In his new book The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, James Hall examines how this style of art emerged and developed over the last thousand years. While self-portraits did exist in ancient times, Hall explains that “in the Middle Ages self-portraiture becomes very much a Christian concern, connected with personal salvation, honour and love. The two medieval legends of St Veronica and King Abgar, in which Christ presses his face to a piece of cloth, leaving an imprint, posited Christ as a self-portraitist. No greater self-portraitist is of higher status than St Dunstan, prostrate on a mountain top, himself both high and low; and no funnier self-portrait exists than that of 1136 of Hildebertus, throwing a sponge at a mouse stealing his lunch.”
Here are ten medieval portraits that Hall examines in his book:
1. St. Dunstan
St. Dunstan (909-988) served as the Abbot of Glastonbury and then Archbishop of Canterbury. When he was Glastonbury he created a Latin grammar book, and on the frontpiece he drew a giant figure of Christ. Dunstan added a smaller portrait of himself next to Christ, added a short prayer: “I ask, merciful Christ, that you may protect me, Dunstan, and that you do not let the Taenerian storms drown me.”
In 1136 the Czech lay painter Hildebertus added this image to a copy of St. Augustine’s City of God. It shows Hildebertus holding up a sponge, about to throw it a mouse that is walking along a dinner table. The open book next to him is saying, “Damn you, wretched mouse exasperating me so often!” Below them you can find his young assistant Everwinus hard at work.
3. Rufillus of Weissenau
At the end of the 12th century the Canon Rufillus of Weissenau created a Passionale (Lives of Saints) and in his section on St. Martin he included a self-portrait as part of a letter ‘R’. Holding a paintbrush and a pot of paint, it looks as if he had just painted his own signature ‘FR. RUFILLUS’ in red, just like own red hair. His own name, Rufillus might derive from rufus, the Latin word for red.
The German sculptor Peter Parler (c.1333-99) made his own self-portrait at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. The bust, which was made from sandstone, dates to between the years 1379-1386. James Hall notes that there are about 70 sculpted self-portraits found in churches, mainly from German-speaking or Italian areas, which were created between the 12th and 16th centuries.
In 1401 the Sienese artist Taddeo di Bartolo created the altarpiece ‘Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin’ for his city’s cathedral. It is believed that he depicted himself as St Thaddeus, the only figure in the work who is looking directly at the viewer.
The first depiction of an artist painting a self-portrait appears in a manuscript dating to the year 1402 that contains Giovanni Boccaccio’s work On Famous Women. It shows the ancient Roman artist ‘Marcia’ sitting at a table and using a mirror to help her paint her own portrait. Her brushes, palette and paints are also at hand.
7. Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck (c. 1390 – 1441), who was the court painter to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, created this piece which is believed to be his own self-portrait. It shows the head and shoulders of a man who is gazing at us and wearing a turban-like red chaperon. On the portrait’s frame these words are inscribed: “As I can Jan van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433”
The Renaissance writer Leon Battista Alberti (1404 – 1472) was very interested in art, and wrote his own treatise ‘On Painting’ that discusses various techniques and theories. He also writes about making self-portraits in his autobiography, explaining (in the third person) “He strove to render his own features and characteristic appearances, so that, by the painted or modelled image, he might be already known to strangers who summoned him.” He created this self-portrait on bronze around the year 1435.
9. Israhel van Meckenem
The earliest example of a self-portrait in print was done by Israhel van Meckenem around 1490. It shows him and his wife Ida.
10. Albrecht Dürer
The German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) created several self-portraits, including this one, which was done in the year 1500. He added this inscription: “I, Albrecht Durer of Nuremberg painted myself thus, with undying colour, at the age of twenty-eight years.”
Hall also notes, “it is during the Middle Ages that mirrors become cultural symbols, metaphors for all kinds of knowledge, both of self and others. But the Renaissance ‘mirror myth’ has obscured the contribution of the Middle Ages and limited our appreciation of what a self-portrait can be. It has led us to assume that self-portraits were almost exclusively concerned which giving an accurate likeness. But the self-portrait – more so than a portrait – is primarily a product of memory and imagination.”