Medieval Period Portraits

Period Portraits

What is a portrait- a physical representation of a person which differentiates him from other people.

I was told that there were no portraits in the middle ages, but as a portrait artist, I have to disagree with this- I don’t believe you can stop those of us who naturally see someone and record their image in various media from doing it without significant force. If there are periods where we cannot find remaining examples, three things may account for this- they may have been done in perishable media, they may have been repressed, or we may not be recognizing them when we see them.

In the Islamic culture- there were prohibitions against representations of humans- which we see “broken” in the area of Persian miniatures. However, there seem to be no such prohibitions in the Medieval European culture.  The theory is that the portraiture of the Greeks and Romans that resurfaced in the late Middle Ages, was absent during most of the period between.

We may be simply dealing with a dearth of surviving examples from the earlier periods. No one argues that portraiture was not common in the renaissance, but earlier examples are both more rare, and either in disrepair or have been “refreshed” so often that the original artwork may be much changed. Surviving examples are either made of significantly durable materials: metal and stone- so that the early period architecture sections of art books are much larger than that on painting, or fabric. Surviving examples of artifacts on perishable materials are often found in special situations, preserved by physical protection and/or anaerobic conditions by being buried in bogs or mounds or under volcanic eruptions. And besides the simple accidental damage of years of use or exposure, we cannot discount intentional damage. I once saw a 15th century lute in the British museum which had been reworked at the direction of I think it was Walter Raleigh into a horridly florid 16th century instrument. And there were the depredations of the Act of Supremacy (1534) and Cromwell’s (well meaning but destructive) art destroyers from the English Civil War which specifically targeted painted images. We will never know what paintings may have been lost at those periods. Certainly it takes an unusual housewife to decide that a fade, cracked, unfashionable painting that cannot possibly be displayed is worth storage space (perhaps what it takes is one with more storage space than time to clean it).

I don’t want to hide the purpose behind the investigation. I am not a trained art scholar as such- rather I am looking for evidence to use my painting ability to make portraits of people in the SCA in styles appropriate to their own periods (or if someone rich wanted different paintings of themselves in various garb, I’d be thrilled to oblige). So I look to what we can find in period.

At the very beginning of period we find the casket paintings of the late Romans. These were painted on cloth which was placed on the outside of the burial caskets. Since Roman society was significantly literate (especially in the class to whom such paintings would be affordable), I don’t assume that these paintings were intended as an alternative method of identification to written labels, but rather of an emotional tribute, like the death masks also popular in that culture. The main question about them is whether such (portrait) paintings were ever displayed of living people in houses. There are many sculpted portraits, some of which show traces of paint, so portraiture was acceptable. We see most excellent paintings on walls- but did they make portable paintings as well? Pigment on cloth or wood would be prime examples of materials likely to be damageable and discarded when they were. The late Romans had the technology, but I haven’t found any references to them.

Similarly, in the Dark Ages, we have a dearth of examples of individual portraits. Most of the remaining painted work is pigment on parchment in books preserved in, and produced in Monastic Libraries. While the decorative motifs of these works show the Celtic/northern design elements, as with the text, illustrations display a marked tendency to prefer copying to originality. However in books such as the occasional gospel, where the illustrations are fresh, we can see the style as it developed out of it’s culture. I have argued with some that the small faces in these illustrations show some clear differences- let’s face it, a modern artist will not worry about too much individualization in a crowd scene- but especially in the primary characters, one can see that the artist had the ability to show various features. Some images are of donors of a book or building- clearly those are portraits, but how accurate may they have been?

This leads to the question then- did the Merovingians, Carolingians, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans have paintings of themselves? And if so, how did they display them? So far I have found no historical references to portraits as we think of them. I wonder if given the task of portraying themselves, as the 19th century Africans drew the pattern of their tattoo/scarification rather than any representation of face shape, if Dark Ages folk might depend heavily on a representation of their clothing and other ornamentation, and if the artist happened to catch the likeness as well, this would be an added bonus. If asked to paint someone of that period, I would paint on a wooden or cloth base, and use the style shown in the surviving jewelry and other art- but, in honesty, warn the buyer of the very ambiguous nature of the reconstruction.

If we move closer to the Eastern Empire and the Mediterranean, we get the influence of Byzantium where portraiture continued in an unbroken tradition from the roman Empire- however it was heavily dominated by the conventions of religious iconography. In the early centuries of the first millennium private devotional images kept in private homes of pagan deities like Isis and Mithras evolved from small statues to carved reliefs to paintings. When Christian conversion took place, images of Christ and the saints replaced those of the gods. In the 8th century Iconoclasm split the Eastern and Western Church when Pope Leo declared such images idolatrous and had them removed from churches. The Eastern Church continued to support their use in homes as well as church. However, as part of the justification of the use of icons was that they were supposed to be actual copies of an original image of Christ that appeared to St. Luke, accurate copying was considered even more important.

In wall paintings showing groups of saints I see considerable difference from face to face. Whether the artists were portraying saints that they had seen, or simply using faces of men they’d seen to represent saints as they imagined them, they are clearly differences from face to face- that makes them likely to be portraits.

Once one gets to the High Middle Ages however, one is on firmer ground. We are beginning to actually have surviving artwork in both manuscripts and wall paintings. There was a distinct pressure on the Christian culture of the middle ages to avoid self aggrandizement, however acceptable the glorification of Crown and Church. Royalty, as well as the “princes of the church” have stone and metal portraits remaining as architectural ornament- especially as tomb effigies. In books one begins to see the beginnings of portraiture when groups of churchmen or nobles are portrayed. The tradition of portraying the donor of a gift whether it is a book or a church handing the object to Mary, Jesus or God goes back to the Dark Ages, and is apparently very acceptable.

By the end of the High Middle Ages, we see some images which are pretty clearly portraits- consider the images of the Duke du Bury in his book of hours. But, one has to ask, would a similar representation exist independently, OUTSIDE a book?

The first obvious portraits were the portraits of patrons included in religious wall paintings or dedications in books. It was apparently both socially acceptable as well as possible to display the patrons image. One of my favorites is the— where — and his wife and children were portrayed, and then when his wife died, his second wife was painted in as well. I love the annoyed look on her face.

Nicholas Hilliard wrote The Art of Limning, which some have complained contains not sufficient instruction. Other treatises on limning from the continent  give much advice on proportion and placement of features etc., whereas Hilliard simply tells the artist to look and paint what he sees- most excellent advice for those able to do it that way- the absolute truth in catching a likeness- it is indeed the variations from the norm that make a generic picture of  a person into a portrait.

I would argue that there are people who are artists. In some ancient cave someone probably picked up a partially burned stick to poke it back in the fire and dragged it accidentally along a stone along the hearth, and noticed that the mark left looked like the shape of the face of the person across the way from them. If he had the kind of internal compulsion I and my friends who are artists have he would have taken the stick and made another line or two to finish the image. These first experiments would obviously have required practice before they became the artistry we see in some cave paintings, but I believe it’s internal, and cannot totally disappear for centuries. (I also figure that if our “first artist” was in a group, his work would have been noticed. Some might argue that his image would have been taken as magick and resulted in consternation. I think not. I figure that as soon as he finished, his best friend would have said “Do me next!” and then someone who had no such ability would have said “you made his nose too big, and his ears are crooked”. In my imagination, the first critics appeared as quickly as the first artists.”) But while training and exploration of materials and techniques would help any beginning artist, the reason I paint portraits, as opposed to decorative borders or landscapes is because that’s what my internal urges push me to do. In various periods in history the culture would offer direction and encouragement or discouragement, but could not negate the natural impulse. Like hunger, or sex drive, I believe it’s built in- there are only culturally based variations in its expression.

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