'Painted Love: Renaissance Marriage Portraits' at The Holburne Museum

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'Painted Love: Renaissance Marriage Portraits' at The Holburne Museum
Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473–1531) Marriage Portrait of Jakob Fugger (1459–1525), and Sybilla Artzt (c.1480–1546), 1498 Schroder Collection.

BATH .- Some 500 years before apps such as Hinge, Bumble and Matched became familiar ways in which to meet a future partner, portraiture was an essential part of the matrimonial process for the nobility of Northern and Southern Europe. During the Renaissance, artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Nicholas Hilliard, Antonio Pisanello, Alesso Baldovinetti and Giovanni Battista Moroni were highly sought after, as their portraits of wealthy and powerful patrons were not only a vital part of courtship in the 15th and 16th centuries but also a means of formally proclaiming legal unions between families, documenting the creation of international treaties and, in some cases, the founding of dynasties.

In a landmark new exhibition now opening and on view until October 1st , Painted Love: Renaissance Marriage Portraits, the Holburne Museum brings together a dazzling collection of paintings and miniatures, along with a wealth of complementary objects relating to marriage during this fascinating period. In an appropriately romantic way, at least one couple will be reunited in this exhibition after generations apart.

This unique project was prompted by the long loan to the Holburne of a group of outstanding Northern Renaissance portraits from the collection of the late Bruno Schroder. Prestigious loaned artworks will come from the National Gallery, British Museum, V&A and The Royal Collection, amongst others.

The exhibition of around 50 objects reveals the distinct stylistic differences between Netherlandish, German, French, British and Italian art, while also highlighting how the genre of portraiture developed during this period.

The loans are supported by the Weston Loan Programme with Art Fund. Created by the Garfield Weston Foundation and Art Fund, the Weston Loan Programme is the first ever UK-wide funding scheme to enable smaller and local authority museums to borrow works of art and artefacts from national collections.

The various historical, social, and artistic themes behind Painted Love are further complemented by the inclusion of objects associated with the rituals of marriage: love tokens, rings, gifts, and commemorative tableware. Renaissance portraits on medals and coins – which commemorated and authorised marriages while also idealizing the sitters – are also an important component of the show.

A starting point for the exhibition is the double portrait of Jakob Fugger and Sybille Artzt, from the Schroder Collection, painted in 1498 by Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) to mark the couple’s marriage. Neither party looks particularly thrilled at the union – despite the groom being known as ‘Fugger the Rich’, due to the Augsburg merchant being so wealthy that he was the major financial force behind the Habsburg empire.

The painting not only reflects the solemnity of matrimony, but the couple are as if at a window and like royalty showing themselves to the people; the purpose of which was to effectively publicise the marriage and therefore act as a form of validation. It is also, in some ways, the precursor to wedding photographs.

Similarly, with modern weddings often being a form of show, the Fuggers are displaying their wealth. Sybille is wearing a jewelled headdress, while Jakob wears his trademark Venetian-style cap of gold. While his arm interlinked through hers may be seen as an act of tenderness, it can also be viewed as one of possession. Indeed, as was customary at the time, Fugger had provided his wife’s dress and jewellery, a practice also revealed in Portrait of a Lady in Yellow (c.1465) by Alesso Baldovinetti (1427-1499).

The sitter’s dress and jewels would have been bought by her groom and although we still do not know who she is, a tantalizing clue is offered by her husband’s coat of arms, of three palms, adorning the sleeve of her gown. Until the 1470s, the Italian nobility regarded profile portraits as the ideal way in which to display their lineage and virtue. The form harked back to ancient coins and classical bust portraiture and thus was a means of elevating their status. The young woman in Baldovinetti’s painting has all the trappings of wealth; her sumptuous dress aside she also wears a strand of orange beads with a pendant set with a large pearl, while a cluster of pearls – symbolic of purity, a crucial virtue for marriage – crown her elaborate hairstyle.

To commemorate his marriage to Maria of Aragon, daughter of Alphonso V of Aragon, King of Naples in 1444, Leonello d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, commissioned the famous medallist Pisanello to strike a medal that both celebrated and publicised their union but also gave it that certain stamp of authority in a way that painted portraits could not. It was the tradition for the reverse of such medals to make a point about the character or qualities of the subject on the front. The singing lion on the reverse of Leonello’s is a punning allusion to his name; Leonello or ‘little lion’. Cast in bronze, Renaissance portrait medals such as this not only commemorated individuals and events but were also used as gifts and mementoes.

Leonello may have been particularly drawn to this style - as it associated him with Roman emperors, whose profiles were stamped on ancient coins – and he later had his portrait painted in profile by Giovanni da Oriolo (Leonello d’Este 1447, National Gallery, London). Moreover, the profile image reflected his status as an educated man with a keen interest in the art and ideas of antiquity, while also communicating his authority as ruler of his city.

Less than fifty years later, Andrea Solario’s A Man with a Pink (c.1495) demonstrates the dramatic development of portraiture in this period. The technique of oil painting (here combined with egg tempera), the three-quarter view of the sitter and the landscape background were the result of the influence of Netherlandish artists. Although the identity of the high-ranking Venetian in Solario’s striking portrait remains unknown, the pink (a carnation) held in his right hand is a reference to his marital status. Pinks were a feature of Italian marriage rituals; in one instance a bride would hide a carnation in her clothing and the groom would have to find it. We can assume that the subject of Solario’s painting was successful in this endeavour as we can see the blue and gold ring on his thumb, suggesting that the sitter ordered the painting to mark his marriage.

The double portraits in Painted Love reveal how marriage transformed the lives of newlywed couples. In that of the Augsburg merchant Lorenz Kraffter (b.1460) and his wife Honesta Merz (b.1477) by Ulrich Apt (c.1460-1532), both gained new responsibilities and status. Albeit living in almost exclusively patriarchal societies throughout Europe, the partnership of marriage meant that while a husband took on new roles in the world of affairs, a wife took control of the domestic realm.

The magnificent portraits of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (private collection) and Margaret Audley, Duchess of Norfolk (Audley End, English Heritage) by Hans Eworth (1520-1574) exemplify the importance of lineage and wealth for marriages of this rank in 16th century England. By coming together and uniting their families the couple consolidated their wealth and reinforced their status.

While the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk are depicted by Eworth as very much a ‘power couple’, he took a very different and more austere approach to painting Mr and Mrs Wakeman. In his portrait of Joan Thornbury, Mrs Richard Wakeman, 1566 (private collection) the sitter, wearing more restrained finery addresses us directly with a unique memento mori inscription at the top right of the painting: “MY CHYLDHODDE PAST THAT BEWTIFIED MY FLESSHE / AND GONNE MY YOVTH THAT GAVE ME COLOR FRESSHE / Y AM NOW CVM TO THOS RYPE YERIS AT LAST / THAT TELLES ME HOWE MY WANTON DAYS BE PAST / AND THEREFORE FRINDE SO TVRNES THE TYME ME / Y ONS WAS YOVNG AND NOWE AM AS YOV SEE. AETATIS XXXVI / M.D. LXVI”. The lyrical statement not only reminds the viewer of the transient nature of life but also raises key ideas about portraiture, beauty, marriage, and the status of women in Tudor England. With a similar inscription on the pendant portrait of her husband Richard Wakeman 1566 (private collection) he challenges his wife’s self-presentation: “WHY VANTIST THOWE THY CHANGYNG FACE OR / HAST OF HYT SVCHE STORE / TO FORM A NEWE OR NONE THOWE HAST OR NOT LYKE / AS BEFORE / AETATIS XLIIII / M.D.LXVI”. The paintings were originally intended to be hung together and this is the first time in six decades that they have been reunited.

Marriage alliances were a vital part of the politics of 15th and 16th century Europe, with the Holy Roman Empire, France, and England constantly vying to gain international prominence. They were also an integral part of the shifting ties between Italy’s rival city states, at a time when the country itself was the sparring ground for its competing neighbours. Even though they were at an early age, portraits of children as possible future spouses were circulated among the small group of extremely powerful rulers. Henry VIII owned Jean Gossaert’s portrait of Prince John and Princesses Dorothea and Christina aged 7, 5 and 3, who were the children of the exiled King Christian II of Denmark and Isabella of Austria, sister of the Emperor Charles V (Royal Collection). Twelve years later Holbein painted the full-length portrait of Christina (National Gallery) when Henry VIII was considering making her his fourth wife.

The exhibition reveals how elaborate wedding celebrations could be during the Renaissance. Just as recent royal weddings in the UK have demonstrated, ‘the show’ is a fundamental part of the process. Magnificence and wealth would be on display at the wedding feasts with luxury tableware. At their nuptials, Jacob Fugger and Sybille Artzt may well have both drunk from an opulent German double cup (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). The finely worked Annoni-Visconti marriage bowl (possibly Busca workshop, Milan, c.1569-71, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), would have been used for the ceremonial washing of hands, which took place before the joining of hands at the marriage of Silvia Visconti, with Giovanni Battista Annoni, members of two of the leading families in Renaissance Milan. The fashion for maiolica plates, featuring images of beautiful women is another example of the preoccupation with ideal beauty and relates to the search for an exemplary marriage partner.

While the exhibition demonstrates the importance of openly declaring and acknowledging marriage across Europe during the Renaissance, a display of miniatures reminds us that, for all the power, politics and religion involved, it is the subject of love between two people that continues to fascinate us.

Miniatures of loved ones were cherished and always kept close at hand, if not worn. Nicholas Hilliard’s miniatures of Elizabeth I (c.1595-1600) and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (c.1571-1574) represent their long intimacy. In his beautiful miniature portrait of Jane Small (formerly Mrs. Pemberton, c.1536), Hans Holbein depicts her wearing a red carnation, which probably refers to her betrothal to the prosperous London merchant, Nicholas Small. The importance of lineage for Renaissance marriages is again underlined by Jane’s coat of arms set into the lid. Yet the Smalls were not courtiers, but rather close neighbours of Holbein. Here it is the superb skill of the artist that has given us a searching but sympathetic and down-to-earth portrait of the ‘girl next door’. Another star object of the exhibition will undoubtedly be the very rarely seen Gresley Jewel (private collection), which features miniature portraits of Sir Thomas Gresley and his bride, Catherine Walsingham. “There is nothing else like it,” declares the exhibition’s curator, Lucy Whitaker.

She adds: “Through this exhibition, the first of its kind ever to specifically explore the theme of marriage in the Renaissance, we are given unique insights into the contrasting aspects of personal love and public power during this remarkable period.”

Dr. Chris Stephens, Director of the Holburne adds: “We are extremely proud to be presenting Painted Love, surely the Holburne’s most ambitious exhibition ever. It is thrilling to be bringing to the Museum works as iconic as Baldovinetti’s Portrait of a Lady in Yellow and others by such international masters as Holbein, Nicholas Hilliard, Hans Eworth and Giovanni Battista Moroni. It will be an exhibition that is visually sumptuous while offering new insights into the role of art in northern and southern Europe during the Renaissance.”

Sophia Weston, Trustee of the Garfield Weston Foundation, said: “We are delighted that the Weston Loan programme has helped bring exquisite paintings together in Bath for this fascinating exploration of Renaissance culture and society. The scheme helps museums in every part of the UK secure loans of great works of art and inspiring objects ”.

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