I’ve been asked for an easy guide, or building blocks, to understand which allegorical or spiritual images are safe or not safe to use in understanding and recreating the clothing of the 16th century. So I thought I would start with the simplest identifier of what clothing is not safe: halos, or as they are also known, nimbus. Halos are the standard markers for saints in woodcuts and paintings. When you see a halo, or a circle around a persons’s head, use extra caution and evaluate the image with extra care!
Pre-1500, saints are typically shown wearing clothing which was the same as is seen in street or interior scenes by normal people. However, after 1500 this begins to shift, and they begin to be depicted in clothing which is similar to normal street style, but with added exotic or foreign style elements. The clothing may also be a bit old fashioned or out of date for the fashions at the time of the artwork’s creation.
Let’s examine this 1530 woodcut of St. Barbara by Sebald Beham, and look at it from the perspective of clothing.
The halo around her head indicates that she is a saint, and the flowing hair that she is a maiden. From a practical standpoint, there’s no way she could have that much hair hanging down her back, and have her haube (hair covering) be that filled out, it would collapse in the real world. The haube is in a real style from Saxony, one often seen in Cranach’s work, usually in gold. The thin band she wears on her forehead is often seen worn with a haube. But what’s that on top of her head? It’s hard to make out, as it looks to be a combination of crown/hat/wreath? No clue! Whatever it is, it looks to be fantasy.
Her necklace is the same as a wealthy woman would wear at the time. The tucking of the chain into the neckline is a nice touch, that would keep it from rolling around as she moved, and would help it from spreading wide to either side of the breasts as often happens with long chains.
Her dress is in a real style, but not for the 1530’s! It dates to about 15-20 years earlier, from the 1508-1515 date range. She does appear to have a large piece of fabric, perhaps a cloak, draped around her shoulders and over her lap. This is not seen in normal fashion, but it’s a reoccurring garment in saintly fashion.
For comparison, here is a portrait of a young woman wearing a similar dress, from one side of a double panel portrait. This was probably an engagement portrait, celebrating her engagement to the handsome young man on the other side of the panel. You can see a similar neckline, as in the Saint Barbara woodcut, although here the skirt is not as full. However, dresses had a variety of fullness in the skirts, the slim cut of this skirt was just one of the options available at the time
In comparison, here is a very fashionable couple on their way to a dance, also by Sebald Beham from 1531, just a year after he created the St. Barbara piece above. The lady wears a very different style of dress than seen above in the St. Barbara woodcut, with a different neck and sleeve style, however the skirt is similarly full. It is possible that he took the bodice from one dress, and mixed it with the skirt from another to suit the image he had in mind for St. Barbara.
I would love to hear your feedback on this analysis of saintly fashions. Is it helpful/useful?