Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, books were handwritten. Imagine…every time a copy of a text needed to be made, someone had to do it painstakingly by hand. In our world of quick reproductions and the ease of hitting “print”, this can be hard to believe!
The exhibition The Art of Devotion: Illuminated Manuscripts from Local Collections, on view at the Milwaukee Art Museum through June 16, 2019, aims to provide an introduction to these handwritten texts—called manuscripts—that were made in the middle ages and early Renaissance. A good number of those manuscripts are also illuminated, or decorated with gold, silver, and bright colors that make them literally look like they shine from within.
Just as you walk into the Museum’s Gallery #3 (Northern Renaissance artworks), on your right is a display case that holds a marble sculpture.
It’s an unobtrusive work labeled Head of a Noblewoman, French, 14th century. I’m sure many Museum visitors have walked right by it and not even thought twice. The most interesting thing for those that look closer may be the way the artwork is positioned in the case–it is shown lying down, not upright.
This sculpture is more than just a portrait of a French noblewoman. It’s a portrait of the noble French woman from her tomb!
Originally, the Museum’s head sculpture would have been part of a full body sculpture of the woman lying down, and it would have rested above her tomb. You can be certain of this orientation because the back of her head is unfinished.
Although funerary portraits were used as far back as the ancient Egyptians, medieval Europe saw an explosion of them. Examples are known from the 11th century, and by the 13th century they were filling churches and abbeys. Of course, only those who could afford to have an elaborate tomb could have such an elaborate sculpture, so most examples are of kings, queens, and other nobility, including knights, such as Jean d’Alluye, whose tomb effigy is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.