Articulate (verb) ärtĭ'kyəlāt: to explain meaning, to put into words coherently. Writing contemporary art, rewriting art history.

Category: Historical Art

An Ordinary Picture


Small and dark, obscured behind dirty varnish and bulletproof glass, the portrait known as the Mona Lisa has become a universal icon, an image known to millions. It has been the subject of such intense and inexhaustible mythographia that its very name no longer refers to a sixteenth-century woman, but to the painting hanging in the Louvre, stripped of its history and encrusted by legends.

Yet the painting remains a portrait, the depiction of a specific individual in a specific cultural setting. If we cast aside centuries of accumulated (usually ill-considered) speculation, we can approach the painting as a piece of contemporary art, seen afresh from within the tastes, expectations and modes of thought of the sixteenth century. We can unravel how a contemporary audience would have understood this storied work, as an astonishing portrait that carried some privileged glimpses into the mind of an extraordinary artist.

Sixteenth-century Florence was not bounded by modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate: its citizens lived in multifaceted society composed of intricate networks of social obligation and promotion. They were also highly visually literate, both adept at discerning the nuances of iconography and actively engaged in using their art to build a societal identity that emulated the heroic Classical past.

Renaissance society easily reconciled material luxury with the increasing intellectualisation of painting. Civic humanism appreciated the accrual of wealth as the basis for civic benefit; at the time, ideas celebrating the dignity of man reoriented investment in material culture towards artworks which embodied ‘genius’, that concept of semi-divine inspiration which increasingly defined cultural capital during the renaissance.

Portraiture was just such an elitist commodity, announcing the wealth, intellectual taste and prestige of the owner, and as conspicuous consumption to enhance social position. Viewers could easily discern not only the sitter’s status but their character and interests, their personal ties and self-perceptions in the complex visual language of their surrounding symbolic or allegorical attributes. Contemporary audiences had no difficulty recognising multiple aspects to portraiture, and looked to clues patronage and context to support interpretation. The clues which might define Mona Lisa, however, are troublesomely scarce.

Although undeniably by da Vinci’s hand the panel is unsigned and undated, nor does any mention appear in his notebooks. In the absence of these facts, debate has raged around the dating of the work and possible identity of the sitter.

The marked similarities to Florentine drawings, in particular those made by Raphael during his residence in the Tuscan city 1504-1508, suggest that Mona Lisa was begun before 1504. Professor Martin Kemp however dates the work to 1513-1516, asserting that the technique of veiled glazes is characteristic of da Vinci’s later style. This suggests that the portrait was a cumulative image, begun around 1503 and developed in stages over the succeeding years.

Closely tied to the date is the question of the sitter’s identity. Though it is unlikely he saw the painting, the renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari wrote that the figure was Madonna Lisa del Giocondo. Historians have since proposed as the sitter the Duchess of Milan Isabella of Aragon, or the widowed Duchess of Francavilla Constanza d’Avalos. Other contenders include Isabella Gualanda, the artist’s mother Caterina or the artist himself in female guise.


Fortunately, this speculation has been rendered academic. Vasari’s traditionally accepted attestation that the sitter is indeed Lisa di Antonmaria Gherardini, who married Ser Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo in 1495 and bore him five children, has been supported by archival documents uncovered by researcher Guiseppe Pallanti, after twenty-five years’ research in the city of Florence archives.

Even more recently, the discovery of a contemporary souce has confirmed Pallanti’s findings. A note by city chancellery official Agostino Vespucci compares da Vinci to the classical painter Apelles, stating that he was currently working on three paintings at once – one of them a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. Vespucci’s handwritten notes in the margin from October 1503 permit an exact dating of the painting and with only a few words, solves two centuries-old enigmas.

Among the renaissance middle class, portraits were commissioned for specific reasons; the birth of Gherardini and Giocondo’s second son Andrea in 1502 would have furnished just such an occasion. Alongside its role as a statussymbol, portraiture in the renaissance often functioned as a remembrance of a loved one in their absence or death: having previously lost two spouses within a year of marriage as a result of childbirth, an apprehensive Ser Francesco may have desired a commemoration of his open-hearted third wife.

The Florentine documents unearthed by Pallanti also reveal the close association of the Giocondo family with da Vinci’s own. Ser Francesco was a client of da Vinci’s father, the distinguished notary Ser Piero da Vinci. Living in the same district of Florence, the two men were civic associates and members of the same social circle for many years. As the Giocondo family chapel was located in the nearby church of Santissima Annunziata, where Ser Piero was the convent’s procurator and Leonardo had lodged whilst assuming Filippo Lippi’s commission for the altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with St Anne, it is highly likely that the artist was well acquainted with both Ser Francesco and Madonna Lisa.

Scholars have wondered why an artist accustomed to the patronage of aristocrats would accept a commission from a local merchant, especially when he was refusing commissions, claiming that he was ‘overtaxed by the brush.’ The social intricacies of sixteenth century Florence make it probable that the portrait was commissioned by Ser Piero as a gift, as he is known to have to have done on other occasions: in addition to being an expression of affection, such a gift would garner social prestige and create the obligation of favourable regard from a well-connected family. Pallanti suggests it may also have been the elder da Vinci’s way of offering financial assistance to his son, whose bank records suggest was without an income in the spring of 1503.15 Considering the commission as a family favour accounts for not only the lack of studio or financial records (it may in fact never have been paid for), but the painting remaining in da Vinci’s possession.

The painting itself fits firmly into the formal genre of Florentine portraiture. Although slightly larger than most portraits, it is still on a domestic scale, doubtless intended for display in Ser Francesco’s recently purchased household. Mona Lisa conforms to the convention of placing female sitters indoors, reflecting their role in sixteenth century society. The family unit was the intersection between public and private which determined the individual’s relation to society; the civic task of women was to instill republican virtue and morality into their families. A common symbol denoting civic responsibility in masculine portraits, the twin pillars of the loggia here enclose the sitter in the domestic setting and indicate the societal aspects of two lives conjoined in matrimony.


The presentation of the sitter, however, differs surprisingly from the conventional. The common attributes of affluence, status or social role are absent, as is the expected allegorical and symbolic iconography. Rather than holding a book indicative of literary interests, Gherardini’s hands rest upon the chair arm in a gesture indicating morally sound conduct. She does not appear with the pet that would bespeak a luxurious lifestyle, or a symbolic animal such as an ermine; not even a simple vase of flowers adds to the semiotic schema. The sitter is not transformed into a biblical or classical allegory, but depicted without commentary other than the fantastical panorama outside her loggia.

Gherardini is also depicted without the expected trappings of wealth. She wears no rings, and the necklace which once graced her throat was painted out by the artist. Gherardini’s gown, often assumed to be dark mourning attire, is actually of a style fashionable in early sixteenth-century Tuscany, in rich green silk with saffron sleeves, the veil of a modest Florentine matron covering her simply dressed hair. The design of linked rings and knots on her camicia suggests the wedding ring absent from her finger, or is perhaps a conceit by an artist enamoured of elaborate knots.

With the Florentine documents revealing that Gherardini’s social background to be the yeomanry (her dowry having been a farm in Chianti rather than a substantial sum invested in the city’s dowry fund, as was customary among the urban patrician class), the lack of display reflects the quiet tastes of a woman unimpressed with ostentation, and removes any distraction from the startling realism with which she is depicted.

Though unconventional in detail, the painting’s breathtaking realism represents the very ideal of renaissance portraiture. Alhough influenced by Netherlandish art’s vivid realism, Italian artists also subscribed to Neoplatonic theories which exalted an idealised naturalism. Accordingly, rather than the conscious manipulation of reality to command emotional impact practiced in Flanders, the Italian emphasis was on such a subtly perfected mimesis and virtuoso representation that the image seemed so like to life that it lacked only breath. With consummate delicacy of technique, da Vinci achieved a likeness so physiognomically mobile and possessing such vitality that it elicits the same instintive, visceral response as toward another living person.

The secret of Mona Lisa’s motile image lay in da Vinci’s sophisticated use of sfumato (‘dark smoke’). A development of tonal painting, sfumato superimposed transparent layers of colour to achieve convincing effects of perspective, depth and volume. Characterised by delicate translucence, da Vinci’s pictorial texture was well suited to almost imperceptible gradations of veiled shadow and colouration. So ethereal are the layered glazes of Mona Lisa that light is refracted, yielding an extraordinary luminosity; X-rays pass through virtually unobstructed by the minimal pigment density.

Breaking from the sharply limned Florentine tradition, the subtlety of the portrait’s modelling displays a superbly confident painterly execution, which would not have been lost on a sixteenth-century audience. Where the mirror-like morbidezza surface itself required an unrivalled dexterity, the shadows of the sfumato effect demanded seemingly inimitable application and patience in the placement of myriad fine layers, with no possibility of reworking and allowing each time to dry.

It is this realism that lies behind the mythologisation of Mona Lisa as a modern enigma. While perhaps due to musicians hired to alleviate the sitter’s boredom as Vasari suggests, the ‘enigmatic’ quality of Gherardini’s smile is due more to the fevered intellectual climate of European Romanticism, wose critics were intent on embedded Mona Lisa in the public consciousness as the turbid embodiment of woman as an eternal, sphinx-like mystery. The early twentieth century saw the famed smile subject to psychoanalytic investigation, most notably by Sigmund Freud, who in 1910 proposed that the smile, so like a nursing mother’s, was patterned after the artist’s absent mother Caterina- a traumatic separation that accounted for da Vinci’s homosexuality.

Perhaps the most extreme psychographic interpretation is the suggestion that Mona Lisa is a self-portrait in female guise. In her exposition of Mona Lisa as ‘woman-revealed-as-mask,’ Lilian Schwartz (1987) uses sociological theories of gender identity to validate the Freudian justification of da Vinci’s sexuality. While undeniably delighting in the play of ambiguity and fantasia, da Vinci was nevertheless unlikely to produce such a transgendered self- portrait; it is far more probable that any resemblance to the artist unintentionally results from his style and practice.


A sixteenth-century audience, on the other hand, would ascribe none of these myths to the painted smile. Cinquecento viewers would recognise the smile as an artifice, an artistic device to impart that the image is a living, genuine simulacrum, invested with the virtues and emotional identity of a specific individual. The spectator’s conscious participation in the fiction of the sitter’s receptivity also reflects this surrogacy. The notion of a portrait’s capacity to react benignly to the spectator, to listen if not to speak, is exemplified in Mona Lisa: the illusion that Gherardini is truly and tangibly there, aware of and responsive to the spectator’s presence is what generates the impression of life. Rather than a more obvious narrative, Mona Lisa exquisitely exploits the communicative mutuality between the sitter and the spectator, using the complex language of nonverbal communication. Turning in her chair at the viewer’s “appearance” in her loggia, Madonna Lisa directly answers their presence with a smile; as the sitter seems to react to the spectator, so the spectator is placed, physcially and sympathetically, in relation to the painting’s imagined space, and not the reverse.

Renaissance spectators would also recognise in Madonna Lisa’s smile the literary conventions of the day, inextricable from the conventions of painting. Influenced by the Classicist vocabulary of humanism, both arts increasingly portrayed women not as people but in terms of abstracted qualities. While individualising his female sitters to varying degrees, da Vinci’s portraiture nonetheless remained true to the pictorial formula of the ‘Florentine beauty’, illustrating the Neoplatonic idea that feminine beauty was the outward manifestation of virtue.

With their outlook shaped by perceptual conditions very different from the modern era, sixteenth-century audiences would understand the sitter’s smile not as an eternal enigma, but simply an expected indication of inward virtue to match outward beauty. Of course, given renaissance society’s enthusiasm for games with portraits, contemporary viewers would also appreciate Gherardini’s smile as a clever play on her husband’s name, giocondo meaning ‘smiling’ or ‘lighthearted’.

No, for the contemporary audience, insight into the artist’s interests and aspirations was found in vista beyond Mdonna Lisa’s loggia. In the sixteenth century, background landscapes were less important than semiotic narrative, considered mere ornamentation; the artist was thus free to indulge his interests as he developed the image. Easily discerning the tensions of realism and fantasia, the renaissance spectator’s “surprised eye” would establish the interdependence between the meaningful layers of the painted image.


The atmospheric landscapes which frequently recur in da Vinci’s works are commonly regarded as indicating his scientific interests. Multiple analogies closely connect the sitter and landscape in Mona Lisa, suggesting the figure may be seen as a philosophical metaphor for the physical systems of the world, and vice versa. The landscape’s placement on the panel responds to the sitter’s height and pose; the rivers meet at the level of her heart, and although the horizon line is unclear it corresponds roughly to her eye level. Similarly, the gradations of originally intense colour ranging from fiery ochre in the mid- ground to the clear blue sky behind the sitter’s head resonates with Classical associations with the body and intellect.

Da Vinci’s untiring investigations into anatomy developed his understanding of how the microcosm participates in the macrocosm, discovering affinities between the mechanisms of the human body and the body of the earth. The worldly body is implicit in the imposing landscape; against pictorial convention, the upland lakes are bent into an arc suggesting the curvature of the earth, the “sphere of water” which echoes the three-dimensionality of Gherardini’s form.

The presence of the feminine element of water is apparent as the sculpting force of the craggy geological formations, and in the rivers’ function as ‘veins of the earth’ : the watery currents of the background are consciously mirrored in the sitter’s rivulets of hair and the cascading drapery of her camicia and veil. Laid bare to the gaze, the geological and hydrological cycles which shape and vitalise nature seem to flow between the microcosmic sitter and the macrocosm of landscape in an intertextual narrative recognisable to a renaissance audience. These visually eloquent meditations are not didactic but function as a paragone, awakening a sense of surprised wonder as does poetic metaphor while revealing the far-ranging intellectual intensity of the artist.

The portrait’s play of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) similarly reveals the artist’s interest in optical theories. Da Vinci’s demonstration that vision becomes more sensitive when the eye is dark-adapted is seen in the dim studio lighting he preferred for portraiture, especially the hues favoured by dark-adapted sight found in Mona Lisa. His optical understanding makes the shared space of the portrait even more realistic: the optical possibilities and limitations of the painting are exactly as if the viewer were standing in a pre-calculated position before Gherardini, in a more deeply shadowed part of her loggia.

Conscious of living in a society that defined itself in opposition to its past, renaissance viewers were nonetheless keenly aware that their new visual language was formed around persistent elements of medieval art. More than most artists, da Vinci was a gothic artist, drawing heavily upon the gothic tradition in his oeuvre, becoming genuinely progressive by looking backward. Mona Lisa’s smile gives fresh currency to the medieval formulae common in fifteenth-century Netherlandish art. Similarly, the otherworldly fantasia of the rocky landscape is common in late gothic illumination and panel painting; the portrait’s exploration of man as a microcosm of the world derives from Ristoro’s thirteenth-century cosmology. While more complex than its precursors, da Vinci’s luminous textures and chiaroscuro recalls the natural play of light found in the burnished gold of medieval religious works. The potency of these underlying gothic traits is renovated in Mona Lisa by their fusion with the humanist intellectualism of the sixteenth century.landscape-drawing-for-santa-maria-della-neve-1473
It is uncertain why Mona Lisa remained in da Vinci’s keeping until his death. More lucrative commissions meant that work on the portrait progressed slowly; da Vinci likely considered it unfinished, indeed, the background landscape is based on drawings made as late as 1515. While the patron or recipient might have lost interest in the finished work, it is far more probable that da Vinci retained the painting as a reputation-enhancing showpiece of his formidable skill. Presumably given to his apprentice Salai before da Vinci’s death in France, the portrait subsequently passed into the collection of Francis I, thus becoming a touchstone of French culture.

Mona Lisa need not be regarded a mysterious image that has irreversibly lost its historical context. Viewed as its intended audience would. Mona Lisa is revealed as a typical – albeit exceedingly sophisticated – product of it time, articulated by da Vinci’s matchless technical skill. For centuries, scholars have seen the painting as something more than just the representation of an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times. Da Vinci himself may have understood it to be nothing less.

An Active Imagination

Just as ‘private’ devotions like books of hours had a public dimension, displaying their rich fittings and decorations, so too the great ‘public’ religious art of the Middle Ages contained a private aspect that activated spiritual awareness on a very personal level.

Even in mercantile, bourgeois late medieval cities, religion and salvation were prime concerns for people at all levels of society, and the majestic religious works over the altar would have been seen on an almost daily basis, becoming deeply engrained in the ordinary person’s consciousness. Yet discerning the messages held in those works did not take place as part of public worship: indeed, attendance at mass was neither regular universal or fervent, and individuals displayed varying attitudes toward piety, just as they do today.  Rather, it occurred during completion of the altarpiece and panel paintings, works which were in turn geared to elicit that shape that contemplative engagement.

In the bustling urban setting of Flemish religious art, with its tensions and exchanges of wealth and status, public benefaction and artistic patronage became a civic and social ritual along the affluent middle class, merchants and bankers who eagerly mimicked the aristocracy’s culture of lavish display and largesse. Gifting to the church was especially savvy patronage, combining concerns for charity and salvation with the display of the donors’ portraits or coats of arms.

One of the most magnificent examples of this is the Ghent Altarpiece, painted by Jan van Eyck in 1432. Stretching more than 5 metres wide and soaring 3.6 high, the multi-panel work is a tour de force of closely observed realism and densely complex symbolic iconography. Yet its ambitious scale and overwhelming opulence tends to obscure the subtlety with which it directs the religious sensibilities of the viewer.

The closed exterior panels of the triptych depict the patron Jodocus Vijt and his wife Lysbette Borluut, kneeling prayerfully before trompe l’oiel statues of Saints John the Evangelist and John the Baptist. The portraits of the donor couple are fascinating for the purpose the artist makes them serve, actually standing in place of and standing as examples for the viewer, indicating the bodily attitude of devotion which draws the worshipper to contemplation of the religious mystery.

Subtly but significantly, there is no eye contact between the donors and the statues. They do not see the sculpted saints, they see the representations of representations. More so, they are not kneeling before the statues in supplication, but metaphorocially beside them. The Vijts’ abstracted gaze indicates they are not literally addressing the saintly archetypes, but engaged in a more active imagining of the mystery.

There is also tension in their placement: at the same moment as their relentless realism places them ‘within’ the viewer’s space, their architectural framing removes them from that space, a signal to the viewer that the intellectual contemplation of the divine is enacted within a ‘different’ reality, a space created by their devotional actions. Once the body sets the stage for contemplation, the spirit is free to imagine the mysteries.


Above the donor’s heads is a contiguous scene of the annunciation set in an ordinary Flemish home; at the top, Biblical sybils and prophets peer down at the domestic scene. The medieval audience was very familiar with the popular visual trope of miraculous happenings taking place in a homely setting, bringing the divine into the everyday and investing the most domestic objects with spiritual symbolism. But looking at the annunciation scene above the donors, van Eyck’s realism seems jarred. Although the chamber is spacious, with a view over the city, the ceiling is too low, and for the intimacy of what passes between angel and Virgin, the space is too wide. The figures literally do not fit the domestic space. The unreality of the scene is strengthened by the wings of the angel, a startling arpeggio of green and orange that visually overwhelms the pale figure of the Virgin, drained of colour. It is clear van Eyck does not offer a simulation of the Annunciation in the same sense as the lifelike simulation of the donors: the scene is deliberately made unreal, and littered with fictional signals such as the sculpture-like dove above Mary’s head, as clues that it is not intended to depict reality, but an imagining of the event.

In the upper register of the scene, Prophets and Sibyls contribute the theological imagination of the Annunciation, of the coming of Christ as the fulfilment of the Old Testament covenant; again, a concept central to public religious art since late Antiquity.

What van Eyck presents in the Ghent Altarpiece is not a conventional image of an ‘actual’ miraculous Annunciation (whether literal or symbolic), but a sophiscated depiction of the mystery being imagined, visualised and intellectualised through the worshippers’ prolonged contemplation of the work. Van Eyck’s visual cues reward time spent alone with private thoughts before the altarpiece; once they are discerned, the work comes alive with dynamic interactions that extend far beyond the picture plane, engaging internalised religious knowledge and sensibilities of the individual in a way not well understood today. The viewer receives not only the rewarding experience of ‘decoding’ a symbolically erudite work of art, but achieves a level of heightened level of imaginative consciousness and spiritual clarity in doing so, harnessing the body and galvanising the imagination through the complex, enactive symbolism.

Going Dutch

From the dark ages until the advent of steel nibs and fountain pens in the nineteenth century, the quill pen dominated western writing. Although now the domain of the hobbyist, the quill nonetheless retains its romance, artistic flexibility- and the skill needed to handle it as a writing implement.
In handbooks for the modern scribe, there are invariably instructions for heat tempering quill pens, a process called ‘dutching’. As with most aspects, the assumption is that this was a historical practice. Yet curing a quill with sand is a relatively modern phenomenon, dating only to the mid-eighteenth century: throughout the great ages of the medieval manuscript, pens were prepared by ageing, selection and cutting.

In common with many professions, manuals and treatises were written throughout the later middle ages: the earliest printed book to appear Sigismondo Fanti’s Theorica et Practica in 1514, dealing with handwriting and lettering. None mention dutching, but agree that age curing is needed to turn feathers into pens. Giovanbattista Palatino in 1540 recommends selecting a quill that had already become hard and clear with age, from which the fatty membrane should be scraped away with the pen knife, and also not to rub it with a cloth. Juan Vives in 1538 suggests this be done by rubbing the quill inside the jacket or on the thighs of the hose. Fanti and Tagliente (1524) both recommend scraping with a knife. Hamon in 1567 talks about selecting a barrel which is clean, dried and not greasy; Scalzi in 1581 specifically warns not to use quills that are too fresh, recommending a year old. This continues right on with Billingslie in 1618, the same method in Shelley in 1714: even Bradbury writes in 1815 that ‘it is age best mellows and meliorates a quill’.

It is notable that air dried quills seem quite durable: in 1630 Philemon Holland poetically claimed that he wrote out the whole of his translation of the Moralia without needing to recut his (pre-loved!) quill: “…This Booke I wrote with one poor Pen, made of grey Goose quill, A Pen I found it, us’d before, a Pen I leave it still.” pens
The first references to heat curing occur in 1760, referring to quills shipped from Holland in an already clarified condition: the newly-invented process, soon adopted elsewhere, became known as “dutchifying” or “dutching.” These quills were prepared by being placed in a moist cellar for several hours, their points in the damp earth, or wrapped in a wet cloth. A hole about six inches deep was then made into a coal fire; the quill was then inserted into the space. After a few seconds the quill was placed on a metal plate and draw beneath a dutching hook, a flat metal tool that flattened the barrel, removed the outer covering and any oily surface, and shrivelled the inner membrane. The heat and pressure caused the explosive release of heated air form the tip of the quill, accompanied by a sharp sound, known in the trade as ‘snapping’. Any remaining oil or membrane were removed by rubbing with the skin of a dogfish.

By the 1830s, a simpler method had come into use wherein the quill was soaked in water for several hours, before being plunged into hot sand or ashes, and is the basis for the method used by modern calligraphers, Quills were sold in small bundles ‘dutched’ but uncut, or purchased from pencutters ready for use. Mechanical nibbers appeared in France around 1820, with the most popular being patented by Joseph Rodgers in England in 1835, meeting “the decided approbation of the first penmen in this Kingdom.” 1883_Quill_pens_adx


meat stall
Pieter Aertsen’s The Meat Stall is a full-tilt assault on the senses. To keep your eyes on the painting is to feel, practically to smell the glutinous, raw flesh as much as seeing it. But this jarring impact has a purpose: to shock and disorientate viewers, forcing them to look deeper into the painting to discover clues to its real meaning. This visceral connection is no less felt by modern audiences that the original viewers- but far removed from its place and time, those clues, and therefore that meaning, are lost…a common hazard looking at early modern art.

In recent years, renaissance art works have become once again ‘acceptable’ objects to enjoy and study. But rather than ceding hard-won ground to the odious political imperatives of the canon or subjective connoisseurship, emphasis has been placed on the contextual readings that arise from the work’s creation and reception in its original historical-cultural milieu. This is resonance, the recognition that artworks are social objects, intimately connected to people and histories, and emerging from a specific cultural background that connects- or resists connection- with our own contemporary cultural furniture. This premise allows early modern works to be recast as contemporary art. Accreted meanings and the distances of history are consciously stripped away, rendering a work from the fifteenth century as open to interpretation and ascription as a work created in the twenty-first. A contemporary audience may thus re-experience a now-venerable work as if new, by imaginatively re-entering a time when that work was the cutting edge of what was (then) contemporary. And when reconsidered from within the context of its time, renaissance works can yield startling revelations.

Nowhere is this more marked than The Meat Stall. Art historians usually grant it hallowed status as ‘inventing’ several genres: market scenes, inverted morality pictures, encomia, and still life in general. Yet in 1551, the year it was painted- those concepts simply did not exist, and its original viewers, the respectable citizens of Antwerp, would respond according to its immediate visual language. The discomforting synaesthesia of raw, glutinous chunks of meat, unprecedented in Flemish painting but here depicted with such unsettling realism, is the first thing to induce shock and disorientation in its audience- and once off balance, the jumbled semiotic scheme denies them a unified reading of the image. Viewers are forced to put together a visual puzzle to find the meaning.

The painting itself is also clue. In an era when art was valued for to the subtlety of its dialogue with convention, The Meat Stall’s jarring disruption defies and satirises the predictable, elitist nature of art. The fragmented image reinforces the unsettling sense that something is fractured in staid, bourgeois Flemish society. alms
Looking past the dismembered carcasses and the bull’s head that fixedly stares back, the stall itself looks out not across the market lane but surreally onto an allegorical country scene- as it turns out, a ‘Biblical’ scene depicting the Holy Family giving alms on the Flight into Egypt. Seated on her donkey, the Virgin offers her bread to a boy and his father on the road- a modest act of Christian charity literally dwarfed by the rich foods for sale, eternal food for the soul in stark contrast to temporal food for the flesh. Aertsen’s unprecedented inversion of scale and importance, giving prominence to a mundanity and relegating the traditionally elevated religious art to the background, clearly signals another inversion between the secular and sacred.

The middle-ground figure to the right of the Holy Family reveals exactly how topical these signs of fractured nature are, and how closely tied to local knowledge. Alone in the arch formed by the stall, the youth dressed in the same red as the flensed head, is unambiguously framed as the key to the composition. That red jacket and knife block at his belt would be instantly recognisable to anyone in the city as the badge the Vleeschouwers Ambacht, Antwerp’s prestigious butcher’s guild…also a prominent property owner and a powerful force in the city’s economy. Pieter_Aertsen_butcher
But rather than being shown proudly at his trade, he is shown beneath a small, hurriedly written sign above the stall advertising a certain parcel of land for sale. In October of that year the Vleeschouwers forcibly acquired this land from the Sisters of St Elizabeth Gasthuis, the city’s most respected charitable foundation. Bought for a pittance, this land was resold to an urban developer at enormous profit just three weeks later. The shady real estate deal beggared the Gasthuis Sisters, and outraged the people of Antwerp: in this light, the tiny scene of Christian charity dwarfed by the luxurious fleshly display becomes a bitter moral coda.

Aertsen dated his painting very specifically, marking its appearance less than five months after the Gasthuis deed: the scandal would be still fresh in the minds of Antwerp’s citizens. When viewed with this inside knowledge, it is revealed that The Meat Stall would be seen by its original audience as forceful and topical painting, responding quickly to current events with angry comment and protest- exactly as contemporary art might.

Botany, Book, and Bugs

The Mira calligraphiae monumenta was the last great illuminated manuscript created in Europe, the magnificent final flourish of a 1500 year tradition. But there is more to the Mira than its stunning beauty: it was a museum in miniature, a way for its courtly reader to examine and understand the world.

This remarkable work was made by two artists who never actually met one other. Writing master Georg Bockskay created a ‘model book’ of extravagant and inventive calligraphy in 1561-62, during his time as court secretary to the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. This extraordinary writing album remained in the imperial collections in Vienna until Ferdinand’s grandson Rudolf II commissioned Dutch artist Joris Hoefnagel to illuminate the codex. Between 1591 and 1596 Hoefnagel filled with pages with delicately painted, masterfully observed and precisely detailed naturalia: flowers, leaves, fruits, shells, insects and tiny animals.

With these additions, Hoefnagel turned a straightforward if virtuoso manuscript into something even more exceptional, and far more complex. The illuminations set up a tension of opposites, a parergon that simultaneously complements and goes against the ‘frame’ of the scriptbook, making literal the idea that nature transcended mere written words. Hoefnagel’s illustrations confront the viewer with the ‘remoteness’ of text, however sumptuous, compared to the rich and vivid immediacy of nature. This tension operates on several levels: the naturalia of the paintings versus the artificialia of calligraphy, the spiritual versus the worldly, observation versus theorisation. It’s this last opposition that directly informs how the Mira was used by its sixteenth-century readers to construct their own picture of the natural world, remarking on the form and meanings of flowers, the attitudes of animals that reflected their qualities, how they related to the plants, and what meanings- spiritual or ‘scientific’ the flowers carried.

Looking at the hyper precise images of Mira’s flowers, as specimens often threaded through the page, it is tempting to assume they are examples of early botanical illustration. But in actuality, they descend from an older religious tradition of symbolic flowers and animals, depicted in the borders of sumptuous secular manuscripts. By the late middle ages this was a complex language based on chains of correspondences: for example, pinks (carnations) smell sweet like cloves, expensive and desirable cloves looked like tiny nails, and nails were used to nail Christ to the cross; therefore pinks in manuscripts and tapestries symbolised the crucifixion…and picked up some potent sensory associations on the way.


The late medieval movement called devotio moderna took this even further, teaching that the divine was present in the everyday. Everything became a symbol, and nothing more so than flowers and plants that people saw, touched and ate every day. Flower-strewn decorations in religious texts became unbelievably popular- even if one could not read, the symbolic meanings of flowers, birds, bugs, animals, and scenes of nature were a feast for the eyes and the soul. By the end of the 15th century, these flowers were painted as precise illusions ‘pinned’ or ‘threaded’ through cuts in the page; the truth of their physical appearance made their spiritual ‘claim to truth’ even stronger.

By the time Hoefnagel was illuminating the Mira a century later, this ‘spiritual rhetoric’ had evolved into an intellectual rhetoric tied to knowledge and ‘specimen logic’: a strategy that removed specimens from their mundane environments to display them as objects arranged into new relationships, somewhere between symbolic and scientific. Objects were key to understanding the world: natural specimens of all kinds, oddities, precious minerals, ethnographic items, and small artworks were zealously collected, and meticulously arranged and rearranged into easily ordered microcosms that summarised- and in some sense tamed- the chaotic and unfathomable macrocosm of the world. No educated gentleman or aristocrat- and certainly not Rudolf II- would be without such a wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities) or kunstschrank (art cabinet) to house their collections. Although the Mira was kept as part of this kind of collection, it was a more specific kind of micro-collection in itself.


From a modern perspective this sounds bizarre; but medieval thought was more complex and multiply layered than that, adept of discerning the nuances of different modes of thought at once. Aesthetic delight and intellectual rigour were not separated in the sixteenth-century parlance, but closely bound in a methodology that located knowledge experientially as well as intellectually. Hoefnagel knew exactly how people would be reading the Mira, using it as a tool for thought and making meaning- and turned it into a wonderful game.

It’s an important point that Hoefnagel only depicted naturalia in his illuminations- precious minerals (which at the time included corals) and man-made objects are omitted, to strengthen the parergon but also simply to delight the reader. Hoefnagel seems to have had no preconceived plan for his illuminations, but responded ingeniously to the form and composition of Bocskay’s existing calligraphy with inventively composed organic forms of his own, bursting with life and colour amplified by their depiction against the blank vellum. There is never the slightest doubt of the artist’s exacting technical skill, employing foreshortening, delicate shadows, and refined modelling to create the perfect illusion of real objects occupying three-dimensional space.

Hoefnagel’s singular technique contributed to this vibrancy, being an extraordinarily refined version of medieval illumination, that builds forms with multiple layers of tiny, interlocking fine brush strokes over a very thin base. This technique lets the light-reflecting qualities of the vellum shine through, giving the entire painting a luminous quality and a sense of sharpness to complement its keenly observed subject matter.


But at the same time, Hoefnagel subverts the authority of illusion. Mira is not restrained by real specimens in glass cases- Hoefnagel was thus free to distort plant growth habits for decorative effect, and depict different species in full simultaneous bloom; to select insects suggesting a wider range than actually portrayed, and even imagine new insects, barely distinguishable from ‘real’ ones. There is an element of fantasia and transformation at work, the performative function of imagining the world.

Yet on every fine vellum folio, Hoefnagel makes the viewer sharply aware of their own assumptions about vision and meaning, frequently confounding the coherent understanding of the pictorial surface. At times the page is a perspectival window one peers through, as if into a space to see insects climbing up the sides of words or the edges of the page; at other times the pictorial surface is coincident, so that the viewer feels they are looking down onto actual snails creeping along a very solid page. The viewer is required to switch back and forth between modes of vision, and modes of understanding. Mira calligraphiae monumenta demands a semiotically intelligent reader, intrigued by the idea that text and nature could have a contingent relationship.


This is especially meaningful when considering that in the sixteenth century, the study of nature was an intensely social activity; the process of organising, describing, representing, displaying, and making meaning out of objects was almost always done in collaboration with others. The wunderkammer was an investigative place for the social and cultural construction of knowledge rather than the passive reception of didacticism. Information was discerned through visual examination, thence reified through discussion, disputatio, and intellectual display, reflecting aristocratic society’s conviction that understanding was best achieved by observation and engagement with the natural world, rather than abstract book-learning.

Yet Mira turns again turns this on its head, as a book that can offer direct experience- and one that playfully outdoes nature itself- and held in the hands, a book that can render understanding as an private experience of delighted discovery. In many ways, Mira calligraphiae monumenta is an artwork that grows more complex with study, not less.

The Marginalia of Society

This unassuming pen sketch from the Stowe MS 49, written by the scribe Alanus c.1300, shows a heavily laden family of travellers, bickering at each other as they walk- their words are connected to the one who speaks them with lines, surprisingly like a modern comic book’s speech bubbles. The children complain of the weather and the heavy burdens they carry: historian Erik Kwakkel aptly describes it as the medieval version of a modern parent’s nightmare, on the road with a crying toddler and whiny kids that egg each other on. “Are we there yet?” ‘. But rather than a quaint scene, the drawing has some troubling undertones. On closer inspection, it reflects tensions between the Abbey and town that lead to some hostile and quite nasty caricatures of townspeople and especially poor transients like these, showing them as inherently sinful.


Details are significant here. The first character’s speech ‘they die for heat’, has the meaning ‘they die because of heat’; but he has a forked tongue painted in, indicating he is lying. Indeed, the third figures complains of the cold. The family are shown as near naked poor apart from cloaks and hoods, indicating their sloth, i.e. the lack of ‘respectable’, settled-in-the-town-like-decent-folk industry. (The better-off deriding the poor for their plight is not a new thing.) There is also the suggestion they are itinerant Jewish poor, with exaggerated racial features on the father and eldest son: respectively, the false tongue and the early form of judenhat on the father’s pack. That adds another level to the contempt, showing them resentful and squabbling rather than accepting their poverty with ‘Christian’ meekness.

This raft of prejudices seems incongruous coming from a monastic source, but it does connect to the body of medieval literature that satirises the clergy’s failure to show the most fundamental Christian virtue, that of charity. Intended to be seen only within the Abbey, images like this were a way to exclude outsiders and show contempt for the grubby secular world and people transgressed its established boundaries; and therefore also a way of expressing coherence in a very ordered and conformist community.
Marginalia like this was rarely a passive thing, it acted as another narrative parallel to the text of the book which can reveal some remarkable details of life and social attitudes of the time…as well as some startling and all too familiar prejudices.