If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content
Current time:0:00Total duration:6:50

Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. David Drogin: Okay, we are looking at the painting Portrait of a Carthusian Monk by Petrus Christus, dated to 1446. It's a small oil on wood painting that's in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Dr. Beth Harris: And boy, does it look so obviously northern Renaissance to me. I mean, the way that we can see every unflattering detail about this man's face including those veins bulging on his forehead. Dr. Drogin: And even though he's probably a relatively young man, you can still see the wrinkles around his eyes. That's the very typical, incredible attention to texture and detail that's so characteristic of Flemish portrait painting in addition to we're talking about portraiture in the 1440's, the fact that it's in a three-quarter profile with light coming from multiple directions. The rather rigid, or thick folding of the fabric, all of these things ... Dr. Harris: Very northern Renaissance. Dr. Drogin: ... very, very typically northern. Dr. Harris: And, of course, they also tell us that it's made with oil paintings. Dr. Drogin: Right, and of course in Italy, oil paint is not being used at this time and they're still using tempera. You know, when we talk about the texture it's interesting to look at the hair, for instance, because Petrus Christus being very observant has shown how the hair on the top of the head, growing out of the top of his head is different than the hair that's growing in his beard. In fact, that hair is different and he's capturing that in this small image and we should add that this painting is smaller than life size. I mean, it's only about eight inches tall. Dr. Harris: So, you're saying that he has all this sort of fine hair growing from his beard ... Dr. Drogin: Yep. Dr. Harris: ... but there's this sort of thicker, mop of hair on the top. Dr. Drogin: Exactly. Dr. Harris: Yeah. Dr. Drogin: And also the attention to the effects of light and shadow, not only, as you say, picking out the details in the skin, but also the shadows falling on his white robe. Dr. Harris: Yeah, they really ... that's the sort of close, very intensely closely observed light. Dr. Drogin: Yep, absolutely. It's all typical. One detail that's especially interesting about this painting is down at the bottom. It's painted at the bottom as if Petrus Christus has carved his name in a wooden ledge. It says, 'Petrus Christus Made Me 1446' as the signature, but then right above that what you see is a little fly. Dr. Harris: Is he saying that he made the fly? Dr. Drogin: Well, he's saying that he made everything, including the fly. You know, we have to ask, "Why is the fly there?" And there are several different answers and they probably all together are a good answer. One thing is that the fly is very, very small, but still you can see the two little transparent wings and it's tiny fly legs ... Dr. Harris: It's amazing detail. Dr. Drogin: ... and it's little fly hairs and so he's really showing off what he can do. You know, all Flemish artists at this time ... Dr. Harris: How did they do that tiny little details like that? Dr. Drogin: Sometimes they used ... Dr. Harris: Really like close up to the painting. Dr. Drogin: Close, maybe they used magnifying glasses, sometimes they used brushes that had only one hair. Dr. Harris: (laughing) I believe it. Dr. Drogin: This is in part to show off his incredible skill and the other thing is, you know these portraits are, in a way, celebrations of life. I mean, this is a very vital looking young man. He has blood flowing through his veins as you can see in the veins that are represented in his temple. Dr. Harris: Yeah, and he looks at us in a very engaging way. Dr. Drogin: Exactly. He's very much alive, but the inclusion of a fly is maybe to remind us that life is short. That mortality is always with us and death is always around the corner because flies, of course, are normally found around things that are decaying. Dr. Harris: Right. Dr. Drogin: So, this fly at the bottom is to remind the viewer that even though this person might be in the flower of his life and looking very vital and strong and living that always death is around the bend. Dr. Harris: So, is this a memento mori? Dr. Drogin: In a way it's like that and it's a reminder to people to live a good life and, of course, for a monk especially to be a good Christian because death is always coming and then your time is up. Dr. Harris: Right and the idea being that because death could be at any time that one should always be prepared for one's salvation. Dr. Drogin: Absolutely. Dr. Harris: So, this is interpreted in a very Christian context. Dr. Drogin: Right, there's also a couple of other things about the fly. Later on, there's a story that Giotto, the 14th century painter, when he was a student painted a fly on one of his teacher's paintings and that it looked so real that Chima Boerse who reportedly was ... Dr. Harris: His teacher. Dr. Drogin: ... his teacher, reached out to swipe the fly away. Dr. Harris: Right. Dr. Drogin: And it was just a statement of how good Giotto was. That story really is a popular 16th century story, but it may have already been floating around and this might be in a way a reference to that kind of skill. Dr. Harris: Right, but that sort of artist being able to make things so real that they're mistaken for reality. Dr. Drogin: Absolutely and our references can go even further back because in Pliny, the classical writer, he writes a story about a competition between two artists. Two painters who were arguing who was better and one painter paints a bunch of grapes and as he's showing it to the other painter a bird flies down and flies into the painting and so the painter of the grapes says that he is triumphant because he's fooled nature. So, then the other painter paints his image, which is hidden behind a curtain and as the first painter reaches out to pull the curtain aside, he touches the painting and realizes that ... Dr. Harris: It's no curtain. Dr. Drogin: There is no curtain. That's the painting. Then the second painter says, "Well, you might have fooled nature, but I have fooled man and therefore I am the winner." Maybe if Petrus Christus, who we know was very well educated, if this was a story that he might have been familiar with ... Dr. Harris: Maybe. Dr. Drogin: ... maybe his fly, in addition to showing off his skill and in addition to reminding us about mortality, is in a way a conflation of those two artists in one because he has fooled nature. A fly has come and landed on his seal that's fake, but he's also fooled you because you're tempted to reach out and swipe away this fly that's landed there. Dr. Harris: Yeah. Dr. Drogin: So, it really could be referencing all of these different things and adding an important dimension to this 15th century portrait. Dr. Harris: And it just speaks to the importance in western tradition from ancient Greeks and Romans through the Renaissance through the current day of the importance of, or the expectation that we have and the high value that we place on realism and naturalism in art. Dr. Drogin: Yes, very much so. Dr. Harris: On that scale. Dr. Drogin: Especially when representing a secular image like the portrait of a real living individual. Dr. Harris: Yep. (piano playing)