Renaissance Fashioning for Body and Spirit: Clothing as Vice and Virtue in the Face of Death

By Elizabeth Reid.

Published by The Arts Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

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 Charity, Mortality

International Journal of the Arts in Society, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp.183-202. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 5.203MB).

Elizabeth Reid

Honours Student/Research Assistant, Art History and Theory/Learning and Teaching Center, University of Sydney and Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Elizabeth is a creative arts graduate from the University of Wollongong majoring in painting (2007). She has an interest in the painterly techniques and social practices of the Renaissance Period. Her subsequent honours research thesis, undertaken at Sydney University, explored the experience of modern and Renaissance viewers of the Last Judgement fresco in the Santa Maria del Fiore Florence (2008). She is currently developing her own studio work as a painter/print-maker and working as a research assistant at Macquarie University as she prepares for further academic research study.

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