Review of: ‘Remember me: Renaissance portraits’ (2022)

LIYA OKROSHIDZE

Review of: Sara van Dijk, Matthias Ubl, Friso Lammertse and Ilona van Tuinen, Remember me. Renaissance portraits, Amsterdam [Rijksmuseum] 2021

Remember me’ (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1 October 2021-16 January 2022) was one of the largest exhibitions devoted to portraiture from the late Middle Ages to the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, to have been held in recent memory. The exhibition and its catalogue position the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as the heyday of the portrait genre, and during this period, prosperity in all its forms and types flourished throughout Europe. Historically, the Netherlands was one of the major European cradles of portraiture, and the art of this region has gifted the world a colossal number of such artworks.

The catalogue is, a rather theoretical publication on the part of its authors and researchers, but it also includes extensive technical research results.[1] Like the exhibition itself, which was divided into themed halls, the book is divided into nine accessible and informative thematic chapters. It has a reader-friendly design that cohesively collects its content: matte pages reminiscent of ancient manuscripts, colorful illustrations to transport the reader to the world of the early modern period, and a beautifully crafted cover and binding that makes it a pleasure to hold.

The paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints presented at the exhibition reflect the same desire that was inherent in all the people portrayed in the more than 100 portraits: that is, a desire to be remembered. Memory is an extremely important subject in history, and the perpetuation of memory has always been an integral part of humanity. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the role of the individual increased in importance among the urban nobility and ruling classes, to such an extent that the perpetuation of the memory of a person, of oneself, and one’s beloved, were hallmarks of this era’s ‘memory making’. The exhibition’s organisers accurately distinguished the degrees and variations of this ‘I’, as well as its manifestations. The book’s introduction immerses the reader in the exhibition’s major themes, features and the general meaning of ‘the portrait’ during these periods, while it also explores the semantics of the concept of ‘portrait’. It also briefly describes the history of the portrait since ancient times.

The first chapter, ‘Pray for me’, covers donator and pious portraits, with comprehensive descriptions of the works exhibited. The reader finds little-known images from anonymous and unknown artists, as well as works by Hans Memling (1430-1494), which represent the pinnacle of portraiture of their time. When speaking about the development of portraits outside the religious sphere, it is often mistakenly believed that only in secular art could a portrait or proto-portrait find an opportunity for development. Religion was not always a limiting factor in the development of portraiture as it also made possible, the appearance of a portrait of an art donor. Despite the restraint of interest in an individual’s external image, Christianity provided a new understanding of one’s personality through individual salvation: each person is responsible for his or her actions and thoughts. The emerging attention for individual piety resulted in the emergence of simple portraits, followed by more detailed portraits of donors.[2] The desire to be known as a pious person was one of the main factors stimulating the development of the portrait in these periods – the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In addition to classic donor images, images of saints are also included in chapter one. Often, these were originally secular, but over centuries acquired some attributes of images of saints. As an example, is a portrait of a man created in Bavaria around 1475 whose identity, “was most likely rapidly forgotten, for a few decades later, in 1512, he was transformed into Saint Joachim, Christ’s grandfather.”[3] Such portraits demonstrate secular persons in a highly pious manner, and their attributes and accompanying inscriptions expressing an extreme piety and morally sound lifestyle. They also depict symbolism of memento mori and vanitas, which, alongside the attributes, indicate that the depicted person remembered death and tried to lead a righteous life. Family portraiture testified to the pious life, of those such works portrayed.

In the second chapter, ‘Down the Generations’ a more complete introduction to portraiture as a genre is given, which focuses on the social backgrounds and environments of sitters. Heirs and their legacies are important here. As an example, the authors cite engravings with a pedigree of Maximilian I (1459-1519), noting that the emperor was one of the first to realise “the importance of this way of promoting himself and his family”,[4] on the throne within society at large. The emperor ordered, “77 woodcuts… designed for his genealogy in 1509 and 1510, going all the way back to the Trojan hero Hector.”[5] The text also mentions examples of genealogical trees from earlier periods and how rulers and nobles used them to legitimise their power. This inseparability, of a person from their family, and their surname, reinforced the role of the landed nobility, which was thus able to ensure the reproduction of its family tree. It would have been welcomed here, if the authors included the origin of pedigrees mentioned, noting there are Christian and ancient (Roman) traditions, which were adopted in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – as it would significantly enrich readers’ understanding of the tradition. Portraits with children were also an integral part of these cultures, representing a person’s strength, and future of their family – and were created to glorify one’s self, and to secure the future social positions of one’s family.

Separate portraits of children were especially popular, representing themselves as independent individuals. Furthermore, such portraits played an important role in inter-dynastic marriages, as kings and queens from all over Europe sent each other panels, with images of their children, in hopes of concluding advantageous marriage alliances. An artist’s responsibility was great, as the fate of the country could depend on the striking portrayal of a potential bride, or groom. Henry VIII’s (1491-1557) fascination with a portrait of Anna of Cleves (1515-1557), by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543), is a well-known example of this. Despite Henry VIII’s disappointment when he saw Anna of Cleves in person, Holbein continued to be the favorite artist of the English king. Attention is also paid, to portraits created and kept at the court of Margaret of Austria (1480-1530). With the family related to many courts of Europe, the existence of heirs’ portraits was natural. The meaning of children’s portraits was diverse, but it has not changed much since those times.[6]

The third chapter, ‘Authority’, is devoted to the projection of power. Here much attention is paid to portraits of Charles V (1500-1558), Philip II (1527-1598), and others of the House of Habsburg. The projection of power was both simple and complex. The authors explain the distinctive features of such portraiture, referring to clothes and vestments (including armor, demonstrating active participation of the sitters within military policy), by which it was often possible to identify those portrayed. Sitters’ poses and attributes were also important in the issue of the representation of power. Usually, the portrayed were depicted three-quarters or in profile, which was often used as a reference to the profiles of emperors on ancient coins; but the frontal arrangement of the figure was used less often. The authors note that this kind of image was beloved by Henry VIII. However, it is important to note that despite the rather provocative pose, frontal images of rulers have been encountered before; for example, in illuminated manuscripts of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, one finds a huge number of images of rulers in a similar pose. These could be marginal images, full-figure compositions on the surface of the entire page and small, historicised initials. Whether to project power or for a portrait of an ordinary person, it is important to determine if a portrait is deemed ‘accurate’.

Personal biographers have always embellished the appearance of their rulers and patrons a little, though descriptions of foreign ambassadors, merchants and representatives of the court could be strikingly different. As a result, the truth is somewhere in the middle between all the descriptions of the appearance of the person being portrayed, and all their surviving portraits. A separate section in this chapter is devoted to female portraiture. Even though the text states a woman was in a subordinate position in relation to a man in the sixteenth century, she still played a significant role in inter-dynastic marriages, and the future of the ruler depended on the status of his wife. The predominant number of female portraits was not independent; if a female portrait was created, it was often paired with a male portrait pendant. However, it is important to remark that despite the seemingly subordinate position of women at this time, they were also beginning to play a much more significant role than their predecessors. It should also be noted the catalogue is resplendent with works of females from the Habsburg family.

Chapter, ‘Ambition’, focuses on a portrait sitter’s social ambition. During the sixteenth century, the urban bourgeoisie actively grew, with scientists, lawyers, bankers, merchants and others wanting to be portrayed. Their financial situation allowed them to order their own portraits from the best artists of their lifetimes. Household inventories from this period show that the portrait was the most popular art genre after religious painting. This is due to the triumph of human self and the newly-awakened interest in the human personality and appearance, which had been ‘silent’ in late-antiquity, and medieval eras. This vehement outburst of such desire reached all of Europe and nearly all social strata. Bust portraits are highlighted among the sections of the chapter, with the first examples being the portraits of two rulers. Thus, the authors argue, it can be seen as a starting point in the history of the development of easel portrait art in Europe.

Bust portraits functioned were meant to fully form an idea of a person’s appearance. They generally depicted a person surrounded by professional attributes, such as jewelry, drawings, looms, ledgers and other such objects. The objects surrounding the sitters formed a metaphorical or mental portrait of a person’s life and mentality. Group portraits, the authors show, were often ordered by guilds, clubs and societies. In them, the faces were not only individual portraits but also functioned as attributes for the other sitters. Thus, I reproduced the portrait features of all the members and dictated the importance of the organisation portrayed at the same time. They were a reflection of ambitions, plans, hopes and aspirations.

Chapter five called ‘Cherish me’ is devoted to marriage portraits, which were important given the role of civil law in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Marriage was complicated and sensitive, and taboo nature of carnal relationships had a significant impact on art. It meant much more than just exchanging vows, and this chapter discusses the topic in great detail, allowing the reader to understand the semantics of these portraits. The central portrait of the chapter – since the authors note it is, “the most famous wedding portrait of all”, portrays Marsillio Cassotti and his wife Faustina, painted by Lorenzo Lotto (c. 1480-1556/7), in 1523.[7] At a glance, the painting conveys all the hints of a wedding theme – winged Cupid, and the moment when, “Marsilio is on the point of putting a ring on the ring finger of Faustina’s left hand.”[8] This chapter also explores new marriage relationships encouraged by Martin Luther, who taught a division of roles between spouses. In this era, a husband was meant to be, “the breadwinner and protector of his wife, children and staff; his wife an indispensable companion and mistress of the house”, while the wife was to be their companion, keeper of the hearth.[9] As an artistic example, paired miniature portraits of Lucas Cranach and his wife are used. In the sixteenth century, treatises such as Juan Luis Vives’ (1493-154) De Institutione feminae Christianae (1524) and Luis de León’s (1527-1591) La perfecta casada (1583) grew in popularity, detailing what kind of life a respectable woman should have taken in marriage. Such portraits not only reflected the personal feelings of the couple, but also their ambition, power and strength as a union. This further proves the difficulty of studying portraiture, as these artworks often pursue multiple goals at once, which is also denoted in different chapters.

The sixth chapter, ‘Admire me’,  is devoted to female portraiture. Most of the portraits in this chapter were painted by Italian masters, and the text about them begins with overviews of Italian literature. Idealisation of female images is also considered, and researchers note that in the Northern tradition, women were depicted with a lower style of idealisation than in Italy. As Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529) wrote in Il libro del cortegiano (The book of the courtier, originally published in 1528), “…there can be no circle without a centre, there can be no beauty without goodness.”[10] It is quoted to demonstrate that for Italian culture, beauty was an integral part of virtue, unlike the art of Northern European. And because courtly praise was intertwined with the flourishing of literature and poetry; court is where such values and ideals were visible and expressed. This does not mean modesty or poverty. Though it does reflect the northern tradition and its rigidity compared to Italian painting. Many female portraits rarely existed without male accompaniment. Though many of them have not survived as pairs, they did once exist. Over time, tradition began to change, and new forms of autonomous female portraiture also appeared, such as women’s medal portraits.

The seventh chapter is called ‘Learned’ and is devoted to learned men while providing insight into their biographies. This chapter discusses not only of easel images but also on medals and miniatures, which were known as capsule portraits; small images enclosed in wooden boxes. Many scholars are depicted with attributes that signify specialisations, further emphasising their own activities. Landscape backgrounds in portraits gradually appeared, initially taking a small space behind the sitters, and eventually occupying the entire background. Furthermore, the authors note that many scholars’ and learned mens’ portraits are now more well-known than the research they did during their lifetime, for example – the portrait of Pieter Gillis (1486-1533) by Quinten Massijs or the portrait of Bernardo Bembo (1433-1519) by Hans Memling.

The eighth chapter ‘Draw Me’ focuses on pencil drawings. The author points out that sketched portraits preceded painting and engraving. However, due to their fragility, only a small number of them have been preserved. This chapter centers around the portrait of an African man by Albrecht Dürer, which researchers agree is the first known drawing of an African individual in Western European art. But furthermore, images of Africans have previously been found in illuminated manuscripts, and here, the sculpture of St. Maurice must not be forgotten. The sculpture of St. Maurice from the thirteenth-century cathedral in Magdeburg, is the first example of a black sitter. The rethinking of the reputation of black seems to have begun with the appearance of the sculpture of St. Maurice, but, unfortunately, its peak was short-lived. Before the creation of the statue of the holy martyr in the cathedral in Magdeburg, within Christian Western European art, images of Africans – which only began to appear in art in the late eleventh and early-twelfth centuries – occurred only with an aim of connecting these characters with the concept of sin and demonism.[11] By the sixteenth century, images of blacks had become symbols of otherness, due to active geographical discoveries and an increase in the slave trade. But the power of Saint Maurice iconography was unable to withstand such gradual change.

The final chapter, ‘This is Me’, is about the self-portraits of artists – which served as a sort of grand finale in an era where the self had become more distinct than before. Self-portraits were an important milestone in the history of art and allowed artists to be depicted. This phenomenon was typical of many medieval religious art movements because, if at all,  authorship was initially confirmed by simple images of the artists, coupled with signatures that identified them. Over time, however, self-portraits became increasingly mimetic – and soon, completely separate from commissions artists created. Next, self-portraits were made as individual works of art, adorned by attributes of the artist. This is the incredible era of the formation of an artist as an identity and their elevation above craftsman. The artist is no longer just a craftman; they were now intellectuals, and sometimes even courtiers. Their new status is exemplified in Dürer’s famous self-portrait in Munich. There is no conclusion in the catalogue that could sum up all nine of these chapters, wherein the heritage of European portraiture is considered – and this is a negative point to note; a sweeping conclusion would’ve been much welcomed.

To summarise: it is evident that in today’s society, we are witnessing individuals becoming more and more the focus of their own world, and the human face has become a crucial factor in the integral identification of the individuality of that existence. This social personality gives impetus to create images of the self, in the form of portraits. The exhibition and book show that this revelation and turn to the ‘self’, was experienced in medieval cultures across Europe too: was a time of portraiture as an independent artistic genre. Modern portrait culture’s preliminary evolution, as traced by the authors, has yielded the brilliant results that were exhibited at the Rijksmuseum.

Casual readers might notice that with each subsequent chapter, especially the last section, the attention given to works becomes progressively, significantly shorter. This applies to the text as well as the illustrations. This is also due to the amount of works associated with the theme of each chapter. It is important to note that despite the huge number of artworks presented at the actual exhibition, they did not fully reflect the entire legacy of portraiture from these periods that have survived until today. Regardless, this is more of a note than an indication of a drawback. This catalogue is a much-welcomed addition to the literature of the study of European portraiture, which appeared thanks to the collective work of researchers. It will be a valuable resource for anyone who is interested in the subject of portraits from these periods, just as it provides art historians with much material for new studies on portraiture.

[1]  For example, note 31 in the publication: S. van Dijk, M. Ubl, F. Lammertse and I. van Tuinen, Remember me. Renaissance portraits, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 2021, p. 28.

[2] R. G. Calkins, Monuments of medieval art, Oxford 1979, p. 193.

[3] S. van Dijk, M. Ubl, F. Lammertse and I. van Tuinen 2021 (note 1), p. 35.

[4] S. van Dijk, M. Ubl, F. Lammertse and I. van Tuinen 2021, p. 57.

[5] S. van Dijk, M. Ubl, F. Lammertse and I. van Tuinen 2021, p. 57.

[6] A. J. Gschwend, ‘Review of: Renaissance children. Art and education at the Habsburg court (1480-1530)’, Oud Holland Reviews, November 2022.

[7]  S. van Dijk, M. Ubl, F. Lammertse and I. van Tuinen 2021, p. 160.

[8]  S. van Dijk, M. Ubl, F. Lammertse and I. van Tuinen 2021, p. 160.

[9]  S. van Dijk, M. Ubl, F. Lammertse and I. van Tuinen 2021, p. 160.

[10] B. Castiglione, The book of the courtier, New York 1903, p. 294.

[11] D. Bindman D, H. L. Gates Jr., The Image of the lack in Western art, vol. II: From the early Christian era to the ‘Age of Discovery’, pt. 1. Cambridge/London 2010, p. 5.

 

CITE AS:

L. Okroshidze, ‘Review of: Remember me. Renaissance portraits’, Oud Holland Reviews, August 2023. 

 

Source: Oud Holland Reviews, August 2023. 

 

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