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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

Time and Narrative

Mystical Realism

When looking at fifteenth-century religious painting, we must be mindful that naturalism was of use to painters only inasmuch as it promoted their fundamental goal: providing visual aids to the experience and practice of faith. Though a powerful tool in making the characters and events of long ago seem compellingly real to Christian viewers, naturalism was never pursued so narrowly as to undermine the divinity and otherworldliness of sacred subjects. Because the supernatural and the miraculous were essential elements in religious narratives (and many secular ones as well), a degree of symbolism mingles with realism in most fifteenth-century paintings. The compromise between the realistic and the symbolic emerges with particular clarity in the manipulations of time often found in fifteenth-century paintings. The rules of nature are followed to a point, but usually trumped by the mysterious rules of divinity. Heaven and earth merge seamlessly in pictures that shuttle between past, present, and future, often neutralizing the question of time altogether.