CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Hidden Faces: Covered Portraits of the Renaissance

Exhibition: 2 April - 7 July 2024

Hidden Faces is the first exhibition to examine an intriguing but largely unknown tradition of Renaissance painting: portraits designed as multisided objects in which the sitters’ images were concealed behind a hinged or sliding cover, within a box, or by a dual-faced format. Private portraits were often hidden beneath other paintings that served as witty prologues and protective covers. The reverses and covers of these portraits were adorned with puzzle-like emblems, inscriptions, allegories, and mythologies that reflected the sitters’ characters as well as broader cultural values. The viewer decoded the meaning of the symbolic portrait before lifting, sliding, or turning the image over to unmask the face below.

Painted by Italian and Northern European masters, such as Hans Memling, Lucas Cranach, Lorenzo Lotto, and Titian, the works in the exhibition represent highlights of Renaissance portraiture together with some of the most inventive secular imagery of the period. These ensembles include hinged diptychs, double-sided panels that presumably pivoted on a hook and chain, paintings fitted with sliding covers, and boxes and lockets. The objects range in function from portraits intended as portable propaganda to those designed to conceal lovers’ identities, serving as tokens of affection or political allegiance. These varied works shed significant light on the personal nature of portraits conceived as interactive objects.

The widespread development of these multifaceted objects in Italy and Northern Europe during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries will be explored through approximately 60 works from The Met collection and other American and European institutions, from Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Man, whose reverse features one of the earliest independent still lifes, to Titian’s large canvas portrait cover depicting an allegory of love. The exhibition will include major loans from the Ashmolean Museum, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, National Gallery of Art in Washington, and others.

Ludger tom Ring the Younger (1522-1584), Portrait of a Woman; Sliding Portrait Cover with Inscription, ca. 1560
Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen

While few examples survive today, hinged or sliding covers were widely used in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Since many multilayered portraits have been significantly altered over time, through the loss of their original frames, covers, and accompanying imagery, they are often considered to be independent likenesses rather than parts of a larger whole. The exhibition will reunite several portraits and their embellished covers that have been divided over time and made part of separate collections. The installation provides the opportunity to view all of the double-sided portraits in the round, including several works that are usually exhibited on the wall, so their reverses remain little known.

In Northern Europe during the first half of the 16th century multisided portraits continued under the patronage of the wealthy merchants and bankers in the German cities of Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Frankfurt, as well as the Electors of Saxony, who commissioned these works for wide-ranging functions— from objects of love to political propaganda. The gallery will present a rare opportunity to view works that are not typically exhibited in the round.

The exhibition is curated by Alison Manges Nogueira (Curator of the Robert Lehman Collection at The Met) and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue.