Self Portraits

Styling the Self: Renaissance portraits, self-portraits and poetry

Introspection and development of a rich, internal dialogue became one of the key elements that defined Renaissance humanists. Many would argue that this inner language is the creation of he modern "self" (which is different from the "soul" of Antiquity and the Middle Ages). This “self” appears as an collection of stylized elements including fashion, speech, gestures, artistic production, and consumer goods. Individuality appears as a rejection of the established patterns of thought of church and political dogma that had to be memorized, repeated, & believed.

Portraits and poetry provide records of an increased awareness of one’s “self” as separate, important and valuable in relation to other individuals. Portraits focus visual attention on the contours of the human face, the fashion and position of garments, as well as the skill of the artist. This may not seem like an important historical emphasis, especially with the ubiquity of the modern “selfie”, but from the increase in portraits and self-portraits we can see a preoccupation with status of the “I” as opposed to the religious "soul."

Like portraits, poetry (and thus Petrarch's sonnets) became a sign of this stylized language of introspection. Petrarch’s engagement with an internal language by which to express and play with deep emotions outside of traditional and religious patterns of communication helps us see the creation of an individual language of the self.

In the 16th century, Martin Luther’s rejection of the Catholic Church’s dogmatic approach to religion in favor of an individual study of the Bible in one’s own language (vernacular German rather than Latin) helped to create a more personal, individualized religious experience. This new German Protestantism quickly spread to most Northern European languages creating the possibility of an internal religious experience as opposed to the Catholic Church’s established rituals, which emphasized the church’s authority.