The Likeness of the King: A Prehistory of Portraiture in Late Medieval France

The Likeness of the King: A Prehistory of Portraiture in Late Medieval France

by Stephen Perkinson

Anyone who has strolled through the halls of a museum knows that portraits occupy a central place in the history of art. But did portraits, as such, exist in the medieval era? Stephen Perkinson’s The Likeness of the King challenges the canonical account of the invention of modern portrait practices, offering a case against the tendency of recent


Anyone who has strolled through the halls of a museum knows that portraits occupy a central place in the history of art. But did portraits, as such, exist in the medieval era? Stephen Perkinson’s The Likeness of the King challenges the canonical account of the invention of modern portrait practices, offering a case against the tendency of recent scholarship to identify likenesses of historical personages as “the first modern portraits.”

Unwilling to accept the anachronistic nature of these claims, Perkinson both resists and complicates grand narratives of portraiture art that ignore historical context. Focusing on the Valois court of France, he argues that local practice prompted shifts in the late medieval understanding of how images could represent individuals and prompted artists and patrons to deploy likeness in a variety of ways. Through an examination of well-known images of the fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century kings of France, as well as largely overlooked objects such as wax votive figures and royal seals, Perkinson demonstrates that the changes evident in these images do not constitute a revolutionary break with the past, but instead were continuous with late medieval representational traditions.

“A lively, well-researched, and insightful work of scholarship on late-medieval portraiture and its cultural and intellectual context. The Likeness of the King provides a strong account of late-medieval aesthetics and specific, concrete examples of image-making and the often political needs it served. It offers smart handling of literary, philosophical, and archival sources; close and insightful reading of images; and a willingness to counter received ideas.”—Rebecca Zorach, University of Chicago 

Editorial Reviews

Art Bulletin - Julian Gardner
“Perkinson writes illuminatingly on the ‘discourse of likeness’ in the late Middle Ages. . . . [T]his penetrating, argumentative, and learned book leaves one wishing for more [and] is a tribute to its intellectual candor and conviction.”
Joan A. Holladay
“Stephen Perkinson’s book is a tour-de-force. The topic itself has large implications; not only does this discussion go back to the beginnings of the discipline of art history, but it investigates the very nature of image-making in the later Middle Ages. Starting with the mid-fourteenth-century image of Jean II, King of France, often said to be the first independent portrait, Perkinson downplays the thorny issue of physiognomic resemblance and looks at the issue of likeness more broadly in a series of wide-ranging, innovative, and highly productive inquiries. This subtle, sensitive study succeeds in examining this material on its own terms and in the context of its own times.”

Thomas Dale
“Perkinson offers a refreshing account of the theories and practices of portraiture in late medieval France, that challenges us to rethink the role of physiognomic likeness as one among competing representational strategies. He convincingly explains renewed interest in mimetic representation within a rich interdisciplinary context, encompassing optical and physiognomic sciences, literary and theological theories of knowledge, magical associations of simulacra, and the competitive conditions of artistic patronage at French aristocratic courts.  He shows that celebrated artists such as the Limbourg brothers produced recognizable, veristic portraits to demonstrate their skill as well as their own personal loyalty and that of their patrons to the ruling elites.”

Rebecca Zorach
“A lively, well-researched, and insightful work of scholarship on late-medieval portraiture and its cultural and intellectual context. The Likeness of the King provides a strong account of late-medieval aesthetics and specific, concrete examples of image-making and the often political needs it served. It offers smart handling of literary, philosophical, and archival sources; close and insightful reading of images; and a willingness to counter received ideas.”

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The Likeness of the King

A Prehistory of Portraiture in Late Medieval France

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-65879-7

Chapter One

The Discourse of Likeness in the Late Middle Ages

Hugh, the fifteenth abbot, caused a new crucifix to be made in the choir of the lay brothers.... And [the sculptor] looked closely at a nude man standing in his presence, so that he might more suitably decorate the crucifix according to his beautiful image. THOMAS DE BURTON, Chronicle of the Abbey of Meaux, England, late fourteenth century

A clever stone carver had already carved a perfect and pure marble image [for the tomb of Rudolf of Habsburg, who would die shortly thereafter in 1291]. Whoever would look at it would have to say that he had never seen an image so like a person. OTTOKAR OF STYRIA, Reimchronik, c. 1300–20


Shortly before his death in 1349, the Abbot Hugh of Meaux Abbey in East Yorkshire ordered the carving of a new, and apparently strikingly beautiful, crucifix. Hugh commissioned the piece for placement in the choir used by the abbey's conversi—lay brothers charged with various forms of manual labor at Cistercian monasteries like Meaux. In his chronicle of the abbey's history, Thomas de Burton tells us that "the Almighty constantly made manifest miracles" through the crucifix from the moment it was installed. The monks of Meaux felt that a wider audience might benefit from seeing the crucifix, and that seeing it would increase the devotion of women in particular. They therefore petitioned the abbot of their order's mother house at Cîteaux for permission to admit outsiders to the lay brother's choir, and people came in droves. Thomas suggests that the body of Christ on the crucifix was exceedingly attractive. This, he tells us, was the result of the artist's working procedures—procedures which, to modern readers, sound strikingly similar to the methods used by modern artists in "life drawing" classes. The chronicler sounds disappointed, however, that the visitors fail to respond adequately to the beauty of the sculpted body. He laments that "women flock frequently to the aforesaid crucifix" but fail to perceive it properly, as "their devotion is but cold."

While several scholars have made note of the chronicle's account of an apparent case of depiction "from life" at Meaux Abbey, none has adduced the crucifix as an early example of portraiture in the modern sense, for the obvious reason that its naturalistic carved figure served to represent Christ and not the purported model. But another account roughly contemporary with the creation of the Meaux crucifix refers to artistic activities that do fit more comfortably within the modern definition of portraiture—at least at first glance. In a German chronicle dating to about 1310, Ottokar of Styria describes the tomb of Rudolf of Habsburg (fig. 6). Ottokar lauds the image's naturalism and claims that the sculptor revised the image over the years, altering it repeatedly to depict Rudolf's aging features. According to Ottokar, the sculptor even went so far as to ensure that the image precisely recorded the growing number of wrinkles on Rudolf 's face. This chronicle thus appears to describe an early instance in which a painstaking naturalism was enlisted in the service of the representation of a specific individual. This has led several scholars to cite Ottokar's account as important evidence concerning the origins of modern portrait practices.

There is a good reason to doubt the veracity of the accounts of image production in both of these chronicles: both texts were written considerably later than the events they record. Thomas de Burton composed the Meaux chronicle a half a century after the carving of the miraculous crucifix. He had not even been born at the time of the sculpture's creation (although he appears to have seen it, as he speaks in the present tense when he discusses the visitors coming to worship before it). Likewise, Ottokar wrote his description of Rudolf 's tomb between 1300 and 1320—several years after the ruler's death in 1291, and decades after the sculptor purportedly began his work on the image. Now it is, of course, possible that both Thomas and Ottokar recorded reliable oral reports that remained in circulation some years after the carving of these two sculptures. But it is just as likely that in both cases the authors were responding to a fiction generated by the images themselves. In other words, they could simply have provided what they imagined to be a plausible explanation for the naturalistic appearance of sculpted bodies. Whereas recent scholarship suggests that the gaunt appearance of Rudolf 's tomb figure was originally meant to signify saintly asceticism, Ottokar may have interpreted it as referring to the actual appearance of the aged king. Likewise, prompted by the degree to which the body of the "new crucifix" at Meaux seemed to be more congruent with visual experience than older images, Thomas may have simply assumed that the artist based his work on the careful examination of a nude model. In short, however anachronistic their interpretations of these sculptures may be, both authors seem to have granted these images a degree of transparency, assuming that one can see through them to real bodies of specific people that served as their models.

Ottokar and Thomas were not the only late medieval authors to assume that images oJered information concerning the appearances of specific individuals. Another document, the so-called "Lentulus Letter," offers further, albeit oblique, evidence of that assumption. The letter contains what purports to be an eyewitness description of Christ's body as recorded by a Roman official, a certain Publius Lentulus, but scholars now believe that it was actually written around 1300. The forgery attempted to compensate for what Christian audiences evidently saw as a glaring omission in the New Testament: the lack of any description of Christ's appearance. This scriptural silence led to conflicts of opinion among Christian authorities. Some of the earliest sources cited prophecies such as that of Isaiah (53:2–3) to prove that Christ was ugly: "we have seen him and he was without good appearance or beauty" (in the Greek Septuagint) or "there is no beauty in him" (in the Latin Vulgate). By the fourteenth century, these verses from Isaiah would provide the biblical rationale for images of the "Man of Sorrows." Other early authorities described Christ as polymorphic, with his appearance to a given observer depending upon that observer's identity and needs. Some thus saw him as unattractive, others saw him in the form of one of his disciples (like Paul), to some he appeared as a young child, to others as an older man, and so on. Still others drew on late antique Neoplatonic ideas equating goodness with beauty, and assumed that any Son of God had to be physically attractive. This allowed them to posit Old Testament invocations of divine beauty as prefiguring the features of Christ—for instance, reading the passage "Thou art beautiful above the sons of men" in Psalm 44:3 as a reference to Christ's physical qualities.

But devout Christians of the later Middle Ages evidently found such descriptions of Christ to be maddeningly imprecise. The Lentulus Letter responded to such frustration, providing an extensive, and far more detailed, account of Christ's appearance:

He is a man of average size and pleasing appearance, having a countenance that commands respect, which those who behold may love or fear. He has hair the color of an unripe hazelnut, smooth almost to his ears, but below his ears curling and rather darker and more shining, hanging over his shoulders, and having a parting in the middle of his head according to the fashion of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and quite serene; his face is without wrinkle or blemish, and a slight ruddiness makes it handsome. No fault can be found with his nose and mouth; he has a full beard of the color of his hair, not long but divided in two at the chin. His facial expression is guileless and mature; his eyes are grayish and clear. In his rebukes he is terrible, but in his admonitions he is gentle and kind; he is cheerful, but always maintains his dignity. At times he has wept, but he has never laughed. In stature he is tall and erect and his hands and arms are fine to behold. His speech is grave, reserved and temperate, so that he is rightly called by the prophet "beautiful above the sons of men."

However pious his intentions may have been, the author of the letter had to have been aware that he was falsifying the past—after all, he went so far as to provide the letter with a spurious salutation ("Lentulus, to the Senate and the Roman People, greetings") to further ensure its reception as an authentic epistle. But another facet of the author's forging technique is of significance for the history of veristic imagery: he clearly took pains to ensure that his description was entirely congruent with contemporary representations of Christ's features. The bodily qualities enumerated in the letter would have been reassuringly familiar to anyone who had seen a painted or carved image of Christ. And this carries with it an important implication: the forger relied on his audience's assumption that existing images of Christ provided reliable information concerning his actual features. That audience would have been inclined to accept the letter as authentic because it corresponded with images that they already took to be, in some way, veristic likenesses of Christ.

These texts originated in different regions of Europe, and they are part of different textual genres. But despite those differences, they provide compelling evidence that audiences across a wide swath of Europe in the period around 1300 took it for granted that images can be in some senses transparent, affording their viewers a mediated but reliable means of perceiving the actual physical appearance of absent individuals. Generations of scholars, from Giorgio Vasari to Ernst Gombrich, have described the process by which late medieval audiences adopted this assumption in progressive terms, as marking a decisive shift towards naturalism in western art—a trend that would reach its apogee in the art of the Italian High Renaissance. For centuries, the advent of artistic naturalism has thus played a fundamental role in art history's master narrative, serving as a crucial means of demarcating the boundaries between the medieval and the modern.

There is, of course, much to recommend that traditional account. A "common sense" interpretation holds that most early fifteenth-century images pay greater attention to visible appearances than do their counterparts from, say, the twelfth century. One might compare, for instance, two representations of the Virgin and Child (figs. 7 and 73). Both images depict a woman with a child seated on her lap. They both do so with a fairly high degree of attention to the attributes one might expect to experience in the presence of an actual woman and child—both images depict the parts of a clothed human body that a spectator might reasonably expect to be able to see if confronted by a child seated on his mother's lap. The sculptures' forms also clearly indicate the actual parts of the body even when they are hidden beneath their clothing. Indeed, each figure painstakingly depicts distinct body parts by deploying a sculptural sense of modeling in its fictive cloth surfaces to register the presence of the various body parts beneath the fabric. However, it is also immediately apparent that the drapery is handled in entirely different ways in the two pieces. In the earlier image (an image of the Virgin as the sedes sapientiae or "Throne of Wisdom"), the rippling folds serve as elegant but schematic graphic signs that simply denote the presence of different bodily structures beneath the cloth; they signify the general concept of "cloth enveloping a body," without illusionistically rendering the sort of optical effects one would expect to perceive when observing an actual cloth-covered body. The folds visible in the later image (the Goldene Roessl or "Little Golden Horse") retain a sense of decorative grace, while at the same time attempting to conform more closely to the way cloth might actually appear to cascade when draped across a body. This double attention on the part of the early fifteenth-century image—in effect, a desire to deploy calligraphic drapery folds both as a symbol of the figure's spiritual grace and as an index of the body beneath the cloth—distinguishes it from the twelfth-century "Throne of Wisdom."

The perception that some images are inherently more naturalistic than others is not simply a result of the cultural biases and aesthetic predilections of modern viewers. To some extent, the perception of some images as more naturalistic than others is shared even by members of vastly different cultural groups, making it tempting to imagine a simple, sliding measure of naturalism that could be equally valid throughout human history. In fact, images that we perceive as naturalistic—antique statues, for instance—were also perceived as such by medieval audiences. From late antiquity onward, medieval writers occasionally extolled the naturalism of ancient sculpture in language appropriated from classical ekphrasis, praising the degree to which the images seemed to be alive. Throughout the Middle Ages, authors moreover recognized that images could represent particular people through the mimetic representation of facial features. Writing between 830 and 850, for instance, the chronicler Agnellus of Ravenna included descriptions of the physical characteristics of several early bishops of his city in his account of their reigns. He imagined that some readers might doubt the accuracy of his descriptions, replying: "Indeed if by chance you should have some question about how I was able to know about their appearance, know that pictures taught me, since in those days they always made images in their likenesses." Later in the same text, Agnellus specified precisely what images were able to "teach" him: "pictures inform me of their faces." Here he clearly assumes that late antique images contained naturalistic references to the actual physical features of their subjects. In other words, Agnellus made precisely the same assumption that we have found embedded in the Lentulus Letter and the texts by Ottokar of Styria and Thomas de Burton.

Scholars have posited several sources for the apparent burst of artistic naturalism of the later Middle Ages. Some have seen naturalism as being driven by changing audiences for images and other cultural productions. Franz Bäuml, for instance, correlated the rise of naturalism with concurrent literary developments, namely the advent of widespread vernacular literacy in the thirteenth century. Others turned to theology for an explanation of the rise of naturalism. Gerhart Ladner, for example, described postclassical religious beliefs as oscillating between acceptance and rejection of the physical aspect of human existence, associating naturalism with the former. And many scholars have perceived connections between late medieval philosophy and images, identifying the nominalist texts read in the fourteenth-century universities as the causal force behind the rise of naturalism. Many of these scholars (among them most notably Erwin Panofsky) assigned great significance to the philosophical texts themselves, with their insistence on the importance of the study of particulars; such scholarship tends to present artistic naturalism as symptomatic of a new, proto-modern, "scientific" outlook. More recently, Michael Camille and others focused attention on the importance of a particular group of philosophical works that circulated in the thirteenth- century academic context—works of "natural philosophy" that espoused a new, partially Aristotelian theory of vision—as having generated a desire for naturalistic imagery. But at least to some degree, all of this scholarship shares the assumption that intellectual developments espoused in texts prompted the creation of a new, more naturalistic style of visual imagery.


Excerpted from The Likeness of the King by STEPHEN PERKINSON Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Stephen Perkinson is associate professor of art history at Bowdoin College.

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