articulate

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

Tag: art history

Painted Prayers

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Books of Hours are well known as the most richly appointed personal treasures of the medieval era, lavishly wrought by the finest artists. But more than opportunities for conspicuous consumption, books of Hours offer a glimpse into just how nuanced, quick-witted and complex the symbolic thought of middle ages was.

By the fourteenth century, books of Hours had become must-haves for the style (and status) conscious aristocrat, as the poet Eustace Deschamps mockingly wrote:

‘An Hours of Our Lady must be mine,
that are of subtle workmanship
encircled with gold and azure rich,
ordered and painted beautifully,
with fine cloth of gold covered well;
and to hold the pages,
two clasps of gold to close.’

This ostentation was not simply crass display: medieval collecting prized the adornment of both natural and devotional objects, stemming from the same philosophy that saw saintly relics encrusted with gems and gold. Precious objects were believed to possess spiritual qualities: untarnishable gold was equated with Christ’s incorruptibility, red coral was regarded as protective, topaz encouraged charity and so forth, leading to a costly culture of devotional display.

This philosophy is articulated more subtly in the books belonging to Jean, Duke of Berry (1340-1416) one of the wealthiest and prolific collectors, bibliophiles and patrons of illuminated Hours in medieval Europe. As a patron, his oeuvre reflected late medieval material culture and spiritual concerns; as an aristocrat in close proximity to the throne and as a powerful mediator between rival political factions, his ‘private’ devotional books of necessity created a public image that announced not only his wealth and taste, but demonstrated a piety that was not an affectation (or even genuine feeling) but unmistakably read as the divinely ordained basis of his position and power.

The devotional book as a status symbol is exemplified in the Grandes Heures, created in 1409. Its enormous size and the fact that its leaves assembled the leading illuminators of the day indicates it was intended for a public audience, rather than private devotional reading as a palm-sized tome with a single artistic programme would suggest.

Folio 96 in particular demonstrates the seamless fusion of secular promotion with public spiritual spin. Jean’s dynastic arms sit alongside his devotional cypher EV (En Vous, ‘In You’). Jean’s bear and swan emblems (ours and cygne) form a pun on the regional patron, St Ursine- as well referencing his mistress of the same name- while birds and butterflies from the local countryside perch amid the foliage. Above the historiated capital showing the Duke at prayer, the miniature depicts his self-confident petition to enter Heaven. Presenting himself to St Peter (who takes him sternly by the wrist like a naughty child) Jean indicates his collar of estate, from which hangs a massive jewel of sapphire surrounded by seven pearls: symbolic of the vault of heaven and of Christ, respectively, and more subtly of the Christian virtues/gifts of the Holy Ghost.  Aristocratic birth and enormous wealth are transformed into virtues, and are his credentials to enter Paradise.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

An even subtler dialogue is presented in the famed calendar cycle of the Tres Riches Heures, created 1413-1416. The calendar miniatures form a unified narrative within the larger programme common to books of Hours; here, they are unusual in their presentation as full page miniatures isolated from text, but also for the fact that for the first time the patron enters into (actually, dominates) the traditional labours of the months represented in calendar illumination.

This entry is no accident: Jean, grandiosely present on the first page of the calendar clearly demonstrates the perspective from which the succeeding images of peasant labor and aristocratic pastimes are to be seen. Indeed, the full cycle of labours is not present: four months are given to scenes of courtly pleasures.  The agrarian labours that are shown are painted with meticulous attention, through imaginative composition and vibrant colouring lend an aspect of liturgical theatre to everyday activities.

But for all their ‘realism,’ these scenes are in no way neutral: they form a directed ideological discourse. The semiotics of difference contrasts the representation of peasants at toil with the light hearted pursuits of the landowning nobility: in winter the duke and his court feast warmly, while the workers who produce his sustenance are shown huddled in their humble, snow covered farm. But while they inhabitant of irreconcilable milieus, the calendar subtly links the two groups. The fairy-tale chateaux that form the backdrop to each scene assert the Duke’s ownership of the landscape, but are almost a strangely sheltering presence, refuges as solid and natural as mountains that refute the historical moment of a turbulent, fractured France. So too the depiction of the common folk differs from the customary negative images of peasants: these are neither idle not indigent, and although slightly ragged their garments are the same rich hues as the nobles’ splendid attire.

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda
While this may seem to be a simple reinforcement of the feudal social order, the format of the cycle’s miniatures has a spiritual significance. Rather than simply an illustration of a text, these scenes placed and framed exactly the same way as religious images of the time, similarly invite pause and contemplation in a frame of mind appropriate to a devotion context. So too, the use of skilled techniques such as washing paint over silver and powdered gold to enhance the suspended moments of the composition, creates a lucent illusion that equates with the timeless, shimmering space of religious painting. Although worldly scenes, they deftly use the language of religious images to draw the same contemplative response.

More so, the gold frame and arched vault of the heavens suggests the architecture not of a window frame, but an altarpiece frame: the calendar miniatures act as religious panels, combining to create an altarpiece-like narrative cycle.

In this interpretation then, the calendar acts a de facto altarpiece, proposing the commonalities and reciprocal feudal obligations between seigneur and serf as a form of contextual devotion. The Duke’s grandeur, wealth and position, and his honouring of his social-charitable obligation to protect and care for his people, are proposed as favoured by God- an idealised medieval worldly ordering.

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Bible Stories

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As much as any epic battle, Henry VIII’s break with Rome and foundation of a new Church altered the course of English history. But unlike the Lutheran reformation that galvanised common people across Europe, Henry’s reformation was top-down, spread to the people and soliciting their compliance through shrewd artistic propaganda.

In order to secure his Great Matter, Henry had to remake English religion- with himself at the top. He even went so far as to charge the entire clergy of England with treason in 1531, by dint of owing their first allegiance to Rome rather than the Crown. Convocation buckled, and surrendered to the king the style “sole protector and supreme head of the English Church and clergy”, subordinating their  ecclesiastical authority to royal supremacy. The Act in Restraint of Appeals that secured the Boleyn marriage two years later, cemented Henry’s imperial kingship, defining England as an empire and his right to rule without interference from “foreign princes or potentates”. Henry had become both Caesar and Pope, a priest-king after the biblical David.

Obedience to the prince- the duty of every Christian man- was the cornerstone of Henry’s political theology, backed up by law, financial incentives (of confiscated monastic lands), extensively applied oaths of fealty and allegiance- and harsh, and assiduously applied, legal penalties for treason. But this is not to suggest that Henrician England was a police state: accusations of treason were uncommon, and the trend to complaisance resulted from the ingrained social sense of obligation to established authority and the moral duty of obedience to the king. Indeed, Richard Sampson’s Oration of True Obedience in 1535 directly equated obedience to the king with obedience to the word of God, which was to become a hallmark of Henrician propaganda.

The pulpit and the printing press were used to disseminate the new sociopolitical order, as illustrated by the cover pages of the Coverdale and Great Bibles. Coverdale’s vernacular translation of the scriptures was published in 1535 under Cromwell’s patronage: tacit royal consent was implied in the unofficial dedication to the king and the title page by Hans Holbein.

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The Coverdale iconography reflects the new idea of theocratic kingship. Medieval thought held that although the right to rule was divine, it hinged upon the sovereign receiving temporal authority from the Church; a tradition followed at Henry’s own coronation. The Coverdale page reverses this relationship. At the top, Godhead is represented by the Hebrew name Yahweh, symbolising divine revelation and unquestionable Old Testament authority; on either side are depictions of original sin and the risen Christ. Below these are Old and New Testament models for sacred kingship: Moses receiving the Commandments and Esdras delivering the Law to the Jews; Christ sending forth the apostles, and Peter preaching after Pentecost. King David and St Paul also appear flanking the king. Henry himself is depicted enthroned at the base, by implication in direct descent from, and with his power legitimised by, these Biblical models.

David is the most important of these models, representing authority derived from the scriptures rather than Church tradition. David was regarded as the prototype of the ideal monarch, a priest-king and intercessor ruling from the scriptures and a direct relationship to God without clerical intermediaries. As such he was the perfect model to explain the disenfranchisement of the Roman church, and Henry came to identify closely with the Biblical king. The presence of St Paul continues the portrayal of the king as apostolic successor to Christ, refuting the Petrine authority of the Pope. (Paul was invested with new importance in the Protestant tradition, his distinction between faith and works in Romans 3:28 providing the basis for Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. The sword of Paul’s martyrdom was similarly identified by Protestants as an evangelical symbol equated with the word of God.)

The lower panel illustrates the unification of ecclesiastical and secular power in the hands of the king. Henry wears the arched crown reflecting England’s new imperial status, his fringed robe recalling Esdras’ priestly garments. The sword and book borne by the king reflects the reinterpretation of medieval iconography in Henrician propaganda: symbolic of royal authority, the sword is also identified here with the “sword of the spirit”, the exercise of royal jurisdiction in line with scriptural precepts. The book representing clerical authority was not prevalent in late medieval royal iconography, and could even be seen as an anti-regal symbol. In Tudor iconography, the book reappeared as a symbol of autonomous, evangelical kingship, becoming a prominent icon of Reformation royalism itself. Reversing traditional representations, Henry unambiguously hands the Bible down to the bishops- backed by the threat of the sword. Temporal lords and prelates alike kneel before the king demonstrating the obedience essential to the Church of Henry, although the clear emphasis is on the clergy brought to heel under royal supremacy.

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In 1539, Henry officially authorised the Great Bible, intended for distribution to every parish church throughout England in a planned act of mass propaganda. Its title page clearly lays out the king’s divinely sanctioned authority, and the imposition from above of religious reform and social ordering.

The enthroned Henry dominates the page: a tiny scene of the king as David is squeezed above, summarising the legitimation in the Coverdale Bible. A Davidic king, Henry hands down to Archbishop Cranmer and Chief Minister Cromwell the book, now explicitly labelled Verbum Dei; the scriptures are clearly indicated as the basis of regal authority, that applies equally to both ecclesiastical and temporal hierarchies. In virtually a diagram of the vertical process, the word of God is passed from Archbishop to bishop, thence from the pulpit to the people. This is paralleled by the chain from chief minister to magistracy down to yeomanry and common folk, who despite still being passive recipients of the scriptures and royal prerogative, happily chorus “Long live the king.” The sword of royal justice is absent from this iconography: here, secular authority devolves to a prison with gaoled (Papist) dissenters in the lower right, reflects the acceptance of enforced obedience to Henrician policy. In contrast to the Coverdale page, the king wears secular dress instead of priestly garments, presenting a paternal rather than authoritarian figure leading his people to God through obedience to his Word.

Nobody was ever entirely sure exactly what Henry’s new religion was- including Henry himself. But his political images ably compelled its acceptance through political tumult and religious turmoil for the rest of his reign, and offer a glimpse into what Henry, perhaps, hoped to achieve.

Immigrant Nation


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If there is one thing conservative “middle” Australia distrusts and disdains more than the arts, it is migrants. And yet immigrant artists have shaped the art of Australia- the very thing that reflects the nation’s identity back to itself.

In 2005, Zehra Ahmed’s digital installation Permission to narrate showed a young man in an kurta dancing against a backdrop of Arabic graffiti, caught between worlds and exhausted by the effort to communicate. Taken from the writing of critic Edward Said, the title alludes to the dominant media portrayal of Islam as inimically hostile, inherently benighted and reinforces the idea that Muslim societies cannot be “modern.” It’s a phrase that a decade on, cuts to the racist bones of contemporary Australia.

Permission to narrate revealed the “ambient fears” which pervaded Australian society in the post-9/11 world and fuelled the rise of authoritarianism over freedoms. Ahmed lays bare the “us and them” assumptions on which national identity is built, and challenges the complicity of the public- especially in the progressive, multicultural society Australia once believed itself to be.

Nine years later, those ambient fears have blossomed like a malignant flower into open, unreasoned, institutionalised terror of brown people arriving by boat to Threaten Our Way of Life. More than ever is there need for art like Ahmed’s, the need for other voices to be heard in a climate of growing prejudice.

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Fearful denial of others’ cultural validity is not, sadly, a new look for Australia. When prewar émigrés arrived on the fatal shore they brought with them modernism, abstraction and industrial design, first-hand knowledge of art movements and artists that were redefining what art meant- a world away from the conventional script of golden soil and wealth for toil that was the mainstay of Australian painting. This influx was dismissed by critics as “outsiders pursuing threatening abstraction,” – but artists on the inside were taking notice.

Polish Jew Yosl Bergner was especially influential to Australian artists like Arthur Boyd, Albert Tucker, John Perceval and Sydney Nolan. Arriving in 1937, Bergner painted the urban poverty and ever-present racism of Depression Australia; uniquely in Australian art of the time, they also addressed the plight of displaced Indigenous peoples. His sharp sense of alienation found its way into Australian landscape painting, culminating in Russell Drysdale’s famous images of figures isolated in an ominous, desolate landscape.

Bergner’s impact was unmistakable in Tucker’s nightmarish wartime figures, and Boyd’s interest in the world of the half-caste Aboriginal, that rejected by both black and white societies, Boyd saw as symbolic of Australia’s sundered personality. Boyd also drew on European symbolism to cast the landscape as a new Eden, a crucible for Kafka-esque Bible stories and creating new legends.

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Perhaps Bergner’s most important legacy was in the art of the Antipodeans and Sydney Nolan, whose Ned Kelly paintings are among the most iconic in Australian culture. Aiming to foster a mythology for a “young” Australian identity, their work certainly assumed national stature in providing (White) Australia with myths of its own in a “primordial and curious land”. Despite this there remained a touch of the cultural cringe as Nolan, the Boyds, Blackman and the rest unwittingly perpetuated the colonial view of Australia as the antithesis of Europe, adrift in a strange landscape without a heritage able to stand on its own.

In Sydney, Hungarian painter Desiderius (Dezso) Orban was shaping another generation of Australian artists, established an art school in 1943 that would operate for the next twenty-eight years. Inspired by the approach of the Bauhuas, Orban held that art could not be taught; rather, he aimed to release the creative impulses of such promising students, and later prominent artists as Judy Cassab, Margo Lewers, James Clifford and John Olsen.

And still, these developments did not find acceptance. Australia before the 1960s was intolerant, anti-intellectual and insular to the point of xenophobia, and under the infamous “White Australia” policy, assimilationist attitudes were ingrained in ethnic communities themselves. The art establishment was no better- critics who did not understand the art dismissed it as “unpleasant pictures by foreign named artists” according to critic Mary Coringham in 1954, which might be remedied “when the newcomers are assimilated.”

If painting got short shrift from critics, design was sneered at as a mere trend devoid of ‘serious’ content…even though it had already crept into Australian culture through interior design, graphic design, architecture and fashion.  The acceptance of industrial arts in European schools stood émigré artists in good stead, allowing them to work in these fields while the fine arts lagged behind. One such was German Gert Sellheim: although trained as an architect, Sellheim made his mark in as a graphic designer, and is responsible for one of Australia’s most recognisable symbols- the flying kangaroo emblem of Qantas, designed in 1947.

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In contemporary art, Hossein Valamanesh meets the dialogues of place, identity and otherness in postcolonial Australia. Academically trained in his native Iran, Valamanesh emigrated in 1973. Shortly after arriving, he visited the Aboriginal communities at Warburton and Papunya and was deeply affected by the spirituality and connection to the land in Aboriginal art, finding threads of continuity in response to the desert which surrounded his own culture and childhood memories.

Following the Papunya elders’ advice, Valamanesh delved into his heritage to create a symbolic language for his work that is both intimately personal and seemingly universal. Intriguingly, the body appears in the traces of its absence in shoes, handprints, shadows or silhouettes, reflecting both sides of the migrant’s mode of being- both the experience of severed identity and those things which sustain the struggle to re-negotiate that identity within a new cultural context. Often drawn to found native materials in his work alongside Persian objects and calligraphy, Valamanesh explores a sense of place as both an insider and an outsider, finding the connections between nature, culture and memory.

Hossein Valamanesh, Untitled, 1999, lavender bush, oil lamp, 80 x 58 x 82 cm

The political subtexts of multiculturalism and postcolonialism inevitably circle like sharks around Valamanesh’s work; and although surface similarities exist in his quest for points of commonality and communication between cultural viewpoints, they operate on a much deeper level than the inauthentic “ethnic art” promoted by Australia’s multiculturalism initiatives in the 1980s. (Although an ostensibly progressive move to embrace cultural diversity in the community, multiculturalism was hampered by a lack of understanding of transcultural arts practice- and hamstrung by its governmental framework. In the end, it lamentably achieved little of substance beyond providing colour and movement for white Australia.)

Somehow, Valamanesh has been able to sidestep these petty political tangles; although his work undermines colonial assumptions of less “civilised” societies, its redemptive aesthetic avoids postmodernism’s usually traumatic narratives of cultural dispossession and fragmentation. His art is instead imbued with a kind of yearning romanticism that plays against the melancholy of loss, and a Sufi-inspired, numinous quietude that goes beyond simple cultural interpolation to speak to identity and culture on deeper levels.

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Asian artists have fared even worse. Despite a career of national repute before emigrating from China 1989, Jiawei Shen has received attention only relatively recently for his 2005 Archibald portrait John So, Lord Mayor of Melbourne. The Chinese-Australian So, resplendent in his (European) robe and collar of office draped by a (Tribal Aboriginal) possumskin coat was claimed by the artist to be “a new landscape of Australian political life in the twenty-first century”. Certainly the painting may be read this way- but the conventional Eurocentric semiotics of the portrait overwhelm the ethnic traces of the sitter’s face and the possumskin coat, reducing them to tokenistic ornament. The materiality is no different, consciously painted in a palatable modernist technique rather than Shen’s own skilled realist manner. The portrait is an image of imitation and assimilation, revealing an acceptance of the other only in cultural conformity. 

That an Asian artist’s work is accepted only in assimilation is underscored by Shen’s subsequent commission from the National Portrait Gallery to “capture the Australian-ness” (yes, really) of that most culturally challenging figure…Princess Mary Donaldson of Denmark.

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More recently, Ah Xian’s situation is reversed, but no less problematic. Arts writers make much of his prominence as a contemporary artist, themes of urban displacement and cultural remembrance, and his “bringing traditional craftsmanship into a contemporary art context”- and blithely disregard that his work, undeniably and extraordinarily elegant though it is, is predicated on its cultural idiom. Traditionally crafted porcelain, lacquer, cloisonné, dragons, carp, blue-and-white porcelain: a culturally exotic Orientalism, a contemporary chinoiserie. As well as being a palpable presence in the Australian artistic landscape, winning the Clemenger Contemporary Art Award in 2009, Ah Xian is a new kind of “globalised migrant”- not caught between two worlds but moving between them by professional choice.

A country that has 48% of its population as first- and second-generation immigrants, yet clings whimpering to Anglo-Celtic provincialism and condones the most repellent acts of racism is a culture used as a political football and a nation whose identity is an outright, wilful lie. Dragging Australia back to a place of genuine cultural growth entails the recognition that whether displaced Jews painting unpleasant pictures, or scary brown and yellow people giving voice their experiences, immigrant artists are responsible for the art, and thereby the culture, of this wide brown land.

Florence is Burning

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In February 1497, fanatical followers of the preacher Girolamo Savonarola rampaged through the streets of Florence, seizing ornaments and jewellery, musical instruments and works of art. These objects, deemed to be occasions of sin, were built into huge pyres in the Piazza della Signoria and set ablaze in the infamous “bonfire of the vanities.”

Historians often regard this incident as a slide back into medieval zealotry from the progressive mindset of the renaissance, so it is surprising to learn that among the rioters was the celebrated painter Sandro Botticelli, who destroyed a number of his own works in the flames. Such an act of self-censorship seems baffling to modern sensibilities, used to the liberal latitude afforded artists in twenty-first century society. Yet the tensions of the renaissance played out on a personal as well as a cultural level, and the incident reveals the potency of religious influence that seems hard to imagine today.

Artists were at the cutting edge of humanist activity in Florence, passionately engaged in poetry, philology, archaeology, science, every aspect of the new learning. No longer mere craftsmen, artists had come to be regarded as intellectual professionals, accepted into courtly circles and awarded a variety of civic and even diplomatic responsibilities. Although now an elite, the renaissance artist’s creative latitude was however constrained by the tastes of his patron, and more generally by the mores of his culture. Art was valued according to the subtlety of its dialogue with accepted convention.

In the same way, public taste and artistic convention had changed rapidly and dramatically. With the revival of Classical philosophies of the dignity of man, a new acceptance of the human body and its faculties had emerged, fostering a taste for gracefully ordered naturalism in art that went hand in hand with a vogue for Antique mythological themes. These changing attitudes impacted upon sacred representations as well as secular art: religious figures ceased being stiff icons and became imbued with a more human physicality, as their pictorial space became continuous with the viewers’ earthly reality.

This doesn’t mean that Florence was a freewheeling utopia: the intellectual classes held a high regard for civil order. Despite humanism’s expanding horizons, social roles were idealised, narrow and inflexibly prescribed, and social mobility was a limited option only for the educated, patrician few. Civic offences were clearly delineated and monitored through an intricate chain of magistrates, although penalties did tend away from the kind of corporal punishments typical of religious sanction in the middle ages.

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It was in this setting that Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi (known as botticello, the “little keg”) enjoyed an illustrious career. His escapist fantasias were filled with statuesque goddesses and garlanded centaurs, diaphanously-draped nymphs and Antique heroes playing out myths or tracing complex allegories-  very much to the taste of Florence’s Medici dynasty. The Medici oligarch Lorenzo the Magnificent was an especially enthusiastic sponsor of such Classicism, as part of a patronage-driven campaign to revitalise the city’s grandeur, power and prestige…under his magnanimous rule, of course.

But in reality, the renaissance was a period of turbulent social reorganisation, as new ideas crashed against long-established beliefs. The Christian church remained- literally and metaphorically- at the heart of society, sustaining a cohesive communal identity and normative code of behaviour. As it had for centuries, the church maintained social control by encouraging a culture of guilt based on the confession of sins. Even though personal piety varied from individual to individual, renaissance Christianity broadly saw sin as a public concern rather than a private act, fracturing the social body. Repentance of sins also tended to be public, as was the Church’s response to institutional transgressors: excommunication or execution of heretics were grim spectacles designed to compel obedience.

Piety’s close relationship with civil authority became even tighter as Savonarola gained unprecedented influence over political power in 1494. An uncompromising and fiery zealot, Savonarola used pulpit politics to devastating effect, preaching divine punishment and exploiting harsh public feeling against social dissent, Jews and the corruption of Papal Rome. With the Medici expelled, Florence economically isolated and under his de facto rule, the people saw the Dominican prior as God’s agent. The shift from progressive Laurentian oligarchy to Savonarola’s brimstone-and-judgement theocracy was seismic.

Moreover, the ascetic Savonarola thundered against the sensual luxury, tyranny (i.e., lawlessness), intellectual vanity, and most especially, the thinly disguised paganism that had overtaken Florentine society. Even more than carnivals and carnality, the customary art of the day was the embodiment of these very vices: painting became a morally suspect activity. As one, the city’s leading thinkers and artists cringed as intellectual liberty and perceived social good were set on a collision course. Michelangelo wrote that as he long as lived, he could not keep the preacher’s voice from ringing in his ears.

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It seems difficult to understand how Botticelli may have seen his own work as blasphemous or heretical. He was hardly an intellectual renegade: his success stemmed from his creative application of current artistic conventions. In fact, Botticelli took to extraordinary lengths the custom of articulating Christian narratives and concerns in terms of pagan imagery and allegory. Primavera, for example, unmistakably fused the pagan goddess Venus with the Christian Virgin- although her presence is unusual in a didactic work about marital rape. So too his religious commissions presented his Medici patrons as saints and magi, to garner support for their political domination; these aspects likely overshadowed those works’ spiritual dimensions, or were construed as arrogantly presumptuous in the hard-line tenor of post-Medici Florence.

While steeped in sophisticated classicism, Botticelli doubtless understood that the wider public were not so literate or intellectually agile. In renaissance thought, the supernatural beings of Antiquity that populated his paintings were regarded as being in some way real, not just a figment of artistic imagination. While barely a consideration in liberal Laurentian Florence, humanism was ceding ground in the struggle for intellectual loyalties under Savonarola: such deviations from orthodox Christianity would have been troubling, and all too easily confused with outright paganism in the contracting ideological climate.

Botticelli may also have felt his works to be potentially sexually obscene. In renaissance art, the line between receiving intellectual elevation- or a sexual frisson- from a Classical or saintly nude was so blurred as to barely exist. Similarly, fluctuations in Christian doctrine about the physical incarnation and therefore sexuality of Christ and the virginity of his mother, affected the sexual accent that was prevalent in religious iconography. The rise of Savonarolan puritanism would render such sexualised content inappropriate and potentially dangerously transgressive.

Modern enquirers may be quick to impute recognisably modern motives to Botticelli’s actions, either suggesting political expediency or that the artist was simply going along with the mob. But by all indications, he appears to have acted out of genuine religious conviction. Almost 50 and troubled by the upheavals in his world, Botticelli became a genuine follower of Savonarola. Indeed, Vasari comments that he was driven to poverty by his reverence for the preacher “of whose sect he was so ardent a partisan that he was thereby induced to desert his painting and, having no income to live on, fell into very great distress.

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This supposition is borne out by his later works, filled with fraught, intense emotion. His Calumny of Apelles (1494) transforms the bright, mannered paintings into a fevered vision of Florence become corrupt: where the Graces of Primavera dance with weightless beauty, here Slander and her maids float like shades of the dead, with awful, relentless triumph; only the ragged, nun-like figure of Repentance rebukes Truth, leading Botticelli’s contemporaries to regard the painting as a defence of Savonarola. His Mystic Nativity (1501) is outright medieval, concentrating religious intensity and literal religious figures in a re-separated divine space that directly references a sermon preached by Savonarola on Christmas eve, 1493.

It seems clear that in consigning his works to the flames, Botticelli had responded to his politically and religiously tumultuous times by internalising the censorial ideology promulgated by Savonarola. The most effective form of social control is one that removes awareness and conscious choice, and renders people, in any era, complicit in their own coercion.

Out of Time

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As time moves on, art can say something to us today that differs enormously from what the author was trying to say at the time it was created. This is especially true of historical art, created by long-dead artists from cultures lost for centuries.

Film critic Chuck Sonnenberg eloquently posed the question: “does that mean we are mistaken? Or is it valid to say that the echo of our own thoughts, hopes and fears is as much a part of what we take away from art as the image itself?

Is the question not ‘what does this mean?’ but really ‘what does this mean to me?’ If what was said is not what is heard, does that mean that the emotion felt, the thought provoked, the impetus planted, are wrong?”

As more galleries place historic work front of house, they notice that audiences find points of connection and resonance, even without understanding the nuances of hidden messages or renaissance iconography. Even the expert commentary that accompanies major exhibitions can be reductive, at best, or at worst fallacious.

If we are no longer able to fathom the intended meaning, is it valid to create one out of our own cultural mores and personal experiences?

What are your thoughts?

The Ambassadors’ Secret

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Better known as The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein’s Double Portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve is perhaps the most misinterpreted image of the renaissance. The interpretation of the painting as an allegory of the political and religious tumult of Henry VIII’s schismatic England, that the hapless ambassadors find themselves caught up in, has been universally accepted for over one hundred years.

Yet the idea that this is what the painting is “about”- and therefore that it can be only about that- is a modern assumption, and one that fails to take into account the work’s historical projection into our own very different era. Renaissance people quite simply did not think this way, and did not construct their art, or their interpretations of art, in such a simplistic manner.

Once we bravely cast aside these ingrained preconceptions, we can begin to approach the painting with fresh eyes, from within the social and semiotic context of the early sixteenth century…and doing so, we can appreciate the startling impact of The Ambassadors– intellectual, social, visual and visceral- on its intended audience. With its full interpretive potential restored, the double portrait reveals an unexpectedly intimate dimension to the relationship between the sitters, a revelation that offers a more comprehensive interpretation of this enigmatic work than commonly ascribed public interpretations.

Reading Pictures

The sweeping tide of humanist learning had carved the social landscape of the early sixteenth century into an energetically intellectual and artistically literate culture. The vogue for visual intellectualism saturated courtly society- emblem books such as Alciati’s Emblemata (1531), offering extensive collections of allegorical images on humanist and religious themes drawn from (and in return influencing) the literary and artistic vocabulary, were immensely popular. Everyone “understood” various genres of art the way modern audiences discern cinematic and television and genres, and games with portraits, devising and interpreting elaborate allegories, were a popular pastime among the nobility. “Consumers” of sixteenth-century art were thus well accustomed to discerning and reading multiple layers of meaning in the iconography that surrounded them.

Portraiture and patronage in the sixteenth century were not bounded by modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate: in renaissance society, these purposes were not absolute but inseparable. Portraits were luxurious and costly commodities serving as visual self-fashioning, announcing the wealth, refined intellectual tastes and social-political prestige of the owner, as well as conspicuous consumption to enhance social position. At the same time, the sitter’s character and interests, personal ties and self-perceptions were reflected in their depiction, pose, and surrounding symbolic or allegorical attributes. Familiar with this articulation of the private individual in relation to the public realm, contemporary audiences gave equal recognition to the multiple facets of portraiture, looking to clues of patronage and context to support interpretations.

Portraits especially were an intimately personal genre, often treated as direct simulacra and substitutes for the person portrayed in their absence: they were often spoken to, dined with, kissed or even kicked in anger. More than any other, The Ambassadors endows its sitters with a powerfully tactile presence, with the artist taking great pains to capture textures with such realism that the instinctive urge to stroke the fur and velvet of the sitter’s robes, finger the carpet weave and carved instruments, must be consciously fought. That they are painted life-sized, again, anomalous for a portrait of the time, indicates that the men themselves, not merely their world, are the primary focus of the painting.

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The Diplomat 

Jean de Dinteville was the unhappy French ambassador to the English court amidst the political and religious turmoil of Henry VIII’s schism and remarriage. He was joined early in 1533 by his close friend, bishop-elect and scholarly diplomat Georges de Selve. The reasons for this visit are unknown, but seem to have been personal rather than political. In a letter to his brother, the oft-melancholy de Dinteville describes de Selve’s visit as “no small pleasure to me”, and suggests “there is no need for the Grand Maitre to hear anything of it.” Although this has often been dramatised as implying secret missions and intrigue, this more probably refers to the unofficial nature of de Selve’s visit, and hints at the Grand Maitre Anne de Montmorency’s disapproval of the ambassadors’ relationship.

De Dinteville is traditionally accepted as the patron of The Ambassadors, an assumption entrenched even before the sitter’s identities were discovered. De Dinteville was identified as “the principal figure” by Alfred Woltmann in 1872- solely on the basis of his eye-catching depiction, and after some debate positively identified by Mary Hervey in 1895.

The main premise for de Dinteville’s patronage is his ownership, established after an inventory label dated 1653, and Hervey’s subsequent reading of the painting as referring primarily to de Dinteville and his diplomatic sphere hinges on that same supposition. But in the case of The Ambassadors, no surviving record confirms its patronage.

Nor does ownership necessarily equate to patronage, as portraits were frequently commissioned by family members or other associates, and an expensive portrait of this nature may well have been beyond de Dinteville’s immediate means in England. While details of his financial position abroad are unknown, renaissance diplomatic practice granted ambassadors only a modest stipend, and de Dinteville was forced to petition his uncle the Grand Maitre of France for funds to meet his expenses for Anne Boleyn’s coronation procession. This extraordinary expenditure would have jeopardised de Dinteville’s liquidity, reducing the likelihood of his placing such a prohibitively expensive commission in 1533. That de Dinteville would commission a painting commemorating an embassy he so loathed and bemoaned, is also unconvincing.

Assuming de Dinteville as the patron does not fit well with either renaissance habits of patronage, nor the discrete layers of meaning encoded into the painting as revealed by John North’s (2002), and Kate Bomford’s (2004) interpretive hypotheses.

The Churchman

A more satisfactory explanation is that Georges de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, was the patron. Although legally noble and certainly influential in the early sixteenth century, the de Selve family were parlementaire noblesse- new money. The bourgeois judicial and mercantile origins of this socially mobile class prevented their complete acceptance by the French aristocracy; accordingly, social promotion through allegiance and patronage were important considerations for members of such families. The Ambassadors presents de Selve and de Dinteville alike as ideal sixteenth-century statesman, self-confident and self-conscious, demonstrating the cultivated display of social distinction and wealth, humanist erudition and nonchalance expected of the renaissance courtier… as well as the mannered impenetrability and concealment necessary to a diplomat.

More so, the key sight/construction lines of The Ambassadors converge on de Selve’s figure, indicating his importance to the painting itself. These lines are grounded in the religious schema of the painting uncovered by Professor John North (2002), further consistent with clerical patronage. (And, as incumbent of a wealthy bishopric, de Selve certainly possessed the means to commission the work.) In this schema, the doubly-coded iconography refers as much to churchman as to statesman: the self-fashioning functions of The Ambassadors more readily pertain to de Selve than de Dinteville. The latter’s ownership of the painting suggests it was intended by de Selve as a generous gift, which would garner social prestige and create the obligation of favourable future regard from a distinguished family, in addition to being a demonstration of uncommon personal affection. Taking de Selve as the patron better reflects the nature of renaissance patronage, and underscores the personal aspects of the painting.

Displayed in the grand salon of the de Dinteville chateau at Polisy, The Ambassadors was obviously intended for a private audience; specifically, de Dinteville’s family and social circle. Such an audience would easily understand The Ambassadors’ simultaneous modalities; as a prestigious aesthetic decoration, a lavish gift, an extravagant statement of friendship, contemporary sociopolitical commentary, concealed allegorical narratives, etc; and in that domestic setting would logically privilege readings based around the sitters and their relationship. Execution, patronage and setting all bring the grand display to an individual level, making the viewer acutely aware of the persons behind the courtly facade…at the same time they are kept at a distance by the ambassadors’ unrevealing gaze, forcing them to look for meaning in the surrounding iconography.

The Instruments

The Ambassadors’ iconography derives from the symbolist tradition of the northern renaissance. Flemish and German artists refined and expanded the medieval practice of investing everyday objects with multiple secular and spiritual meanings, creating a visual language that was at once utterly realistic and utterly symbolic. Holbein delighted in this kind of play even more than humanist allegory, his characteristic hyper-realism reflected the conviction that the essential “truth deep down things” lay in the immediate appearance of objects and people rather than convention or theory- an attitude that goes to the very heart of Reformation thinking. The personalised iconography in The Ambassadors are ambiguous and subtly subversive of the contemporary visual language, a “writerly” semiotic text which allows multiple interpretations and simultaneous layers of meaning.

Conventional symbolism serves as an easy entry point into the painting’s complex iconography, flagged by inscriptions of the sitters’ ages. De Dinteville’s dagger and the book beneath de Selve’s elbow were commonplace and easily read symbols of temporal and ecclesiastical authority of the time. The men’s clothing enhances their ambassadorial presentation: de Dinteville’s ensemble in fashionable pink and black is a bit of cultural snobbery, reflecting French elegance; it also signals his melancholy and fidelity. De Selve’s equally costly damask robe similarly reveals his social self-promotion. While its mulberry-purple colour and pattern of friar’s knots (symbolic of the Franciscan virtues of the clergy) are appropriate to a religious ambassador of his rank, the motif’s canting reference to François I indicates de Selve’s political obligations to the French crown rather than to Rome as a political appointee. The knots also imply the cordelière (friar’s girdle) design of the collar of the Order of St Michael; the gown’s pattern subtly equates to de Dinteville’s pendant of St Michael, setting de Selve on the same social level as his companion.

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Considerable scholarly attention has been given to the scientific and musical instruments arrayed between the two men- indeed, far more than to the sitters themselves. Despite its modern treatment as such, this arrangement is not a still life, even an allegorical one; the concept simply did not exist in 1533. Rather, it is a parergon: a subordinate embellishment to the narrative that is simultaneously in tension with it. The narrative potential of the objects exists alongside as well as within the iconographic program, in a complex relationship which both complements and competes with the painting’s primary figures.

Usually held to represent the quadrivium of a humanist education (astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music), the assembled objects reflect the broader intellectual changes reshaping Europe. The state-of-the-art astronomical instruments indicate a new scientific mode of thought, based in first-hand observation and calculation rather than received doctrine: the Lutheran hymnal indicates the impact of similar approaches to religious thought. Suggesting mathematical and navigational sciences, the terrestrial globe and arithmetic manual indicate the literally expanding horizons afforded by learning. The intellectual acquisitiveness and spatial arrangement of the objects recalls the renaissance cabinet of curiosities, signifying the intellectual reconceptualisation of the sixteenth-century world.

Yet this intellectual flowering took place against a backdrop of political division and sectarian violence that fragmented Europe. The objects contain many allusions to these topical divisions, and it is here that established interpretation has been invested: the lute with its broken string corresponds to Alciati’s emblem of broken treaties and disharmony, the text of Peter Apian’s arithmetic manual Ein Newe unnd wohlgregrundte wunderweysung aller Kauffmans Rechnung (1527) open to the page demonstrating division, the dividers indicate the demarcation line of the Treaty of Tordesillas, commercial politics that literally divides the world, and so forth. The patterned floor in The Ambassadors, resembling the inlaid pavement of Westminster Abbey, is often taken as a specific reference to England’s political-religious situation, and the famed anamorphic skull slashing across the painting’s base prompts readings as an allegory on the vanity of these worldly endeavours, or else as an elaborate memento mori.

Given the primacy of symbolic parerga in Holbein’s other works, such as his portrait of George Gisze, the temptation to assign them the same level of importance in The Ambassadors is powerful- yet reading this way is still teleological and unsatisfactory. Although the “terrestrial” objects would have been understood on one level as sociopolitical commentary, they occupy a subordinate position in the iconography and thus could not have determined or confined its overall interpretation.

Peter North’s recent re-examination demonstrates The Ambassadors’ iconographic is multiply coded, revealing a second strata of interpretation. For example, the celestial globe displays constellations associated with France, but is set to reflect the sky over Rome rather than Paris or London. All the heavenly instruments, whether directly like the cylindrical and polyhedral dials or indirectly through astronomical movements, indicate the specific date of 11th April- Good Friday, 1533. The solar angle of 27 degrees on this date is found throughout the construction and sighting lines of the painting: the principle line of sight passes from the crucifix in the painting’s corner, through several significant points before reaching the viewing point which corrects the anamorphosis of the distorted skull. North’s analysis reveals that The Ambassadors’ composition is saturated with Christian geometry, numerology and cosmography.

The earthly icons further support this second layer of meaning: while Polisy is clearly marked on the terrestrial globe, its centre is Rome. Apian’s examples of mathematical division yield results which are multiples of 27, itself thrice times the Trinity. The dividers recall the medieval image of God as architect of the world; their point on the painting’s central line is interpreted as seeking virtuous equity. The damask curtain behind the men, drawn partly back to reveal the crucified Christ, is likely a traverse, used to screen the ‘holyday closets’ commonly used in sixteenth-century noble worship. The design incorporates carnations, symbolic of the Passion, and the Marian icon of pomegranates, a reference to the unity of the Church. Incorrectly numbered to denote the 19-year Easter cycle, the hymnal displaying Luther’s translations of common Catholic hymns has been interpreted as a call for Christian reconciliation- or Protestant capitulation to Catholic supremacy.

Despite these potent narratives, The Ambassadors remains a portrait that contains allegories, not an allegorical painting; as such, the painting’s primary subject indicates a third layer of meaning. In light of its context and motivation, The Ambassadors is best understood asa representation of the intimate friendship between de Dinteville and de Selve.

Just Friends

Friendship in the sixteenth century was a different and more complex concept than is understood by the term today. Courtly life in France was an exclusively male domain structured around complex webs of patronage and mutually beneficial obligation, in which masculine self-presentation and displays of affection secured social and political advantage. Although the common signs of male affection such as intimate conversation and letters, kissing, or sharing a bed would today be perceived as indicative of homosexuality, in the renaissance these “gifts of the body” functioned as public signs of countenance and favour. Early modern masculinity was evaluated according to its dialogue with an accepted and valorised homoeroticism, whilst paradoxically avoiding the stigma of effeminacy and sodomy. The conventions of courtly love that were popular at Henry VIII’s court, had in much of Europe been eclipsed by the humanist ideal of dyadic male partnerships. The phrase “just friends” would be meaningless in sixteenth-century parlance: there was no relationship more emotional, more intense, or more intimate than friendship.

This depth of feeling is evidenced in the very existence of The Ambassadors. In the sixteenth century, personal tokens were exchanged between friends; gifts that carried intellectual currency such as paintings or literary works indicated inordinate personal esteem. The scholar Erasmus’ dedication of a book to his friend Pieter Gilles is an example of this regard: “friends of the common sort…if they have to face a long separation, they favour frequent exchanges of rings, knives, caps and other tokens of this kind….(but this is) no common gift, for you are no common friend.” The Ambassadors likewise reflects the de Dintevile’s description of de Selve as his “intime amy”. De Selve’s gown of a smart but informal style favoured by the secular clergy is echoed by Dinteville’s pendant of St Michael, worn informally on a simple chain rather than the ceremonial collar, suggesting the “off-duty” relationship of the sitters and corresponding degree of intimacy between them.

The Ambassadors’ composition resonates with the humanist and classical discourse of friendship. The sitters were undoubtedly familiar with this canon, de Selve having translated into French Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. The sitters’ counterpose alludes to the exemplary friendships of antiquity: Hercules and Hylas, Achilles and Patroclus, the biblical David and Jonathan; Cicero and Atticus, the author and addressee respectively of the most influential text on friendship of the renaissance, De Amicitia; and Scipio and Laelius, whose perfect friendship this work venerates.

demoulins

The vertical symmetry of de Dinteville’s and de Selve’s depiction suggests the classical concept of the friend as the second self, given new popularity in the sixteenth century. An illustration of this maximfound in Francois Demoulins’ moral compendium (c1512) parallels The Ambassadors. Two similar male figures stand apart but inclined toward each other, as are Dinteville and de Selve. They are united by the heart they hold, just as Holbein’s sitters are united by the shelves of instruments between them; the friend as the reflection of the self is compounded by the Antique notion that friends hold everything in common.

Friendship and gender in the sixteenth century was, at best, an ambiguous social rubric. Masculinity in the sixteenth-century courtier depended on the expectation to display the quality of sprezzatura, a nonchalant yet authoritative ease regarding his self-fashioning and social status, and his embodying the graces and prowess of the learned scholar-soldier replacing the medieval knightly class. Effeminacy on the other hand derived not from a man’s predilection for self-display or even engagement in same-sexual acts, but from his transgressing social decorums in displaying “womanish” traits such as irrationality, affectation and sexual submissiveness. Sodomy was associated not with specific sexual acts but with debauchery, sedition, heresy and the generally apocalyptic inversion of the social order…unfortunately, the signs of accepted male intimacy were often indistinguishable from the signs of effeminacy, or worse, sodomy. Even more, male sexuality was couched in terms of hierarchy rather than mutuality, bound up with disparities in social standing and gendered roles, and sexual and romantic relationships between master and servant, or youths and older men were commonly, if tacitly, accepted.

The modern coupling of effeminacy and sodomy with homosexuality ignores the likelihood that “masculine” men engaged in sexual relations within virtuous homosocial friendships. In the sixteenth century, the boundary between proper or improper, platonic or erotic sexuality and relationships was vague and imprecise. Homoplatonic relationships were energised by the same sexual frisson that energises all friendships; it is crucial to understand that in the renaissance concept of friendship this same-sex attraction was differentially acknowledged in fostering masculinity. Although often downplayed in Christian translation, the aforementioned canonical friendships of antiquity all contain an undeniable dimension of same-sex erotic engagement. Their valorisation indicates the vast conceptual distance in the renaissance between a sodomotical discourse, and identification with the rhetoric of classical friendship and its attendant possession of virtue. In fact, the presence of desire between iconic friends serves to amplify their virtue.

The Ambassadors embodies both this virtue and ambiguity. De Dinteville’s and de Selve’s nonchalant stance and self-presentation clearly mark them as social equals, men of rank, learning, and above all masculinity, rather than the comely youths found in the paederastic iconography of contemporary Italian art. The Ambassadors’ unusual depiction of two unrelated sitters in this manner was unprecedented in northern Europe: like still life, friendship paintings were not a concept. Instead, the painting sits firmly within the German tradition of betrothal/marriage portraiture.

In keeping with conventions, de Dinteville and de Selve are characterised as “male” and “female”. De Dinteville’s pose is expansive and active, whereas de Selve’s is circumspect and contemplative; their respectively rosy and more swarthy skin tones also reflect a conventional physiognomy of gender. De Dinteville’s visual connection with the solar calibration of the celestial orb and de Selve’s with the lunar torquetum imparts astrological gender associations.

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The use of marital symbolism has been ascribed to the lack of a pictorial language for representing the ties of friendship, although the very few examples of double “friendship” portraits from southern Europe do not display this type of nuptial iconography. This provocative portrayal of the sitters as married partners would be startling to a sixteenth-century audience, but on its own could be justified as metaphorical.

The marriage symbolism does not stop there, however, making it impossible to disregard. The damask pattern of the traverse includes marriage symbols; in addition to the crucifixion, carnations denote marriage in Holbein’s iconography. While not worn by either man, diamond rings are visible in the textile pattern between de Dinteville and de Selve above the celestial globe and the polyhedral sundial, universal symbols of fidelity and matrimony. The skull, commonly found on the reverse of marriage portraits, is here “hidden” on the front. “Veni Sancte Spiritus” displayed in the hymnal evokes the ordination liturgy; by reflecting the sacred marriage to the body of the church, it possibly alludes to another sacred marriage with the body of the friend.

The lute in the sixteenth century was a metaphor for amorous and sexual dalliance, associated in particular with feminine sexuality. In contemporary literature, the lute was able to communicate those feelings that might otherwise lie beyond the ability of the player to disclose. Poets such as Thomas Wyatt and Louise Labé characterise the lute as an outlet for pent emotion, genuinely expressing inexpressible sensibilities. In Labé’s poetry, as in the stricken medieval chansons that preceded it, the lute significantly assumes its voice in the absence of the lover. Just as Apian’s arithmetic manual is The Ambassadors’ mathematical primer for unlocking its religious schema, so the lute is the visual primer for its personal schema. In its multiple associations- from venal sexuality through learning and politics to the divine ordering of the universe, the lute is the linking iconic element between the painting’s levels of meaning.

Corresponding to the lute is its case, puzzlingly ignored by a century of scholarship. In sixteenth-century literature, the lute case represented conflict between the inner person and the outer image. Hidden in the shadows beneath the table, the case becomes simultaneously a single and a double negative, indicating the honesty of personal feeling conveyed in the painting.

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Further iconographic nuances may be recaptured by a “queer semiotic” such as proposed by di Addario (1994) and Saslow (1999). A queer reading hinges on the same “politics of knowledge” as all The Ambassadors’ iconography, dependent on symbolism which can be multiply interpreted. The cognoscenti’s subjective viewpoint would discern or invest significance in certain signs, which would seem innocuous to those not in the know. Rather than a revealing clue to the sitter’s personality, as was contemporary convention, the clasped, untitled book under de Selve’s elbow implies a protected secret. De Dinteville’s green-tipped cincture is comparable to the Bronzino’s Portrait of a Young Man’s green sash, associated with the Florentine homosexual subculture. De Dinteville’s casual grip on his dagger departs from Holbein’s conventionally forceful grip, to be read as a suggestive stroking. De Selve’s mirroring gesture drawing his robe close in seeming concealment actually reveals the visually rhyming lute more fully; that both men’s hands are level with de Dinteville’s codpiece enhances the phallic mutuality of the gestures. The upturned lute case suggests an inversion of social conventions and possibly the nascent concept of “inverted” sexuality rather than a literal indication of specific sexual behaviours; its surrounding shadows further the motif of concealment. The deliberately connected viewing positions of the skull and crucifix points to a relationship delicately balanced between social valorisation and social condemnation.

The prevalence of such signs in a painting representing an already sexually charged friendship strongly suggests a relationship between lovers as well as friends, almost irrespective of its physical expression. The Ambassadors does not hint at a sodomitical discourse: de Dinteville’s and de Selve’s relationship is firmly couched in terms of Classical and Christian virtue. Classical authors conflated the desires of the lover with dyadic friendship, referred to by Plutarch as “erotic friendship”. Plutarch further describes a lover as “a friend inspired by God”- a statement with obvious ramifications to Christian homosocial friendship, and almost certainly known to de Selve if not to both educated men.

Indeed as a churchman and modestly distinguished scholar, de Selve was probably also aware of the Antique and ecclesiastical traditions of marriage-like unions between two men. Although disappearing from the mainstream Latin Christian liturgy, such ceremonies were still technically legitimate in the Catholic tradition in the Middle Ages and underwent a revival in the renaissance. The possibility that The Ambassadors may represent such a tradition of divinely sanctified union is borne out in the marital and Christian significance in the painting’s construction and iconography. That de Dinteville died unmarried in 1555, most unusually for a man with the obligations of his class and position, lends tantalising support to the possibility of an enduring, consecrated bond with de Selve.

In this light, the  the tactile appeal of the superbly worked textures of the painting, together with the visual impact of their life-sized depiction and implied auditory expression in the lute, imbues The Ambassadors’ sitters with a sensory physicality and a presence whose immediacy was unprecedented. The “gift of the body” from the friend becomes the body itself, seeking sympathetic cognition at the same time it lays claim to immortality in the heart.

The final piece of the puzzle is that upon his return to France in 1533, de Selve was appointed as ambassador to Venice, where he stayed for seven years; given the organisation of the French court and diplomatic service, de Selve undoubtedly knew of this appointment well in advance, even before visiting London. The Ambassadors is thus revealed as an unusually intimate parting gift commemorating the sitter’s friendship, and keepsake for de Dinteville of his friend. The icons of political and spiritual discord and division- the arithmetic manual, dividers and terrestrial globe, the missing flute and broken heart-string of the lute – thus poignantly assume meanings of personal division: the very concerns which unite the two men in friendship are also the cause of their separation. Yet by keeping the facsimile of the lover close, the abiding, sanctified fidelity central to renaissance friendship endures in the face of absence or even death. The Ambassadors offers bodily solace in lieu of the presence of the beloved friend; de Selve is tangibly preserved in the memory of his intime ami. Read the rest of this entry »