Kirsten Hall lingers over a trio of Renaissance paintings in the Gemäldegalerie…
Berlin’s oft-overlooked Gemäldegalerie (Potrait Gallery)—one of the assembly of museums, galleries and libraries that comprise Potsdamer Platz’s Kulturforum—dates back to 1830 and hosts one of the world’s largest collections of European paintings from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century.
With over 853 works spread throughout 53 different rooms, the museum is a virtual labyrinth. The current building, constructed in 1997, has large windows on the ceiling to better illuminate the majestic works as well as a large “piazza” (hall) with no paintings at all—yet it still has more than enough paintings to make visitors feel overwhelmed.
The problem, as with many prestigious museums and galleries, is not the quality of the art, but the quantity. There’s just too much to look at, and it all becomes a blur very quickly. So in order to celebrate Slow Art Day, and its philosophy of spending more time appreciating less works of art, I suggest choosing two or three paintings from a particular time period and focusing on them for a deeper experience.
Ever since I somewhat haphazardly took a string of Renaissance art classes in college, I was immediately fascinated by this period in history; not just because of the overall aesthetic of Renaissance painting, but the intense symbolism and (oftentimes absurd) social context that prompted the subject matter.
Every single detail in a Renaissance painting has a meaning, from a pomegranate pattern on a woman’s dress (the pomegranate was the symbol for fertility), to blatant phallic innuendos (outrageous codpieces and some very strategically placed sword hilts), to even something as simple as the tilt of the head or the semblance of a smile (portraiture was revolutionised during the Renaissance by straying from the traditional profile view in the sixteenth century).
The first painting I’d recommend viewing is Botticelli’s Portrait of a Lady (Simonetta Vespucci c. 1476), which hangs prominently in the large second chamber of the Italian Renaissance on the left hand side of the building.
The first thing that becomes immediately apparent to many viewers, even those without a formal art background, is the resemblance of this woman (who was rumoured to be Florentine noblewoman Simonetta Vespucci), to Botticelli’s most famous work, The Birth of Venus (c. 1485) – a workshop version that the painter used as a study for it (Venus c. 1444-1510) hangs conveniently on the other side of the room for comparison.
During the Renaissance, an idea existed that outward beauty was a reflection of your character, those blessed with ideal bodies having the most virtuous souls.
Vespucci represents the epitome of what was considered beautiful during that time: her flowing golden hair (women often dyed their hair with a solution made from urine to achieve blonde colouring), her soft pale skin…even her elaborate hairstyle alludes to Venus with the pearl adornments in her braid and above her high forehead (large foreheads being also a sign of beauty, often achieved in real life by plucking hairs from along the scalp).
However, despite the facial similarities between Venus and Vespucci, the differences are also immediately apparent: Venus stands upright in all of her nude glory, hair swirling around her naked body, while Simonetta sits fully clothed and dutiful beside a high window that’s barely above her eye level.
The respective messages are clear – Venus is a mythological figure and therefore wild and sexually uninhibited, whereas the real woman, Vespucci, bore the impossible burden of conforming to her societal role as a female.
It won’t shock anyone to state that Renaissance society was deeply misogynistic. Women were often considered an imperfection of nature based on Biblical premises and humanist theories, and treated as the sole property of their husbands or families.
Chastity, prudence, and piety (three words you probably won’t hear too often in Berlin) were her imposed goals in life, values perpetuated by the male population and motivated by an innate fear of the “uncontrollable” woman having extramarital affairs and getting pregnant (birth control was nonexistent). The painting therefore reveals a paradoxical male fantasy that could never be realised; that the ideal woman was supposed to be chaste yet beautiful and engaging.
The painting begs another question: if the Renaissance was ruled by misogyny and sexual oppression, why do so many of the paintings from the time depict such gloriously nude scenes? The answer is that allegorical figures, especially from Greek and Roman mythology and also Biblical tales such as Susanna and the Elders, could be depicted as sexually free because they essentially transcended societal jurisdiction.
A perfect example of this is Correggio’s Leda and the Swan (c. 1532), which hangs in the next room. This depiction of the popular Greek myth in which the god Zeus takes the form of a swan and seduces/rapes a young woman appears innocent and ethereal enough at first glance.
However, the explicit subject matter becomes readily apparent after a few moments of closer observation. The painting shows a naked young woman in an outdoor bathing scene surrounded by handmaidens and cherubs. Never one for subtlety, Correggio shows the infamous swan in the throes of passion with the young woman; placed directly between her legs, his long slender neck reaching tenderly up to her face for a kiss.
Surprisingly enough, this is one of the less sexually explicit renditions of Leda and the Swan from the time, although all were widely accepted by even the most pious commissioners. Because Leda and Zeus are not real people, the painting was aptly appropriate (as are similarly raunchy works like the highly homoerotic renderings of the abduction of Ganymede).
Even bestiality was socially acceptable in paintings as long as the figures weren’t real people, though depictions of sex between a heterosexual couple was strictly forbidden. Underlining this point are the I Modi–a collection of 16 pornographic prints which were mostly destroyed by the Catholic Church, and their publishers imprisoned.
My last selection brings us to one of my favourite paintings of all time: St. Sebastian (c. 1614) by Peter Paul Rubens. A fine example of male objectification – and hence a welcome relief from the previous themes of female oppression and widespread sexual frustrations—the story of St. Sebastian was incredibly popular during the Renaissance.
Not only was he one of the earliest Christian martyrs, his story provided a perfect opportunity to paint a beautiful naked man full of arrows. It is widely known that homosexuality was rampant during the Renaissance.
Though it hasn’t been fully explained why, we do know it was technically illegal yet generally accepted as part of a normal ‘masculine’ identity.
Usually practiced by wealthier noblemen and others with high-standing, primarily with younger boys, male-on-male liaisons were the subject of many jokes amongst men and satirical texts such as the Capitolo Delle Pesche by Francesco Berni, a poem debating the virtues of “peaches” (sodomy) and “figs” (sex with women).
However, what is truly mind-boggling about the tendency toward homosexuality in the Renaissance is that some degree of motivation came again from misogyny—the fact that it was a solely male activity and therefore involved the exclusion of women.
Although Rubens was a Flemish painter, he was greatly influenced by the Italian Renaissance having spent extensive time in Genoa and Venice studying the works of other great painters of the time, their influence clearly apparent in his salacious nudes. Rubens is most famous for his fleshy female bodies and his St. Sebastian is similarly voluptuous.
The figure seems oddly serene considering he is tied to a tree, sentenced to death and filled with arrows (a common myth claims that the saint actually survived the ordeal and was later clubbed to death). St. Sebastian is shown in the contrapposto (counterpose) stance to highlight his muscular definition and show the artist’s skill at portraying the anatomy of the human body.
Whether the figure of St. Sebastian has been depicted as a youthful nude to satisfy male erotic tendencies is unclear. However, most renditions during the Renaissance show him at least partially naked as opposed to earlier paintings in which the saint is bearded and wears a court dress. Whatever the case, St. Sebastian, the patron saint of athletes and soldiers, is an ideal to which other men could strive for, but also a figure to be visually enjoyed by all with his Calvin Klein abs and perfectly placed white cloth.
Taking more time to dwell on such paintings instead of whizzing by them offers an opportunity to make them more relevant to our everyday lives. It can help to understand how such rich, striking imagery is not only riddled with allegory and allusion, but also how it is often tainted with the more iniquitous societal mores of the day, which in turn can make us feel a little better about the more ‘enlightened’ societies we find ourselves living in. Many paintings in the Gemäldegalerie have incredible stories to share; we just need to take the time to pause, look and listen.