A Genius and His Myth: The Known and Unknown Michel Sittow


  • Juhan Maiste




Genius, Myth, Art Writing, Ars Nova, Michel Sittow


This article focuses on two problems – the first is connected to the methodological side of art writing and the philosophical background thereof, and the second to the work of Michel Sittow, an artist who was born and died in Tallinn, and was court artist to Isabel of Castile and several other grand courts. The author’s point of departure is provided by a pair of
concepts – the genius and the myth that has been composed about him.
On the one hand, the latter becomes a means of expression for the artist’s subjective will, which is often difficult to put in words, and on the other, provides a period-related and verbal context to surround him. One
of the expressions of this context is art history, along with its possibilities,
methods and traditions. Since Giorgio Vasari, art history has been accompanied by a longing for a single great narrative. This has often been attacked within the framework of 20th century analytical philosophy and a deconstructive approach to myth has been given priority over a  myth-creating approach, which science has labelled as speculative and romantic. Under the cover of exposing the myth of the artist, those doing the exposing often do not recognise their subconscious yearning to create new narratives and new myths. The increasing attention that Sittow and his work have started to receive in recent years provides some of the most telling evidence of this way of thinking.

In this essay-type article, the author pays tribute Sittow, Morros, Juan
de Flandes. Drei maler aus dem Norden am Hof Isabellas von Kastilien (Kiel: Verlag Ludwig, 2011), a monograph by Matthias Weniger published in 2011. However, in addition to the path of reasoning presented by Weniger, the author also presents another approach, which along with and instead of the formal analysis of the works of one of the Renaissance-era
geniuses, focuses on the possible preconditions and sources for the  development of the artist’s talent. However, it is not the ambition of the
undersigned to construct a complete picture but to set forth the  connections between the artist’s spiritual “ego” and the intellectual “ego” of
those writing about his work, which thereby contributes to intuitively  conceptualistic and cognitive rather than empirical knowledge. One of the reasons for this approach is clearly the rather limited range of enlightening
facts, which have been analysed many times over by Weniger and several others (Max J. Friedländer, Paul Johansen, Jāzeps Trizna, Chiyo Ishikawa), and that have become the cornerstone of Sittowiana, and therefore do not need to be repeated here in detail.

When writing about the life and activities of an artist in his era, we are inevitably writing about ourselves and the positions that prevail in today’s scientific discourse and provide our knowledge with both content and an unavoidably restrictive framework. A cornerstone of the author’s approach is knowing that all knowledge is limited and has an imaginary (visionary) nature. And as such within the framework of phenomenological philosophy includes the opportunity to see behind the “visible”; and along with skills, style and social context, to deal with possible psychological and religious aspects, the subjectively contemplative nature of which science usually excludes – often because science cannot manage to describe them. Repeating an eternal truth, a dominant source for all knowledge is a
person’s eyes, the role of which, even alongside the most accurate  technical measurement tools (X-rays and pigment investigations), is timeless and essential. The best microscope can only expand the scope of the human eye, but not assume the role of decision maker, or operate outside the range of a person’s senses. The information on the picture reaches us through the contact between the information carrier (artefact) and the recipient. Art as truth places a stake on fantasy, the criterion of which is language and its innately characteristic search for new  corresponding verbal metaphors for the scope of a work’s poetic imagery.
The equivalent of the picture is the word; using words, the scientist
interprets the material that becomes known to him, and provides a reason,
in addition to the work’s revelational nature, to speak about the work’s recurring appearance in the viewer’s eyes and consciousness. And each one of us has our own conception and fantasy. Thus, it is also possible to view Sittow’s work from different angles, by amplifying the common positions and neutralising others, using the limited facts that are known about the artist.

The undersigned wishes to provide a place for all the possible positions
within the framework of art history – the special “tenderling” of the humanities – and on these pages. By providing an opportunity for the old positions to live on and for new opinions to be born, by gathering various theories and facts that do not preclude, but rather complement, each other into a hermeneutic circle ennobled by history that helps to expand and enrich our understanding of a topic called Michel Sittow and his body of work. The more colourful the dress worn by art history, the richer it is. The goal of the article’s author is convince the reader of the inexhaustible depth of art history as a paradigm, which the diversity of themes and colours characteristic of art can, in our scientific approach, turn into new and many-sided knowledge, and thereby create an opportunity to bring images (pictures) to life and give them the chance to perform miracles once again.
By providing a survey of Sittow’s body of work – as the undersigned sees and assesses it – the main task of the article to speak about the  immeasurable along with the measurable. To speak about that indefinable
something, which, when communicating with art, can help us not only find out or learn something, but to become someone. In order to understand
Sittow, it is necessary to understand his place in the world where he acted among and alongside dozens and hundreds of colleagues, while carrying within him a calling for free and creative self-expression that, by exceeding the power of tradition and routine, gave birth to miracles – artistic miracles. In order to recognise a miracle, we have to open our eyes. And this especially under circumstances when other tools (both technical and literary) are currently inadequate or totally missing. All knowledge has its limits. Thus, the theses about Sittow’s work in this article are far from complete, but rather direct the reader to the start of a long and interesting journey, to lines to which all subsequent writers are invited to add their thoughts. And as such to a milestone on the road leading from the past to the future that will lead us to the answer for the most important question posed in the article – quo vadis art history? NB! Just as every work of art appears as something new to the viewer, so too all writings on the topic of art are new and interesting up to the point to where the reader is ready to accompany the writer. Today we know both a lot and a little about Sittow. Documental data about his work is scarce, just as it is for most of the other Netherlandish artists during this exceptional era. At a time when, alongside the Italian geniuses, Netherlandish artists emerged who, compared to their colleagues born south of the Alps, were motivated by totally different ideas and practices; who were still artisans as much as they represented the creators of a new era in the world; and whose art meant succeeding in life
and in a career in their profession. In order to research Sittow further we require even broader knowledge, which on the one hand, assumes new developments in scientific methods, and the expansion of the basis of laboratory research; and on the other, the utilisation of art history’s secret weapon – intuition and a sharp eye – which can become of key importance in the instrumentarium. What I want to say in the broader sense is – trust your own vision and also take others into account.


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Author Biography

Juhan Maiste

Juhan Maiste is a professor and Head of the Department of Art History at the University of Tartu. As a prolific writer he has authored a large number of monographs and articles on architecture, classicism, cultural heritage, the philosophy and poetics of art history. His scholarly interests include Estonian and Livonian manor architecture, the phenomenon of
park landscapes as well as the work of Johann Wilhelm Krause. In addition to teaching and research, Professor Maiste is the editor-in-chief of the Baltic Journal of Art History.




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