Reflecting on Life’s Hopes and Dreams Through Renaissance Portraits

‘Remember Me’ exhibition at the Rijks Museum, in Amsterdam
By Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
Lorraine Ferrier
October 28, 2021 Updated: October 28, 2021

Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
—Christina Rossetti, poet, from “Remember”

“Remember Me,” a fascinating exhibition at Amsterdam’s Rijks Museum explores how over 100 Renaissance men and women were memorialized in paint. Through the portraits, we can see what our Renaissance cousins once held dear: their hopes, dreams, and achievements.

The paintings show how people wanted to be portrayed. They convey love, faith, family, beauty, ambition, authority, and knowledge.

Some 500 years have passed since these portraits were painted, but what’s astounding are the universal themes that resonate with our own aspirations today, affirming that traditional art truly and enduringly connects to our hearts.

Remember Me
Anonymous portraits of William of Orange on horseback, François I, Henry VIII, Mary of Hungary, and Eleanor of Austria on horseback, circa 1540–1560, Rijks Museum, Amsterdam. (Albertine Dijkema/Rijks Museum)
Remember Me
A view of the “Remember Me” exhibition at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, with Titian’s “Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese” on the right. (Albertine Dijkema/Rijks Museum)

The exhibition is a chance to reflect on great Renaissance art, from Northern artists such as Albrecht Dürer, Hans Memling, and Hans Holbein the Younger, to Italian artists, Titian, and Sofonisba Anguissola, among others. But more than that, the nine themes (such as “Admire Me,” “Cherish Me,” and “Pray for Me”) that exhibition curators Matthias Ubl and Sara van Dijk cover are an opportunity for us to reflect on our own legacy and impermanence. It’s a chance to ponder: When all is said and done and “the silent land” draws near, how do we want to be remembered?

For Beauty

The Rijks Museum chose “Portrait of a Young Woman” by Flemish artist Petrus Christus to promote its “Remember Me” exhibition. The portrait is a highlight of Flemish art and a highlight of the exhibition. This is the first time since 1994 that the Picture Gallery of the Berlin State Museums has loaned the portrait.

Remember Me
“Portrait of a Young Woman,” circa 1470, by Petrus Christus. Oil on oak panel; 11 1/2 inches by 9 inches. Picture Gallery, Berlin State Museums. (Picture Gallery, Berlin State Museums)

Christus’s unknown young lady certainly exudes something worth remembering: beauty. Renaissance men and women held the ancient belief that outer and inner beauty are intimately bound, explains Sara van Dijk in the exhibition catalog. Van Dijk uses Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 “The Book of the Courtier” to illustrate this point: “A wicked soul rarely inhabits a beautiful body, and for that reason, outward beauty is a true sign of inner goodness.”

To convey beauty, portrait artists commonly emphasized purity, modesty, and chastity, highlighting the sitter’s virtue.

Christus painted the unknown lady in a three-quarter-length pose. Her porcelain skin and flushed pink cheeks allude to her ethereal beauty. She appears poised and humble, undoubtedly due to a righteous upbringing. She’s fashionable, wearing a blue Burgundian-style dress and a black stomacher (the decorative insert of a woman’s dress that covers her bodice).

Van Dijk notes that fashionable attire had a certain place in women’s portraits, but women were not to neglect their wifely and motherly duties because of vanity. “It would be ugly and distasteful for a nobleman’s wife to appear publicly wearing garments suitable for a duchess or a queen,” wrote Renaissance humanist and philosopher Alessandro Piccolomini.

For Love

Van Dijk explains that in medieval times, devotion to God was of the utmost importance. Devout Christians lived as celibates, dedicating their lives to God. But celibacy was not an option for all. The sacred bonds of marriage offered redemption from the deadly sin of lust.

She describes matrimony as a sacrament bestowed by Christ “as a symbol of his relationship with the Church. He was the incarnation of the Word of God, and this was symbolized by the physical and spiritual union between a man and a woman. Thus, Christ’s relationship with his Church was mirrored in the harmonious relationship between husband and wife.”

Betrothal and wedding portraits reflected what Renaissance men and women believed to be important attributes for a successful marriage and a fruitful family life. Portraits were filled with symbols of love, purity, chastity, and fertility.

Remember Me
“Marsilio Cassotti and His Wife Faustina,” 1523, by Lorenzo Lotto. Oil on canvas; 28 inches by 33 1/8 inches. Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain. (Prado Museum)

An endearing marriage portrait is “Portrait of Marsilio Cassotti and his Wife Faustina” by Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto. The bride’s father commissioned the piece. In the portrait, Cupid presides over the couple as Cassotti takes his soon-to-be wife’s left hand to place the wedding ring on her finger. Van Dijk notes that in Northern Italy the wedding ring was placed on the right ring finger, not as portrayed in Lotto’s portrait. Perhaps the painter was suggesting a very old tradition: In ancient Rome, the wedding ring would be worn on the left hand, as Romans believed that the left ring finger connected, via an artery, directly to the heart.

For Faith

Prayer was often depicted in devotional portraits. For Christians, the act of prayer offered a direct link to their salvation, paving their path to heaven.

Christians kept devotional paintings as daily prompts, reminding them of their Christian vows. These private portraits were often small portable pendants, diptychs (paintings made of two panels that folded onto each other), or triptychs (similar to a diptych but made of three panels, with the central panel often depicting a religious figure). These were designed to be easily transported or displayed in monastery cells to aid meditation.

Remember Me
“Portrait of a Praying Man” circa 1470, by perhaps, Guillaume or Pierre Spicre. One half of a diptych depicting a husband and wife. Oil on panel; 23 7/8 inches by 19 1/2 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon, France. (Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon, France)
Remember Me
“Portrait of a Praying Woman,” circa 1470, by perhaps, Guillaume or Pierre Spicre. One half of a diptych depicting a husband and wife. Oil on panel; 24 1/4 inches by 19 3/8 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon, France. (Museum of Fine Arts, Dijon, France)

A diptych in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Dijon, France, of a married couple—titled “Portraits of a Praying Man and Woman”—was created in Burgundy, France, around 1470 by an unknown artist. The couple, painted on separate panels, are both venerating sacred sculptures. The husband solemnly prays to the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, and his wife humbly offers her prayers to John the Evangelist. From the husband’s hands flows a Latin inscription, as if affirming his silent prayers.

“These devotional portraits were probably also intended to keep the prayer going symbolically throughout eternity: The paintings, as it were, took over the prayer function when the sitters were busy with worldly occupations or had died,” writes Matthias Ubl in the exhibition catalog.

Other devotional portraits were generously peppered with sacred symbols, some overtly so, such as the rosary. Other symbols, although known to the Renaissance contemporaries, may need further explanation today. Prayer nuts, for instance, are often featured in the paintings. These were boxwood nuts that opened into two halves and contained sacred carvings, often depicting the Passion, which acted as a meditation tool.

Remember Me
“Twelve Members of the Haarlem Brotherhood of Jerusalem Pilgrims,” circa 1528, by Jan van Scorel. Oil on panel; 44 7/8 inches by 108 1/2 inches. Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, Holland. (Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem)

Artists also depicted pilgrims’ portraits, as seen in Dutch artist Jan van Scorel’s painting “Twelve Members of the Haarlem Brotherhood of Jerusalem Pilgrims.” The pilgrims’ destination, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, is painted in the top-left corner of the painting. Everything in the portrait reminds the pilgrims of their divine vows. Each brother is in chronological order according to when he made his pilgrimage. Each pilgrim holds one or two palm fronds, with each frond indicating a completed pilgrimage. Papers along the bottom of the painting urge the brothers to pray for the deceased pilgrims, to help them in the afterlife. The artist placed his likeness in the painting, as he was also a pilgrim. Van Scorel stands above the detached piece of paper. Ubl says that the detached paper represents the impermanence of life.

Artists depicted the transience of life in “vanitas” portraits. “The Word of God is everlasting, all else is temporary” states a Latin proverb on one portrait. Commonly, symbols of impermanence such as carnations, hourglasses, soap bubbles, and the more macabre motifs such as skulls and even rotting corpses are featured in these portraits.

For Artistry

Early self-portraits were made to honor God and show the beauty of His creations, Ubl says. Later, self-portraits deviated from those sacred intentions. Self-portraits became promotional tools for artists to display their talent and ambition. Ubl notes that the shifting emphasis in portraiture from God to the individual directly correlated with the elevation of the medieval craftsman to artist.

Artists had inserted their self-portraits into their work prior to the 16th century, but now artists painted autonomous self-portraits mainly to allude to their craft. Ubl notes that those portraits that didn’t hint at the artists’ occupation were painted by court painters who had no need to promote themselves.

Remember Me
“Self-Portrait With the Colosseum,” 1553, by Maarten van Heemskerck. Oil on panel; 16 5/8 inches by 21 1/4 inches. The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge. (The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck’s “Self-Portrait With the Colosseum” is a fascinating self-promotional painting. At first glance, the artist appears in front of the Colosseum, but he actually depicted himself in front of a painting of the ancient monument. In the far-right corner, we can see van Heemskerck at his easel, copying the amphitheater as part of his Grand Tour art education. Through this painting, he is telling his prospective patrons that he’s not only skilled, but that he is also learned. He has been on his Grand Tour and copied the best examples of art: those of ancient Rome.

Remember Me
“Self-Portrait at the Easel,” circa 1556–1557, by  Sofonisba Anguissola. Oil on canvas; 26 3/8 inches by 22 inches. Lancut Castle Museum, Poland. (Lancut Castle Museum, Poland)

Like van Heemskerck, Italian artist Sofonisba Anguissola showed her prowess in paint. She created many self-portraits, a couple of which are in the exhibition. In one, she is at her easel painting the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Religious history paintings, such as the one on her easel, were esteemed as the highest genre of painting.

Another of her paintings in the exhibition, painted just a year after her self-portrait as an artist, is her delightful and well-known family portrait “The Chess Game.” In this painting, Anguissola looks out at the viewer while her sister on the right tries to get her attention, as if urging her to make her next chess move. Anguissola’s other sister, in the center, cheerily looks over to her sister on the right. It’s a joyous family scene. A few years after those paintings, in the winter of 1559–1560, Anguissola became a court painter and a lady-in-waiting at the Spanish court, teaching art to Philip III’s third wife.

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game, 1555, Poznan, The Raczynski Foundation at the National Museum
“The Chess Game,” 1555, by Sofonisba Anguissola. Oil on canvas; 28 3/8 inches by 38 1/4 inches. The Raczynski Foundation at the National Museum in Poznan, Poland. (National Museum in Poznan, Poland)
Remember Me
Self-portrait, 1573, by Johan Gregor van der Schardt. White terracotta with polychromy; 9 inches tall. Rijks Museum. (Rijks Museum)

One self-portrait summarizes the exhibition well. Dutch artist Johan Gregor van der Schardt’s self-portrait in white terracotta with polychrome, stripped of clothes and any other indication of time, espouses the timelessness of the different ways people want to be remembered. Take away any hint of the period in which these portraits were created and what remains are people representing the enduring, traditional values of our shared humanity.

The exhibition, “Remember Me” runs until Jan. 16, 2022, at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam. To find out more, visit Rijksmuseum.nl

The exhibition book, “Remember Me: Renaissance Portraits,” can be purchased online from the museum shop; visit RijksmuseumShop.nl