Matthew Paris’ Virgin and Child with Artist Kneeling (c.1250)

In a new book published in 2014 Alexa Sand claims that Matthew Paris, the 13th-century English artist, writer and monk, included self-references in many of his devotional pictures.1 This means that Matthew could be the earliest example of an artist "painting himself" in disguised ways who has been recognized as such by a specialist. This drawing of the Virgin and Child is Matthew's best-known work and was the subject of a brief post on EPPH in 2012 titled Joseph Leo Koerner and the Artist as Christ. Although Matthew included a "literal" self-portrait crouching at the Virgin's feet, it is not necessarily a good likeness. However, independently of EPPH, Sand recognizes an intentional similarity between the crouching form of the artist below and the figure of Christ curled in the Virgin's arms.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Matthew Paris, Virgin and Child with Artist Kneeling (frontispiece of the Historia Anglorum), c.1250 Tempera on vellum. British Library, London.

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She describes this feature as "Christomimetic", the artist in Christ's likeness (see comparison of form, top.) Indeed the long-term devotional task of a monk was to become like Christ. Sand also takes the scholar Joseph Koerner to task, as EPPH once did, for failing to acknowledge the piety of Matthew's attempt to fuse his self with God "through the very act of representation." He denied that this drawing is similar to Albrecht Dürer's Self-portrait as Christ 250 years later in which Dürer presents himself like Christ while making the image2. [See entry.] As Sand notes, both figures in the drawing (top) have outstretched arms with Matthew handling the lines of text as Christ touches the Virgin's hair.3 It should be noted though that touching tresses can traditionally symbolize the hairs and action of a paintbrush while individual hairs can convey the essence of drawing: line.4 This dual-image, then, of the artist and his divine alter ego handling both "brush" and text is significant because Matthew was both the artist and the writer of the book in which the drawing appeared.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Paris' Virgin and Child with his self-portrait inset and rotated.
Bottom: Albrecht Dürer, Self-portrait as Christ (1500)

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Like strands of hair - each different and alike -  I believe that any viewer could have identified with the artist's figure in such images (and still can) because, while each of us is different, the Bible says, we "are all one in Christ."5 Thus while Matthew's implied claim to be God-like may seem egocentric, I agree with Sand that it is instead pious, an acknowledgment of nature's essential unity and its dominion over us.6 And nature, of course, is divine. Out of such awareness comes creative achievement, no matter what the field of endeavor. In fact, Matthew's generalized physiognomy in the drawing conveys this common potential more clearly than, say, Dürer's Self-portrait with its vivid illusionism of a specific person. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Self-portrait detail of Matthew Paris' Virgin and Child with Artist Kneeling (c. 1250), slightly rotated
Bottom: Dürer, DetaIl of Self-portrait as Christ (1500)

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I do not know when art became self-referential though I suspect it has been so from its beginnings. Archeologist David Lewis-Williams believes Neolithic cave painting and the caves themselves were intended to convey the internal dynamics of the human mind.7 This suggests true art (i.e., visual poetry) may always have had similarity in its essential meaning despite changing styles, the flow of history and superficial appearance which often totally misleads. The individual analyses of 500+ artworks on EPPH, dated between 1250 and 2014, all support this along with thousands more unpublished. Like nature art constantly changes. Yet poets recognize a paradox behind the manifest variety of both nature and art, a constancy and unity from which creativity flows. Some call that power "God". Matthew Paris would have done so along with most pre-modern painters. And even if subsequent artists now call the power in nature and the human mind something else, it is still one and the same, call it what you will.8
 

Captions for image(s) above:

Matthew Paris, Virgin and Child with Artist Kneeling

Click image to enlarge.

More Works by Paris

Notes:

1. Alexa Sand, Vision, Devotion, and Self-Representation in Late Medieval Art (Cambridge University Press) 2014, pp. 47, 102

2. Sand, p. 49: Joseph Leo Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (University of Chicago Press) 1993, pp. 76-79; See also: Abrahams, Dürer's Self-portrait as Christ (15 July 2012). Koerner acknowledges that Dürer's three best-known "master engravings" may be "instruments of the Delphic injunction, reiterated for Dürer's culture by Erasmus, to know thyself." (p. 23.)

3. See theme Pointing and Touch.

4. See theme Brush and Palette. Note above how Dürer's extended finger touches the fur of his coat to imply that it is painting too, the fur highly suggestive of a brush as Koerner noted. Brushes and combs, by the way are also drawn through the hair.

5. Galatians 3:28. Even today spiritual people from many non-Christian traditions believe that we are all One.

6. Sand, p.49. It is possible that Matthew's Christomimesis is both pious and egocentric at the same time. In any event an artist's veiled identification with both Christ and God has continued in art uninterruptedly from Matthew's day to our own. See the many examples under the themes Artist as Christ and Divine Artist. As a result, I do not believe Matthew initiated the theme even though he is the earliest example I have found.

7. David Lewis-Williams, The Mind in the Cave (London: Thames & Hudson) 2002

8. For a brief explanation of the Inner Tradition and its continuation through history, see theme Inner Tradition.

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