Beyond Isabella: Secular Women Patrons of Art in Renaissance Italy

By Sheryl E. Reiss; David G. Wilkins | Go to book overview

Introduction: Recognizing New Patrons,
Posing New Questions

David G. Wilkins

A pious woman, or—such is the power of images—a woman who wished to be recognized as pious, is represented kneeling in the foreground (fig. 1). She is in profile and at first glance seems proud and prim. She is wearing a sumptuous white overdress with wide hanging sleeves, a narrow blue hem, and a blue and white brocade panel in the front. A red and white chemise is visible at the wrists, while a decorated red belt and pearl necklace complete her outfit. Her elaborately arranged blond hair is adorned with pearls. This emphasis on fashion and elegance is countered by the humility of her kneeling pose and by the position of her hands, which are raised in a traditional Christian gesture of prayer.

This elegantly dressed woman may well be the person who commissioned the altarpiece in which we find her portrait (fig. 2), for she has assumed a place traditionally identified with the patron and/or donor during the Renaissance.1 The large tempera painting on wooden panel is dominated, however, by the enthroned Virgin and Child and Saints Leonard, Jerome, John the Baptist, and Francis; the woman is in miniature, kneeling at the feet of Jerome. She is positioned on the left side of the painting, a position that in the Renaissance was generally reserved for the man when both husband and wife were represented in such a context. Although the large figures dominate because of their scale, the gazes and gestures of Mary and Christ return our attention to the woman; Mary is represented as if praying with and for her, while the child blesses her. Despite her size, then, it could be argued that at one time this contemporary woman was the most important figure in the altarpiece. In terms of history, the holy figures are more important than she, but to her friends and acquaintances, her appearance here and the notice she is granted by Mary and Christ must have made her loom large in their eyes. While her contemporaries would have understood why she was so prominently presented, some may not have liked it or accepted it without complaint. She looms large for us too, for she is shown without a male companion and in the location usually taken by the man when contemporary figures were presented in an altarpiece. Her unexpected presence raises questions that reveal the breadth of our topic. A study of her role in this altarpiece, painted by a minor, derivative artist working outside the innovative urban centers of the period, urges us to revise our standard of what is worthy of investigation. To understand more fully the roles possible for Renaissance women, we need to cast our net as broadly as possible.

Exactly what constitutes a patron is, of course, an appropriate question at this point. The study of patronage traditionally was understood as the identification and investigation of the person or group who ordered and subsequently paid for a work. To advance our discussion, let me propose that we also consider as patrons a person or group of persons who were assumed by the artist to be potential buyers and users. An artist who responds to the needs or wishes of a particular person or group of persons could then be considered to have a patron,

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