Monday, April 30, 2018

Androgynous Overlays Celebrate (or Undermine) the Politics of Saxony

Clockwise from top left: Traditional Saxon garb, traveling outfit, woman's thick cape, Lutheran priest's outfit, gardener's hat and gloves, woman's hood, apron, and fan, and (center) the Holy Roman Emperor

In the mid-seventeenth century, Europe saw a boom in popularity of mica overlays for miniature portraits. The items functioned in similar fashion to paper dolls. A base image, often painted in oil and usually fixed in some sort of metal support, was furnished with a set of outfits painted on transparent surfaces. These were referred to as “talcs” because they were formed out of sheer sheets of the eponymous mineral or its kin, mica. The overlays primarily provided entertainment, but they could also subtly celebrate rulers, offer religious influence, and perpetuate new fashions.

This set of overlays comes packaged in a false coin, in this case a 1628 thaler from Saxony. Throughout the Holy Roman Empire, the thaler was the standard against which various states’ currencies were valued. They held to the same general layout across state lines: both sides bear text about their edges, embracing distinctive state imagery. Here, one side states “SA. ROM. PARCHIM. ET . ELECT. 16. 78” around the heraldic shield of the Electorate of Saxony under the Holy Roman Empire. The heraldry belongs in particular to John George I (or Johann Georg I), the Elector of Saxony from 1611-1656. John George I himself appears on the opposite side of the coin, distinguishable by his cropped hair and goatee, surrounded by “IOHAN. GEORG. D. G. DUX SAX. IUL CLIV. ET MONT.”

Both interiors are painted. On one side are two figures, a woman in a blue dress and broad-brimmed hat and a man in an orange tunic. On the other side is the base figure, a woman in a dress of mid-century style, with a tight bodice, wide hips and sleeves, and an off-the-shoulder collar. The woman may be dressed in one of seven outfits, in both men’s and women’s guises. One overlay places the woman in the styling of the Holy Roman Emperor, with laurel wreath, scepter, and fur cape. It is possible that this overlay specifically represents the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III, who reigned from 1637 to 1657, but the defining facial hair was also characteristic of his successors Ferdinand IV and Leopold I. Another overlay depicts the garb of a Lutheran cleric, complete with a white amice, likely a point of national pride since the Protestant Reformation began within the borders of Saxony at Wittenberg. Other overlays dress the woman in a luxurious fur cape, a hood and apron, and the dress of a gardener, with thick gloves and flowers. The androgynous wardrobe reflects the rising vogue of the same practice in courtly circles. Court masques were beginning to feature women performing male characters (the “travesty role”), and fashionable women’s riding garb featured masculine cuts. The overlays stretch this androgyny to include monarchs and religious leadership, an amusing, but potentially subversive, move. There is plenty to explore in these overlays, and they are perhaps more politically dense than their physical fragility suggests.


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