Looking at some medieval paintings I noticed that there are sometimes people "looking elsewhere" even though they take part in an important event and would be expected to pay attention:

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Is there a significance to this? Or is it just a question of style ? (to add some dynamics for instance)

I read somewhere than in the case of religious paintings of Mary and Jesus, he was often looking away to symbolize the future, but this could hardly be the case for the normal (although probably important) people in the illustrations above

"Pietro Perugino cat34" par Le Pérugin — Vittoria Garibaldi: Perugino. Silvana, Milano 2004, ISBN 88-8215-813-6. Sous licence Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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    And why on Earth the close vote? Are users insane?
    – o0'.
    Nov 30, 2014 at 15:51
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    I'm having a great deal of difficulty seeing the historical component here. This is a request for fine art criticism at the moment. Nov 30, 2014 at 21:36
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    @SamuelRussell: I am not looking at in the artistic portion of the paintings but at their significance from the perspective of medieval art traditions. I am not a historian but read that the paintings at that time were very loaded with symbolism (one of the triggers was a fantastic conference by the Middle-Ages historian Michel Pastoureau about the significance of colors in medieval paintings (in French))
    – WoJ
    Dec 1, 2014 at 6:46
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    I believe this is a valid question in terms of art history, but there is no need to call fellow users "insane" over a difference of opinion.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 1, 2014 at 16:59
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    I think this is question concerning fine art, not history. I must be insane. By the way, the Perugino you show above is a Renaissance painting, not the Middle Ages. Dec 1, 2014 at 20:49

1 Answer 1


One reason for this is to connect two pieces of artwork. This is a long section, but I'm going to paste in entirety for context.

The images are facing pages from a manuscript known as the Codex Aureus of St. Emmeram, or the Golden Book of St. Emmeram. Written for the Carolingian King Charles the Bald about 870, the manuscript contains the four Gospels. The left or verso page shows Charles the Bald enthroned in the center. The text below written in gold letters identifies the king and links him with Old Testament kings like David and Solomon. Reaching from the canopy above is the hand of God signifying divine sanction of Charles' power. The canopy provides not just a formal setting and division of the image, but it also signifies the idea of the dome of heaven. Charles is immediately flanked on either side by the smaller figures of soldiers who are in turn flanked by crowned female figures holding cornuacopias. Inscriptions label these figures as personifications of Francia and Gotia. The figure of Charles the Bald looks to his left and above thus linking him with the facing page which shows the Adoration of the Lamb. Based on the Book of Revelation (chapters 4-8), the Adoration of the Lamb shows the appearance of Christ in the form of Lamb at the end of time. Below are personifications of Sea and Earth. Encircling the lamb, the Twenty-Four Elders rise from their seats and offer their crowns to the Lamb. This signifies the idea of earthly kings returning their crowns or power to Christ, the True King, at the end of time. The imagery of these facing pages clearly echoes the symbolism and lay-out of the Palace Chapel of the Carolingian Kings in their capital of Aachen or Aix-la-Chapelle.

Medieval Images of Power SUNY Oneonta, 2011

  • Thank you. While the paintings are "standalone" as far as I can tell your answer gives at least one clear case for this behavior. I guess that in other cases the painter wanted to show the reality of life, with people paying or not attention :)
    – WoJ
    Dec 2, 2014 at 10:41

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