The Embedded Portrait: Giotto, Giottino, Angelico

Image of The Embedded Portrait: Giotto, Giottino, Angelico
Release Date: 
October 17, 2023
Princeton University Press
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“not only a thorough examination of the role portraits played in 14th paintings, he provides a stellar example of art historical thinking.”

Christopher Wood offers a book that is as much history as art history. Part of his argument lies in asserting that we've outgrown the origins of art history as connoisseurship. The artistic quality of individual pieces matters less to the historian than what the images reveal about the cultural and religious thinking of the period.

Art history has indeed evolved since its earliest days, and this book provides an excellent example of how much pictures can tell us about the people who commissioned them, made them, and saw them. The Italians of the 14th century feel much closer to us as Wood introduces various laypersons who were important enough to be included in major religious paintings, ones that are still in major churches for all to admire.

Wood starts by looking carefully at individual altarpieces, noticing who is now included and what that inclusion means.

"The picture publishes an increasingly widely shared tendency among laypersons no longer to be content with the formal submission to rite and custom, symbolizing subordination to God, but instead to cultivate—as clerics did—religious experiences."

This is a shocking insistence to be literally seen, a sense of personal value that hints at a burgeoning economic class already in the 14th century. Money could provide power—and in these portraits access to the sacred.

"The incursion into a narrative scene of a portrait of modern devout is not a depiction of time travel but rather an affirmation of the worshipper's psychic and emotional involvement with the scriptural stories."

Who were the people who felt they belonged in such holy spaces? First and foremost, they were ones who could commission an expensive painting. Or they were people who mattered to those who could afford such a commission.

"They are patrons, donors, founders, owners, supplicants, petitioners, votaries, or witnesses, depending on whether they are paying for something, giving something, asking for something, hoping for something, or testifying to something."

The people portrayed then are an important part of what this history tells us. The other angle Wood deftly explores is how the artists being commissioned handled these novel requests. How should they include a merchant or a religious layperson into the scene of the Lamentation or Crucifixion? It was a visual problem each painter had to solve.

"The portraits interrupt the beautiful surface, for modern votaries, no matter how finely clothed or decorously posed, can never compete with the holy personages. The petitioners, by barging in, risk adulterating the very artifacts they have sponsored."

Wood explores these issues carefully by looking at individual painters and paintings. His research is thorough and goes beyond the 14th century to look at historiography in general. An entire chapter, in fact, is devoted to looking at how history understands imagery: "This chapter asks: is it possible to grasp premodern sacred art from a vantage point that considers sacrality to be a human invention?"

Starting with Carl Friedrich von Rumohr, through Panofsy and onward, Wood outlines how art history has traditionally understood early Renaissance painting. This is a fascinating chapter, examining earlier assumptions as well as current points of view.

"Once art historians agreed to set aside traditional concerns with art's essential nature and history, and once historians agreed to stop privileging the intellect over the emotions and the body, old walls between the disciplines began to collapse."

That collapse allows intriguing new insights. "The hidden portrait is double-coded: some beholders will read it as the image of an anonymous but distinctive-looking character; some beholders will recognize the features of Giotto, Dante, or Farinata."

Wood presents not only a thorough examination of the role portraits played in 14th paintings, he provides a stellar example of art historical thinking.