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Symbols of Power

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.

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