I have been teaching Art History Survey (covering Western art from the Gothic period up to the 19th century) for the past few months. I think it is starting to influence my aesthetic proclivities! On a recent visit to the MET I spent a considerable amount of time looking at Gothic era paintings. I normally would've gone only to the special exhibitions, but I am starting to see these paintings in a new way because of the interesting comments and questions my students have had over the past months. I stopped in front of this painting of Saint Ursula for a while, and I can't stop thinking about it, so I've decided to write through it.
What first struck me about this painting is its combination of modeling and flatness. The attendants to Saint Ursula in this painting appear to have distinct modeling in their faces, but their clothing, in contrast, is flat and relatively free of wrinkles or folds. The pattern on their clothing adds to the flatness of this work. The blue and gold cloak worn by Ursula adds to the overall flatness of the work, but also sets up a kind of internal rhythm to the work. This rhythm is furthered by the vertical cloaks of the attendants setting up a kind of underlying beat to the bottom of the painting. The dress Ursula is wearing in this painting is an odd Pepto Bismol pink with gold adornments. It adds a kind of fleshy quality to the painting that is a bit uncomfortable. The coral color in the background seems to cast a coral glow over the entire painting. Which makes the world of the painting seem unnatural, but also appealing in a strange way.
I don't know anything about Saint Ursula, but that may be an interesting avenue for research. We shall see.
(the entry below is copied from the MET museum website)
Saint Ursula and Her Maidens
Artist: Niccolò di Pietro (Italian, Venetian, active 1394–1427/30)
Date: ca. 1410
Medium: Tempera and gold on wood
Dimensions: 37 x 31 in. (94 x 78.7 cm)
On view in Gallery 627 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art