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Millennia in the Mirror: Portraiture in Historical Society


Portraiture in Ancient Art

Portraiture has a history almost as long as humanity itself. We have always been compelled by a fascination with depictions; of ourselves, our religious figures, our royalty, and our politicians. In this article, we will discuss some of the main art movements and how portraiture helped shape them, and touch on some important historical examples along the way.




Lascaux Caves (15,000 B.C.)

Lascaux Caves (15,000 B.C.)



In ancient times, a figure drawn in stone or painted was often the only form of recorded history, in addition to being the only way to represent a person's likeness. Some of the earliest depictions of humans and animals can be found in caves, the most famous of which are the Lascaux Caves in France. The series of tunnels depict several types of wildlife potentially by dozens of different artists, all in one of the most well preserved settings in the world.


This fascination with depicting form was only the beginning, as another early example, the Venus of Willendorf, shows how paleolithic materials were used to create three-dimensional representations. This figurine carved in limestone is one of the earliest sculptures of a human that we know of, dating between 28,000 and 25,00 BCE.




Venus of Willendorf (28,000-25,000 BCE)

Venus of Willendorf (28,000-25,000 BCE)



These figures are speculated to have been used for spiritual purposes relating to fertility, but it has also been suggested that the figurine was in fact a self portrait, as indicated by the proportions of a woman who who would be looking at herself without any type of mirror.


Ancient Mesopotamian and Egyptian societies also utilized portraiture extensively, though almost exclusively in profile. These figures took on different importance in the composition depending on their size, a concept known today as hierarchical scale. These tablets, the most well known of which is The Standard of Ur, told stories of particular historical events, and provided instructions for rituals in a way that could be easily understood by an illiterate society.


The Egyptians needed a way to clearly depict complex religious concepts and rituals, and created their own visual language in order to ensure that all rules and regulations were met on their journey to the afterlife. Often, these portraits and intricate paintings in tombs and pyramids were not meant to be seen by the public at all, however, they did typically have both literal and allegorical meanings, meant to appeal to both the living and the dead who had crossed into the immortal world, as well as the gods of those worlds.



In the canon of Art History, the most important developments in portraiture were without a doubt those of Ancient Greece and Rome. It was in the High Classical period that the idealized human form became prescribed down to a science by the sculptor Polykleitos, and his standards have defined “classical” art ever since. Sculptors in this period used contrapposto as their main guideline for positioning the human figure. Using this method, the line of the figure's shoulders would contrast with the angle of the figure's hips, giving them a natural and relaxed looking stance. But Polykleitos was not satisfied with the simple contrapposto that many of his contemporaries employed, and created a more complex system of balancing different parts of the body. For example, in his sculpture Doryphoros (Spear Bearer), the subject's right leg and arm echo each other in rigid, straightened form, while the left side strikes more dynamic, flexed positions.




Doypheros, Roman copy of the Greek original by Polykleitos, copy ca. 1st century BC

Doypheros, Roman copy of the Greek original by Polykleitos, copy ca. 1st century BC



But if you look closer, the muscles that would be active in holding this position are in fact diagonally corresponding in the right leg and left arm, while the opposite limbs are relaxed. Polykleitan style was something like a magic trick at the time, giving the illusion of motion through a dynamic positioning of a static figure. It was for this reason that the classical ideals of beauty go on to last for centuries moving forward.



The Romans also pioneered a tradition of remembering their ancestors with portrait busts. Patrician families in ancient Rome would commission imagines, or portrait masks, of their ancestors in order to defend their genealogy and therefore their nobility. These portraits were true to the actual appearance of the (almost exclusively) men that they were depicting, down to every wrinkle and scar, because elders were the most revered and honorable members of patrician society.


 These veristic portraits (from the Latin word for truth, veritas), would be brought out for important events such as funerals so that all members of the family would be “present”.




Another major historical development in portraiture was that of depicting human likenesses on coins. Though human-like figures had been shown on coins since their invention in the 7th century BCE, these anonymous faces in profile were often representational depictions of gods, with features that would have been associated with nobility and power. It wasn't until the several centuries later that rulers had the audacity to render their own features on any form of currency. The most well known of these early currencies is one that features Julius Caesar, circa 44 BCE. Despite the fact that it is a two dimensional portrait in profile, it remains true to the traditions of verism by showing him with his aging skin and receding hairline. The coin also includes his title: dictator perpetuo or “dictator for life”. From this point on, living rulers would continue to use coins to shape public opinion by advertising their titles and achievements.




Denarius coin circa 44 BC depicting Julius Caesar

Denarius coin depicting Julius Caesar, circa 44 BC



Byzantium and Medieval Depiction: Unification of Church and State


The Byzantine empire brought about an exceptional tradition of mosaic art in churches, with the addition of nobility and high ranking church officials in depictions with divinity. In this golden age of Byzantine art, many churches were erected with lavish interior decoration, most notably the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, and the Hagia Sofia Church in present day Istanbul. Portraits included in these churches also functioned as a way to express authority in territories where leaders would never get a chance to travel, given the expansive nature of the Byzantine empire.


In fact, many emperors would have portraits painted of them being crowned by Christ himself in an effort to legitimize both their political power and their religious authority. One example of such “proxy portraiture” is the mosaics in the apse of the church of San Vitale that show Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora, though neither ever visited Ravenna.


This was also the age of religious iconography. Small, portable icons of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other various saints were increasingly popular for people to have in private settings, in addition to public places of worship. However, icons were highly controversial, especially in light of the Old Testament ban on such depictions of divinity. Many concerned parties did not see a clear difference between icon veneration; the act of invoking the presence of the holy in prayer through an image, and icon worship; the act of praying to the object itself. Such confusion resulted in an eventual ban on icons, including the destruction of already existing depictions. This period in the 8th century was called the iconoclasm, and lasted for over one hundred years while countless depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other saints were destroyed.



After the iconoclasm, the tradition of depicting icons for both personal and public use continued on for centuries. One of the crowning achievements of the tradition of altar painting in the medieval period was the Ghent Altarpiece in Belgium by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck.




The Ghent Altarpiece (open) by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, completed in 1432

The Ghent Altarpiece (open) by Hubert and Jan Van Eyck, completed in 1432



But the cost of such intricacy was high, and those who sponsored these magnificent artworks did not want their piety be forgotten. For this reason, images of the patrons of such works were often painted into the scenes as a testament to their ownership. On the Ghent Altarpiece, the two donors are displayed on the outer external panels, hands clasped in prayer to their patron saints, to be seen when the altarpiece is closed.


In Flemish culture, where the Ghent Altarpiece was painted, artisans had to belong to a Guild in order to pursue a given craft. In Flanders the painter's guild was the Guild of Saint Luke, the patron saint of Painting. Admission to these guilds was often costly, especially if you were from another town. Most members were heirs to generations of skill and experience, beginning apprenticeships with their fathers at a very young age. The guilds were also almost exclusively male, due to the fact that most apprentices lived in the homes of the masters they were learning from, which would have been socially unacceptable for an unmarried female student at the time.



The tradition of patron sponsored portraiture continued through the Renaissance, particularly in the context of a lack of a single consistent sovereign ruler in Papal Italy. Princes, dukes, counts and cardinals ruled smaller areas and in such areas were often the wealthiest individuals, who would have portraits made of themselves to be displayed in their territories and advertise their power and affluence.



Italian Renaissance Art


In the early 1400’s Italy became the artistic and cultural center of Europe. Wealthy princes and merchants during this time took on a more holistic view of the arts, expressing more interest in education and the sciences and reviving the legacy of the Greek and Roman arts. Their renewed interest in classical antiquity led to a new appreciation and emulation of the early classical ideals expressed through sculpture and painting. In Renaissance portraiture, religious figures were still the dominant subject matter, but artists took more care in capturing the emotions of their subjects making them more accessible and human to the viewer.




Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with two Angles, circa 1460

Fra Filippo Lippi, Madonna and Child with two Angles, circa 1460



In Filippo Lippi’s painting of Madonna and Child with Angels the attention to expression and proximity between subjects emphasizes the tender relationship between Mary and Christ.



The relationship between wealthy patrons and artists flourished during this period. The rich became richer as increased trade and economic growth led to an increase in the expendable income of patrons. Traditionally, portraits were painted in the profile pose like Piero Della Francesca’s portraits of Battista Sforza and Federico da Montefeltro, but during this period patrons wanted a more realistic representation of themselves and artists began to experiment with three-quarter and full-face poses.




Piero della Francesca, Ritratto di Battista Sforza e Federico da Montefeltro, Circa 1465

Piero della Francesca, Ritratto di Battista Sforza e Federico da Montefeltro, Circa 1465



One of the most well-known portraits of the Renaissance period is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. For a woman to have such a direct gaze would have been a very unusual sight for the contemporary viewer while her lack of jewelry and ornate clothing also broke from the use of portraiture as a status symbol of the patron.




Portraiture's Lasting Legacy


As time went on, portraits continued to be commissioned as important symbols of status, even up until the present day. Portraits are an important way to remember our history, and the legacy that is created by capturing a personality on canvas is a lasting, significant gesture. Here at M. S. Rau we are pleased to be able to offer some of these treasures to you!



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