by Roderick Conway Morris

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A Toast to the Happy Couple

By Roderick Conway Morris
BATH 1 September 2023
Schroder Collection
Portrait of Frau Weiss, attributed to Jörg Breu the Elder, before 1522



Getting married in Renaissance Europe was surprisingly easy. As the Italian scholar Silvana Seidel Menchi discovered in her revelatory researches into the ecclesiastical archives of the period: 'People got married in stables or in a tavern, in the kitchen or the vegetable garden, in the pasture or the attic, in a wood or in a blacksmith's shop, under the portico of one's house or near a public fountain.'

At windows and on balconies were also popular venues for tying the knot and in one case: 'With the assistance of a ladder, the groom, flanked by witnesses, reached the bride, and facing each other they pronounced the formula of the ritual, balanced in an equilibrium as unstable as the tie that thus bound them.'

Equally surprisingly, no priests or churches were required and no banns read until the Reformation and the concomitant Counter-Reformation, during which the Councils of Trent (1545-63) laid down new rules for Roman Catholics. Subsequently both Protestants and Catholics came to insist on parental consent and the reading of banns. Until then, the most significant clincher, more so even than verbal pledges, was the exchanging of rings. A ceramic inkstand of around 1500 from Faenza is decorated with a couple facing one another on either side of a roundel with clasped hands inscribed with the words: TE DO LA MANE/DAME LA FEDE (I give you my hand, give me your ring) - in a nutshell, all that was usually required for a couple to become man and wife.

However, although the formula of the ceremony was hardly more elaborate among the upper echelons of society, new art forms emerged to celebrate and bear witness to marriage. Notable among these were single and double portraits of brides and grooms, which are now the focus of 'Painted Love: Renaissance Marriage Portraits' at the Holburne Museum in Bath. This lively exhibition, curated by Lucy Whitaker, brings together some fifty paintings on board, canvas and on ceramics from Italy, France, Germany, the Low Countries and Britain, along with miniatures, rings, medals and love tokens.

Prenuptial portraits of brides and grooms in arranged dynastic marriages between royal courts played a particular role in enabling prospective partners to have some idea of what their prospective partners looked like. This could put the artists that produced them in a difficult, even hazardous position, if a likeness proved too flattering when compared to the real thing in the cold light of day.

However, most princely and aristocratic wedding portraits were made to mark the happy occasion itself. In Italy in the first half of the fifteenth century, sitters were represented in profile, in imitation of classical coins and medals. Two fine examples here are of Lionello d'Este (1447), the ruler of Ferrara, and an unknown lady by the Florentine Alessio Baldovinetti, identifiable as a marriage portrait (c.1465) by the subject's lavish white and gold dress, the sleeve of which is adorned with her husband's coat of arms. Such wedding dresses were typically presented to the bride by the groom.

The marriage portrait of Costanza de' Medici, who wed Francesco Caetani, is usefully inscribed as a record of the event. It also displays three rings and pearl pendant, a gift from her husband, such additional costly presents being an important public marker of the marriage among the upper classes. Costanza's white cap, too, indicates her new married state.

The subject of Andrea Solario's 'Man with a Pink' (c.1495), also has clear indicators that this was a marriage portrait. The man's dress marks him out as a high-ranking Venetian official and the fact that he is holding a pink and prominently displays rings indicate that his marriage is being commemorated. Pinks, or carnations, also symbolize marriage in portraits by the likes of the Flemish and Dutch Memling and Rembrandt.

Rings and flowers equally figure in Germanic portraits to indicate that they record marriages. 'Frau Weiss' is depicted in a picture attributed to Jörg Breu the Elder holding up a ring in a pair of images in which her husband clasps a sword, inscribed with the date 1522, and a posy of carnations.

Double portraits, as diptychs or on a single panel or canvas were commonly painted at the time of nuptials, as with the one of the 52-year-old Lorenz Kraffter, a wealthy merchant in Augsburg, with is 35-year-old wife Honesta Merz, the work of Ulrich Apt, from 1512.

The occasion of another German double portrait is made explicit by an inscription on the frame of the immensely wealthy 39-year-old Jakob Fugger, the Augsburg financier of emperors, princes and popes, and his 18-year-old bride Sybilla Artzt, which reads: 'On 19th day of January in 1498 as we were, we came together'. However, despite the extravagant fur and gold trimmings of the couple's dress and Fugger's signature gold-threaded Venetian cap, Hans Brugkmair the Elder's inferior artistic talents left both sitters looking decidedly gaunt and pinched.

Among humbler folk in Italy, marriage was often marked by the purchase of maiolica plates and bowls depicting belle donne (beautiful women) and couples, which were manufactured all over the peninsula. Whether the belle donne images were real or ideal portraits is a matter for debate. But there was certainly a degree of pride in towns and cities in advertising the supposed beauty of their womenfolk. Some of these maiolica dishes were clearly standard productions with inscriptions attaching different names to identical images.

However, a rare maiolica plate now in the V&A depicts a couple in a ceramic workshop where the woman appears to be posing for an artist, who is painting her likeness directly onto the plate (an unlikely scenario, as preparatory drawings would almost certainly have been used). Loving couples are also shown cheek-to-cheek, as in one here from Deruta from around 1550, in which the man holds a carnation to the woman's breast, decorated with a scroll reading DVLCE.EST.AMARE (to love is sweet).

What love had to do with it was an open question when it came to many dynastic and aristocratic marriages, which were above all related to money and power and in which the brides and even the bridegrooms often had little say. But thanks to the brilliance of Hans Holbein the Younger, Nicholas Hilliard and their followers, romantic love was especially celebrated in England in the form of private miniature portraits - that would have been seen only by circles of intimates - some of which were painted on the occasion of marriage.

It was through Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth's favourite, that the Queen came to be painted by Hilliard, who created idealized images of her as a remote courtly love object. Hilliard miniatures of both Dudley and Elizabeth are on display here. Dudley's last surviving letter to the Queen was found in a casket by her bed upon her death.

But lovelier still is Hans Holbein's exquisite portrait of the 23-year-old daughter of his neighbours the Pembertons, Mrs Jane Small, painted in around 1540, in which her betrothal to the London corn merchant Nicholas Small is symbolized by the red carnation tucked into her bodice.

During the 16th century, portraits of husbands and wives began to include their progeny, and sometimes children alone became the subject. Jan Gossaert's panel of 1526 depicts Prince John and Princesses Dorothea and Christina, the children of the exiled King Christian II of Denmark and Isabella of Austria. It was painted in the year of their mother's death when they were 7, 5 and 3 respectively. All are dressed in black for mourning and look pale and rather bereft. A dozen years later Holbein painted a splendid portrait of Christina (now at the National Gallery), for Henry VIII, who was hoping (fruitlessly) to make her his fourth wife.

A more cheerful panel, from 1567, of William Brooke,10th Lord Cobham and his Family, includes his second wife Frances Newton and their six children, whose ages are recorded above their heads, gathered around the dining table, and bears the inscription in Latin: 'See here the noble father, here the most excellent mother. Seated around them spreads a throng worthy of their parents.'

An enigmatic canvas of around 1569 by the Bergamasque Giovanni Battista Moroni hints at a marriage that was doomed never to take place. In this 'Portrait of a Young Man' a bearded, slightly melancholy young man gazes out at us above a ledge with lettering reading: DVM SPIRITVS HOS REGET ARTVS (as long as breath controls my being). The words are from Book IV of Virgil's Aeneid and refers to the promise made by Aeneas, when he abandons Dido, Queen of Carthage, that he will never forget his love for her. However, as we know, Aeneas sailed away to continue the more important task of founding Rome, and Dido committed suicide. So Moroni's image, despite the caption, remains shrouded in ambiguity.

Painted Love: Renaissance Marriage Portraits; Holburne Museum, Bath; 26 May - 1 October

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024