Symbolism and Identity in Northern Renaissance Portraiture

Northern Renaissance portraiture is full of symbolism that highlights the identity and message of the sitter. What secrets do these portraits reveal?

Jun 14, 2024By Kerigan Pickett, BA Art History with History concentration

symbolism identity northern renaissance portraiture


Northern Renaissance portraits contain secret messages from the artist and the sitter. Portraiture was on the rise during the Northern Renaissance due to the changing art market. This allowed people to present themselves in a way that sent covert signals of who they were within society. The symbolism of the Northern Renaissance can be read like a story, creating visual windows into the past.


Religious Identity in Northern Renaissance Portraiture

Annunciation Triptych by Robert Campin and his workshop, 1427-1432. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


Robert Campin’s Annunciation Triptych has three panels. On the far right panel, we see Joseph working in his workshop which is filled with tools. There is a mousetrap on the window sill. He is focusing hard on his work. Behind him, the city is small but visible through the window, placing the setting as distinctly 15th-century Flanders—the contemporary rather than the ancient era.


While Joseph works on his carpentry, his betrothed, the Virgin Mary, is in the home being visited by the angel Gabriel, who brings her a divine message of her impending pregnancy in which she would carry the son of God into the world. She sits reading her Book of Hours, a prayer book based around the calendar year. She is so caught up in her prayer that she has not yet noticed the messenger. From the window, the divine pregnancy is sent to her as a tiny baby holding a cross, riding beams of spiritual light to Mary’s womb. She had been chosen to be the mother of Christ because of her purity, as indicated by the symbols of white lilies on the table and the shiny reflection of the pot in the background.


The Right Panel of the Annunciation Triptych by Robert Campin and his workshop, 1427-1432. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


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On the left of the triptych are portraits of the patrons of the artwork, incorporated into the overall scene of the triptych. They peer through a door to the mythical scene in the center, kneeling with admiration. Initially, the kneeling man was the only figure present on the panel. However, when he married his wife, he decided to have her added to the painting.


The guardsman behind them was another addition. These patrons would have commissioned this expensive artwork and requested their portraits be added to the scene for a reason, but why? As the fervent religious beliefs of the Middle Ages met the progress and changing socioeconomic structure of the Renaissance, more people had more money to use within society, earning them wealth and reputations they were not afforded before. New to the rising middle class and hoping to prove their character, they would have sought to confirm their identity with the artwork, adding themselves to the sacred event to demonstrate their religious devotion. It would have also made the scene more relatable to them, creating a more personal worship during private prayer.


Devotional Diptych Portraits

Tommaso di Folco Portinari, Maria Portinari by Hans Memling, 1470. Source: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


In Hans Memling’s portraits of Tommaso di Folco Portinari and his wife Maria Portinari, the two face each other with their hands clasped in prayer. Devotional diptych portraits could be two people in prayer, but it was common for it to be one person in prayer and the Virgin Mary on the other panel. The couple would have commissioned this diptych for their home for private prayer. To see themselves in prayer would enhance the prayer experience by creating a visual for themselves to aid their worship.


Tommaso di Folco Portinari was the manager of the Medici bank in Bruges. When originally commissioned, the painting had a third panel, making it a triptych. The middle panel was allegedly a devotional image of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus.


Identity is present even in a plain portrait with little detail concerning the setting. Both of the sitters present themselves as devout Christians with means of wealth. The jeweled necklace, soft furred collar, the sheer fabric of the conical headdress, and golden wedding rings all point towards the sitters’ socioeconomic and marital statuses. Beauty ideals are expressed in the painting as well. Maria Portinari’s light eyebrows and high forehead were ideals of beauty. Though she may really have had these features in life, their inclusion in the portrait ensures that she cared about such trends and wished to express her partaking in them. Just like today’s women often strive to present themselves as beautiful on social media, 15th-century women did the same with their portraits.


Socioeconomic Identity

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434. Source: The National Gallery, London.


Things were changing rapidly as the Renaissance swept across Europe. Northern Renaissance artistic symbolism differed significantly from the artistic symbolism previously used in the Gothic era. While symbolism had always been central to the image when present, it was now becoming a part of its atmosphere instead, by being discreetly placed around the scene. This is sometimes called hidden symbolism and is one of the hallmarks of Northern Renaissance art, alongside the intense hyperrealism of the style, thanks to the semi-translucent, layerable oil paints that were becoming available in the region.


Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait is one of the best examples of hidden symbolism in Northern Renaissance portraiture. It depicts a wealthy Italian merchant, Giovanni Arnolfini, and his wife, Costanza Trenta. The couple is dressed in warm, luxurious clothing and elaborate headwear. It is important to note that the woman is not pregnant, as many people have come to believe, but that she is holding the luxurious fabric up to highlight their possession of quality-made clothing. Despite their layers, the oranges and shrubbery outside of the window indicate that it is a warm month of the year. The clothes, then, are there to establish their identity as lucrative people who can purchase such expensive material.


The oranges, too, indicate their wealth and worldliness. Some art historians believe that oranges could have been the trade that Giovanni Arnolfini was involved in and, therefore, are symbolic of the source of his wealth. However, most sources point towards cloth being their trade—backing up the theory that Costanza is not pregnant and instead holding up the fabric of her dress.


Detail of The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck, 1434. Source: Smarthistory


The beds, too, serve the purpose of displaying their wealth. It was common to take guests in the bedroom, as beds were expensive, and there was little use in keeping it private when it cost so much money. Beds could be elaborate and were often status indicators for visiting guests.


The couple expresses their Christian devotion in the background. The twelve passions of Christ surround a round mirror. When standing in front of the physical painting, the individual scenes are as small as a person’s fingernail. In the mirror is the reflection of the people in the room, including the artist himself. His signature is present above the mirror, causing his tiny reflection to nearly become a part of the signature itself.


There is a possible story present concerning the couple, as well. The dog in the foreground symbolizes fidelity, a testament to their relationship in marriage. Another theory from a 1930s art historian, Erwin Panofsky, assumes it to be a funerary portrait for Costanza, who may have died in childbirth. The best post is carved into the shape of St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth. The candle above Costanza is snuffed out and smoking, with candle smoke often being described as the breath of God in the Renaissance. Meanwhile, Giovanni’s candle remains lit and burns brightly, leading some to theorize that Giovanni had the portrait created posthumously for his late bride. There are many theories about the Arnolfini Portrait, as much of the symbolism has been lost to time and can now only be theorized about by modern art historians and viewers. Records of her death, however, do not support this theory.


Political Symbolism

The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1533. Source: The National Gallery, London.


Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors is full of 16th-century symbolism. He presents it to us on a two-tiered wooden table between two French ambassadors at the English court during Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife in favor of his second, Anne Boleyn, who married in 1533. It was a tense time for Catholics at the English court, and Holbein captured it discreetly in The Ambassadors.


The man on the left, Jean de Dinteville, was in England on behalf of the French King, Francis I. His friend, George de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, is seen on the right. The objects on the table between them symbolize the discord Europe was experiencing then. The top tier of the table represents spiritual matters, while the lower represents earthly matters. A math book is open to a complex problem. Another book is open to a Protestant hymn despite the Catholic sitters in the double portrait. A string on the lute has snapped.


In the top left corner, a crucifix is hidden behind the curtain, waiting for redemption. The red Anatolian carpet draped over the table reminds a contemporary viewer of the Ottomans—enemies of Europe during a point of weakness as the Reformation swept Europe. The globe displays Brazil on its horizon, a nod to the somewhat recent news that France had made a claim to the territory of Brazil and a cause for animosity between the French and Portuguese, who also had interests in Brazil.


The distorted skull, however, visible as a skull only when viewed at a specific angle, reminds the viewers that the discord of earthly matters means nothing, for the grave is what ultimately awaits us all. It reminds people to live well while on earth and to take care of spiritual matters before they, too, meet their inevitable end.


Display of Power

Elizabeth I (Armada Portrait) by Unknown Artist, 1588. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich.


Symbolism in portraiture was especially important for rulers. It was much more common for subjects to be illiterate in the Renaissance than today, and symbolism in portraiture allowed monarchs to get messages out to their subjects about their reigns or ruling methods in a way that both literate and illiterate people would understand. Of course, this was not the only reason it was essential to rulers. It also served as a form of propaganda. To display power and wealth in a portrait is to send a message of how untouchable one is, for example.


Elizabeth I’s portraits are abundant in symbols to highlight aspects of her reign. It was a propaganda technique used by her father to appear publicly as a rich and powerful king, and her use of it perfected the method. Her lifelong attempt at remaining a virgin to keep her power as the rightful Queen of England is often alluded to in her portraits. She is often depicted dripping in pearls, a symbol of sexual purity to remind all viewers of her marriage to England, rather than a man who could take her power from her through the promise of obedience as part of 16th-century wedding vows.


Detail of the Armada Portrait by Unknown Artist, 1588. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich.


The Armada Portrait is a beautiful example of Elizabeth I’s use of propaganda symbolism in her portraits. At this point in her reign, she was 50 years old and facing Spain’s attempts to invade England and overthrow her rule. Thankfully, the Spanish were blown off course, and England prevailed against their superpower enemy. A painting was created to commemorate the moment.


Her clothing is elaborately decorated with expensive fabrics, jewels, and bows. Behind her are two windows. One shows English ships preparing for battle on a calm sea, while another shows a stormy sea that violently rocks Spanish ships with its waves. Here, she asserts her rule as a calm one compared to the turbulence of Europe amidst a religious conflict. In essence, through symbolism, she calls the Spanish chaotic and vindictive while maintaining herself as a calm monarch who deserved no such treatment from her Spanish neighbors. Meanwhile, her pointer finger rests on the region of the English colonies in North America, establishing her presence as an international colonial power.


Crafting Identity Through Northern Renaissance Portraiture

Henry VIII by Hans Holbein the Younger, 1538-47. Source: Royal Collection Trust, London.


Elizabeth I would have learned by example about creating propaganda with portraiture. Hans Holbein the Younger created countless portraits of Henry VIII, but they all have similar symbolic qualities. They all display his elaborate wealth and power as King. He wears lavish clothing that widens his shoulders. He stands with a hand on his hip, enlarging himself to appear mighty. He does not wear a crown because it is unnecessary—his majesty is depicted in fine clothing, sumptuous jewels, and a wide stance.


All of these create for him an identity that claims he is powerful, he is to be taken seriously, and he is not to be trifled with. Symbolism sends messages, consciously or unconsciously, to the viewer and could be tightly controlled by the patron or artist to create a final product that they would be using to present themselves to others. Symbolism in the Northern Renaissance was often indiscreet yet versatile in how it could be used to present a message. The messages usually centered around the sitter’s identity, whether their role in society, wealth and economic status, personal stories—tragic and triumphal—or their assertion of power as a ruler.

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By Kerigan PickettBA Art History with History concentrationKerigan has a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from the University of Northern Iowa, where she also minored in History and earned a Museum Studies Certificate. She is also certified to tutor through the Saga Coach program by Saga Education, and she interned at the Cedar Falls Historical Society in Cedar Falls, Iowa. She is passionate about art, history, and writing. Her favorite historical subject is Tudor history. She currently runs a blog on WordPress called Gilded Histories, where she posts her latest art historical research in the form of academic articles.