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

okay we're 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 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 on his forehead and even though he's probably a relatively young man you can still see the wrinkles around his eyes there's the very typical incredible attention to texture and detail that's so characteristic of flemish portrait painting in addition to talking about portraiture in the 1440s 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 very very northern very very typically in northern and of course they also tell us that it's made with oil painting right and of course in italy oil paints 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 his uh the top of his head is different than the hair that's growing in his beard uh 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 so you're saying that he has all this sort of fine hair growing from his beard but there's this sort of thicker mop of hair on his on the top exactly yeah and also the attention to the effects of light and shadow not only as you say picking out the details and the skin but also the shadows falling on his white robe yeah they they really this this sort of close very intensely closely observed light yep absolutely it's all typical one detail that's especially interesting about this painting is down at the bottom um 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 is he saying that he made the fly oh well he's saying he made everything including the fly uh and 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 uh answer one thing is that fly is very very small but still you can see that two little transparent wings and its tiny fly legs and its little fly hairs and so he's really showing off what he can do you know all flemish artists at this time how did they do that tiny little details like sometimes they really like close up to the painting close maybe they used magnifying glasses sometimes they used brushes that had only one hair and believe it he this is in part to show off his incredible skill 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 at the veins that are represented in his temple and he looks at us in a very engaged 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 and 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 so is this a memento mori 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 right and the idea being that because death could be at any time that one should always be prepared for one's salvation absolutely so this is interpreted in a very christian context right there's also a couple of other things about the fly um later on there's a story that jotto the 14th century painter when he was a student painted a fly on one of his teachers paintings uh and that it was it looked so real uh that chimabue who reportedly used his teacher reached out to swipe the fly away and it was just a statement of how good jotto 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 right but that sort of artist being able to make things so real that they're mistaken for reality absolutely and our references can go even further back because in pliny the classical writer um he writes a story about a competition between two artists uh two painters who are 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's triumphant because he's full to 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 there is no curtain that's the painting and 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 is a story that he might have been familiar with maybe 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 cell that's fake uh but he's also fooled you because you're tempted to reach out and why swipe away this fly that's landed there yeah um and so it really could be referencing all of these different things and adding an important dimension to this 15th century portrait 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 and art yes and that skill especially when representing a secular image like the portrait of a real living individual yeah you