Depiction of the martyrs by painters is often done according to convenience and should not be analysed in a too detailed manner
Year mention: 1617
Clothes anachronism/Errors/Adornment
Figurative vs. literal reading

Painters depict details of the martyrs, such as their clothes and height, according to artistic convenience and such details should not be investigated with too many scruples

Molanus, Johannes
Frostispiece of Molanus, De historia sanctarum imaginum et picturarum (1617), Antwerp, Gasparus Bellerus
Frontispiece of Molanus, De historia sanctarum imaginum et picturarum (1617), Antwerp, Gasparus Bellerus
Augsburg, Staats- und Stadtbibliothek — Th H 1475. Digital Reproduction: München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, 2015.

In book 2, chapter 20, Molanus discusses another matter that is related to the freedom of the artist and the way these elements should be interpreted. In this chapter, the central question is whether the exterior features of religious figures, such as their clothes, height, attributes etc., should be taken literally or they are mainly shaped according to artistic convenience; for Molanus it is definitely the latter. His main principle of reasoning is the similarity between paintings and paraboles, which, according to Molanus are “of the same nature as paintings, they are painted equivalents” (Molanus, book 2, chapter 20). Therefore, the same applies to paintings as to paraboles: it would be “absurd” to explain every single detail since it is the figurative meaning that is most important.
In the chapter Molanus then gives two examples to illuminate his reasoning: the first is the way martyrs are depicted by painters. Here he explains that their exterior features, like clothes and stature, should not be taken literally, since painters follow what is convenient to them and not what was historically accurate. Important to emphasise is that this is not condemned by Molamis, since these details do not affect the meaning of the artwork.

“Who does not know that painters, when they depict by certain forms a martyr’s physiognomy, the height, the clothes, only rarely, and as much as never, except when they draw it from history or tradition, pretend to mean anything about the portrait, the height or the clothes: but it is the image of the martyr himself that they present. The rest is added according to convenience only to satisfy the requirements of art, and one should not push scruples and efforts to investigate every detail.”

“Quis enim nesciat quod pictores du certa forma martyrum facies exprimunt et staturam et vestitum, rarissime, imo nunquam nisi hoc ex historia aut traditione habeant, significare velint huiusmodi fuisse martyris effigiem, staturam aut vestitum: sed imago ipsa martyrem repraesentat, reliqua uxta exigentiam artis deite et convenienter appinguntur, neque sunt anxio conatu per singula investiganda.”

Quoted Authorities

John Chrysostom, Homelies, tom. 48 on Matthew 8.

artistic convenience, artistic freedom, clothes, height, martyr, physiognomy

Date mention

Historical Location

Molanus, De historia sanctarum imaginum et picturarum (1617), book 2, ch. 20, 84

Molanus 1996, 179.

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