Alexander Nagel’s award-winning The Controversy of Renaissance Art focuses on Italy. In his words,
This book offers an alternative to the view that Renaissance art struggled to break away from the confines and superstitions of medieval religion, but at the same time it ranges itself against the more recent tendency to let the art fall back into a long Middle Ages of ongoing religious devotion, civic ritual, and institutionally driven art. Many characteristics that we now recognize as typical of a modern conception of art–the taste for aesthetic refinement beyond the value of the materials or even the degree of technical master; the ability to see and choose from an array of styles, and the interest in correlating styles to geographical areas and historical eras; an art modeled on literature not only in the sense that it takes literary material as its content but also in the sense that it demands to be “read” using the interpretative faculties traditionally demanded by literature–seemed to many like excellent tools with which to reform religious art … For several decades, the most experimental strains in art-making joined forces with the most advanced religious thought …
Nagel’s book is ambitious. His synoptic treatment of historical and theological contexts proves forbidding for this non-specialist. But his close-up descriptions of individual works are often accessible and sometimes stunning, reminiscent of Michael Fried at his best. For example, Here is Nagel on Jan van Eyck’s “Stigmatization of Saint Francis“:
We do have the powerful sense that the sun-flushed figure of Francis is a portrait of an actual person. The effect is strange, and not simple. On the one hand, the portrait quality is of a piece with the carefully observed rocks and cityscape, or details such as the furrowing skin on Brother Leo’s temple, pushed up by his hand as his head becomes heavier with sleep. These descriptive effects offer a kind of visual traction, insisting that we have broken through any iconographic convention of the “story” of the Stigmatization, that we have somehow been transported to the actual place and are eyewitness to the event. At the same time, there is something unsettling about all this description. The figure’s head, with those full cheeks and that incipient double chin, attracts inordinate attention. It is not just a recognizably human face, someone we could know, an effect made more pointed by the fact that his hair, mussed as it is, is cut in a style fashionable in the Netherlands in the 1430s. All of this produces an effect of doubleness and dislocation, the sense that someone is “playing” Saint Francis.