An Analysis of Love in the Renaissance Art of Sidney, Shakespeare, Hilliard and Holbein
If the purpose of art, as Aristotle states in the Poetics, is to imitate an action (whether in poetry or in painting), Renaissance art reflects an obsession with a particular action -- specifically, love and its many manifestations, whether eros, agape or philia. Love as a theme in 16th and 17th century poetry and art takes a variety of forms, from the sonnets of Shakespeare and Sidney to the miniature portraits of Hilliard and Holbein. Horace's famous observation, ut picture poesis, "as is poetry so is painting," helps explain the popularity of both. Indeed, as Rensselaer W. Lee observes, the "sister arts as they were generally called…differed in means and manner of expression, but were considered almost identical in fundamental nature, in content, and in purpose" (Lee 196). In other words, the love sonnets of Shakespeare and Sidney and the miniature portraitures of both Hilliard and Holbein share a single artistic nature -- specifically, the love of the poet for his subjects and love of the painter for his. This paper will analyze the nature of poetry ("a speaking picture") and painting ("mute poetry") through the sonnets of Shakespeare and Sidney and the portraitures of Hilliard and Holbein, distinguishing between the painters' and the poets' love for their subjects, and exploring the similarities and differences between the two mediums.
Although the differences between the art of poetry and the art of painting are significant, the two crafts were often described in similar terms during the Renaissance: Forrest Robinson's work on Sidney, for example, emphasizes the visual aspect of the poets' language, and dicta like Horace's were never far from 16th and 17th century artists' and admirers' minds. Moreover, Shakespeare writes in Hamlet the epitomic description of the purpose of art in the Dane's lecture to the players: "Suit the action to the word, the word / to the action; with this special observance, that you / o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so / overdone is from the purpose of playing" (3.2.17-20). Ultimately, Hamlet tells the artist, the goal is "to hold, as 'twere, / the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, / scorn her own image, and the very age and body of / the time his form and pressure" (3.2.21-24). Art, therefore, was the mirror by which they saw themselves. The fact that the mirror was used to portray love reflects the primacy given to secular and sacred, humanistic and spiritual, love at the end of the medieval world.
That world, primarily Catholic and unified, had become fractious and religiously pluralized. This fact surely had its effect on how the theme of love was to be portrayed in art. Shakespeare attempted to distill the finer points of love into his sonnets, defining for a revolutionary world what "love is" and what "love is not." Shakespeare's sonnets are infused with a universal sense of both love as ideal and love as everyday reality. Such appeal was not misplaced, and such a distinction, moreover, was not uncommon. Hans Holbein, for example, "did not care if a man was Protestant or Catholic," but did take a special interest in those who were "intelligent, educated and conversable" (Johnson 302). He, like Nicholas Hilliard, specialized in portraying in precise and intimate detail the unspoken words of visual likenesses. What they set out to do in their miniature portraitures was to capture in a visual and highly stylistic way the accurate reflection of men such as the decorated Sir Walter Raleigh and women such as ornate Marguerite de Navarre: people whose lives were of some importance in the shaping of the world around them. These were the new standard bearers of a new age, and the artists' duty was to capture their "virtue" or their "scorn," as Shakespeare so succinctly suggested.
However, it is necessary to remember that the medieval world was an Age of Faith, in which the love of truth was demonstrated by men like Thomas Aquinas, the scholastic who dedicated his Summa Theologica to exploring the relationship between faith and reason. With an emphasis on both revealed and reasoned truths, Aquinas reflected an age in which erotic and philial love was measured by supernatural love. With the advent of humanism during the Renaissance, a radical shift in perspective, away from the supernatural and towards the natural set the framework for a re-interpretation of love with a greater emphasis on eros.
The Painter's Love
The painter's love for his subject is evident in the intricate detail and exacting replication of character in the miniature-portraits of Holbein and his successor Hilliard. Holbein is known for a number of iconic works, in particular his 1527 portrait of Thomas More and his 1536 portrait of Henry VIII. Here were two men who represented very different aspects of love: the former is known for his great spiritual love; the latter for his great lust. These characteristics appear in the likenesses painted by Holbein: More projects serenity, Henry VIII suggests tyranny. Holbein's love of capturing and rendering his subject in a visual medium equaled his skill, and both may be seen in the school of miniature-portraiture, which he instituted in England.
In the final years of Holbein's career, as England began to turn in on itself and initiate a religious war within its own borders, the painter lost his patron to the gallows and turned to filling private commissions. It was in these years that he painted some of his most famous miniatures like the Brandon miniatures. Holbein reflected the humanist leanings of the Renaissance by focusing on the perfect representation of face and feature of his subject, as though the story of the soul could be read here and especially in the eyes.
Holbein's miniature of Jane Small (1540), for example, a gouache on vellum, is as fine an example of mannerist painting as Vermeer ever did. Holbein captures in a 4 cm radius the simplicity and modesty of Jane Small, who is seen with a carnation, a symbol perhaps of a coming nuptial. Rich in color, sharp in contour, and bold in presentation, the miniature conveys the theme of love (marital love) through an artist's absolute fascination with detail made all the more remarkable for the minuteness of its size. As Graham Reynolds states, Holbein "portrays a young woman whose plainness is scarcely relieved by her simple costume of black-and-white materials, and yet there can be no doubt that this is one of the great portraits of the world" (Reynolds 7). Reynolds asserts that it is "with remarkable objectivity" that the painter drew illustrated his subject. This focus on "objectivity" is important to the discussion of the painter's love: it connects Holbein to the doctrine of Shakespeare as stated in Hamlet, that the artist should "hold up the mirror" and be as objective in his craft as possible. Holbein's objectivity marks him as a master artist, one who "has not added anything of himself or subtracted from his sitter's image; he has seen her as she appeared in a solemn mood in the cold light of his painting-room" (Reynolds 7).
Nicholas Hilliard followed in Holbein's footsteps and approached the art of miniature-portraiture with the same respect for objective representation as his master. Something about the intimate nature of the miniature work, its emphasis on placing the distilling the subject to a jewel-like size, is comparable to the poets' task of sorting out in the space of 14 lines the essence of love, whether erotic or philial or spiritual. Hilliard, like Holbein, reflected the world he saw in minute detail.
Following in Holbein's advancement of the techniques of manuscript illuminating for the purposes of miniature-portraiture, Hilliard compose The Art of Limning, which described the proper approach to the art. As John Pope-Hennessy observes, the treatise "contains more than practical advice" and "derives from two distinct and separate traditions" (Pope-Hennessy 89). The Art of Limning follows in the footsteps of older treatises on painting and illumination and in the footsteps of Renaissance mannerism. What the treatise shows, of course, is that Hilliard's art was not dependent on a subjective or "personal" approach to the subject but rather quite the opposite. Just as the poets used a strict sonnet form with which to paint with words their subjects' likeness, Hilliard wrote that the artist was constrained to represent the likeness of his subject according to tried and true formulas. Love, as a subject and a theme and a work, was not yet of the overrunning quality that it would assume in the Romantic Age; at the end of the medieval world, it was still linked to modes of discipline, form, structure, and objectivity. That would all change, of course, in both painting and in verse, as the modern world detached itself from the sort of codes and forms described by men like Hilliard. Yet, while Hilliard and Holbein could capture the immediate…