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How Did Humans Learn to Paint in Three Dimensions?

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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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Big Questions
Why Does Having a Fever Make You Feel Cold?
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During fever, why do we feel cold when our body temperature rises?

Nicole Van Groningen:

Anyone who has ever had the flu knows that fever isn’t uncomfortable because you feel hot—it’s uncomfortable because you feel freezing cold. You get goosebumps, you’re shivering, you’re piling on the covers.

Fever, also known as pyrexia, is defined as an elevation in body temperature above the normal range due to an increase in the body’s natural set point. Most people associate fever with infections, but fever can also frequently occur with autoimmune diseases, cancer, drug reactions, and even blood clots. Fever is not a direct result of these conditions, but rather a consequence of triggering the body’s inflammatory pathways. One key member of this inflammatory cascade is a group of molecules called pyrogens, which directly interact with the hypothalamus in the brain to produce fever.

The hypothalamus serves as the body’s thermostat. When triggered by pyrogens, the hypothalamus tells the body to generate heat by inducing shivering, goosebumps, and constriction of blood vessels near the surface of the skin. It even causes a subjective feeling of cold, which encourages behavioral responses to raise the body temperature, like reaching for the covers.

All of these things are adaptive when your body temperature falls below its usual set-point (about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), which typically occurs in cold weather. But they become abnormal in the setting of fever, when your hypothalamus signals to the body to raise its temperature well above the normal range.

If pyrogens suddenly disappear from the bloodstream, as is the case with intermittent fevers, the hypothalamus all of a sudden senses that things are way too hot, and tells the body to kick in its usual cooling-off mechanisms. That’s why people sweat profusely when their fever “breaks.”

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Sing the National Anthem at Sporting Events?
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In early September 1814, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer and amateur poet, accompanied American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner to negotiate a prisoner release with several officers of the British Navy. During the negotiations, Key and Skinner learned of the British intention to attack the city of Baltimore, as well as the strength and positions of British forces. They were not permitted to leave for the duration of the battle and witnessed the bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14. Inspired by the American victory and the sight of the American flag flying high in the morning, Key wrote a poem titled "The Defence of Fort McHenry."

Key set the lyrics to the anthem of the London-based Anacreontic Society, "The Anacreontic Song." (Nine years earlier, Key had used the same tune for “When the Warrior Returns (from the Battle Afar)” to celebrate Stephen Decatur’s return from fighting the Barbary pirates, which included the line “By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation.”)

The poem was taken to a printer, who made broadside copies of it. A few days later, the Baltimore Patriot and The Baltimore American printed the poem with the note "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven." Later, Carrs Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together as "The Star Spangled Banner."

The song gained popularity over the course of the 19th century and was often played at public events like parades and Independence Day celebrations (and, on occasion, sporting events). In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy ordered it the official tune to be played during the raising of the flag. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at all military ceremonies and other appropriate occasions, making it something of an unofficial national anthem.

After America's entrance into World War I, Major League Baseball games often featured patriotic rituals, such as players marching in formation during pregame military drills and bands playing patriotic songs. During the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series, the band erupted into "The Star-Spangled Banner." The Cubs and Red Sox players faced the centerfield flag pole and stood at attention. The crowd, already on their feet, began to sing along and applauded at the end of the song.

Given the positive reaction, the band played the song during the next two games, and when the Series moved to Boston, the Red Sox owner brought in a band and had the song played before the start of each remaining contest. After the war (and after the song was made the national anthem in 1931), the song continued to be played at baseball games, but only on special occasions like opening day, national holidays, and World Series games.

During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports.

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