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How Did Humans Learn to Paint in Three Dimensions?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

If you begin clicking through The Portrait Project's timeline, a strange thing starts to happen around the 1300s. The flat, childish depictions of kings and saints begin to change. Their faces start to curve, ever so slightly, into what looks like a third dimension. Noses begin to have shading and depth. The Christ child begins to look like he's being held by his mother, not sitting flush with her. The portraits are still flat and unnatural, but not nearly as primitive as the portraiture that came before them.

Then come the 1400s, and suddenly portraits become people. They pop off the canvas in variations of darkness and light, their faces detailed and proportioned.

I was puzzled by this. Being able to paint in three dimensions is not like being able to build a car. For a car to work, you must learn thousands of separate skills and concepts, from how to make steel to how to drill for oil, and then piece them precisely together. Those processes took thousands of years to culminate in Karl Benz's Motorwagen and Henry Ford's Model T.

But to paint photo-realistically—that's different. It seems like a simple matter of sweeping your paint brush a different direction, of using darker paint for shadow and making things smaller if they're far away. How could the artists of the first millennia and before not know how to do this? It's as if the knowledge hung there in the air, unseen or ignored.

Or did it?

Art History

James G. Harper is a professor at the University of Oregon who specializes in the history of Renaissance art. According to Harper, the first misconception is that humans never knew how to draw in 3D before the 1300s. He points to the work of ancient Romans in the Pompeian Second Style wall paintings and the 8th century illuminated manuscripts, the Coronation Gospels of Charlemagne, which, although primitive, show clear use of realism and perspective.

The real reason that three-dimensional art was seldom seen before the 14th century was that artists didn't want to portray life in three dimensions. Harper explains: "In the medieval period artists lost the desire to make lifelike images. The job of art was not to reproduce the real world, but instead to show another world. Unshackled from the mundane task of realism it entered a more expressive realm."

Western Civilization after the fall of the Roman Empire was miserable, riddled with plague and hunger and oppression. People of the Dark Ages were simply waiting out their time on this mucky rock called Earth until they could be called to Heaven. And it was the surreal unknown of Heaven that most strongly influenced their work.

Gradually, artists lost the knowledge required to render realistic imagery. Says Harper: "Bit by bit, (artistic) training stopped including things like perspectival composition or the modeling of 3D forms through the modulation of light and shadow. To regain that, one would have to retrain oneself."

That retraining was sparked by the Renaissance. Renaissance means rebirth, a finding value in the old ways. The ancient world was re-examined and revived, one facet being the desire to paint realistically. Simultaneously, as the works of the great ancient philosophers were being widely read, the individual self became interesting again. The human form and the life within it became worthy of close examination and accurate reproduction.

A 13th century painter named Giotto was on the forefront of this revolution. As one 17th century biographer said, Giotto initiated "the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life." He laid the groundwork of realistic painting that has touched every artist from Michelangelo to Thomas Kinkade.

The mathematical precision that later artists would use to bring proportion to their canvases was slower to develop. "For modeling with light and shadow (as well as psychological realism) Giotto is a great artist to consider," Harper says. "But mathematical perspective was truly lost, and though Giotto understood that diagonal lines signaled spatial depth, it was not until Brunelleschi's c. 1410 experiment that they understood it systematically."

There isn't a single reason Western Civilization suddenly gained (or regained) the ability to paint in three dimensions. It came about through the retrieval of old ideas and the birth of brand new ones. People began to see life as more than just God's desperately uncomfortable waiting room. Artists began to observe the essence and detail that filled their actual lives, and, as artists must, brought what they saw into the light.

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holidays
What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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