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Symbols of Power

Emily R., Former TAG Member

Posted: Friday, February 10, 2012

Hans Memling (Netherlandish, active by 1465–d. 1494). Portrait of a Young Man, ca. 1482. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.112)

«Did you know that, at one point, this young man had a halo?»

Although we don't know the young man's identity, we do know that there was once a halo above his head and an arrow held between his thumb and forefinger. The halo and arrow were added to the portrait after the artist painted it, transforming the young man into Saint Sebastian, a Christian saint and martyr who, legend has it, was shot with arrows and killed because of his faith. Even though the halo and arrow were removed during a cleaning and restoration in 1912, you can still see the shadow of the two objects if you look closely. In reality, the young man was probably from Florence but met the artist while he was either living in or visiting Bruges, a city in present-day Belgium.

During the Renaissance, if you were a man, it was important to appear powerful. Clothing was one way to show off your wealth and status. I think the young man's dark clothes make him appear powerful and confident. If his clothes were bright and colorful, his authority could be questioned. His posture is not slouched and his appearance is very neat: his shoulders are straight, he looks slightly to the side, and his hands are folded upon each other.

In the painting of this young man, he is shown wearing dark clothes and with neatly groomed hair. I drew a sketch of what this young man might look like if he lived in New York City during the twenty-first century. In my sketch, I updated his clothes and the background so he could wear a "cool" outfit, which provides its own power and influence in today's society.


Ainsworth, Maryan W. "Intentional Alterations of Early Netherlandish Painting." Originally published January 2008; last revised October 2009. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

"Hans Memling: Portrait of a Young Man (1975.1.112)." August 2007. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

How do you think people display their power in today's society?

We welcome your responses to this question below.


  • Paulina says:

    The manner in which people display their power in the present is definitely quite different compared to the way they did in the past. One of the artworks that most intrigued me on my visit to the Met was the Impresa of the Medici by Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi. The birth tray was full of life, color and meaning even though it was two-dimensional and quite simple, in some way. Even the way this artwork was placed interested me; it was in the middle of the room, standing tall on a pedestal, showing how important Lorenzo de Medici was in Florence. Today, power still relies on fame, as it did in the past, however this fame is spread differently. Back when Lorenzo de Medici ruled and long before, importance, fame and power was acknowledged thanks to word of mouth and things such as the king's face on the coin. Today, fame is everywhere, one can't escape it and all can acquire it much easier, but this fame is not shown through beauty and colors the same way Lorenzo's birth tray showed his fame; it both simple, and elaborate and complex.

    Posted: March 14, 2012, 7:28 p.m.

  • MMA Teens says:

    @Paulina: Thank you very much for your thoughts, and I am glad that you enjoyed your trip to the Met. What a great connection between this post and The Triumph of Fame! Thanks for reading our blog and commenting!

    Posted: March 15, 2012, 1:58 p.m.

  • Amelie says:

    Hello! Your blog post on “Symbols of power” made me think of Portrait of a Man by Ghirlandaio because of how different his portrait was to Portrait of a Young Man by Memling. It made me wonder about the different methods of expressing power (this man IS in brightly colored clothing and yet gives a certain air of power as does the man dressed in dark clothing). I reached the conclusion that seeing both eyes was really important as it adds to the image of power and authority. Also, all of the color helps him to stand out among the many other portraits done of men in dark clothing. The fact that he has his own portrait and stands out shows not only his power, but also his “individual intellectual potential”. Thank you for writing this post, it was very informative and yet simple to understand!

    Posted: March 15, 2012, 9:11 p.m.

  • Emily says:

    @Amelie: I did not even connect the two portraits, but it is very true that both have similar posture and that their eyes display power. Thank you for your comment!

    Posted: March 19, 2012, 2:27 p.m.

  • Chiara says:

    One of the many ways people used to display their power was by the artwork they would commission. The Triumph of Fame is a beautiful artistic birthtray by Scheggia, based on Boccacio's Amorosa Visione (1342) and Petrarch's Trionfi (1354-1374). It symbolizes power,love and prominence. Piero de' Medici, was ambitious about the beautiful salver as he commissioned it and included all of his emblems in it. It portended the significant birth of his son Lorenzo de' Medici who grew up to be a splendid ruler with a lot of power and love from Florence. During the Renaissance it was important to be socially relevant. Apart from clothing and appearance, commissioning artworks for yourself or your family showed a sign of prosperity and status. Power was one of the most important features for a man.

    Posted: March 19, 2012, 10:02 p.m.

  • MMA Teens says:

    @Chiara: Thank you for your thoughtful comment! You are correct; the birth tray commissioned for Lorenzo de' Medici was certainly a statement of the Medici family's power. The image of the Triumph of Fame on the birth tray revealed this family's classical education (which was highly valued during the Renaissance), and also could have served as a reminder for Lorenzo of his father's aspirations for him.

    Posted: March 26, 2012, 2:55 p.m.

  • Nicole says:

    People show their power today through their possessions. Whether a lavish home, or couture clothing, these expensive items are one way to exhibit monetary power. One can also display power with a title. Titles such as president of a company, or captain in an army, show that these people have authority. Someone can also wield power through fame. People, when confronted by someone more renowned, concede their ideals and yield to the famous person’s whim.

    I agree with you, Emily, I think the boy in the portrait exhibits a lot of power when the details of the painting are taken into account. At first glance the sitter seems ambivalent. He is looking off into the distance without any real emotion of his face. But looking more deeply into the portrait I can identify all the symbols of power you referred to.

    Posted: April 3, 2012, 1:51 p.m.

  • Emily says:

    @Nicole: It is true that people today show their power through their possessions (though that is not a completely good thing.) If one really compares the demonstration of power from the Renaissance and today, there is not a huge difference. Money, status, and fame are qualities of some powerful people from the past to the present. Thank you for your comment!

    Posted: April 11, 2012, 4:44 p.m.

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About the Author

Emily R. was formerly a member of the Museum's Teen Advisory Group.

About this Blog

This blog, written by the Metropolitan Museum's Teen Advisory Group (TAG) and occasional guest authors, is a place for teens to talk about art at the Museum and related topics.