The Renaissance portraits that adorn the walls of the world’s museums hold countless secrets: painted-over underdrawings, hidden self-portraits, even a giant skull designed to remind viewers of their mortality. Now, a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City seeks to unmask yet another little-known layer of meaning, revealing that many of these portraits were once concealed by a cover, within a box or by a dual-faced format in which the reverse of the painting contained an entirely different image.

“The portrait is the primary image,” Alison Manges Nogueira, the show’s curator, tells Smithsonian magazine. “But it wasn’t the first one seen. It was preceded by something else, [and] we should give greater thought to the impact that the other image had on the object as a whole.”

Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits of the Renaissance” is the first exhibition to examine the tradition of multisided portraiture during the 15th and 16th centuries. Featuring 60 works by artists such as Hans Memling, Titian and Lucas Cranach the Elder, the show underscores the interactive nature of covered portraits, which were “often stored away and unveiled for special viewings,” says Nogueira in a statement.

Reconstruction of a Mirror-Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits of the Renaissance | Met Exhibitions

Multisided portraiture emerged in the Netherlands in the early 15th century, then spread to Italy and elsewhere in Northern Europe. According to Nogueira, the practice built on traditions dating back to antiquity, including the unveiling of sacred art during liturgical rituals, the concealment of erotic imagery behind curtains that could be opened at the owner’s discretion, and the minting of coins and medals whose reverses featured imagery glorifying the influential figures shown on the objects’ obverses. Fourteenth-century devotional paintings also influenced the genre, as many contained painted scenes on the reverse that simultaneously protected against damage from moisture and “enhance[d] the devotional narrative,” Nogueira says.

Portrait covers took a variety of forms, including wood panels that slid in and out of grooves on a painting’s frame, hinged diptychs, double-sided panels that pivoted on a hook and chain, curtains, boxes, and lockets. Historical records testify to the prevalence of such covers, but few survive today, meaning the tradition has long been overlooked. The rare surviving examples tend to be too damaged or too difficult to display. Double-sided portraits face similar challenges, as exhibiting both sides simultaneously in a traditional gallery setting usually isn’t feasible. “Often, there are portraits that are hung in a museum as a single-sided work, but they actually have a painted reverse,” Nogueira says.

Portrait of Margarethe Vöhlin (left) and Coat of Arms (right) by Bernhard Strigel, 1527
Portrait of Margarethe Vöhlin (left) and Coat of Arms (right) by Bernhard Strigel, 1527 National Gallery of Art, Washington

In other instances, the painting and its cover were separated at some point in time and now reside in different collections. The Met show reunites one such pair: a Lorenzo Lotto allegorical scene housed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and a portrait of a woman housed at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon in France. Lotto’s correspondence offers valuable information on the tradition of multisided painting, with the Venetian artist’s patrons expressing confusion about the imagery he chose to adorn the covers of his sacred commissions.

“He wrote back and advised his patrons that imagination is needed to bring their meaning to light,” says Nogueira. “That’s a very reassuring thing for us today, because these images remain very puzzling. And at the time, they were intended to be read in many different ways.”

In addition to limiting access to the likeness, multisided portraits allowed artists to comment on their own work, painting allegorical scenes that reflected the sitters’ character on removable covers or the reverse sides of panels. Memling’s Allegory of Chastity, for example, may have originally been paired with a now-lost portrait of a woman named Barbara, who hoped to evoke associations with the saint of the same name.

Portrait of Alvise Contarini (left) and A Tethered Roebuck (right) by Jacometto, circa 1485-1495
Portrait of Alvise Contarini (left) and A Tethered Roebuck (right) by Jacometto, circa 1485-1495 Metropolitan Museum of Art

Nogueira came up with the idea for the exhibition while studying a pair of double-sided portraits in the Met’s collection. Created by the Venetian artist Jacometto, the petite panels date to between 1485 and 1495. One depicts a man identified as Alvise Contarini, with a tethered male deer painted on its reverse. The other shows a woman, possibly a nun, with a badly damaged reverse that appears to contain a grisaille scene (a technique in which the artist uses shades of gray to imitate sculpture in a two-dimensional format).

The paired likenesses “originally were integrated in the form of a box,” says Nogueira. “They’ve long been studied, and it’s been a continuing puzzle [of] who the sitters are, what their relationship was and what the imagery on the reverse means.” In the exhibition catalog, the curator suggests that the key to the puzzle lies in the grisaille reverse, which she identifies as a depiction of the mythical hero Orpheus playing a lute while pleading with Charon, the ferryman of the River Styx, to give him another chance to find his dead wife. “Through the figure of Orpheus,” Nogueira writes, “Alvise proclaimed himself not only as a bereaved husband but also as a cultured lover of music and poetry.”

Portrait of a Man (left) and Still Life With a Jug of Flowers ​​​​​​​(right) by Hans Memling, circa 1485
Portrait of a Man (left) and Still Life With a Jug of Flowers (right) by Hans Memling, circa 1485 © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Nogueira notes that contemporary viewers have a “natural tendency to favor the portrait and consider the reverse lesser,” in part because this side of the panel was often painted by an artist’s workshop, with finishing touches from the master himself. A similar bias existed during the Renaissance. Around 1485, Memling painted a jug of flowers on the reverse side of a portrait of a young man, creating one of the first still lifes in European history. “That is really an outstanding example of how artists use the reverses of portraits, and the covers, to experiment with subjects that … were not necessarily [considered] worthy of painting in their own right” at the time, the curator says.

Ultimately, Nogueira hopes that visitors to the exhibition come away with a clearer sense of Renaissance portraiture’s thematic complexity. “Sometimes when we look at portraits, we’re looking at a fragment of something that was originally more complex or had other parts to it,” she says. “That’s something we recognize when we look at fragments of an altarpiece. We have a sense that it was once something larger. But when it comes to portraits, that’s not something we normally think of. … There’s still a lot that we need to discover.”

Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits of the Renaissance” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through July 7.

The Triumph of Love (cover for a lost portrait), Titian, circa 1545
The Triumph of Love (cover for a lost portrait), Titian, circa 1545 © Ashmolean Museum

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