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In the Beginning was the Image: The Omnipresence of Pictures

Time, Truth, Tradition


András Benedek and Ágnes Veszelszki

The authors outline the topic of visuality in the 21st century in a trans- and interdisciplinary theoretical frame from philosophy through communication theory, rhetoric and linguistics to pedagogy. As some scholars of visual communication state, there is a significant link between the downgrading of visual sense making and a dominantly linguistic view of cognition. According to the concept of linguistic turn, everything has its meaning because we attribute meaning to it through language. Our entire world is set in language, and language is the model of human activities. This volume questions the approach in the imagery debate.

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Paintings and Illuminated Manuscripts as Sources of the History of Childhood: Conceptions of Childhood in the Renaissance (Orsolya Endrődy-Nagy)

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Orsolya Endrődy-Nagy

Paintings and Illuminated Manuscripts as Sources of the History of Childhood: Conceptions of Childhood in the Renaissance

1.  Opening Remarks. Aims of the Research

“The history of childhood” refers to a discipline, including Renaissance views on children, children’s lives, and child-rearing practices, as well as their environments and surroundings changing over time (from past to present). Paintings and other visual documents from this time could help us interpret childhood and the world of children from their perspective. This article will introduce the aims of a study and doctoral thesis, and review the possible iconographical, semiotic, visual anthropologic and visual sociological picture analysis methods of pedagogical research. The goal of the thesis is to describe how the conceptions of childhood changed in a specific period during the 15th and 16th centuries. Why did we choose 1455–1517? It is important to understand how the inventions of printing and the Reformation affected the way of thinking about child-rearing practices. The doctoral thesis was published by Eötvös Publishing House in 2015, and will hopefully help other researchers to understand the problems parents faced in part of the Renaissance era.

The goals of the research are the following:

  1. To introduce possible visual analysis methods for qualitative research methodology.
  2. To introduce new sources for history of childhood and education – such as old-prints (incunabuli), woodenblock-prints and illuminated manuscripts.
  3. To understand conceptions of childhood within a special era, specifically Late Renaissance narratives about childhood.

Why did we consider part of the Late Renaissance (1455–1517) as a possible era of such research? We wished to understand how the inventions of printing and the Reformation affected the way of thinking about child-rearing practices. The importance of these decades in art history is also considered very high: painters such as Mantegna or Dürer used a special viewpont, analysed the human body, observed anatomy, applied the Golden Section, used new colors and techniques. In the Christian canon, the theories changed from Christ as a human to Christ as ← 91 | 92 → a child. There is a gap in the secondary sources of history of childhood regarding the following theoretical works: Shahar (2000), Pollock (1983), Heywood (2001), Cunningham (2005) and Szabolcs (1995). Some of the secondary sources end the Renaissance era in 1500. We will examine some decades earlier than 1500 as a starting point of “modern” history.

2.  Theoretical Framework

This is an interdisciplinary study, containing communication and visual studies, history of art and iconography, history of education, with history of childhood and sociology. There are however some more possibilities, for example psychology, demography, ethnography, and anthropology.

2.1  Theoretical Issues on the History of Childhood

According to Colin Heywood, there is a definition of childhood – it is an abstraction, referring to a particular stage of life, which changes over time and varies between social and ethnic groups within any society. Historians wish to recreate the day-to-day experiences of children in the past. This is the social history of children (Heywood 2001). At the end of 1970 most historians agreed that the history of childhood was a history of progress, and that the conditions of children had improved over time. The first work of this paradigm – Centuries of Childhood – was from the French philosopher, Philippe Ariès. He represents this progress by comparing and contrasting the present to the past centuries. The other theoretical work about the history of childhood is Lloyd DeMause’s work, called: The History of Childhood (DeMause 1974). The central tenet of this book is the psychogenetic interpretation of history; the subtitle of this work – The Evolution of Parent-Child Relationships as a Factor in History – represents this concept as well. DeMause periodised parent-child relations in six modes (Szabolcs 1995; Pukánszky 2001).

The British historian Edward Shorter published his thesis Good Mothering is the Invention of the Modern, which shows us, for example, the practice of not sending children off to a wet-nurse, which had been common in the past. Ariès, DeMause and Shorter had one thing is common – they believed that there had been over time major changes in the attitudes and treatment of childhood. A new paradigm by Linda Pollock was published in Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500–1900 (Pollock 1983). Pollock made a systematic study of diaries and autobiographies in Britain and North America concerning child-rearing between 1500 and 1900. She pointed out in this research that lower class child-rearing practices did not differ fundamentally from upper-class practices (Cunningham 2005: 9). ← 92 | 93 → Shahar disproved the previously popular thesis that medieval infant mortality rates caused the parent’s lack of love for their children, assumed to be less loving than modern parents. There were some different child-rearing practices, however; some elements are part of our views nowadays too. According to his research – which was published in his second book, Children in the Middle Ages – the child’s world was deeply integrated to adult’s lives (Shahar 2000).

We must not compare present childhood conceptions to the past ones using the modern perspective. We have to accept the mentality of the time, as we must, for example, with medical practices of the specific era. Sociologists James and Prout (James–Prout 1997) published their theory about childhood as a social construction. The new paradigm is potentially fruitful for historians. If we analyse paintings with iconographic methods, we can see children as social actors. Paintings could help us to assess the interpretations of childhood and the world of children. Hendrick pronounced the child as a social actor (Hendrick 2000) so I will use this term in my analysis. We should never compare children to adults, yet they are social actors too.

To conclude this theoretical schema, we can say that the narrative of childhood can be seen in many different ways, such as our specific conception of childhood. We will not, however, state an unequivocal global conception of childhood (Szabolcs 2004).

2.2  Paintings and Photos as Sources of Interpreting Childhood

It is possible that paintings could influence child-rearing practices and theories of children and childhood. If paintings are considered a type of media, and media had similar roles in people’s lives as today, then paintings could have such effects on people’s way of thinking. In order to observe this idea, we analysed over a hundred Italian, French and Dutch paintings, illuminated manuscripts and old-prints from fifteenth to sixteenth century.

Flemish artworks were satirical representations of peasant lifestyle and everyday life. Dutch colors are vivid, and the technique is meticulous. Flemish painters observed every detail precisely. Italian painters, on the other hand, used their works to demonstrate their own education, knowledge of theological discourse and philosophy; they were proud of their virtuosity in technical issues, such as Andrea Mantegna’s innovations on perspective. Mantegna became a master of realistic figure depiction too (Turner 2000: 281).

The inventors of oil paintings were Flemish brothers: Hubert and Jan van Eyck. At both parts of the Low Countries you can see an intimate atmosphere in the pictures. We must note the reinvention of the female portrait tradition in the Mona ← 93 | 94 → Lisa by Leonardo, which is the visual representation of the living soul, and which has entered every viewer since (Sperling 2003: 51). The art of Michelangelo and Raffael perform as the examples of intellectually complex puzzles for scholars.

A lively exchange between north (Flemish masters) and south (Italian masters) got under away. Rogier van der Weyden visited Rome in 1450; Antonello da Messina united Italian and Flemish traditions, since he studied in the Netherlands and later worked for the court in Naples. Late Gothic forms in paintings such as elongated figures, sculptural modelling and vibrant lively lines were dominant in both areas, e.g. Benozzo Gozzoli and Sandro Boticelli in Italy, Hugo van der Goes in the Netherlands. The display of Hugo van der Goes’s Portiniari Altarpiece in Florence in 1483 was a milestone (Turner 2000) (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Portiniari Altar by Hugo van der Goes, Uffizi, Florence, oil on wood, (c. 1475), 253 × 586 cm


3.  Introduction of the Research Methods and the Sources

“Images are helpful for what they tell us about educational situations, breaking the prevailing silence regarding the specific character of educational and child rearing processes, they also seek to convey an educative message in themselves” (Depaepe 2000: 15). Kress and Leuween declared in their book Reading Images (Kress–Leuween 2006) that social relations can be encoded in images. It is often said that the producer and the viewer differ in a fundamental aspect: the producer is active, while the viewer is passive. The articulation and understanding of social meanings in images derives from “face-to-face” interaction; the spatial positions allocated to different kinds of social actors in the interaction (Kress–Leuween 2006: 116). Pictures have the capacity to convey information that cannot be coded ← 94 | 95 → in any other way (Nyíri 2009). Sources can be any kind of document within the presence of a human being: written words, photos, artefacts and oral testimonies. I analyze paintings, manuscripts, incunabulis (old-prints) and wooden-block prints, using qualitative analysis methods such as semiotics, iconography, visual anthropology and visual sociology.

Iconography is originally a sub-discipline of art history, which concerns itself with the subject matter or meaning of works of art (Panofsky 1972: 3). Iconography as a research method derives from this branch of art history and other visual arts (Géczi 2010). Erwin Panofsky, who published his theory about image analysis and influenced iconographical studies for decades, declares the stages of the iconographical analysis for the history of art. This iconographical analysis is based on three phases of the reception of an image. The acts of interpretation are the pre-iconographical description, the iconographical analyses, and the iconographical synthesis (deeper analyses). Iconographical analysis is dealing with images, instead of motifs (Panofsky 1972: 3–33). In order to understand the meaning of the painting for another discipline, such as history of childhood, we need to find another analysing process of images.

Although this research is focusing on paintings, old-prints and woodenblock prints, it is very important to mention Mietzner’s and Pilarczyk’s thesis about categorization and classification. Their theory is based on photo analysis; however, it is a handhold for the paintings too. Mietzner and Pilarczyk have analysed more than 10,000 educational photos so far. They understood the deeper meanings of images which represented educational interactions or child-rearing processes in wider contexts (Mietzner–Pilarczyk 2005). There is a visual analysing method invented by a French researcher called Bouteaud (1989), and this method focuses on the technical information of each picture. A serial visual anthropologic method invented by Collier (2010) could be fruitful for researchers, who need a comparison method for pictures with similar topics. This paper is an introduction of a possible analysis method based on the methods mentioned above.

The topics of the selection of the pictures is based on Heywoods’ paradigm about the themes of the Renaissance conceptions of childhood: child-birth, the life of new-born babies, mortality (Heywood 2001). It is followed by one more topic which was absent from Heywood’s paradigm: the games or toys of children. ← 95 | 96 →

4.  Sample Picture from the Research1

Figure 2: Andrea Mantegna, Madonna with Sleeping Child, 1465–70, Tempera on canvas, 43 × 32 cm, Staatliche Museen, Berlin


Classification(Figure 2)

  1. Date: circa 1465–70.
  2. Place: Italy, Mantua
  3. Authorship: Andrea Mantegna
  4. Use: It was an altarpiece.

Mary looks extremely young in this painting. Their clothes could be similar to the gowns they wore in this decade. Jesus’ tight swaddling-clothes were typical of this time period. Jesus’ body looks babyish; however, his face looks much older (late adulthood). The goal of the painting was to show the virginity of Mary. Mary expresses fear and protection with the gesture of both hands. We can see ← 96 | 97 → love, tenderness and anxiety in her eyes. Since she cradles the sleeping baby, she is protecting him. Her brooding gaze suggests a presentiment of some kind. She will hold her son for the last time as Pieta, later. The tenderness of Madonna might catch our glimpse. We could wonder about the relation of mother and child. Whether the childhood mortality rate was high or not, mothers loved their children as much as they do nowadays. Child-rearing practices were based on love and harmony.

5.  Results of the Research

Using qualitative analysis methods such as semiotics, iconography, visual anthropology and visual sociology, children can be seen as wondering, nosey, playful human beings in the Renaissance Era, between 1455–1517 in Europe. Using microhistorical perspectives we can understand several more situations, and aspects of everyday life and mentality.

The conclusions and tendencies are the following:

The love of the mother towards their children contains the attitude of fear. The value of the life of the children is above the value of the mother’s life. They baptised their newborns as early as possible. Children’s games were as important then as they are today, or even more important. Breast-feeding is more important and more common regarding the pictures, than we expected.

The most interesting topic is the swaddling-tight, which began disappearing from paintings in the 1480s. It would be interesting to examine these traditions with a wider basis of visual sources focusing on the Northern or Southern part of Europe. Regarding the analyzed pictures, the children received more attention than their mothers. For example, while we have no evidence of the bathing traditions of the mothers, we could find a wide range of pictures of bathing children. The representation of Death could be grotesque, fatal or ludicrous, because of the powerlessness regarding the high ratio of mortality.

To look into the Renaissance paintings, manuscripts, old-prints and wooden-block prints – using my iconographic method, we could see conceptions of the childhood of the Renaissance era. However, children were much more vulnerable than today, they learned to live dealing with mortality. They baptised their newborns as early as possible. Children’s games were as important as today or even more important. Using microhistorical perspectives we explored several situations and aspects of everyday life and mentality. ← 97 | 98 →


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Collier, Malcolm (2010): Approaches to Analysis in Visual Anthropology. In: van Leeuwen, Theo – Jewitt, Carey (eds.): Handbook of Visual Analysis. Los Angeles – London – New York: Sage.

Cunningham, Hugh (2005): Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. Harlow, UK: Pearson Ed. Ltd. (Longman firm).

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Hendrick, Harry (2000): The Child as a Social Actor in Historical Sources – Problems of Identification and Interpretation. In: Christianssen, Pia – James, Allison (eds.): Research with Children: Perspectives and Practices. Oxon: Routledge Falmer, Taylor & Francis Group. 36–57.

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1 We would now like to mention the most important museums and libraries where the research took place: The Bibliotheca Communale dell’ Archiginnasio, Bologna; The Biblioteque Denis-Diderot, Lyon; The Semmelweis Museum of Medical History, Budapest; The Library of Congress, Washington DC; The Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest; Albertina, Wien.