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The Art of Virtue

5 December, 2008

Yesterday, I went to the National Gallery here in London to see the current exhibition: Renaissance Faces: from Van Eyck to Titian.  If you are in London between now and mid-January, and enjoy viewing art galleries, do see this exhibition.  It isn’t necessarily cheap (£10) but then again putting on exhibitions of this level is expensive.  See \”Renaissance Faces\”

Van Eyck "The Arnofilni Marriage"

Van Eyck "The Arnofilni Marriage"

Renaissance Faces is a display of portraits painted during the 15th and 16th centuries.  The exhibition contains examples from both northern and southern (reference to the Alps) Renaissance painters. The big hitters included are: Van Eyck, Botticelli, Memling, and Dürer. These artists produced more than portraits.  But what makes portraits significant is what it says about humans.

Portraits were produced in order to preserve the memory of a person.  Some of the subjects are high-ranking people: popes, monarchs, ambassadors and wealthy merchants.  Others were of lower rank: pirates, servant girls and tailors.

The Doge Leonardo Loredan by Bellini

The Doge Leonardo Loredan by Bellini

Throughout the exhibition the audio guide explains some of the components of portraiture. This period was interested in people with real bodies in real places (although there are some examples of gothic backgrounds).  Arguably, this was due to the influence of humanism.  To be sure there are various ideals evident in the faces and bodies but there are also marks of “ordinariness” – in the subjects’ physiognomy.  So, you can see noses with growths, elongated noses, children with impish smiles and some faces that are less than ‘beautiful’.

More than anything else, however, the feature most striking is the association between a person’s outward appearance and assumed virtues.  Numerous portraits showed young women and young men obviously attractive.  Simultaneously, the portraits used symbols (flowers but also religious images) to associate the virtues of, say, modesty, chastity, faithfulness and godliness with physical beauty.  Apparently, so the audio guide states, painters in this era assumed that what made someone lovely or beautiful (female and male) was their inner virtue.  Virtue means doing and being what is right as opposed to vice.

This association arrested me.

First, these painters employed certain idealisms but not at the expense of the sensual.  Some of the women are very sensual: their mouths, their hair, their eyes, their necks and their hands are very sensuous.  There is no anti-body expression.  So, presumably, virtue need not cancel out genuine physicality.  Simply put, a virtuous young woman (one chaste and pure) can simultaneously be even highly sensual, even erotic.

Lorenzo Lotto, 'Marsilio Cassotti and his Wife Faustina', 1523

Lorenzo Lotto, 'Marsilio Cassotti and his Wife Faustina', 1523

Second, the difference between then and now arrested me.  Today, magazines tell us, for example, who are the 100 most beautiful women (and men, in some cases).  When you look at their photograph, these people are attractive.  Yet in no sense do these magazines or photographers associate the outward attractiveness with any inner virtues.  More often in fact the beautiful women and men today are conspicuously void of moral virtues.  The world today of America’s Next Top Model (and other national variations of Tyra Banks’ show) shows just how vacuous the objects of beauty are.

Finally, as if I should be surprised, I was arrested by the distance between the Renaissance world and our world.  The distance is obvious when you consider the assumed Christian narrative that still existed within Renaissance paintings (although it was disappearing) and the narrative(s) within today’s portraiture.  This means, at the most basic level, that young people going through the exhibition have very little cultural/intellectual connexion between themselves as viewers and the imagery in some of the paintings in this exhibition.  For example, in Holbein’s “The Ambassadors” would people appreciate the symbolic importance – and, so, the ‘declaration’ of the symbol — of the partially hidden crucifix in the upper left-hand corner?  In fact, many photographs of this painting cut out the partially seen crucifix.  This omission may well make my point.

Holbein "Ambassadors"

Holbein "Ambassadors"

The story of how we’ve come to dismiss virtue is a long one. (If you’re interested, the thesis of historian Gertrude Himmelfarb is worth considering). It is a heartbreaking story because the rejection of virtue today actually damages us.  First, in terms of our identity as humans who are physical all we seem to come up with today is an eroticism based on nothing more than animal-like rutting.  Second, when it comes to how young women and men come to assess who they are and what they want to be the models (literal and figurative) are vacuous.  Third,  Christians rightly speak out about moral breakdown and depravity but offer in effect very little in terms of what it means to be physical and, even, sensual (although in saying this, I note how Dorothy L. Sayers describes Lord Peter Wimsey and others.  One thinks too of Flannery O’Connors’ descriptions.).  Fourth and consequently, many artists and artistic expressions are empty about what it means to be a human being.  Whereas, Renaissance portraits hoped to preserve the memory of a person, today’s portraiture (I mean figurative rather than the literal family portraits we all have) conveys nothing to remember.  The subjects fade away.  And this is truly disturbing and sad but it follows: when the true God is forgotten it isn’t long before humans are forgotten.

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