In painting, the term staffage, is used to refer to the animal and human figures depicted within the composition. Staffage figures can be usually be found within a landscape scene where their role within the painting is not the main subject of the work. Therefore the term is can be applied to small animals and figures that are not essential to the subject matter, but rather are used to animate the composition.

Claude Lorrain - Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia (1682).
Landscape used as part of a history painting.

The word carries with it two meanings when referring to a painting, for example:  as a general term relating to figures within a scene, even if they are part of the primary subject matter. Another view is that staffage is a descriptive term used to pertain to figures who have little to do with the narrative of the painting and are used for compositional or decorative reasons. The figures therefore serve as accessories, adding an extra dimension to the scene. In addition they give the viewer a sense of scale of the overall composition.

Staffage figures can usually be found in:

  • Landscape Paintings
  • History Paintings
The term Enfilade is used to refer to the axial arrangement of a sequence of rooms. In other words a suite of rooms that are formally connect to one another in a linear arrangement through a sequence of doorways.

The plan of Blenheim Palace, the blue arrows
indicate the suite of rooms arranged in Enfilade.
The Enfilade arrangement of principal state rooms (also can be called public rooms) was most common in grand European country houses during the Baroque era. Mainly during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Plan of Westminster Abbey - with the
theatrical epicenter of the church
highlighted in red.
The Lantern is the theatrical heart of a church. It serves as the focal point for major events, located at the eastern edge of the central crossing, of a traditional cathedral that has been constructed to a cruciform plan. This area of the church is often located under a crossing-tower, which in turn provides streams of light into the centre of the church, hence the term lantern.
After the fall of the Roman Empire there was a power vacuum throughout Europe, this resulted in a cultural blackout in Western Europe. The Medieval era started with the fall of Rome, at the hands of Barbarian tribes, and lasted until the cultural "rebirth" which is known as the Renaissance. The middle ages are often referred to the "dark ages" because of this decline both artistically and culturally throughout Europe.

The French abbot Saint Bernard of
 Clairvaux (1090 - 1152) was a principal
 protagonist in Europe's artistic revival.
However, it can be argued that during the 12th century, a period known as the Romanesque era, there was small  Renaissance. A "mini-Renaissance" if you will. This cultural rebirth was focused within the monasteries throughout Western Europe, where the act of devotion and religious piety was shown through the monks' artistic discipline, most notably in the production of  manuscripts. The two regions where this artistic light burnt brightest where in England and Ireland. As both the countries rather unusually developed an extensive network of monasteries, in contrast to mainland Europe which under papal authority built far more churches than monasteries.

At the heart of a monastery, besides a church, was the workshop. These workshops served as a focal point for life within the monastery, they provided vital revenues for the running of the monastery, they occupied the clergies' time, prevented them from sin and acts of temptation and allowed them to illustrate their devotion to God through their work. The tasks that they accomplished such as the production of manuscripts was both extensive and time-consuming. The key aim of the monks was to use these devotional aids and religious tools such as manuscripts, Gospel books, Bible production and Books of Hours in order to complete their mission of Christianising the barbarian tribes of Europe and from there spreading the word of God to the rest of the world.

Rose Window at the Basilica
of Saint Denis

Rose window is a term used to refer to a circular window. Often used as a principle feature of a Romanesque or Gothic church's clerestory. Rose windows can usually be found with highly ornate tracery and are divided into segments by stone mullions, with stained glass usually set in between.

Some notable churches with highly ornate Rose windows:
  • Notre Dame - North Transept
  • Chartres Cathedral - North Transept
  • Durham Cathedral
  • York Minster

Hugo van der Goes - Portinari Altarpiece (1475)
The Portinari altarpiece is a religious triptych commissioned by Tommaso Portinari. The overall composition depicts the Adoration of the shepherds, but in today's short post we will just be looking at the still life within the central panel.

At the heart of the foreground within the central panel lies two vases of flowers, next to which lies a sheaf of wheat. The symbolism of the wheat, is of the Last Supper where Christ broke the bread (also symbolic of the Eucharist). The white lilies in the vase next to the kneeling angel represent purity and the immaculate conception, the orange lilies are symbolic and allude to Christ's "Passion" later in life; and the purple iris flowers and columbine stalks in the second vase correspond to the "Seven Sorrows of the Virgin." Which are:
There are 6 major genres in painting:

1. History Painting - Classical or Mythological or Biblical compositions

2. Portrait Painting 

3. Genre Painting - Are scenes that are depicted from everyday life

Hieronymus Bosch - The Garden of Earthly Delights. 1495
Sir Peter Paul Rubens - Venus, Mars and Cupid . 1626
In early Flemish art the body, more specifically nudity, represented original sin, pity and lack of morality. However after Lutheran doctrine, the body once again became an object of beauty, something to be admired, in Flemish art and no longer had any of the negative connotations that were previously associated with it.
The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) - oil on oak panel
by Jan van Eyck

A dog in a painting often represents loyalty and fidelity. For instance in Jan Van Eyck's- Th Arnolfini Wedding portrait, 1431. Where the dog represents fidelity and as a result the marriage obligations between the pair. As the two stand on the 'holy ground of matrimony'.
        There is another argument for this portrait which will be covered in a later post.
The Lily in art represents: purity, chastity and virginity, as a result it is often used in religious imagery. Such as with the Virgin Mary.
Can the period defined as the Romanesque era be considered to be a small Renaissance?
How to read and interpret art

This post will hopefully equip you with some of the basic ideas to apply when trying to study a painting:
Boy with a Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio
Click to enlarge 
  • Identification- e.g type of object, materials, period and school of painting.
  • Authorship- Artist's name, patron's name. Finding these out are key to developing your interpretation
  • Subject Matter- What is shown in the painting? What is the artist trying to convey?
  • Function- What is the artworks use or purpose in its original location. e.g. was it intended as a devotional piece- a devotional aid?
  • Context- At what point in the artist's career was the work painted? Social situation, any historic precedences, the artistic customs of the time.
  • Style- The use of specific visual forms, or the ways the artist creates their images (fluid brush-strokes, a vibrant colour palette ect.)
  • Treatment- The decisions that the artist made when composing their composition; any narrative devices employed by the artist in presenting the subject? Especially to help guide the viewers' reading of the subject matter.
  • Provenance- Similar to context, just a nice word to use.
Ticking each one of these off as you go through a painting will help you in your interpretation, they're useful when going around a gallery, writing an essay or just to test and develop your interpretative skills. (Read more after the Break) © All rights reserved. Part of Mumble Media. Powered by Blogger.