the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Archive for July, 2006

The Politics of Gift-Giving: Part 1 of 2

Posted by gninja on July 25, 2006

In the Middle Ages, an artistic product could not be made without the backing of a patron. There was neither the leisure nor the resources we enjoy now to enable artists or organizations to create art without a view to sustaining their livelihood or permanence. If such activities did exist, then their products could only have been ephemera, for the medieval art that has survived testifies to a firm tradition of patron-client relations. At its core, the relationship of patron to client in medieval art is modeled on the conventions and ideology of gift-giving.

My interest in this and the following post is to observe some images of patrons and gift-givers, and to interrogate the messages conveyed by these depictions.

However, before the art, must come the history. So, a word on patronage and the politics of a gift-giving economy. Until the advent of early-modern money economies, gift-giving was the prevailing mode of effecting contractual relationships. And depictions of gift-giving can be found in art extending back to the ancient Near East.


(A procession of tributaries at the Persepolis Ceremonial Complex, 330 BCE)

Fast-forward over a milennium, and the contractual and social importance of gift-giving persists. Among all strata of medieval society (and here I am speaking of what are now England, France, and Germany) relationships were established and defined through the process of gift-giving. The bestowal of presents and the dynamics of reciprocity touched upon every social relationship, from the realm of agriculture, to government, to religion, to love. The gift was a concrete mediator binding two parties, physcially manifesting and declaring the nature of the relationship. We even know of laws dating back to the 8th century, which regulate gift-giving. Pervasive throughout these edicts was the insistence that to refuse a gift was to exhibit bad manners, and, more importantly, to flout a social contract.


(15th century image of gifts given by the Dukes of Berry and Burgundy to the emperor Charles IV)

What were the kinds of messages conveyed by the social contracts forged in medieval gift-giving? By bestowing a gift upon a a peer, the medieval individual proclaimed loyalty and perhaps kinship. Upon his beloved, fidelity and esteem. Upon a superior, fealty and honor. And upon a subordinate, he proclaimed his wealth, power, supremacy, and largesse. It’s been shown, even, that excessive prodigality and even insolvence were a form of social and symbolic currency in the middle ages. Whereas, in capitalistic societies, he who has the most wins; in medieval societies, he who gives the most wins. Common to all of these relationships of gift-giving is not only the tangible bind that the object supplied, but also the obligation it placed upon its recipient.

Unlike the anthropologist or the economic historian, however, as an art historian I am interested in the visual documentation of gift-giving. While the artifacts themselves can reveal much about the social and economic history of the Middle Ages, I am much more intrigued by the ways in which individuals presented themselves (or commissioned themselves to be represented) through the act of giving a gift. What did people in the Middle Ages want to say about themselves through commemoratory images of their bestowals, and how did these images supplement the gifts themselves?

In my next post, I’ll take up these questions and address specific images of gift-giving.

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Portraiture: Part 2 of 2

Posted by gninja on July 11, 2006

Although, prior to thinking of specific examples, I had wanted to write a post about medieval portraiture, it was the set of images I found in a British Library manuscript that compelled me to do so. In Yates Thompson 48 are five royal portraits contained within illuminated initials. The manuscript, created between 1451 and 1480, contains royal statutes from Edward III to Henry VI and, accordingly, their portraits as well as those of the kings who reigned between their tenures. I think the best way to approach these portraits is not singly, but rather, as an emsemble:

Edward III

As we would expect, since the statutes are listed chronologically and according to the monarch who isssued them, the first portrait in this manuscript (shown above) is of Edward III, who reigned from 1327 to 1377.


Richard II (reign 1377-99).


Henry IV (reign 1399-1413).


Henry V (reign 1413-1422)


Henry VI (reign 1422-1461)


In displaying these images sequentially, without interrupting with discussion the flow of images, I hope to have made clear their uniformity. Despite small differences in facial hair, there are few attributes distinguishing the portraits from one another. Indeed the following description could apply to all five images: we see, within an historiated initial of blue, green, red, and gold a male figure in royal garb of red, blue, and white. He stands on a checked ground of green and black, while holding the traditional regal symbols of orb and scepter in left and right hand, respectively. The figure also stands beneath a baldachin, and wears a crucifixed crown atop his head.

Notice that, in describing these figures, I have focused on color and caparison, with little regard for the visage or anatomy of the inidividuals depicted. Frankly, there’s little to say when it comes to their faces and bodies, and it’s clear that the accessories, garb, and setting were of more importance to the artist.

The question that comes to mind when looking at these, then, is quite simple: what is the purpose in creating nearly uniform images of these five kings?

Without even knowing the historical context in which these images were created, it’s possible to infer that one purpose was to endorse a very specific model of kingship. Five kings, each one marked by the actions he supoprted through the written statutes that follow his portrait, yet each one portrayed almost identically to those who preceded him. So, as far as working context-lessly goes, I could argue that the portraits somehow serve to align a group of monarchs, asserting visually continuity among them.

And, indeed, once we become familiar with the political situation in England during the time of this manuscript’s creation, the reason for the uniformity of these portraits becomes evident. According to the curators of the British Library, MS Yates Thompson 48 was produced sometime between 1451 (the year of the most recent statutes included in the manuscript) and 1480. During the first twenty years of this time span, Henry VI reigned, although this reign was interrupted once and eventually terminated by Edward IV. The twice-over deposition was a product of the War of the Roses, between the Houses of Lancaster and York, with all the kings portrayed in the manuscript at hand belonging to the House of Lancaster.

To be honest, I have a hard time believing that this sumptuous collection of statues issued by the Lancastrians would have been produced while a York king occupied the throne. On the other hand, there would have been justification to create the manuscript while a Lancastrian whose legitimacy was disputed did. To be specific, these portraits implicitly advocate the right of this contested king to his position as monarch by aligning him visually with the four preceding kings.

An objection to such an argument might be that, because of the medium–i.e. expensive, unique manuscript that would not enjoy a wide circulation–such a declaration of legitimacy would not be particularly efficacious. And I would have to agree. On the other hand, such legitimacy claims are frequently advanced in manuscripts like this one, indicating to me that they were perceived to be of use in this regard.

And, as an unintentional bonus, I stumbled upon a manuscript that explicitly endorses the validity of Edward IV (i.e. the king who deposed Henry VI). And by explicitly, I mean:

The folio above shows the genealogy of Edward IV (tracing him back to a monarch whose legitimacy was not disputed). And, as we might expect, all male members depicted are rendered identically.

My intention, in discussing portraiture in this manner, is to demonstrate how, unlike our current notion of what comprises a portrait of an individual, the portrait could have a very diffrent purpose. Not to mark the unique characteristics of the subject, but rather to identify the subject by features that unite him with or differentiate him from a specific millieu. The portrait, in this sense, may be seen as a composite of both values and associations embodied by the individual and the collective.

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Portraiture: Part 1 of 2

Posted by gninja on July 4, 2006


In the previous post, I discussed a form of social-power statement made through controlling images of others. But what about representations of the self? Control is an important aspect of portraiture, although the manner in which it is gained can differ from the methods used in declaring power through the depiction of others. However, before addressing specific examples (which will be the subject of part two) there are various caveats to make regarding medieval portraiture.

The very term, “portraiture” is not the most accurate term to use when referring to medieval likenesses of actual individuals (as opposed to fictional or biblical characters). We immediately have to surrender our contemporary definition of portraiture, with its emphasis on the individual. Medieval notions of the body were very different from our own. It is not that people living during the Middle Ages were indistiguishable drones, encouraged to suppress all hints of individuality in appearance. Rather, the body was a site for intense conflict. It was the earthly form in which the soul was incarnated, the vessel connecting the soul with the terrestrial. As such, it was also the conduit through which the soul could be corrupted. Portraits, or likenesses, then, could potentially be traces of the intrinsically flawed body. In other words, nothing could be gained from representing the body as it is seen in this world, when it could be viewed as evidence of the individual’s failings.

Instead, representing the self meant something different: it meant making visually manifest the status and deeds of the individual in order to elevate the reputation of the person depicted, or to endorse a specific manner of living, ruling, or being ruled. So, when we think of medieval portraiture, we absolutely must relinquish our conception of the portrait as the detailed and naturalistic representation of one’s physiognomy. The worst you can do, when looking at medieval art, is make the assumption that the artists were too unskilled to render “realistic” images. They were not. A glance at a decent illuminated manuscript or the scuptured facade of a cathedral should easily disuade you of that notion.

(A good reference: Thomas Dale, “The Individual, the Resurrected Body, and Romanesque Portraiture: The Tomb of Rudolf von Schwaben in Merseburg,” Speculum 77 [2002], 707-743.)
Why use the term portraiture, then? For convenience and in order to call into question our contemporary notion of what constitutes a portrait. Concerning convenience, “portrait” implies the likeness of a specific individual who is or was at some point living. But rather than assume, as we currently do, that the likeness reflects the outward appearance of the individual, or even his unique character, I’d like to make known the medieval conception of the portrait. That is, the almost corporally-negligent representation of an individual through accessories, accoutrements, and appurtenances of status and accomplishment. Indeed, the depiction of the body was so unimportant to the success of a portrait that such likenesses often fell into “types,” such as young, old, Solomonic, chaste, etc.

A last thing before Part 2. Because imagery of the individual was not as pervasive in medieval society as it is today (think of how many snapshots of yourself you’ve seen over the course of your life), each image held a lot more (and a lot more permanent) weight in the mind of the viewer. So the royally sanctioned image of the king seen on a coin wouldn’t have many other images of the king against which to compete.

Gold Noble Hnery VI, 1422-27

Unlike Queen Elizabeth II, whose official images are off-set by numerous informal (well, as informal as a queen can be seen) shots.



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