'Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits of the Renaissance' opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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'Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits of the Renaissance' opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Marco Marziale (Italian, Venetian, active 1492/3–1507), Portrait of Giulio Mellini (recto); Allegorical Landscape (verso), 1492–1507. Oil on wood, 14 3/16 × 9 13/16 in. (36 × 25 cm) Musée du Louvre, Paris, Département des Peintures, RF 1345. Photo: © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY, photo by Daniel Arnaudet.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits of the Renaissance. This is the first exhibition to examine an intriguing but largely unknown tradition of Renaissance painting: portraits designed as multisided objects in which the sitters’ images were concealed behind a hinged or sliding cover, within a box, or by a dual-faced format. Private portraits were often hidden beneath other paintings that served as witty prologues and protective covers. The reverses and covers of these portraits were adorned with puzzle-like emblems, inscriptions, allegories, and mythologies that reflected the sitters’ characters as well as broader cultural values. The viewer decoded the meaning of the symbolic portrait before lifting, sliding, or turning the image over to unmask the face below.

Painted by Italian and Northern European masters, such as Hans Memling, Lucas Cranach, Lorenzo Lotto, and Titian, the works in the exhibition represent highlights of Renaissance portraiture together with some of the most inventive secular imagery of the period. These ensembles include hinged diptychs, double-sided panels that presumably pivoted on a hook and chain, paintings fitted with sliding covers, and boxes and lockets. The objects range in function from portraits intended as portable propaganda to those designed to conceal lovers’ identities, serving as tokens of affection or political allegiance. These varied works shed significant light on the personal nature of portraits conceived as interactive objects.

“This extraordinary, surprising, and revealing exhibition beautifully illuminates a fascinating and little-known tradition of Renaissance painting, tracing the development of these stunning multi-sided masterworks and uncovering the many intriguing stories they tell,” said Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director and CEO. “Hidden Faces offers a rare opportunity to understand and appreciate the perpetual allure of these mysterious works and celebrate the creativity and inventiveness of the genre.”

The widespread development of these multifaceted objects in Italy and Northern Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries will be explored through approximately 60 works from The Met collection and other American and European institutions, from Hans Memling’s late-15th century Portrait of a Man, whose reverse features one of the earliest independent still lifes, to Titian’s large canvas portrait cover depicting an allegory of love. The exhibition will include major loans from the Ashmolean Museum, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, National Gallery of Art in Washington, and others.

Alison Manges Nogueira, Curator, Robert Lehman Collection at The Met said, “Rather than being affixed to the wall and permanently visible, these three-dimensional objects, which were often stored away and unveiled for special viewings, were designed to restrict access to the sitters’ images. In fact, the viewer was first confronted by emblems and allegories evoking their inner character. The exhibition explores the symbiotic relationship between these physical and symbolic portraits that were bound in form and meaning, like the dual sides of the coins and medals which inspired them.”

While few examples survive today, hinged or sliding covers were widely used in the 15th and 16th centuries. Since many multilayered portraits have been significantly altered over time, through the loss of their original frames, covers, and accompanying imagery, they are often considered to be independent likenesses rather than parts of a larger whole. The exhibition will reunite several portraits and their embellished covers that have been divided over time and made part of separate collections. The installation provides the opportunity to view all of the double-sided portraits in the round, including several works that are usually exhibited on the wall, so their reverses remain little known.

Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits of the Renaissance will open with an exploration of the broader tradition of multisided works, including ancient coins, Renaissance medals, and devotional paintings, as sources of inspiration for portraiture. Beyond protection from damage, concealment was integral to a portrait’s viewership and meaning, especially when the cover was adorned with coded imagery relating to the sitter. Portraits and other types of imagery, such as nudes, were often covered with curtains, covers, and lids, thereby hiding lovers’ identities and heightening privacy and anticipation.

The exhibition will explore covered portraits by region, beginning with 15th century Northern Europe, where bust-length likenesses painted with extraordinary naturalism were frequently adorned on their reverses with imitation stone to highlight the sitters’ status and the enduring nature of their likeness. This later lead to portraits, including those by Rogier van der Weyden, that were adorned on their reverses with heraldry and personal emblems, and to the experimental secular imagery on reverses and covers that began to flourish under Hans Memling.

The galleries continue with multisided portraits in Italy toward the end of the 15th century. Beyond Florence, a particularly strong tradition of multisided portraits flourished in Venice under artists such as Jacometto Veneziano, Lorenzo Lotto, and Titian. Ranging from diminutive wood boxes to large-scale canvas covers, many of the Italian works on view bear imagery and inscriptions alluding to classical antiquity and personal virtues, such as chastity, that celebrated the portrait sitters’ intellectual, moral, and social standing. The meaning of these allegories was often intended to be enigmatic and to prompt discussion among viewers. While portraits and their covers are displayed alongside one another in the exhibition, visitors will have the opportunity to view digital recreations of the process of unveiling.

In Northern Europe during the first half of the 16th century multisided portraits continued under the patronage of the wealthy merchants and bankers in the German cities of Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Frankfurt, as well as the Electors of Saxony, who commissioned these works for wide-ranging functions— from objects of love to political propaganda. The gallery will present a rare opportunity to view works that are not typically exhibited in the round.

Hidden Faces closes with a gallery devoted to small-scale portraits, like those created by the German artists Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein, which were frequently given as gifts on the occasion of a betrothal, marriage, or journey. Carried or worn on the body, such personal and intimate works were designed for portability. These miniatures could often bear a considerable agenda, as with the paired roundels by Cranach commissioned by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther of himself and his wife. Fitted together in small wood boxes, they were distributed as propaganda upon the couple’s controversial marriage in 1525. Lockets, watches, and false coins dating to the 16th and 17th centuries illustrate the continuing tradition of highly personal and diminutive objects whose layered formats provided an invaluable opportunity to augment and personalize the presentation of the sitter.

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