The Divine Artist

The Renaissance tendency to describe great artists as “divine” is usually considered a rhetorical device to express society’s admiration for the inexplicable talents of a great master.1 Though no doubt true, many artists interpreted the term differently, not through Church doctrine as society did but through the interiorized beliefs of mystics and saints with whom they felt at one (See The Inner Tradition.) The visual evidence for this is overwhelming. Art all over Europe suggests that artists really did think of themselves as divine, not because they had vast egos (which no doubt they had) but because we are all made in the image of God, however well disguised. Just as a saint follows Christ’s path and is an image of Christ that ordinary believers can imitate, so artists undergoing the agony of creation identify with Christ’s suffering too. Their portrait of Christ is thus an image of their own self.

Artists’ identification with the Divine Creator is the foundation of Western art and explains how biblical scenes from the Nativity to the Crucifixion are all expressions of the basic idea that “every painter paints himself.” Their art, like the teaching in devotional books that were so popular in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, suggests that Christ’s story should guide our own interior life and that by following it we can each uncover our own divinity. However surprising, it is a truth without which you will never understand art.2 Even modern artists felt the same way. Manet painted himself as Christ twice and when Matisse as an old man was asked by a Dominican novice whether he was inspired by God, he replied: "Yes, but that god is me." Of course, no-one should take my word for it. Go see for yourselves, either below or in museums of Western art anywhere.

1. Patricia Emison, Creating the “Divine” Artist: From Dante to Michelangelo (Leiden: Brill) 2004, pp. 3-132.

2. Art scholars in increasing numbers have identified similar content in the work of specific artists but, as specialists, are blind to the universality of the theme.The most studied example is Dürer’s 1500 self-portrait (above). Panofsky argued long ago that in fashioning himself after Christ Dürer expresses the doctrine of the Imitatio Christi, the belief professed by St.Francis and popularized in the North by Thomas à Kempis that to follow Christ is to become like him. Koerner noted that although Dürer invoked this belief frequently in his writing more recent interpretations have tried to avoid controversy. They tend to downplay Dürer’s Christomorphic associations by situating it within what is assumed to be the monolithic context of late medieval and Renaissance Christianity. See Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (University of Chicago Press) 1993, pp. 76-7. Other instances in which scholars have noted an artist’s identification with God or Christ include Michelangelo in Paul Barolsky, 1994, pp. 140-141; Raphael in Rona Goffen, “Raphael’s Designer Labels: From the Virgin Mary to La Fornarina”, Artibus et Historiae 24, No. 48, 2003, pp. 126-7; Emanuel de Witte in Angela Vanhaelen, “Iconoclasm and the Creation of Images in Emanuel de Witte’s Old Church in Amsterdam”, Art Bulletin 87, June 2005, pp. 249-64;  Johan Zoffany in William L. Pressly “The Self-Portraits of Johan Zoffany”, Art Bulletin 69, March 1987, pp.94-96; Rodin in Barolsky, Michelangelo’s Nose, p.154; Gauguin in Adams, The Methodologies of Art: An Introduction 1996, pp. 47-8 ; Picasso in Freeman, 1994, p.181; Richard Gerstl in Gemma Blackshaw, “The Jewish Christ: Problems of Self-Presentation and Socio-Cultural Assimilation in Richard Gerstl’s Self-Portraiture”, Oxford Art Journal 29.1, 2006, pp. 25-51

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