Discussion and reflection essay

Instructions: after you have completed the reading for this module, spend some time comparing and contrasting the Holbein and Drer portraits yourself. Answer the following discussion prompt in at least a paragraph, and be sure to also post either a response to a peer or a question in the QotW thread.

What similarities or differences do you notice in these two portraits? What aspects of these paintings support the idea that they reflect the “invention” of the individual? Lastly, does the fact that Drer’s painting is a self-portrait change how you interpret it?

Module reading:
Please read Jerry Brotton, “Introduction,” (in The Renaissance: A Very Short Introduction, p. 16-27), and Jason Farago, Seeing Our Own Reflection in the Birth of the Self-Portrait.

Overview: Brotton’s chapter splits roughly into two parts: the first half introduces the main themes of the Renaissance through the painting The Ambassadors (Holbein, 1533), while the second explores the different historical approaches to the Renaissance. The Farago piece likewise focuses on a portrait, this one a self-portrait from Drer (1500). It explores the rise of individualism through careful analysis of this painting.

2 Keys:
Artifacts are Evidence. In addition to the specific information they convey, both of these readings show how artifacts serve as primary evidence in the humanities. Summing up a massive historical period is seemingly impossible, but Holbein’s painting can be used to do it elegantly. Likewise, discussing “individualistic conceptions of the self” might seem to be almost impossible. (How can we know anything about this? People rarely sit down and declare: “this is my self-conception!”) But careful attention to the Drer painting grounds Farago’s discussion such that it becomes both clear and convincing. Both show the value of engaging artifacts as practiced by the humanities disciplines: doing so helps us get at issues that otherwise might seem either too close to us or to abstract to observe.
Historical Origins. It can be easy to assume that the categories we use to understand the world are constant and unchanging. However, the humanities regularly demonstrate that even ideas that might seem to be obvious or ahistorical often arise in very specific historical conditions. The unique individual, the idea of the European, even the term ‘Renaissance’ itself are all what we might call “historically emergent.” Or, as the Farago article puts it: they “had to be invented.”

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