In the Guise of a Christian: the Early Medieval Preliminary Stage of the Portrait Historie

In the Guise of a Christian: the Early Medieval Preliminary Stage of the Portrait Historie

By Kees Veelenturf

Published Online (2011)

Introduction: As the subtitle of this contribution betrays, this paper will deal with early medieval images. True likenesses, i.e. images resembling the physiognomy of real persons, do not appear to exist in the visual arts of the early Middle Ages. Consequently, there is no isolated category of works of art comparable to the autonomous vera effigies from the later Middle Ages and beyond.  No portrait means no portrait historié either, so it would be a hilarious exercise to examine the latter within the context of this period. A discussion of the struggle of art historians with problems of portraiture and ‘storiated’ portraits may, nevertheless, produce some illuminating insights stretching further than the theme of the portrait historié alone.

It is true, of course, that a considerable number of early medieval depictions of actual human figures have survived, some of which have given rise to the assumption that they possess portrait-like features since they seem, to some extent, to be individualized. The problem with these alleged instances of real portrayal is quite obvious. We will never know whether an effigy dating from the early Middle Ages is a true portrait or not since the possibilities of comparison and documentation for ‘portraits’ from this era are extremely limited.

It will perhaps not come as a surprise that some scholars are nevertheless convinced of the ‘portrait value’ of certain depictions of historic human beings, amongst whom we could count biblical and saintly persons. Apparently, the need of knowing the likeness of our predecessors in time is a perennial one.

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