Sunday, February 12, 2012

Anne of Cleves, you look nothing like your Facebook picture.

I’ve heard it said by historians that some of the fascination with the Tudor period comes from the works of the artist Hans Holbein the Younger. Through his portraits, we see and relate to the key players in the drama of Henry VIII’s life as real people because they were portrayed realistically in their portraits. Or were they?

 Let’s face it, the concept of Photoshopping isn’t new, it has a long history stretching all the way back to ancient Egypt, where very few realistic portraits of the Pharaohs exist. Instead, most art from that era portrayed the god king as young, strong, handsome and powerful. The Armana period excluded, there wasn’t a pot belly or receding hairline to be found. The Romans produced more realistic busts of individuals, which helped me when I was trying to describe Caligula in my latest release, Mask of the Gladiator, but there was still an element of perfection in the representations.

A few thousand years later, and Henry VIII was faced with choosing a bride based on what we might call a profile picture. Poor Anne of Cleves. Some historians say Holbein painted her dress with a lot of zing to take attention away from her plain features. Others say it is a true likeness and she isn’t the “Mare of Flanders” Henry made her out to be.  Either way, one gets the sense from reading the historical accounts that the portrait was the modern day equivalent of the high angle, turned to the side snapshot we took five years ago and is now our profile picture.  Do we look good in the picture? Sure. Is it an accurate and faithful representation of what we really look like? Um, well, maybe not, but then, the futures and fates of countries aren’t entangled in the way we look.

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