the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

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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