Renaissance Portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Went to the see the remarkable Renaissance portraits at the Met yesterday, and stayed with them for a long time –the hair, the clothes, the glamour.

 Regarding art history, I’m a layperson. So I  recognize that my understanding of Renaissance art had always been dominated by the tender images of the holy family and company. I was, of course, familiar with Machiavelli, the blood curdling image of the Renaissance in Nietzsche, and this or that portrait of this or that Medici or court figures from 15th century Italy. As isolated figures, they did not make much of an impression.  What you don’t get from reading Machiavelli or from Nietzsche’s descriptions is the face.

 It’s one thing to see an isolated face. It’s another thing to see all these Renaissance faces filling up room after room after room. I found bone chilling and unpleasant the intensity of this particular assemly of people. These were men and women who understood money and power. Human all too human, there was not a scintilla of religion or piety about them; nor nary a hint of human kindness. In profile and in ¾ view, what struck me was the impassive brutality of the face. Hood-eyed and predatory, they’d sooner kill you then look at you.

I figured something out. Leaving the exhibit of these guys and “their women” returns you back to the Renaissance galleries in the Met. You meet up there with the more familiar pictures of the holy family and other religious types. What struck me today is how often they seem to look downwards or sideways with sad looks or undisguised terror. I’m willing to bet it’s because they knew that these guys were lurking outside the picture frame, just down the hall.

(Note: All images appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I found most of them at Laura Gilbert’s blog “Art Unwashed” ( and also from the online slide show at the New York Times,

For a more professional review of the exhinit, see the link above to Gilbert and to Ken Johnson’s review at the NYT

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Renaissance Portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

  1. Gail says:

    No religion? No human kindness? Really?!
    Nay, good sir, I beg to disagree…

  2. zbraiter says:

    In these pictures, with these guys?! You will be the first person in the history of interpretation to ascribe kindness to the Medicis!! Nietzsche was right. They were monsters! They even look the part.

    • Gail says:

      Being situated out here in the perimeter, with only The New York Times’ photographs to go on, I guess I’m responding to the non-Medici pictures. The Botticelli women are gorgeous and profoundly human (though the Medici men are rather, um, standoffish), Fra Lippi (especially his Madonna and Child, which is not in the NYT slides, but is in my dining room) fabulously captures a kind of elusive serenity that does connote Christian devotion to me, and the Mantegna the NYT shares (#6) is pressing toward Rembrandt in its affective sensitivity.
      But I’m mainly interested in your comment for how it points us to the non-indexical but substantially historical/cultural/political connotations that adhere in a painting. Ghosh uses Barthes’ “shapeless associations” to talk about the “condensation of connotations” that “ensure a gradual sedimentation of connotations into the sigh, an incorporation that engineers a symbolic density” (Global Icons, 45). We can’t see Medici men without also “seeing” who they were as historical actants.

  3. zbraiter says:

    Dear Gail: You are, of course, absolutely right about the Boticellis. But they are also iconic and belong to a category of their own. At any rate, the comment was less about Renaissance art as a whole (or Renaissance religious art in particular). The religious art is deep and human. The point was about this rather comprehensive grouping of portraits projecting the status of these particular men and women, the power behind the scene that sponsored the religion and religious art. As for the NYT slideshow, my sense is that it presents these “monsters” in a slightly less monstrous form than did I.

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