Tag Archives: Renaissance

June is for Jousting

While searching my usual sources for characteristic images of the month of June, I was struck by how many epic battles occurred during the most green and golden of months: there are as many images of conflict as there are of pastoral fields and full-blown flowers. This is pretty understandable given that spring and summer constituted “campaign season” in the pre-modern past, but momentous battles continue into the modern era, presumably after nature has been conquered herself: Naseby, Louisburg, Bunker Hill, Waterloo, Custer’s Last Stand, D-Day. I don’t really want to go there, so I’ll think I’ll dwell in the more distant past, where not only serious battles occurred in the first month of summer, but also “play” ones, as a whole circuit of tournaments and festivals emerged in the late medieval and early modern eras, signalling the submission of the military aristocracy and the coincidental expansion of royal authority and centralized monarchies. As soon as a way of life gets ritualized, you know it’s on its way out!

Harley 4379 f.19v

June Jousting-001

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June Henri III-001

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Detail of miniature of a joust between Pierre de Courtenay and Sire de Clary, British Library MS Harley 4379, f. 19v; June calendar page from BL MS Additional 24098, Book of Hours, Use of Rome (the “Golf Book”, c. 1540); Kings Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France meet at the “Field of the Cloth of Gold”, 5 June, 1520; King Henri II is injured during a celebratory joust on 30 June, 1559, Franz Hogenberg, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris (leading to a half-century of power struggles and warfare among the unleashed French nobility, divided and motivated by their religious differences); Louis XIV’s “Grand Carrousel”, 1662: the festival (after Henri de Gissey) and a participant in one of the elaborate “oriental” costumes designed for the event, Chateau de Versailles (certainly no self-respecting noble would put on this garb a century before!)

 


Enchanted Gardens

I’m rather depressed about my garden: I think I lost a lot of perennials–including many dear old friends–over this past bitter winter. This is generally the week–or even earlier–that my favorite spring plants pop up, but so far all I see is trillium and pulmonaria in the “woodland garden” out back. Notably missing is my all-time favorite, the almost-magical Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), which should definitely have popped up by now. I think my Jacks are dead, although several of my gardening friends tell me to not give up hope as we are as much as four weeks behind this year, but there is not a single little sprout to be found peeping through the mulch. I fear for my Lady Slippers, but they come up a bit later so I have not given into despair quite yet. The center perennial beds seem to be in better shape than the shady back, with the exception of the germander edging border that I’ve been slowly developing over the past few years: quite a few of the individual plants have been lost, breaking the uniformity of the border. I’m tempted to just rip them all out and start fresh with a hardier plant, and so I would really welcome suggestions for low-lying, traditional, hardy, front of the border alternatives.

So I am not spending these first precious days of May dancing around my lush, flowering garden (in a flowing white dress) because it is neither lush nor flowering: looking for inspiration (or escape) I am instead delving into the “Enchanted Garden” sub-sub-sub genre of paintings. Of course medieval-esque fantasy gardens are a favorite Pre-Raphaelite theme, but even before their Decameron-inspired images appeared in the nineteenth century, artists were inspired to amplify nature in rather seductive ways. In the later sixteenth century, the popular poem by the Italian poet Tarquinato Tasso, Gerusaleme Liberata (Jerusalem Liberated), inspired several paintings of enchanted gardens. The poem turns the Crusades into an epic fantasy, in which heroic Christian knights confront all sorts of obstacles in the Holy Land. One particular knight, Rinaldo, is enticed by the beautiful Saracen sorceress Armida to enter her lush garden, and there she keeps him occupied for quite some time, until he is rescued by his comrades. I like the painting by Flemish artist Jan Soens best among several illustrations of Rinaldo and Armida, because it seems to focus as much on the garden as on the sorceress.

Enchanted Garden 16th C

Jan Soens, Rinaldo and Armida in the Enchanted Garden, c. 1581-1611, The Walters Art Museum

Several centuries later, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron inspired several pre-Raphaelite painters to depict one of its most popular stories (the 5th to be told on the 10th day): the tale of the besotted Ansaldo, who conjured up a magical May garden in the midwinter for his lady love, Dianora, who had promised him that she would leave her husband and run away with him if he completed this seemingly-impossible task. Ultimately Ansaldo releases Dianora from her promise, and the garden dissolves “like the morning dew”, but it seems to have been a collective aim of British romantic painters to recapture it and other enchanted gardens for posterity.

Enchanted Garden Stillman

(c) Lady Lever Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Enchanted Garden Waterhouse tree-001

Marie Spartali Stillman, Messr. Ansaldo Showing Diavola His Enchanted Garden, 1889; John Waterhouse, The Enchanted Garden, 1917, Lady Lever Art Galler, and study for above, Victoria & Albert Museum Collections

Also romantic, in a more naive way, are the paintings of British artist Helen Fielding (1900-1979) who depicted her Lancashire environment in an ever-charming way, including a garden that seems enchanted in all seasons, here pictured, as vividly remembered, in the spring of 1908. I love the inscription on the back, from the Christie‘s catalog: The Enchanted Garden was very/beautiful in April, when Father thought it would be better to send Mother, George and I also the Aunts, Grandma and Miss/Carter (who wore pink) to Grandpa’s at Blackpool/to be safely out of the way of the Suffragettes/in Lees. We saw for the first time the/Wild Cherries in flower and small trees/covered in the palest pink blossoms/which Grandpa said was the Crab apple, George and I had never seen trees/with blossom which covered them like/snow, also in the Enchanted Garden was/the pond which would soon be full of frogs/and tadpoles and the year was 1908/Helen Layfield Bradley 1975. I know just what she means by “trees covered with blossoms like snow”, don’t you? Still waiting for that here.

Enchanted Garden Bradley

Helen Fielding, The Enchanted Garden, 1975


Beauty Sleep

As it happened I was watching the 1935 film version of Romeo and Juliet (starring Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer) while I was going through seed catalogs and doing some (late) garden planning. Just as Juliet went into her deep sleep, I came to the herbal sections of one catalog, and remembered that I always wanted some belladonna (Atropa Belladonna; Deadly Nightshade) for my garden–just because it’s one of the most storied poisonous plants in history. A decade or so ago, when I had given over most of my garden to herbs which served as either plague cures or poisons (for scholarship!), a student gave me some belladonna seeds–which I thought was very nice/cheeky of him–but the plant lasted only one season. So I’d like to try again. Juliet reminded me:  Shakespeare is not specific, but it must have been belladonna on his mind. His contemporary, John Gerarde, wrote that a small quantity could lead to madness, a moderate amount to a “dead sleep”, and too much to death in his Herball or General Historie of Plantes (1597). As Friar Laurance observes in the play,”within the infant rind of this small flower/poison hath residence and medicine power” and later instructs Juliet: Take thou this vial, being then in bed, / And this distilled liquor drink thou off; / When presently through all thy veins shall run / A cold and drowsy humour, for no pulse… And in this borrow’d likeness of shrunk death / Thou shalt continue two and forty hours.

Belladonna Juliet-001

L0058356 Glass bottle used for tincture of belladonna, England, 1880-

Juliet considering her options and holding a belladonna? tincture in an 1830 print by William Say (British Museum) and an apothecary bottle from 1880 (Wellcome Library Images).

Friar Laurence was right: belladonna has the virtues of both medicine and poison, but throughout history, its emphasized use has been on the latter (poison-tipped arrows, “inheritance powders”, magical ointments which enable witches to fly) with the exception of the cosmetic application which explains its vernacular name, “beautiful lady”. The Renaissance image of beauty encompassed not only a high forehead but also a certain wide-eyed (literally) look, and Atropa Belladonna contains a muscle-relaxant substance (atropine) that dilates the eyes for long periods of time. Presumably the fashionable Renaissance lady had to be quite knowledgeable about how to prepare her tincture, or have a reliable apothecary. I always thought the Raphael’s mistress Margheriti Luti was the perfect belladonna girl, and he certainly admired her. Perhaps the “spring beauty must-have”, Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette, can create a similar look (and I wonder if Mr. Armani knows that the name conjures up as many references to death and it does to beauty?)

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Belladonna-Pallette

Belladonna BM-001

Raphael, Woman with a veil (La Donna Velata), 1516, Galleria Palatina, Florence, Italy; Giorgio Armani’s Belladonna palette for Spring 2014; Atropa Belladonna as depicted in one of Mary Delany’s beautiful collages , 1791, British Museum.

 


Monarchs and Monkeys

When you teach with a lot of images, as I do, you’ve got to be ready to answer all sorts of questions, because students will notice every little thing and be much more interested in the margins than the focal point. I have been rendered answer-less on more than one occasion, so I always try to be prepared. When discussing queenship in my Tudor-Stuart class, for example, I would never, never, never show them two of my favorite portraits of queens, Katherine of Aragon by Lucas Horenbout and Henrietta Maria by Anthony van Dyck, because I know that their attention would almost immediately move away from the women and turn to the monkeys. Why would these two dignified Queens have their portraits painted with monkeys? Well, it varies with the Queen, so let’s start with Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, whose miniature portrait by Lucas Horenbout was painted in 1525, just about the time that Henry began the long process of attempting to annul their marriage, a desire that would eventually result in the severing of ties with Rome and the English Reformation.

PicMonkey Collage

Katherine panel

I’m featuring several versions of this image: the original miniature (from the Duke of Buccleauch Collection), doubled for effect, and a later and larger copy on wood panels, featuring a younger Katherine and a clearer view of her monkey and its message–because there is a pretty obvious message here. Like her father-in-law, Henry VII, and several other contemporary royals, Katherine probably enjoyed having a monkey as a pet (and it was said to hail from her native Spain), but the pet has a purpose in this image: he (or she?) holds a Tudor rose in one hand and is reaching for Katherine’s crucifix rather than the coin she is offering to him. While medieval monkeys could represent all sorts of negative things–the Devil himself, foolishness, vice–the monkey of Katherine’s time was more likely a symbol of exotic worldliness and an imitator of man. A tethered monkey, like Katherine’s, can therefore represent ascetic discipline, which is reinforced by his gesture towards the cross: faith over greed. This is the message Katherine is sending out there, just as (and after) Henry is replacing her.

So now let’s look at two other depictions of royals and their monkeys: Daniel Mytens’ posthumous portrait of Katherine’s sister-in-law, Margaret Tudor, the Queen Consort of Scotland (Royal Collection), and Anthony Van Dyck’s portrait of Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria, with “her” dwarf Jeffrey Hudson and a monkey (National Gallery of Art). What a contrast between these two royal portraits, which were painted at about the same time (1620s-1630s, though Mytens’ painting harkens back to an earlier era). The monkeys have lost their message and been reduced to mere exotic pets, especially in the extravagant depiction of Henrietta Maria: here the monkey is still tethered, but to the dwarf rather than the Queen. This is a woman whose extravagance (and Catholicism) would contribute to the intensifying division between the King and Parliament, a division that would soon lead to the English Revolution. So perhaps I can teach with these particular portraits–if the depictions of monkeys can open up a larger discussion of events as significant as the English Reformation and the English Revolution, why not?

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Monkey and Henrietta Maria Van Dyck

 

 


The Ides of March

Supposedly the word “ides” refers to the middle of the month, any month, but we never hear about the “Ides of July” or the “Ides of October”. We only hear of the Ides of March in reference to the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15 in the year 44 B.C., a conspicuous date because of Shakespeare and his sources (primarily Plutarch). Beware the Ides of March says the soothsayer to Caesar, but he did not, or could not. In somewhat of the same way as we would use the phrase 9/11, the phrase was used afterwards to refer to the cataclysmic event and its impact: Caesar’s murder and the consequential (though short-lived) restoration of the Roman Republic. But Julius Caesar was also remembered as a martyr by some, and a brilliant commander and conqueror by all (I do not remember him fondly in this capacity, having struggled for so many years with Latin lessons based on Caesar’s Gallic Wars). I always find it interesting to see lavish medieval manuscripts devoted to Caesar’s life and death. There is a noticeable emphasis on his birth (giving rise to the myth that he was the product of the first “Caesarean section”) as well as to his military exploits: like Alexander the Great, he becomes an “acceptable” pre-Christian hero. A bit later, he is always found among the “three worthy pagans” or “three heroic heathens’ of Renaissance histories.

Ides of March Bl MS Royal

Ides of March Hopfer

Ides of March Negker

The medieval Ides of March, from British Library MS Royal 16 G VII, 14th Century(Les anciennes hystoires rommaines (A compilation of ancient history in two parts); and the Renaissance Caesar in Daniel Hopfer’s “Three Worthy Pagans: Hector, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar”, c. 1516, and Hans Burgkmair’s “Three Heroic Heathens”(also on the right), c. 1516, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

And then there’s Shakespeare, whose tragedy of Julius Caesar inextricably linked the iconic man with his assassination–and the date thereof. When you read histories of England from his era, the same histories that Shakespeare would have read, you can see why he would have wanted to add a play about Caesar to his English history plays: for the Elizabethans, English history begins with the Roman invasions of 55 and 54 BC, and this would be the framework for several centuries. And during this time Britain would become an Empire, like Rome, with democratic ideals, like Rome: the life and death of Julius Caesar could serve as reference points for the emerging pax Britannica.

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Ideas of March Sharp BM-001

A 1684 edition of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar; William Sharp print of the death scene of the play, with an avenging Antony kneeling over Caesar’s slain body, 1785, British Museum.

Ultimately it is the mutability or adaptability of Caesar (and his death) that explains his (ever-) lasting appeal: he represents triumph and tragedy, power and corruption, reach and over-reach. There are many romantic contradictions in Caesar’s story, which is why I think the French classical painters of the nineteenth century depict him most effectively–they certainly had their Caesars! But a Caesar could appear at any time, in any place, bringing forth another Ides of March.

Ides of March 19th c

Ideas of March Death of Caesar Gerome 1867

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Ideas of March Puck-001

Alexandre Denis Abel de Pujol, Julius Caesar Proceeding to the Senate on the Ides of March, 19th century, Musee des Beaux-Arts de Valenciennes; Jean-Leon Gerome, Death of Caesar & sketch, 1859-67, Walters Art Museum; Puck cover from June, 1908 with a Caesar-like Theodore Roosevelt rejecting the crown of 1908 while that of 1912 hovers nearby, Library of Congress.


Up in the Air, In the Margins, On Stilts

I have been pondering several nineteenth-century prints, paintings and photographs of people walking around on stilts in the Landes region of Gascony (now Aquitaine) in France: in their road-less, marshy landscape, this was apparently the best way to get around. And so they walked around on stilts everywhere, doing everything. Very adaptable, they were. The best images are of shepherds, knitting on stilts while they watched their flocks. Most representations of these Landes stilt-walkers (and -sitters) make them look completely natural: it’s only when you take the stilts out of Landes that you know that something odd is afoot. The next-to-last image below is a French caricature mocking a corpulent Englishman on stilts: he clearly looks unnatural. He’s clearly more comfortable than his (presumably English) companions in the near-foreground, but something’s still not quite right. On the other hand, it seems quite logical, if not natural, for an English caricaturist to put Napoleon up on stilts, in another example of patriotic mockery.

Stilts Charades nypl

Stilts Shepherd NYPL

Stilts 1816 BM

Napoleon on Stilts

Prints from Victor Adam’s Charades alphabétiques. (Paris : Aubert, [1836]), the NYPL Digital Gallery, and caricatures (Paris: Aaron Martinet, [1816]), (London: Piercy Roberts, [1803]), British Museum.

The use of stilts to convey a certain precariousness goes way back, to the Renaissance at least. Albrecht Dürer puts Cupid on stilts and we know what he is conveying: love can be a little destabilizing. I’m pretty comfortable with Renaissance allegory but much less so with medieval meanings: when I look in the margins of illuminated manuscripts from the fourteenth century and before, I find lots of things that I don’t understand, including grotesque and hybrid creations of any and every kind, profane imagery and activities, and people and animals doing all sorts of things, including, of course, walking on stilts. What is the veiled pig doing on stilts? And why would a woman nurse her child on stilts (with a heavy-looking pot on her head)? It’s not quite natural. Somehow only the last man, playing his animal-headed pipe, affects the ease of the Landes stilt-walkers.

Stilts Pig BL FROISSART

Royal 10 E.IV, f.29v (det)

Stilts Royal MS BL

British Library MSS. Harley 4379, f. 19v; Royal 10 E IV, f. 29v; Royal 14 B V, Membrane 1.


Hearts in Hand

For this St. Valentine’s Day I thought I would explore the heart in hand motif, which is probably familiar to most: there are countless items out there with this emblem, produced for or by the Shakers, the Order of the Odd Fellows, heartfelt lovers and/or mourners in the nineteenth century and a whole host of artisans and entrepreneurs more recently. It’s a captivating image, easily accessible and “read”, and highly decorative, but how did it emerge and evolve?

Hearts in Hand Am Folk Art Museum

Love Token, c. 1840-60, anonymous American artist, possibly from Connecticut, American Folk Art Museum.

Before the love token, declaring that hand and heart shall never part, or the fraternal staff, denoting “cheerful giving”, there was of course the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the object of intense veneration in medieval Europe. While the spiritual origins of today’s generic and secular symbol seem pretty clear to me, the road between past and present is not precisely a straight path. The image of the Sacred Heart is quite standardized in illuminated medieval manuscripts from the thirteenth century on: a heart, often flaming and always pierced, with attendant Crown of Thorns and the Five Wounds of Christ, wounds which were of course on his hands and feet. But there are evolving variations: the late medieval images below have already made the transition to a more worldly message, encompassing pity, love and charity.

Heart in Hand First

Heart in Hand Second

Princeton University Library MS Taylor 17, c. 1500.

Several of the most important medieval saints, including Augustine, Catherine of Siena and Bernardino of Siena, literally hold hearts in their hands as ever-attendant attributes: Augustine’s restless heart is guided by the Lord, and Catherine actually exchanges hearts with Christ. It seems to me that representations of these two saints humanize the heart somewhat, and late medieval romances contribute to that trend. You begin to see quite average people (well maybe not average, but certainly not saints) with hearts in hand. I suppose that the medieval-clothed Caesar is giving his heart to Rome.

Heart of Augustine

heart-catherine MET

Heart in Hand 3

Heart in Hand Via

St. Augustine with heart in hand, Nationale Bibliotheek van Nederland MS KB 76 F 2; Giovanni di Paolo, Saint Catherine of Siena Exchanging her Heart with Christ, after 1460, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Arras Tapestry, Offering of a Heart, c. 1400-1410, Louvre Museum; Master of the Vitae Imperatorum, Illumination from Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 1433, Princeton University Library MS Kane 44.

The literal and the spiritual depictions of hearts in hand continue right through the Renaissance into the Reformation, eras of intense lay piety and scholarship. Nothing represents this better than the amazing painting by an anonymous Flemish master of a young man holding a heart-shaped book–he may or may not have been a member of a confraternity devoted to St. Augustine– but this focus on the word anticipates the Reformation, when John Calvin adopted the emblem of a flaming heart resting in a hand outstretched to God for his personal seal. So the Sacred Heart would survive the Reformation, in a way. The influences of classicism and realism affected the motif as well–so we also see hearts in real hands, and in that of Cupid, of course.

Heart Shaped Book

Heart Sincerity

Heart burning cupid ceiling

Master of the View of Sante Gudule, Young Man Holding a Book, c. 1485, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Carlo Dolci, Study for the figure of “Sincerity”, mid 17th century, British Museum; Francesco Mergolo, Design for a painted ceiling, 1770s, Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum.

And then we’re off: it’s a straight line from the delftware plate below, commemorating a marriage, to the sentimental tokens of today. The heart in hand motif loses its specific Christian meaning and comes to signify charity, friendship, love, benevolence, sentiment–much more general concepts. The Odd Fellows emblem appears not only on signs and banners, but on a myriad of more mundane items, including tools and flyswatters. Valentine’s Day become a holiday–with all that entails.

Heart in Hand Plate 1798 Delft Northeast

Heart Odd Fellows

Heart in Hand Folk Art

Heart in Hand Bonnie Cashin Gloves

Heart Warhol

Dutch Delftware marriage plate, 1798, Northeast Auctions; Heart in Hand, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, c. 1890 Museum Victoria; 19th century paper love token, Peggy McClard Antiques; “Heart in Your Hand” Gloves by Bonnie Cashin, 1974, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Heart in Hand by Andy Warhol, 1954, Christies “Love” Auction.


A Conspicuous Courtesan

Narrowing in on the subjects of Tudors and trials of my last post, I am presently working on a scholarly paper about the famous/infamous Jane Shore (née Elizabeth Lambert), a favorite mistress of King Edward IV (r. 1461-83), who, after his death, was accused of conspiratorial witchcraft in collusion with Edward’s Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, and the powerful courtier Lord William Hastings by King Richard III. Hastings lost his head, the Queen emerged unscathed under the protection of the ascendant Tudors, and Jane was compelled to undertake a barely-clothed (“save her kyrtle”) public walk of penance through the streets of London for harlotry–not witchcraft. Perhaps you can perceive my challenge: Jane Shore’s life reads like a novel or a play, and consequently she has received far more attention from novelists and playwrights than historians. Jane’s walk of shame, in particular, has been the focus of dramatic and visual representations from at least the eighteenth century onwards.

Conspicuous Courtesan Penny

NPG D19938; Called Jane Shore by Edward Scriven, published by  Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, after  Walter Stephens Lethbridge

Jane Shore Doing Penance through the Streets of London between Two Monks null by British School 19th century 1800-1899

Conspicuous Courtesan 2

Conspicuous Courtesan Plaidy

Penitential Jane: Edward Penny, Jane Shore Led in Penance to Saint Pauls, c. 1775-76, Birmingham Museums Trust;  British School, Edward Scriven stipple engraving after Walter Stephens Lethbridge, published by Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1821, National Portrait Gallery London; Jane Shore Doing Penance on the Streets of London between Two Monks, 19th century, Tate Museum; Victorian penny novel and the first (of many to come) cover of Jean Plaidy’s The King’s Mistress/Goldsmith’s Wife, 1952.

You can see where this is going…the Jean Plaidy cover is quite something!  After Nicholas Rowe’s “she-tragedy” The Tragedy of Jane Shore appeared in 1714 Jane was resurrected as a dramatic character, but she had played that role before. As a new dynasty, the Tudors had a vested interest in emphasizing the tyranny of Richard’s brief reign, thereby rationalizing and legitimizing their own. Consequently Richard’s victims, whether the completely innocent “princes in the tower” or the not-so-innocent Jane, were presented as overwhelmingly sympathetic figures. In his History of King Richard III, even the priggish Thomas More (who was acquainted with Jane in her old age–yes, she survived the walk of shame) characterizes her as soft, pleasant, witty, merry, and above all, tender-hearted, using her power over Edward to help others rather than herself: she never abused to any man’s hurt, but to many a man’s comfort and relief; where the king took displeasure, she would mitigate and appease his mind; where men were out of favor, she would bring them in his grace; for many that highly offended, she obtained pardon. More’s characterization proved consequential, and she persists (always as “Shore’s wife” even though her marriage to goldsmith William Shore was annulled in 1476 on the grounds of his impotence!) as the subject of ballads, plays and poems in the sixteenth century and after, by more Thomases (Churchyard, Deloney, Heywood) and their peers. Even Shakespeare references “Mistress Shore” in his Richard III, though he does not put her on the stage.

The visual depictions of Jane continue as well, and my favorites are portraits rather than those of her penitential walk. For his Shakespeare illustrated by an Assemblage of Portraits and Views appropriated to the whole suite of our Author’s Historical Dramas (1789-93), the artist and publisher Sylvester Harding produced two contrasting portraits of Jane–as harlot and lady–clearly taking his inspiration for the former from the earlier portraits of another conspicuous courtesan:  Diane de Poitiers, mistress of the French king Henri II. A morphing of mistresses!

ART Vol. d7, image on pg. 51 (Jane Shore)

ART Vol. d7, image on pg. 52 (Jane Shore)

Sylvester Harding, Portraits of Jane Shore, after 1790, Folger Shakespeare Library.


Scarlet Spirit

Well, the year is rapidly coming to an end, so I guess I’ll have to move on from my current obsession with ancient esoteric beverages. But first, one last drink for New Year’s Eve: alchermes (alternatively spelled alkermes), a scarlet red cordial with origins that are medieval, middle eastern, and medicinal. I was looking for something colorful to mix with champagne, and came up with this mysterious red elixir, although I doubt I’ll be able to find a bottle. Today, its most common use is in Italian pastries and the Italian variation on trifle, zuppa Inglese, but in the Renaissance it evolved from a herbal tonic for the heart to a secretive and fashionable cordial under the patronage of the Medici family in general and Catherine de’ Medici in particular, who introduced it to the court of France when she married the future King Henri II in 1533. Alchermes derived its name and its color from its most exotic ingredient, a tiny parasitic bug named kermes, which was later replaced by another red bug, cochineal. The presence of insects (along with gold leaf, crushed pearl, and ambergris) in the elixir doesn’t seem to have been too objectionable before the twentieth century, but thereafter artificial ingredients were substituted (I think). The venerable Dominican Santa Maria de Novella pharmacy is a major producer of Alchermes, which has been recognized and registered as a “traditional product” of Tuscany.

Alchermes 2 red elixir BL 15th C border

Alchermes Catherine Francois Clouet 1560 border

Alchermes V and A border

Alkermes SMN border 2

British Library Sloane MS 2560, central Europe, 15th century: an alchemical treatise illustrating the red elixir, a king or rosa rubea (red rose); Catherine de’ Medici, Queen Consort of France, as a new widow in 1560 by François Clouet; an 18th century pharmacy jar from the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum; a bottle of Alkermes from the Santa Maria de Novella pharmacy.


Ringbearers

As part of their midterm exams last week, I gave my Renaissance students several images to analyze, including one with a very earnest brown-eyed man holding–no, bearing a ring:  was he mourning a deceased wife or fiance, was he himself a lost husband, or more mundanely, was he a goldsmith advertising his wares? These are the usual interpretations, and my students came up with more interesting ones. There are a surprising number of these ringbearing portraits, maybe not enough to classify as a sub-genre, but certainly more than I realized. Most art historians seem to think the portrait below depicts Bolognese goldsmith and painter Francesco Francia.

Francesco del Cossa. Portrait of a Man with a Ring 1472

Francesco del Cossa, Portrait of a Man with a Ring, c. 1472-77, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

There is also a theory that this ringbearing young man was a member of the prominent Este family of Ferrara, which means he might be related to this other Francesco below, appearing in this striking portrait by Rogier van der Weyden. Franceso d’Este bears a ring and a hammer, which the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art believe might be jousting prizes or symbols of power. I had not thought of jousting prizes before, and while the hammer looks powerful, not sure about the ring.

Ringbearers van der Weyden

Rogier van der Weyden, Francesco dEste, c. 1460, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

This has got to be a northern Renaissance device/motif that found is way to Italy, like oil painting in general and portraits in particular. The earliest ringbearing portraits I could find were painting by Jan Van Eyck and one of his “followers”: the first painting is Van Eyck’s incredibly intimate portrait of Bruges goldsmith Jan de Leeuw, and the second is simply titled Young Man Holding a Ring. I have always found the de Leeuw portrait strikingly modern. The curators at the National Gallery of Art in London, whose collection the latter painting belongs to, explain the ring rather conventionally in terms of trade and/or impending marriage, but there is an inscription here (Lord, Let it Pass) so maybe things were a bit more complicated?

Jan_van_Eyck_-_Portrait_of_Jan_de_Leeuw_-_WGA7609

(c) The National Gallery, London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Jan Van Eyck, Jan de Leeuw,c. 1436, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Follower of Jan Van Eyck, Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Ring, c. 1450, National Gallery of Art, London.

Don’t get me wrong–I think it’s enough that these goldsmiths are being “captured”: such a great example of the relatively egalitarian and aspirational aspects of Renaissance society and culture. I just wish I knew the whole story behind these interesting portraits. I’m the most curious about the sole woman in this group: the mysterious and beautiful subject of Lorenzo di Credi’s Portrait of a Woman (c. 1490-1500). Most likely the widowed daughter of a goldsmith, or perhaps the widow of the artist’s brother, she is clearly not showcasing her own creation but rather commemorating a relationship.

Ringbearer Lorenzo di Credi

Lorenzo di Credi, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1490-1500, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Two other images speak to the Renaissance fascination with jewelry and jewellers, which I think might be both literal and symbolic:  one is my absolute favorite painting, Petrus Christus’ St. Eligius as a Goldsmith, variantly titled A Goldsmith in his Shop (1449) in which a couple are pictured in a goldsmith’s shop, presumably about to purchase a ring (with onlookers outside, as well as US). There’s a lot going on here: one of the acts associated with the early medieval St. Eligius was the gift of a gold ring to his contemporary Saint Godeberta before she took her religious vows. Petrus Christus might be portraying Godeberta torn between worldly and holy marriages-and she appears to be reaching towards the latter.

Saint Eligius as a goldsmith by Petrus Christus 1449

Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in his Shop, 1449, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

And finally there is the symbolic signature (after 1508) of another Northern Renaissance artist. Lucas Cranach the Elder: a crowned black serpent bearing a gold ruby ring. This heraldic device, which also served as Cranach’s coat of arms, appears in many variations (which you can see here) but no one seems to know precisely what it means–perhaps the artist simply thought it looked cool. I’ve always thought that Cranach was the most interesting and enigmatic of northern Renaissance artists, working closely with Luther to advance the cause of the Reformation visually while simultaneously maintaining commissions from the Catholic Church. Throughout his life, he always seemed to be reaching for the brass ring.

signature_of_louis_cranach_the_elder


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