There is no truer saying than “every picture tells a story”. The above image is the coat of arms of an old Jersey family that can trace its lineage back to 1446. An expert in heraldry could interpret this, and I believe that it is very likely French. Symbolism and allegory was a way of showing faith, loyalty, purity and a whole lot more and heraldry is the early way of showing this. If you think about it, nothing has changed; we still use symbols today. The lions/leopards courant of England or the rampant lion of Scotland and the Welsh dragon are all national symbols, but we all have our own personal symbols and emblems. When it comes to emblems of the Holy Family then the lily is synonymous with the Virgin, the fleur de lys represents the Trinity and is the national emblem of France, and last, but not least, the crucified Christ is a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by the Son of God, which is at the centre of the Christian faith. The Reformation was to see a removal of all these emblems and symbols in Protestant countries, and the destruction of all Catholic religious artefacts.
In both paintings and illuminated manuscripts the use of colour, and in some cases specific pigments, were reserved for specific people. We all recognise the Virgin Mary with her blue cloak. Lapis lazuli being the most expensive blue pigment all the way from the mines of Afghanistan and reserved for her (and possibly kings and queens) because of its cost. Purple was the colour reserved for emperors and came from the small mollusc found in the eastern Mediterranean. The Magdalen is usually shown in red and green. Vermillion being a red made from cinnabar, a naturally occurring ore being a compound of sulphur and mercury, or by heating sulphur and mercury together. This was a very hazardous procedure, but the resulting pure red was one that would last better than those from organic materials.
Anyone seeing the altarpieces or illuminated manuscripts would have understood the meaning behind the more arcane symbols and emblems even if they had not understood the written word. The audience of the altarpieces painted as frescoes would have been seen by the congregation and in the case of the wooden altarpieces, the congregation would have been able to appreciate the images on the outside of the closed doors with the interior being exposed only on specific days.
In the case of illuminated manuscripts, these were owned by the wealthy so the audience was even more select.
Today, people think paintings, photographs and other works of art are merely decorative. Through this website I seek to show how art and history are entwined and how research is demonstrating new ideas about long established tropes about art and artists. Very specifically, I am interested in women artists of the early Renaissance.
In addition to the various articles on the blog page, visit my Ashtead Art Lovers page (just click on these links) for details of my monthly talks and study days, and what this group has looked at in the past.
Welcome to my world.