painting dedicated to life-scale depiction. Before life-scale, how could one gain a sense of how big a giant was? Paintings by Titian, Ribera, and one attributed to Carducho in the Prado place giants before us, setting them against the human scale of their viewers. The relativity of human scale, and what happens to it in depiction, was also a concern for Velázquez, who painted several portraits of little people who served the Spanish court.

The registration period for the lecture programme of XI Cátedra (XI Chair of the Prado Museum) with Alexander Nagel is from 2 to 24 October 2023. Registration must be made through the online form available on the MNP website during the indicated period. Applications will be dealt with on a first-come, first-served basis. A certificate of attendance will be awarded at the end of the course. If admitted in the Cátedra, attendance (in person or online) at the four lectures is mandatory.

Public : University students, researchers, professionals and the general public

Location: Auditorium of the Museo Nacional del Prado

Price: Free. Limited capacity

In- person and online attendance: It is possible to attend the sessions until all seats are filled or to follow the conference online through the link to the Zoom platform that will be provided for all those enrolled. When enrolling you must choose a type of attendance.


Citer ce billet
Florence Larcher (2023, 20 octobre). Conférences : Alexander Nagel, « The Scales of European Painting », Madrid/en ligne, 2-30 novembre 2023. Collectif d'Historiens de l'Art de la Renaissance. Consulté le 20 juin 2024, à l’adresse

Florence Larcher

Florence Larcher est doctorante à l'Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Ses recherches sur les images de saint Roch en Italie de 1350 à 1680 l'amènent à étudier la peinture murale, la sérialité et l'itinérance des peintres.

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