“Where do I sign?” Marginal notes on 15th century painting

Here’s a little something I’ve been thinking about lately. Lately meaning since I read the latest post (and some of the comments to it) over at Three Pipe Problem. The post is about one of Raphael’s most famous paintings, the Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, commonly known as La belle Jardinière.

Raphael, La belle Jardinière, 1508, Paris, Louvre

What got me thinking is a small, yet important detail mentioned by Three Pipe Problem author H Niyazi:

“Not uncommon among artists of this era, Raphael also added elements of a date and signature into the clothing of his subjects. In this instance, the inscription in the Virgin mantle’s hemline reads: RAPHAELLO VRB. MDVII{I}.”

Raphael, La belle Jardinière, Detail of Mary's mantle & indication of suggested 1508 date, extrapolated from IR photograph (Image from Three Pipe Problem, http://www.3pipe.net, © by H Niyazi)

The reason I found this intriguing was because there are a handful of very notable – and controversial – examples of similarly placed dates and signatures in 15th century Austrian painting, too. Oddly, this is something I’ve always taken for granted, but ever since reading H Niyazi’s post I’ve been wondering where and when this particular way of signing and/or dating a painting was actually invented in the first place. I haven’t been able to come up with a definitive answer so far, but here are some leads…

Starting with the Austrian paintings I mentioned there is, first and foremost, the case of the Master of the Schottenaltar. Active in Vienna from c. 1465-1485, his most important work is the altarpiece of the Schottenkirche in Vienna…

Master of the Schottenaltar (Hans Siebenbürger), Deposition of Christ from the Altarpiece of the Schottenkirche, 1469, Vienna, Belvedere (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

… but a number of other works have been ascribed to him and his workshop, among them a small panel of the Crucifixion, now in the collection of St. Florian abbey near Linz. (For an image of this panel see here – I haven’t been able to include it here for copyright reasons.) As Robert Suckale discovered only a few years ago, in this painting there is an inscription in the neckline of Stephaton‘s robe which reads: IHOANES VII. Suckale made a convincing argument that this is actually the artist’s signature and that it refers to Hans Siebenbürger – or Johannes pictor de septrem castris as he is called in Latin documents – a painter who is mentioned in some Viennese documents, e.g. municipal account books, of that time.* Hans is, of course, German for Johannes or John, and Siebenbürger means that he was from Siebenbürgen – which is the German name for Transylvania, though literally it translates as “Seven Castles”. Hence, the Roman VII in the inscription would make perfect sense. Also, there actually are two altarpiece painted by an immediate follower of the Master of the Schottenaltar in Transylvania itself…

For all we can tell, Hans Siebenbürger received his training as an artist from Hans Pleydenwurfff in Nuremberg. Pleydenwurff entertained a thriving workshop which produced a large, somewhat confusing number of paintings, many of which include inscriptions in the hemlines of  dresses. With one exception, however, these do not contain dates or signatures, but mostly a painted character’s name, a prayer text or, occasionally, just gibberish in pseudo-Greek or pseudo-Hebrew letters.

Robert Suckale has pointed out that this custom of including all sorts of writings in hemlines, necklines, sleeve bands and suchlike originates with Jan van Eyck and his contemporaries in the Netherlands who introduced the idea in works like the famous Ghent Altarpiece (c. 1425-1432):

Jan & Hubert van Eyck, Detail from the robe of God Almighthy in the Ghent Altarpiece, c. 1425-1432, Ghent, St. Bavo Cathedral (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

This would certainly fit in with another of the Austrian examples, Conrad Laib’s large Crucifixion from Salzburg, now in the Belvedere, Vienna. One way or another, Laib certainly was familiar with the work of van Eyck (compare, for instance, the armoured horseman on the front right of the Crucifixion to the Knights of Christ in the Ghent Altarpiece). And sure enough, Laib has included an inscription in the border of the saddlecoth** of the horse seen from behind right in the center of the panel: It contains the date 1449 and a bit of cryptic text which may or may not be the artist’s signature.

Conrad Laib, Crucifixion, 1449, Vienna, Belvedere (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

So far, so good, but there is one more Austrian painting with a neckline signature and in this case it most likely predates van Eyck’s work. It stems from the highly prolific workshop of an artist usually referred to as the Master of the St. Lambrecht Votive Altarpiece who was active in Vienna from c. 1410-1440. Many of this workshop’s paintings include figures with inscribed hemlines and necklines, for instance this Crucifixion (note the inscribed neckline and sleeve bands on the green dress of the woman supporting the fainting Virgin Mary):

Master of the St. Lambrecht Votive Altarpiece (Master Hans), Crucifixion, c. 1420/1430, Vienna, Belvedere (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

One of the paintings from this group, The Carrying of the Cross in the Stadtmuseum in Wels, includes a figure with the name JOHAN written in the neckline his dress. (For an image of the panel see here.) Some scholars have suggested that JOHAN is the painter’s name and that we therefore ought to refer to the artist Master Hans. As regards the date of the painting in question, we are faced with the problem that we don’t have any written sources or documents which may be linked to the large group of paintings ascribed to the Master of the St. Lambrecht Votive Altarpiece or Master Hans or whatever you want to call him. The dates that have been suggested based on stylistic analysis range from 1415 to 1430. This means that the panel was executed either slightly earlier than or roughly at the same time as the Ghent Altarpiece. Either way, what we can say with some certainty about the style of Master Hans is that it shows no indication whatsoever that the painter was familiar with the new, “realistic” art of Jan van Eyck or Robert Campin.

Basically, then, we may rule out van Eyck and his generation as the inventors of inscribed hemlines. Further evidence for this is provided by Conrad von Soest’s Wildungen Altarpiece completed in 1403. Here, the Virgin Mary is shown wearing headgear with her name embroidered on it:

Conrad von Soest, Annunciation from the Wildungen Altarpiece, 1403, Bad Wildungen, St. Nikolaus (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Strictly speaking, this may not count as a hemline, but it surely is a closely related phenomenon. So, where does this leave us? Right, at the point where it’s time to look up a few things…

As far as I can see, the subject in question hasn’t been treated all that much, but I found some valuable information in Tobias Burg’s monograph on artist’s signatures before the 17th century. According to Burg, the first artist to leave his signature in a painted hemline was the Sienese painter Ventura di Moro, who signed a Madonna with Child (Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale), executed c. 1430, in that particular way.*** Apparently, Burg is ignorant of the Master Hans signature, but that’s not the point here. What’s important is that a) Ventura’s painting is too early to have been influenced by any Netherlandish artist and b) the idea was obviously already known in Siena at about the same it began to flourish in the North.

To cut to the chase, the whole thing probably does indeed originate in Siena, more precisely in Simone Martini’s famous Annunciation of 1333 in the Uffizi:

Simone Martini & Lippo Memmi, Annunciation Altarpiece, 1333, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Here, the archangel Gabriel’s stole and the sleeve bands of his dress are inscribed with Gabriel’s name and quotations from the gospel of Luke, 1: 30, 31 and 35. (For a detailed image see here.) This idea was soon taken up by other Sienese painters like Giovanni di Paolo, Matteo di Giovanni or, indeed, Ventura di Moro. And, at least from the first half of the 15th century onwards, it was adopted by painters from outside Siena, too. Gentile da Fabriano, for instance, painted a whole truckload of Madonnas with prayer texts inserted in the hemlines and sleeve bands of their mantles (though I believe he never signed his paintings that way).

Gentile da Fabriano, Madonna and Child, c. 1425, New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Gentile, of course, worked all over Italy, from Florence to Venice, from Siena to Rome, from the Marche to Umbria, and probably had his share in disseminating the idea. But the emphasis here is on probably because, frankly, this really is only a guess. But this might well be how the idea eventually ended up with Pietro Perugino who then presumably passed it on to his most famous student, Raphael.

But what about Conrad von Soest, Master Hans and Jan van Eyck? Well, there’s one thing they have in common: Each in his own way, they all derived their style of painting from French court art of, vaguely, 1380-1420. So my guess would be that that’s where they all got the idea of placing words in hemlines and necklines from. Admittedly, I haven’t been able to find a relevant example in French art before c. 1420 yet, but French painting of that time was heavily influenced by Sienese painting, so it’s highly likely that that’s how the idea got transmitted to the North.

Ok, maybe there was a little too much guessing in these last two paragraphs. I’ll have to think about this further. Or maybe someone can help me out… Anyone?


* Robert Suckale, Der Maler Johannes Siebenbürger (um 1440 – 1483) als Vermittler Nürnberger Kunst nach Ostmitteleuropa, in: Die Länder der böhmischen Krone und ihre Nachbarn zur Zeit der Jagiellonenkönige (1471 – 1526), ed. by Evelin Wetter, Ostfildern 2004, pp. 363-384.

** Does this count as a hemline?

*** Tobias Burg, Die Signatur. Formen und Funktionen vom Mittelalter bis zum 17. Jahrhundert, Münster 2007, S. 356.

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5 Responses to “Where do I sign?” Marginal notes on 15th century painting

  1. HNiyazi says:

    Many thanks for this fascinating post!

    In Raphael’s case we can at least say he got it from Perugino but tracking it back before that is the fun part! For the next part of this puzzle I would look at the “Pseudo-Kufic” scripts that made it into Italian art in the 14C at least – inspired by the lovely Kufic script seen in Islamic texts – though I daresay there is more to be found in Byzantine and/or Coptic icon antecendents as that middle step before this style jumped from the middle east to Italy?

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

    • Thanks for your comment, H!
      You’re right, this was fun. On the other hand, matters are certainly more complex than I’ve presented them here, and I kind of feel as if I’ve opened a can of worms – and the “pseudo-kufic” scripts may well be the giant sandworms among them. Interestingly, as far as I know, it was once again the Sienese who first introduced or at least established the use of “pseudo-kufic” inscriptions/ornaments in western painting: Duccio’s Ruccelai Madonna certainly played an important part in that and, incidentally, this kind of orientalizing script also appears on the sleeve bands of Mary’s dress in Simone Martini’s Annunciation mentioned above. But yes, as I already said, I’ll have to think about this some more…

  2. Fascinating post! This does seem like a really complex topic to try and uncover. It’s interesting that examples pop up in both Northern and Southern art, which might make it even more difficult to trace that “lineage” of this trend.

    Keep up the great posts!

  3. Sorry: I meant to say “trace *the* ‘lineage’ of this trend.” I can’t leave a typo uncorrected!

    • Thanks, m! You know, in this context it might even make sense to speak of “that lineage” because there may well be more than one lineage involved. Or at least more than one strand of tradition within the lineage…

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