the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

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.



2 Responses to “Portraiture: Part 1 of 2”

  1. yesme said

    i really don’t think your description is much different from today’s understanding of portraiture… if you think about it, there’s no such thing as a “realistic” likeness of any individual. So why are medieval portraits categorized as such? “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” how is this different from what we generally describe as a modern portrait? or is it a portrait at all, if the image makes no attempt to preserve the “being,” or if you prefer the “likeness” of an individual?

  2. Cynthia said


    I think modern portraiture seeks to convey a sense of personality, mood or anything at all that the artist or subject wishes to convey.
    There is often a certain reality, realistic element whether in a classical portrait, a caricature (reality over exposed !) or even abstract portraiture if such thing exisits.
    Medieval “portraiture” relied more on status, role, rometeness, piety even; leaving any sense of personality and mood blocked behind lines and colours.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: