Category

Northern Renaissance

Parrots in Art

Albrecht Dürer, detail of parrot from "Adam and Eve," 1504. Engraving

Albrecht Dürer, detail of parrot from “Adam and Eve,” 1504. Engraving

Last week, while driving to work, I was thinking about Dürer’s engraving Adam and Eve, which includes a parrot in the upper left quadrant of the print. In this particular context, the parrot functions as a symbol for the Virgin Mary. The symbolic association might seem like a stretch today, but the belief was that the parrot was similar to Mary. Both the parrot and the Virgin were associated with typically-improbable situations: if a parrot can be taught to speak, then a virgin can become pregnant and give birth! Additionally, there are connections between parrots and Mary’s purity and virginity, which are explained in more detail elsewhere. Here are a couple of my favorite representations of the Virgin with parrots:

Martin Schongauer, "Madonna and Child with the Parrot," 1470-75. Engraving, 159 x 101 mm

Martin Schongauer, “Madonna and Child with the Parrot,” 1470-75.
Engraving, 159 x 101 mm

Jan Van Eyck, detail of parrot from "Madonna with the Canon van der Paele," 1436. Oil on wood, 122 x 157 cm

Jan Van Eyck, detail of parrot from “Madonna with the Canon van der Paele,” 1436. Oil on wood, 122 x 157 cm

I think that the association with the Virgin and parrots is one reason why there are so many paintings of women and parrots in comparatively recent centuries. Parrots typically don’t appear with men in art (perhaps because pirates didn’t commission their own portraits? Ha ha!). However, I do know of one example of a man depicted with parrots:

Max Slevogt, "Man with Parrots," 1901. Oil on canvas, 82 x 66 cm.

Max Slevogt, “Man with Parrots,” 1901. Oil on canvas, 82 x 66 cm.

Typically, though, in art parrots are usually depicted with women, or appear in a still-life painting, or in some type of naturalist or scientific drawing. Why is this? The scientific examples are easily explained, since parrots are non-European and therefore served as an example worthy of study. In addition, parrots could be studied by artists in relation to their anatomy and color. Such was the case with Van Gogh, who studied the anatomy of a stuffed parrot when he created The Green Parrot:

Vincent Van Gogh, "The-Green Parrot," 1886.

Vincent Van Gogh, “The-Green Parrot,” 1886.

Here is one example of a parrot in a still-life painting, although there are several others by this same artist Georg Flegel (see Still Life with Pygmy Parrot and Dessert Still Life):

Georg Flegel (1566-1638), Still-life with Parrot, n.d.

Georg Flegel (1566-1638), Still-life with Parrot, n.d.

I think that the inclusion of parrots with still-life paintings is interesting, because it connect parrots to the material world, wealth, and trade. As an exotic creature from non-European lands, parrots were highly prized during the colonial period. And it wasn’t just the live birds that were valued: in the colonial era the plucked feathers of parrots were valued too. In Mexico, the indigenous practice of feather painting was combined with European pictorial conventions (see below). This type of feather painting was highly prized by the Europeans, which adds to how parrots were connected with material value.

Jaun Bautista Cuiris, "Portrait of Christ Made of Humming Bird and Parrot Feathers," 1550-80.

Jaun Bautista Cuiris, “Portrait of Christ Made of Humming Bird and Parrot Feathers,” 1550-80.

Beyond these examples, there are lots of representations of women with parrots. In this context, I think there is more symbolic and visual meaning at play than a mere historical connection to traditional representations of the Virgin. For example, as late as the 17th century, a connection between women and caged birds was made in moralizing paintings suggesting seduction (such as Couple with Parrot (1668) by Pieter de Hooch.) Also, the brightly-colored and and textural plumage of parrots are very decorative, and this is a key thing to remember in relation to representations of women. As a result, parrots complement decorative elements within a work of art, and give an added sense to materiality to such paintings which are dedicated to showing pretty objects. The inclusion of the parrot hints that the other objects in the painting (whether a female figure or fancy tableware in a still life, for example), are especially meant-to-be-looked-at by the viewer.

The depiction of a parrot with a woman hints that the woman is also decorative, like the parrot, and perhaps is even exotic. I think that there might even be a correlation with the softness of the bird’s plumage and the implied softness of the female skin, especially with nude/semi-nude paintings like Delacroix’s Woman with a Parrot and Tiepolo’s Woman with a Parrot. Even the more muted of paintings that completely cover the female body still hint at an element of decoration and texture, especially with the silky intimate dressing gown that is worn by Manet’s model in this painting:1

Édouard Manet, "Young Lady in 1866," 1866.

Édouard Manet, “Young Lady in 1866,” 1866

It seems to me that the usage of parrots in art took a vast turn from their symbolic connection to Mary (stressing the miraculous nature of the virgin birth!) to the tangible, decorative, and perhaps even frivolous associations with parrots in later art. What do you think? Do you know of any other genres or scenarios in which parrots appear in art?

1 Recent scholars have interpreted Manet’s painting as an allegory for the five senses. In this context, the parrot (as a confidant) may represent hearing. For more information see: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/89.21.3/

 

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Winking in Art

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail of "Netherlandish Proverbs," 1559. Image courtesy via Wikipedia.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail of “Netherlandish Proverbs,” 1559. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

This afternoon my students and I were discussing some of the proverbs that are referenced in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s complex painting Netherlandish Proverbs (1559). One student pointed out one particular detail on the wall of the house that I had never noticed before: a pair of open scissors with an eye placed above. I wasn’t familiar with a proverb or a reference to this detail in the painting, so I looked it up afterward.

It turns out that these two symbols are a reference to winking! This image is a play off of the words “Een knip oog,” which means “snip-eye,” or a wink.1 Scholar Alan Dundes, who wrote about the appearance of this symbol in Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s copy of his father’s painting, explained that through this symbol “Bruegel the artist is winking at his audience and he expects the viewer to understand that what he has painted in a huge put-on.”2

Learning about this fun detail made me wonder about the history of winking and whether other winks (either literal or symbolic) appear in art. I haven’t been able to find any scholarly information on the cultural history of winking (if anyone does find something, please let me know!), but I have noticed that obvious references to or depictions of winking appear in examples of art from the Renaissance and onward. (I also realized that it is futile to determine if ancient figures in the composite pose are winking: if the head is in profile view, then only one eye is visible to the viewer, which makes it impossible to ascertain whether a second eye would be open or closed! Ha! I like the thought that Egyptians are actually winking in all of their art, but we just can’t tell.)

I was also interested to see that references to winking appear in both Western and non-Western art. Here are a few examples I came across:

Giuseppe Maria Crespi, “The Courted Singer,” 1700s. Oil on canvas, 58 x 46 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art.

In this painting by Crespi, The Courted Singer (shown above), the winking figure of on the left reminds the viewer that the scene, which depicts a singer being courted, is not inherently gallant or noble. Instead, this singer and her affections are essentially being “bought” with the jewelry and riches offered to her.

Simon Vouet, “The Fortune Teller,” c. 1618. Oil on canvas, 120 x 170 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art.

Winking was also used between characters within works of art, so that the viewer could understand when a figure was sly or involved in trickery. In this painting by Vouet, a man on the right of the canvas steals the purse from a gypsy woman (who is reading the palm of the woman on the far left). This thief winks to a male accomplice, who looks to me like he might be winking in return.

Master of the Winking Eyes, "Madonna and Child," ca. 1450. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.

Master of the Winking Eyes, “Madonna and Child,” ca. 1450. National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC.

Although the winking in this picture may be an aesthetic effect rather than an actual part of the subject matter, I still wanted to include this painting by the so-called “Master of the Winking Eyes.” This piece is included in a current exhibition dedicated to representations of the Virgin Mary in art, which includes a section on representations of her as a wife and mother. This painting, among another in the show, prompted one writer to publish this article: “Did the Virgin Mary Tickle the Baby Jesus?”

Huang Yongyu, Owl, 1973. Image courtesy via Wikiart.

Huang Yongyu, Owl, 1973. Image courtesy Wikiart

Huang Yongu’s Owl is an interesting depiction which caused a lot of controversy. Some interpreted Yongyu’s painting as a self-portrait of the artist who expressing a critique of socialism, and the painting was officially condemned as blasphemous by the Ministry of Culture in March 1974.3 The winking eye in this instance was thought by some to imply, on a basic level, a critique of the socialist system (e.g. officials were turning a blind eye to incorrect behavior). Others did not agree with this interpretation. Even Chairman Mao, who was frustrated with the extent of censorship happening at the time, said with exasperation, “An owl habitually keeps one eye open and one eye closed. The artist does possess the common knowledge, doesn’t he?”Yongu created other versions of the winking owl after this 1973 fiasco, such as this 1977 version and 1978 version.

Of course, to end this list, I have to include a .gif of the Nefertiti bust winking. (Since she has an unfinished eye, she does look a little like she could be winking today.) Do you know of other representations of winking in art? I’m sure there are lots of .gifs with winking works of art too, and feel free to also share those in the comments below!

1 Eric Nicholson, “Et in Arcadia the Dirty Brides,” in Transnational Mobilities in Early Modern Theater, by Professor Robert Henke and Dr. Eric Nicolson, eds (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2014, p. 99.

2 Alan Dundes, “‘How Far Does the Apple Fall from the Tree?': Pieter Bruegel the Younger’s Netherlandish Proverbs” in The Netherlandish Proverbs: An International Symposium on the Pieter Brueg(h)els, ed., Wolfgang Mieder (Burlington: University of Vermont Press, 2004): 20. Citation also found online HERE.

3 The painting was subsequently put on display in a Black Paintings Exhibition, in order for its subversive content to be publicly shamed. Eugene W. Wang, “The Winking Owl: Visual Effect and Its Art Historical Thick Description,” in Critical Inquiry 26, no. 3 (Spring 2000): 435. Article available online HERE.

4 Ibid., 436.

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“Almost Repellant” Monsters

Odilon Redon, Smiling Spider, 1887, Courtesy British Museum

Odilon Redon, Smiling Spider, 1887, Courtesy British Museum

Happy Halloween! Tonight I’ve been perusing through an interactive website hosted by the MoMA about the artist Odilon Redon. Given this Halloween season, I’ve particularly enjoyed looking at the “Monsters” section. These lithographs are based off of the  charcoal drawings that Redon called his “noirs” (“black things”). Redon made lots of these charcoal drawings. In fact, he worked almost exclusively in black and white until he was about fifty years old! (You can read more about Redon’s “noirs” HERE.)

One of the publications that is highlighted in the MoMA interactive site is Marina van Zuylen’s chapter “The Secret of Monsters” (read online HERE) in Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon. I really like that van Zuylen writes, “Redon’s genius is to make his figures almost repellant. He rescues them from radical ugliness by endowing each of them with traits that produces empathy.”1

I think this is such a great point, because Redon makes his monsters slightly relatable or understandable in terms of human emotion, as is the case with his lithograph Smiling Spider (1887, see above; also see another printed version from 1891). Another example would be The Crying Spider (1881, see below). This example seems especially poignant to me in terms of evoking empathy, since the spider stares directly at the viewer with large, round eyes. For me, it is these types of empathy-evoking features which make these drawings and other similar ones by Redon simultaneously compelling and disconcerting.

Odilon Redon, The Crying Spider, 1881.

Odilon Redon, The Crying Spider, 1881.

As I’ve been looking at Redon’s drawings tonight, I’ve thought about another work of art that is both compelling and disconcerting. In this instance, though, the “monsters” are the countless skeletons that appear in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Triumph of Death (c. 1562, click on hyperlink to see high-resolution details). This painting is dominated by an army of skeletons who wreak all sorts of havoc across a barren landscape. Peasants and rulers alike are downtrodden, captured, or killed by these skeletons, thereby emphasizing the transience of life and inevitability of death to all mortals.

Despite the unsettling subject matter, this painting contains an overwhelming amount of fine detail, which is very compelling and captivating from a visual standpoint. Additionally, Bruegel includes a lot of small, humorous details which make these skeletons seem especially disconcerting, because they evoke an element of empathy or relatability that resonates with the viewer. Many of the activities are recognizable and suggest human emotion: one skeleton sits with his skull leaning into his hand, as if resting or thinking. Another skeleton nearby plays the hurdy-gurdy (see detail below).

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, "The Triumph of Death," c. 1562. Oil on panel, 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 63.8 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail from “The Triumph of Death,” c. 1562. Oil on panel, 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 63.8 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Additionally, other skeletons are chasing women or donning pieces of contemporary 16th century clothing, both of which suggest an element of relatability in terms of human desire and culture. Another detail shows a skeleton who assumes the same slumped body position as the mortal whom he is killing or accosting, suggesting to me a reminder that these skeletons were once living mortals themselves.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail from “The Triumph of Death,” c. 1562. Oil on panel, 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 63.8 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 11.09.33 PM

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, detail from “The Triumph of Death,” c. 1562. Oil on panel, 117 cm × 162 cm (46 in × 63.8 in). Museo del Prado, Madrid. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

Although Redon and Bruegel are very different in their aesthetics, I think that they both are attempting to depict something that is “almost repellant,” in terms of appearance and/or concept. But there is something that is relatable and can resonate with the viewer in both of these instances, which is perhaps why these paintings have been labeled as “disturbing” and creepy.

Can you think of any other disturbing works of art that are “almost repellant” because they evoke empathy or are relatable to you?

1 Marina van Zuylen, “The Secret Life of Monsters,” in Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon by Jodi Hauptman, ed. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art: 2005), 60. Also available online: http://books.google.com/books?id=4DYjsCbZNJsC&lpg=PT31&ots=auheV2K2A9&dq=redon%20smiling%20spider%201887&pg=PT31#v=onepage&q&f=false

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Pregnancy in Western Art

Earlier this week, I was researching something on Barbara Kruger when I happened upon some posters that she made in 1991 for bus shelters, as part of a project created through the Public Arts Fund. These posters, which had the word “HELP!” superimposed over the picture of a man, used smaller blurbs of text to draw attention to issues that people might face when they become pregnant. To me, Kruger is pointing out that any difficulties surrounding pregnancy should not be merely perceived as a “woman’s problem,” but a situation which affects both genders. These posters are discussed elsewhere in relation to social responsibility and abortion, which I think also is appropriate.

Barbara Kruger, poster from "HELP!" series, 1991

 

In this instance, I think Kruger’s depiction of a male, while addressing the topic of pregnancy, is entirely appropriate. However, these posters also made me pause and think about how there are comparatively few representations of pregnant women in the Western canon as a whole, especially, say, in contrast with the popularity of the idealized female nude. The topics of pregnancy and childbirth are found in the narratives and historical circumstances surrounding works of art (I’m particularly thinking of Christian scenes of the Visitation and Nativity), but many of those works of art do not highlight the pregnant or postpartum female body. I suppose on one hand, this makes sense, because the pregnant form was not part of the idealized form found in classical art (which is a primary foundation for the Western canon). I thought I would compile a few images of pregnant women in this post — either well-known objects or obscure ones made by a well-known Western artist — as a starting point to think about this topic:

The so-called "Venus of Willendorf" (also 'Woman of Willendorf), ca. 28,000-25,000 BCE. Oolitic limestone, 4.25" inches (10.8 cm)

I thought the Venus of Willendorf would be a good place to start this compilation, particularly due to relatively recent findings by McCoid and McDermott that this statuette and other Paleolithic “Venus” figurines are representations of pregnant women. It is thought that these statues may have been made by prehistoric women who were looking down at their own bodies, which could explain for some of the extreme exaggerations of the body and the lack of feet.1

Rogier van der Weyden, Visitation, c. 1445. Oil on oak panel, 57 x 36 cm.

I like this Northern Renaissance example of the Visitation (see above), because Elizabeth and Mary are not only decidedly pregnant, but they are laying their hands on each other’s bellies (which visually draws attention to their pregnant forms).

Rubens, detail of Visitation from Descent of the Cross, 1612-1614

Perhaps the Northern tradition of painting (with its keen interest in Aristotelian, empirical observation) caused artists like van der Weyden and Rubens to depict the pregnant form more clearly. In Rubens’s “Visitation” scene, Mary is decidedly pregnant. (It is hard to tell whether Elizabeth is pregnant, due to her placement and dark clothing, however.) I also wonder if Rubens, who had a preference for depicting the curvaceous female form, might have visually been drawn to the curves of the pregnant belly in this instance.

Raphael, "Portrait of a Woman" ("La Donna Gravida"), 1505-06. Oil on panel, 66 x 52 cm

I haven’t come across many images of Southern (especially Italian) artists who painted the pregnant female form, but I do like “La Donna Gravida” by Raphael. I especially like how the sitter also draws attention to her pregnant belly with her hand.

Georges de la Tour, "Woman Catching Fleas," 1630s. Oil on canvas

This painting by Georges de la Tour depicts a woman who is crushing a flea between her fingers. The seemingly everyday subject matter probably has deeper symbolic meaning, however. It has been suggested that this is a depiction of the Virgin (perhaps isolated after Joseph discovers she is pregnant), with the candle representing Christ as the Light of the World.

If we jump to the contemporary art scene, there are some images of pregnant women that exist. It makes sense that more pregnant forms would pop up in the postmodern era, since artists are questioning and drawing awareness to traditional Western standards. I think that Ron Mueck’s hyperrealistic Pregnant Woman is probably the best image that highlights and respects the pregnant form. Mueck studied a pregnant model, starting in the sixth month of her pregnancy until about the time that she gave birth. Mueck also studied anatomical books and drawings diligently while creating this sculpture, in order to achieve accuracy.

Ron Mueck, Pregnant Woman, 2002

I really like art historian Mary Kisler’s discussion of this piece, who mentions how this sculpture, in a public environment, has parallels with how a pregnant woman’s body becomes public in actuality. To prove her point, Kisler discusses how people (even strangers!) will sometimes touch the belly of a pregnant woman, when the non-pregnant female has stricter, more private boundaries.

I have to admit, apart from Mueck’s work, I’m not entirely smitten with several of the other contemporary representations of pregnant women. For example, consider this monumental statue by Marc Quinn:

Marc Quinn, "Alison Lapper Pregnant," 2005, 12 feet (3.6 m) high. Photo courtesy of Garry Knight via Flickr under Creative Commons license.*

This sculpture by Marc Quinn was placed in Trafalgar Square in 2005. It depicts the artist Alison Lapper, who was born without arms, when she was eight months pregnant. On one hand, I like that Quinn is trying to deconstruct Western notions of beauty by depicting a figure who is different from Western ideals. So, in that sense, I think that this sculpture is empowering to women, pregnant women, and any figure type which traditionally has been excluded from canonical standards. On the other hand, though, I feel like Quinn is using the pregnant form to get his point across – almost as if the pregnancy itself is a mere device for “shock value.” In this sense, I have a hard time viewing this sculpture as a pure celebration of the pregnant female form.

I also feel the same way about Damien Hirst’s sculpture, Verity, which is a variant of earlier works of art by Hirst (like The Virgin Mother). One half of the statue shows the exterior of the pregnant woman, while the other half shows the internal organs and matter inside the woman, including the fetus.

Damien Hirst, "Verity," 2003-2012. Approximately 65-feet tall (20 m)

Damien Hirst, "Verity," 2003-2012, detail

Verity is a monumental statue which is placed on the pier of Ilfracombe, Devon. Hirst, who lives in Ilfracombe, has loaned the sculpture to the town for twenty years (beginning in 2012). Hirst views his sculpture as an allegory for truth and justice, and I think that meaning is made clear with the revealed anatomy on one side. However, like with the Quinn sculpture, I feel like this sculpture is using the pregnant form to generate “shock value,” rather than for concrete symbolism or celebration of the pregnant form itself. It seems like the reference to truth and justice are best expressed in the sword and scales; I can’t see Hirst’s immediate connection between pregnancy and truth or justice. (If anyone can make that direct connection, please share!)

Do you have a favorite representation of the pregnant form in art? Any further thoughts as to why the pregnant form is comparatively scarce in Western art as a whole, apart from what I have put forward about idealized figures?

1 McCoid and McDermott, “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female
Vision in the Upper Paleolithic,” in American Anthropologist 98 (no. 2): 319-
326.

*See Creative Commons license for photograph by Garry Knight

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History of the Halo in Art

Pope John VII, mosaic detail, 705-06 CE, Vatican Museums

Last year, in two different classes, I had students ask me about the history of the halo in art. It is an interesting topic to consider, especially since there isn’t a reference to Jesus having a halo in the Bible. I think that the closest reference to a halo in the Bible is a description of Moses being surrounded with a “crown of light” or “rays of light” (from when he came down off of Mt. Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 34:29). Interestingly, St. Jerome’s Vulgate had a translation of this verse as “horns of light,” and you sometimes see depictions of Moses with horns from the Middle Ages and onward. But that’s another story for another post, perhaps.

Detail of Helios from a red-figure vase, 5th century BC, British Museum

I thought I’d write down a bit about the early sources for the halo, in case I have more students ask the same question in the future. The halo may have come from several different sources, including classical culture. For example, the Greek god Helios is depicted with rays emanating from his head. There also are a few depictions of Apollo with halos. A Roman floor mosaic in Tunisia which has one such depiction. I’ve also heard discussions about how laurel wreaths (used to crown victors in classical societies) could be related to the halo.

In addition to classical sources, the sun disk found in Egyptian crowns may have been an early manifestation of a halo-like form.  There also are similar forms related to the halo (like the nimbus or aureola) found in non-Western art, too. Some think that the halo form traveled from West to East, ending up in Ghandara and influencing depictions of the Buddha (see one example from the Tokyo National Museum from the 1st-2nd centuries CE).1

Detail of vault mosaic in the Mausoleum M (Mausoleum of the Julii), from the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica. Mid-3rd century CE. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Christians adopted the round halo from their contemporaries, using the circular shape to connote perfection, divinity, and holiness. I know of one early image, a ceiling mosaic from the necropolis underneath St. Peter’s (see above), which may depict Christ or Sol Invictus (the later sun god of the Roman empire). This image pre-dates the 4th century, and could be a very early example of the halo in a Christian context. After this point, halos were used for Christ and the Lamb of God, angels, the Virgin, and eventually saints.2

Some variants of the halo:

  • The mandorla (an almond-shaped aureole) usually is used for depictions of Christ and the Virgin. However, the earliest representation of a mandorla appears around an Old Testament figure, specifically one of the three angels who visit Abraham (in a 5th century scene at Santa Maria Maggiore).3 The mandorla continues to become more abstract and angularly defined in later art.
  • The cruciform halo is usually used for members the Trinity, especially Christ. This form of halo includes a cross within or extending beyond the circular area of the halo. An early example of the cruciform halo is found in the Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes mosaic of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (c. 504). In Orthodox and Byzantine tradition, the cruciform also include the letters Ο Ν, which translate to mean “The Being” or “I Am,” serving as a testament to Christ’s divinity (see more information HERE).
  • The square halo was sometimes used to indicate that a person is still living when the work of art is created. From what I can tell, the earliest example of a square halo dates from about the early 8th century. The square, as an imperfect shape that represents the Earth, is used to draw a contrast with the perfect circle used for divine figures. (For an example, see mosaic of Pope John VII at the beginning of this post. Other examples of square halos are found at Santa Prassede in Rome, found in a mosaic of Pope Paschal I (c. 820) and a mosaic which includes a woman specified as “Theodora, Bishop”).
  • The trianglular halo is sometimes used to symbolize the Trinity (example: Antoniazzo Romano, detail of God the Father, from the Altarpiece of the Confraternity of the Annunciation, c. 1489-90, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome).
  • The hexagonal halo has been used in conjunction with allegorical figures (example: Alesso di Andrea, Hope, 1347. Pistoia Cathedral, Pistoia).
  • Dotted halos sometimes appear in Crusader art; they are considered one of the stylistic characteristics of this type of art (example: Saint Sergios with Female Donor icon, c. 1250s).4 The dotted halo also appears in other artistic traditions, too, including Ottonian art (example: Christ and the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee from the Hitda Codex, c. 1025-50).
  • The star halo sometimes appears in depictions of the Immaculate Conception. This type of halo refers to the to the description of the Virgin being crowned with twelve stars (Revelation 12:1). Several depictions of the Immaculate Conception appear in Counter-Reformation art, including Velasquez’s The Immaculate Conception c. 1619 and Francesco Pacheco’s Immaculate Conception with Miguel Cid, c. 1621 (Seville Cathedral).

Jan Van Eyck, detail of Virgin from the Ghent altarpiece, 1432

With the rise of realism in Renaissance art, the halo began to decrease (in terms of size and frequency of use). Giotto seems to have struggled with how to depict groups of figures with halos, while still giving a sense of three dimensional space, as seen in his Madonna and Child altarpiece. Masaccio tried to angle his halos to appear a little more realistic in three-dimensional space, as seen in his “Tribute Money” fresco in the Brancacci Chapel. Leonardo da Vinci only subly suggests a thin halo in many of his paintings, like Virgin of the Rocks at the National Gallery in London. In some Renaissance art, sometimes the halo was subtly incorporated into a scene, like the a firescreen (Follower of Robert Campin, Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen) or an architectural device (Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper). I like how Jan Van Eyck created thrones in the Ghent altarpiece with backs that give the suggestion of halos (see above). Beyond the Renaissance, some artists continued to suggest halos without creating a traditional halo, as seen in the drapery behind Christ in Coypel’s The Resurrection of Christ (1700).

What are your favorite depictions of halos? Why?

1 Sally Fisher, The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art: Images and the Stories that Inspired Them (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 92.

2 Ibid.

3 “Mandorla,” Encyclopedia Brittanica. Available online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/361739/mandorla (accessed September 19, 2013).

4 Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “To the Holy Land and Back Again: The Art of the Crusades,” in Art and Visual Culture 1100-1600: Medieval to Renaissance, edited by Kim W. Woods (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), 134.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.