I’ve been reading about the history of the portrait lately. The section before the Renaissance, medieval Europe, seemed like a blip to get through. Really, one, if one were less aesthetically inclined, might use the word, dare I say it, boring?
Not really the case. Portraits functioned as more than just commemorating an occasion, such as marriage, or representing a person visually. It was not important that portraits resembled their subject at the court where people were idealized or to entice one into marrying a woman or to honor the noblest qualities of a ruler.
As it happens, the portraits depicting their subjects naturally were destroyed. These people were criminals who had escaped justice. Portraits had fetishistic properties, and could be used as a substitute for a person. So a criminal who could not be caught was depicted, and then his punishment was given to the portrait, limb by limb as the case may be. Referred to as “excutio in effigie,” the portraits could even be burned publicly.
Hoardings of portraits have been found of persons with their eyes scratched out. Often when a regime changed, the new rulers would gather images of the former governors and scratch their eyes out. Images–often unflattering ones designed to provoke scorn–were placed in public view as well. All these have the ultimate aim of destroying the subject’s authority through defiling the image of them.
So one function of the portrait is punishment? It’s crazy to think that in the Middle Ages, when ruled by God in Christian lands, people gave such power to the graven image. Reliquaries were worshipped as holding real bits or traces of holy people. But did they believe the images of the saints and devils in the churches had the same power? What would happen if someone scratched the Virgin Mary’s eyes out? Maybe the world still gives the same talismanic properties to images they deem holy.
There you have it: why a voodoo doll is like a medieval portrait. Up next, why a raven is like a writing desk, and other important questions.