On returning from Italy, I decided it was high time I supplemented my scant knowledge of medieval and Renaissance art, so I gathered up a few books* on the subject. After reading said books, it occurred to me that a Renaissance art vacation extender might be available at the Metropolitan Museum, so I looked up the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. I’d forgotten, if I really ever knew, what a rich resource this is, and trolling around the Medieval/Renaissance sections proved a time sink of the best sort. I picked out a few artworks to visit in person next time I could. Here’s one of those I visited yesterday.
As described in the Heilbrunn Timeline, Petrus Christus was
. . . the leading painter in Bruges (Flanders) after the death of Jan van Eyck. The panel attests to Netherlandish artists’ keen interest in pictorial illusionism and meticulous attention to detail, especially in the luminous jeweled, glass, and metallic objects, secular and ecclesiastic trade wares that are examples of the goldsmith’s virtuosity. [cite]
Tucked in the lower right corner is a convex mirror, which put in mind John Ashbery’s meditation on a Parmigiano painting, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. Turns out there was considerable fascination with convex mirrors in Christus’s time. In Christus’s painting,
The convex mirror, which links the pictorial space to the street outside, reflects two young men with a falcon (a symbol of pride and greed) and establishes a moral comparison between the imperfect world of the viewer and the world of virtue and balance depicted here. [cite]
Also notable is something now missing from the painting: a halo around the goldsmith’s head. In Peter and Linda Murray’s The Art of the Renaissance, the halo is present, and the painting is titled St Eligius and the Lovers; in the painting at the Met, the title is changed and the halo is gone. Turns out the halo was added after the fact and removed when the painting was restored. [cite; commentary on this is included in the audio samples]
In preparation for the 1994 exhibition Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges, the issue of the halos was again raised. They were determined through technical examination to be later additions, and they were removed. With the removal of the halos, the aesthetic intentions of the artist were restored. Christus was among the first early Netherlandish painters to break through the barrier of the plain, dark background that was conventionally employed in portraiture by providing an illusionistic space to surround the figures. The addition of the halos, by contrast, introduced an element that forced the viewer to focus on the foreground, discouraging further investigation of the space beyond the picture plane. The restoration thus allowed for a renewed discussion of the function and meaning of the paintings. Neither panel was originally conceived as a religious image; the false halos had altered their intended function as secular portraits. [cite]
*End note: The books, all of which I did actually read cover-to-cover. They are of varying quality: Graham-Dixon’s book, a companion to a BBC series, comes in for particular abuse, with Manchester’s book not far behind.
>Graham-Dixon, Andrew, Renaissance
>Manchester, William, A World Lit only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of an Age
>Murray, Peter and Linda, The Art of the Renaissance
>Welch, Evelyn, Art in Renaissance Italy
Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.