Marked Difference: Earrings and “The Other” in Fifteenth-Century Flemish Art
While extensive scholarship already exists on Rogier van der Wey-dens Columba Altarpiece (Munich, Alte Pinakothek), an influential work from the early 1450s originally in Cologne, two details in the triptych’s central Adoration of the Magi (Figure 11.1) deserve further consideration.1 Visible in the original, but difficult to see in reproductions, are two figures who wear earrings: a black man in the Magi’s entourage, framed behind the stable by the backmost arched window; and a bearded man in a turban standing in the closer archway at the right. Rogier, drawing on newly developing conventions in fifteenth-century Flemish art, uses earrings to mark both figures as outsiders: “others” with regard to the Christian society of fifteenth-century Northern Europe. But rather than motivating rejection of these outsiders by viewers, earrings signal acceptance. By intensifying figures’ outsider status, earrings make their eventual conversion all the more remarkable. Rogier’s black attendant will soon see the Christ Child, and will acknowledge him as Son of God; the turbaned and earringed onlooker, a Jew, is this very moment “seeing the light.” This new use of earrings, which develops in fifteenth-century Flanders, can be called the even he/she topos, meaning even such a non-believing outsider as he/she can experience a revelation and convert to Christianity.The power of being a Christian insider in fifteenth-century Flemish society is reinforced by heightening the otherness of the earringed outsider; Christianity’s universal appeal is reconfirmed; and revelation and salvation are possible for all, because even he/she responds to Christianity and therefore converts.
KeywordsFifteenth Century Tres Rich MetropolItan Museum Universal Appeal Face Contrast
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- 6.Ronald Lightbown, Mediaeval European Jewellry (London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1992), 293–4, notes the surprise of a Burgundian traveler in Constantinople in 1432, who observed the Empress wearing earrings, and cites the 1352 French royal accounts’ listing of earrings, although those were for the Dauphin’s fool. Otherwise, earrings “seem scarcely to have been worn at all” in Northern Europe in this time. See alsoGoogle Scholar
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