Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
History of Art
As the representation of specific, identifiable persons in art, portraiture often reflects ideas of selfhood or individuality while simultaneously participating in their construction. Since the introduction of physiognomic likeness into the visual language of western portraiture in the midfourteenth century, this quality has come to exemplify the portrait’s capacity to represent an individual subject. Yet, although likeness and portrait have become synonymous in modern parlance, portraiture as a form of representation predates the addition of likeness to its semiotic system. This dissertation explores the reception of portraits in the absence of physiognomic likeness through a study of medieval “owner portraits,” the deceptively simple representations of book owners in their prayer books. A group of eight illuminated books of hours and psalter-hours produced in northern France between 1230 and 1320 displaying a remarkable number of owner portraits provides a wealth of evidence for the study of the motif.
Although formulaic in appearance, owner portraits have the capacity to convey a range of identities that shift and expand based on the context of their reception. As the first chapter demonstrates, owner portraits signify identity by inviting the self-identification of their viewers, who recognize their own performances of piety anticipated in the images. This understanding allows for further deconstruction of the markers of identity embedded within the portrait image. The second chapter examines the gendered imagery of the owner portrait through the metaphor of the mirror, as medieval rhetoric feminized the act of introspective viewing associated with mirrors and books alike. Rather than faithful records of religious use, owner portraits must be understood as ideological images that construct literate devotion in the Middle Ages as a feminine activity. The third chapter explores further the issues of gender and identity in manuscripts that juxtapose male and female owner figures. In representing distinct masculine and feminine modes of prayer alongside one another, such manuscripts invite cross-gendered reception of owner images, even while asserting essentialist modes of devotion. The final chapter addresses the effects of repetition specific to this group of manuscripts. Portraits repeated throughout a book evoke a ritual time that collapses not only past and present, but also future. In looking to the future, the portraits embrace their subjects’ mortality, accommodating reception by later viewers while also promising eternal life.
Doyle, Maeve. “The Portrait Potential Gender, Identity, and Devotion in Manuscript Owner Portraits, 1230–1320.” PhD diss., Bryn Mawr College, 2015.