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
All Articles (Alphabetical by Artist, then Title)
Art scholars have sometimes wondered why the execution squad in Manet's Execution of Emperor Maximillian are so unrealistically close to their target. Indeed, on close inspection, their rifles are aimed as though they would miss.
Joseph, worth only a cameo appearance in the Bible, is a major star in visual art. Cast as a narcoleptic, he falls asleep in one image after another without any art historian, to my knowledge, pausing to ask: Why does he sleep so much?
How to recognize the Madonna and Child as a symbol of the artist
In this 1490 version of Saint Sebastian in the Ca' d'Oro, Venice, Saint Sebastian has one leg in the "picture", so to speak, framed by the marble, with the other stepping forward out of it into our space.
Look for the eyes. Then the face. Never forget to look for them because you can find them anywhere in art.
See how Notre-Dame, France's cathedral and symbol of the nation, becomes Matisse's
An early example of how art is a guide to what we now call "self-knowledge".
Find out what the studio and Golgotha have in common
Michelangelo's strange scene of a battle is not what it seems
Always look for what is odd. It's often there where you'll find a breakthrough in meaning
See why Jonah is the most important figure in the chapel
Find how artists would have seen what we do not: Michelangelo's Only True Self-Portrait
Michelangelo's first great masterpiece is widely misunderstood. Like art in general, it is an expression of the creative moment.
Discover how you can unlock layers of meaning from a relatively simple composition
Underneath the architecture of Monet's cathedrals is a major surprise
When an artist's monogram is more important than a king's.
Did you know that....? There's so much to see for the first time, even in the most familiar images
Find out why so many of Perugino's faces look alike
Picasso kills a bull with his own paintbrush while indicating his divinity.
Learn about the mystery behind Picasso's name and the importance of artist's names in general
How a seated harlequin is so much more than a seated harlequin
A resurrection by its very name suggests two realities: the old and the new, the illusory and the real.
See the miraculous head of Christ in Poussin's painting that no-one but artists has ever noted. The painting is up for sale next week with an estimate of $30 million.
How even the young Raphael depicted the divinity of the artist's mind
Sometimes the most difficult features to see in art are the most obvious
How the setting is so rarely what you think....you must think differently
See the sight which changes the meaning of all Rembrandt's art: Rembrandt is Christ
This painting which depicts Rembrandt crucifying Christ is an excellent example of the alternative way to read art, not viewing it as an illustration but as poetry.
How Rembrandt's method, and that of great artists in general, is present in his earliest extant painting
Discover a common way how artists demonstrate their identity with their protagonist. You can use the method to interpret other paintings by other artists.
The Inner Tradition as practised by a Catholic artist....
Looking at how one great master copies another is a useful lesson in seeing the meaning in art
All art depicts the artist's mind. Here's one way you can see it.
In the epistle of an apostle, the letters matter; as they also do in the self-portrait of a prophet, even if self-proclaimed.
How even in the 15th century an artist thought of himself as Christ...and said so.
Look at art from every which way you can. You never know what you might see.
Evidence for art's self-referential allegory pre-dates the High Renaissance
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of how Renaissance artists identified with God. Both pervasive and unknown, the idea needs emphasizing to demonstrate its near-ubiquity. Here is yet one more example by Titian.
Baudelaire's linking of Painting with cosmetics in the nineteenth century was not a novel idea, as long believed, but one with a very long history indeed
© Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.