Movement Imagined: Historical Perspectives

By Lawan Glassock

Creation of Adam, Michelangelo

How do we see movement in art when in reality it is still? As seen from Classical to Modernism, there are certain qualities of art that are able to convey an imagined movement. Historically artists have accepted to a large extent, the inherent static nature of their work and contented themselves with cues or indicators in their images. Sculptors to painters have implemented techniques that lead the viewer’s eyes to a point of focus or made it dance across scene.

Imagined movement has not always been the goal. Mostly in Byzantine art, mosaicists and painters presented the standing or seated figure of a divine or royal personage with very little attempt to suggest movement. Occasionally, a pointing finger of a saint or of Mary would direct our attention back to the main figure; but movement as such was not a primary concern. Rather, fixed contemplation would seem to have been the aim; the principal figures do not so much tell a story. Instead, they are the story.

The re-birth of scientific perspective in the Renaissance aided the style for an in-depth illusioned movement. Paolo Uccello, whose Battle of San Romano (Uffizi) is controlled by perspective lines—lances and cross-bows—which direct our attention to the places Uccello wants us to look. In both Renaissance work and Classical Roman sculpture (e.g. Trajan’s Column), a sense of movement and certainly dynamism was stimulated by the contortions, gestures, and reciprocal actions of the actual painted or sculpted bodies themselves. The famous ‘singing-gallery’ or Cantoria (1431-38) of Florence cathedral by Luca Della Robbia is a wonderful example of attempts by Renaissance masters to conjure the idea and sense of movement, of kinetic energy, through the rhythmic use of the body itself. Donatello, influenced it would seem by classical models, also produced a Cantoria for Florence cathedral, and for that of nearby Prato; his ‘cantorie’ share the movement characteristics of Della Robbia’s.

Interestingly, one of the most famous images in art history, the Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo (Sistine Ceiling, Vatican), contradicts or ignores several of these techniques and conventions. The event takes place in a very shallow space, or no ‘space’ at all—Adam is not moving, although God is. Adam’s arm is extended to meet the creative force of God whose extended arm in turn, visually links the two figures. One reasoning for this swap of active positions is that Adam did not exist until God created him and so, what we are really seeing is God entering from the right and creating Man who appears, fully formed, on the left. Adam has not so much extended his arm as had it made as a conduit for the creative ‘flow’ from God. In fact, if one notices carefully you can see that empty space between the finger of God and Adam. It’s the moment just before life. Adam is still only matter in this split-second glimpse that has been viewed for centuries by pilgrim and tourist alike.

In the 20th century, Naum Gabo deliberately attempted to create movement in the quintessentially static field of sculpture. His Linear Construction series, consisting mainly of lines, leads our eyes around and through his work, contemplating the spaces he made while following the intricate courses of the lines. Through this means, we have the sensation of movement.

Alexander Pursuing Darius, Mosaicist unknown. Archaeological Museum, Naples.

Naturally, since Classical times, there have been artists who have tried to suggest movement from stagnate images. Two excellent examples from quite different periods, separated by 1400 years or so, are from Pompeii: Alexander pursuing Darius III, an extraordinary mosaic of about 100 BC (thought to be a Greco-Roman copy of a now-lost Hellenistic original), in the Museo Archeologico in Naples; and Piero della Francesca’s Battle of Ponte Milvio, of c.1452, in Arezzo.

The Battle of Ponte Milvio by Piero della Francesca Arezzo

These decorations have similar structural attributes: both are large battle scenes involving a pursuit. In both, the implied movement carries the viewer’s eyes across the drama of the scene, finishing with the focus resting on the hapless pursued. Finally, figures and horses embrace all the space much the same way dancers use a ballroom floor. Because our eyes are encouraged to read the story across quite a large area in both cases, psychologically we experience a kind of movement, a dynamism. This is, of course, one of many illusions, both optical and psychological, created by the artist when, actually, we are really looking at an absolutely static image. However, a salient feature in each image are the horses. In the Pompeian mosaic, the horses around Darius are shown in the most agitated of poses and produce an effect (the desired one) of confusion and terror; the rendering and foreshortening of some of these horses is truly astonishing. In the Piero fresco however, the horses are a lot more controlled and have, for the most part, a processional aspect. As a consequence, one of the most disquieting elements in this picture is the horse of Maxentius, which is struggling to get onto the opposite river bank. It is in such clear disoriented lines that it creates a remarkable note of distress in the otherwise prevailing sober restraint.

The Rape of Sabines by Giambologna Florence

Another example of movement from concrete stillness carved from a single block of marble, is seen in the powerful piece by late Renaissance sculptor, Giambologna, The Rape of the Sabines, 1579-83, situated in the Loggia dei Lanzi in the center of Florence.  One of the finest works both technically and creatively in the history of sculpture, the masterpiece combines the classical nude with the dynamism of Mannererism. The design encourages one’s eye to move continuously, not only up and down or across this large statue, but also around it. Gianbologna cleverly composed the struggling group of three figures so that one is forced to move around the work, to appreciate all its aspects, and to comprehend its movement. Although the statue doesn’t move, the viewer finds himself doing so. Emotionally, the work has been cited as expressing the deep uncertainties of the late 16th century in all its tumultuous drama.


Lawan Glasscock is CIVA’s Executive Director. With an undergraduate degree in Political Science and an M.A. in Anthropology, she was honored to be the Graduate Teaching Assistant to Dr. Mary Louise Hart, Associate Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Lawan received her Certificate of Museum Studies before taking her postgraduate fieldwork overseas in Classical Archaeology, focusing on Art and Architecture History.

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