Protecting Fertility in Fra Filippo Lippi’s ‘Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement' in the Metropolitan Museum of Art
J. Russell Sale, Ph.D., Research Associate in Renaissance and Baroque Art, The Walters Art Museum
In this lecture, Dr. Sale will expand our understanding of Fra Filippo Lippi’s ‘Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement’, a fascinating but problematic Renaissance portrait. He will report on his investigation of the male figure’s significant gesture, its multiple meanings over time, and how its use by Lippi expands our understanding of the portrait.
The figure’s hands present the ancient mano cornuta, or horned-hand gesture, with the index and little fingers extended and the middle and ring fingers bent down. With a legacy of erotic and phallic associations in Greek and Roman art, the gesture had a variety of associations. A major one was as an apotropaic motif for warding off the Evil Eye - the harm that was believed to be caused by an envious gaze - a Mediterranean-wide folk belief that has persisted to modern times. The gesture’s perceived potency for protection and promoting well-being also led to its adaptation as a Christian Blessing. Displayed conspicuously to ward off danger in the portrait, the gesture protects the family lineage signified by the heraldic arms on which it rests, as well as the fecundity of the young woman who is the prime interest of the man and his action. The male and his gesture also bring a message of anticipated fertility through the meeting of masculine and feminine life forces.
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