Is this guy dead? And what is the symbolism of the odd items behind him?
February 8, 2016 11:56 PM   Subscribe

A picture from 1807 in Germany shows what could be a dead guy against a brick wall underneath iron rings and some kind of wreath or animal tail. What is the explanation for this?

This is a picture of my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Johann Philipp Castelhun, born 21 July 1719 and died 7 December 1807 in what is now Germany.

I am trying to determine two things. First, is he dead? Known as memento mori, photographing the dead (or, in the case, drawing and painting, I suppose) was a common enough practice for various cultures in the past. Further, that could be a vein in his temple, his cheeks look sunken, and the brick could be part of a crypt.

And that leads to the second question. What is the symbolism of the brick, the iron rings, and whatever that other item might be? Maybe it's wheat, a fox tail, an ermine pelt, a wreath, a garland... I can't figure it out. Help!
posted by stst399 to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: 1) Your relative is depicted in a sihlouette portrait, which was popular at the time. As one of the oldest French trends/cultural holdovers from the Imperial Roman occupation of Europe, it was a style many families imitated.

2a) The animal tails themselves would serve as the memento mori, as they're vivid (grotesque) reminders of what once was. Bones, hides and carved flesh were common subjects.

2b) The iron rings represent manacles, yet they appear to be fixed in place. They're also small - or at least scaled to the size of the tails. That sort of ironwork's what would be found in kitchens, or certain shops where a lot of boiling and drying would occur.

3) The brick wall infers a setting. It emphasizes the rings holding the tails. Business portraits sometimes used elements of a trade to infer that person's workplace and/or skill.

Best Guess: Your ancestor was most likely a leather-crafter. The tail garlands would serve as an example of skill in trading/acquiring pelts.
posted by Smart Dalek at 2:38 AM on February 9, 2016 [4 favorites]

I don't think it's a memento mori, would have come later and not been a drawing in this case, just a hunch. His hometown/state and occupation might help, if you have them
posted by runincircles at 2:39 AM on February 9, 2016

Do you know his profession?
posted by amtho at 2:40 AM on February 9, 2016

I'm thinking it's a guild or craft symbol.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:24 AM on February 9, 2016

Best answer: Thank you for the feedback so far. To answer some questions.... He lived in Nordheim in Hesse-Darmstadt (now Germany). He was a Reformed Lutheran. At least in the 1750s and 1760s when his children were born, he was a school master, teacher, and tax collector.
posted by stst399 at 6:20 AM on February 9, 2016

Best answer: The background motif is a laurel leaf swag, a symbol that's been a staple decorative neoclassical element since antiquity. As an evergreen plant, it has some nice 'triumph over death' symbolism, so you do see laurel swags and wreaths in lots of funerary carvings and statues, but I think there's no reason to read that into the portrait - I think it's just a background element chosen to look 'formal.'

This is not a memento mori; mourning portraits were a practice of the Victorian age, and your ancestor died a couple decades before the first photograph was developed anyway. This seems to be a photograph of an ink wash or watercolor painting someone made of him in his later years. I know it's a bit of a creepy look that his pupils aren't drawn in, but there's very little of the eye visible at some angles, and if you look at his coat button, you can see he's lit from the left side, so his iris and pupil would be obscured by light reflection. Cataracts would exacerbate the effect.

At an absolute wild-ass guess, I read this painting as being what you'd see from a talented art student. There's natural skill, but still basic composition stuff to learn, like not composing a portrait with background stuff sitting on the model's head. Bricks and rings and laurel are simple fill-in background elements, not real objects drawn from life. The laurel doesn't hang realistically in an arc, it's stiff, and the highlights and shadows on the foliage are fanciful. The bricks are sketchy in the 'ideogram that means bricks' way, not the 'hastily sketched from life' way. But that's fine, because the portrait itself? Really good, especially for a tricky medium that doesn't allow for do-overs. I wonder who asked him to sit for the portrait. They cared about doing a good job.

How nice that someone preserved the painting long enough to shoot a photo. It's amazing you get to know what he looks like so well, from so long ago.
posted by Lou Stuells at 11:41 AM on February 9, 2016 [3 favorites]

(Oh I asked the resident Mason if there was any significance to the laurel from that direction, but nah. Woulda been neat, tho!)
posted by Lou Stuells at 11:47 AM on February 9, 2016

That vein on his temple looks like a scar to me.
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:03 PM on February 9, 2016

Best answer: The mark on his temple could be a deuling scar.
posted by richb at 1:42 AM on February 10, 2016

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