The English language is an ever-evolving thing, borrowing from other languages, changing usage, and inventing words out of thin air. Some words have been lost to time. Other words have lost their punch over the centuries, but we insist on using them anyway.
Folks throw around the words “master” and “masterpiece” as if enjoying a lazy game of catch. College professors bring up “modern masters,” and swanky art mags attach the “masterpiece” label to any pile of rubbish the latest up-and-coming ottist has churned out for the masses.
Once upon a time, this was not so. There were few masters. There were few masterpieces. Those titles were laboriously earned, and were seldom bestowed. Yes, it was elitist. And it took place under the auspices of what was essentially a union.
Unions were then known as “guilds,” and artists were part of the guild system. While there were variations of guilds throughout Europe, and though many such organizations experienced a rise and fall of popularity, the basic framework they used then is not so foreign to the modern mind.
Guilds often made use of a ranking system to differentiate between novices and experienced professionals. There was no confusing between apprentices, journeymen, and masters.
Talented young artists were referred to a guild or a master member of a guild. Most often these novices were teens or pre-teens who showed an aptitude for art. They were given the title, “Apprentice,” and did menial labor in an artist’s studio, including sweeping the floor. The idea was that they would become familiar with the artist’s environment, the methods and tools of the craft, the pace of activity, and the language of the craft. It was akin to an internship, but with few initial responsibilities. If anything, it was learning by osmosis.
Through his tenure, the apprentice gained knowledge and respect, and was slowly allowed to apply his own abilities to the processes used by the master. At some point, it was decided the apprentice be given a new title. In a slightly odd, but very insightful turn, the lad was shown the door and given license to work along side other masters in distant lands, hence the title, "Journeyman." During the Renaissance, this might mean heading to Florence or Paris. Exposure to different approaches to the same discipline broadened knowledge and deepened ability, while the journeyman absorbed customs and cultures unlike his own.
| “St. Luke Drawing the Virgin”|
Rogier van der Weyden. 1435-40.
(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)
Once the artist felt confident of his own techniques and abilities, he would head home and make application to the guild. Often there was a monetary requirement. Always there was an artistic requirement. In an ultimate test of skill, the artist created one piece that would satisfy the heavy scrutiny of the guild’s masters. It was like a doctoral thesis and dissertation mashed into one massive attempt at acceptance. If given approval, the artist earned the title, “Master.” His piece – the “masterpiece” – was usually given to the guild.
Artist guilds were often named after St. Luke, who, by tradition, was a physician and artist. Images of the saint often show him painting, and St. Luke supposedly painted a portrait of Mary, the mother of our Lord. Not surprisingly, the subject of the masterpiece was often St. Luke painting the Virgin Mary.
Because of St. Luke’s connection with medicine, artists and physicians sometimes shared the same guild. But the connection to the apostle wasn’t the only link between artists and physicians. During the1200s, Florentine painters were associated with the Arte dei Medici e Speziali – the guild of physicians, apothecaries, and spice merchants. It may seem an odd fraternity of disciplines, but apothecaries and spice merchants were usually the source for artist’s pigments and were therefore integral to their craft.
Today, pigments are picked up at the nearest Hobby Lobby or ordered online from Daniel Smith or a host of other art supply dealers. You can still find pigment powders, but don’t bother your spice merchant or pharmacist for the same. Modern art trends are also a bit different than during the reign of guilds. Artists most often want a niche of their own, sometimes ignore the rules of design – even before learning them – and scoff at tradition and integrity. Mastery of anything is nowhere on their horizon. The result is that we now have a massive pile of masters and masterpieces, but in name only. And without the name, it is simply a pile.