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Picture of the Month



The Birth of St. John Baptist by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-90

I'd thought I had this picture in my collection. I know I had a pretty good scan, but I can't find it anymore, so I trolled it from CGFA. The copyright notice is just to deter remote loaders; in reality all credits are to be given to Carol.

What has always struck me about this detail (the whole painting is a lot bigger) is that the realism of costume declines from left to right. As the title of the painting shows, it is a biblical scene, so the costume depicted can be anything from contemporary (from the painter's perspective) via the painter's idea of bygone eras to pure fantasy. Which is exactly what we see here.

Lowerclass costume of the late 15th century isn't documented all too well, but the maid in background looks about right for the time. The pale pink lady in the foreground wears exactly the kind of dress we would expect on a late 15th century Florentine lady of the upper class: A form-fitting undergarment with sleeves that are laced or buttoned at the forearm so that the shirtsleeves peek out. These shirtsleeves are probably much wider than the narrow sleeves of the undergarment. On top of that, she wears a sleeveless upper garment that hangs loosely from the shoulders down. It seems to be held in place by lacing across the breast. Her complicated hairdo is also in keeping with late 15th century Florentine styles.

Of the two ladies behind her, the left one could also be contemporary, but the right one looks like the Renaissance painter's idea of the Middle Ages, right down to her shoes. The fair blue one on the right is even more "historical" in that her dress is reminiscent of an Ancient Greek chiton and her sandals and even her feet have a general feel of Classic Antiquity about them. The fact that her dress and sheer shawl seem to be moved by a strong wind emphasises the fact that she doesn't quite fit into the (indoor) scenery. She looks more like the ladies on the walls of the Villa degli Misteri in Pompeii.

This illustrates that depictions of biblical scenes must be treated with care: They may depict real period dress or pure fantasy, and they may even combine both.

If you want to find older Pictures of the Month, use one of the above links to jump to a previous edition, and from there to yet older ones etc.

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