Renaissance Fashioning for Body and Spirit: Clothing as Vice and Virtue in the Face of Death
In the face of recurring epidemics, the people of the Renaissance were encouraged to wear “eyeglasses of death” and so monitor the condition of their relationship with God to secure their immortal soul. This paper will examine the way clothing was utilized as an outward and influential expression of that relationship. The paper will identify the two polarized concepts of vice and virtue as a means of interpreting the communicative role of clothing during the plague years. It will argue that the manipulation of the visual language of clothing could result in committing one of the most influential and spiritually damaging vices – vanity – or displaying the most powerful theological virtue – charity. The significance of charity was intensified when related to clothes, as clothes provided both a means for physical warmth and hygiene and (through their design and origin) were a symbol of ideological and spiritual health. Plagues were seen to be divine punishments and so the amendment of impious new fashions was seen as a matter of spiritual as well as physical healing. Using a modified discourse analytic approach the author considers evidence from recurring visual motifs in paintings and frescoes (displayed in public spaces like cemeteries, churches and hospitals), the vitas of popular contemporary saints, sermons and sumptuary laws, as these were sources of moral and social guidance for self-fashioning; outfitting each city before the eyes of God and men.
Keywords: Renaissance, Self-Fashioning, Vice and Virtue, Vanity and Vharity, Mortality
Honours Student/Research Assistant, Art History and Theory/Learning and Teaching Center, Sydney University/Macquarie University