Ars Adriatica

Self-Portraits of Helias, a 14th-century notary from Zadar


Notarial signs serving to authenticate private and public legal documents emerged in Dalmatia during the 12th century, and by the late Middle Ages they had become a mandatory part of official documents written on parchment for the legal parties. These signs were graphic as a rule: more or less elaborate drawings with decorative motifs, occasionally with integrated typography, yet without any figural elements. Among the very diverse forms of notarial signs preserved in Croatian archives, that of Split’s canon and Zadar’s notary Helias deserves special attention: instead of using a simple graphic symbol, he depicted a young man’s torso, which for several reasons may be presumed to be his self-portrait. More than fifty notarial signs by Helias have been preserved, but it may be presumed that he produced more than a thousand during more than two decades of his career as a notary. These signs are drawing of very small dimensions (3 x 1.5 cm on the average) and most probably not a result of “artistic” ambition, presuming that such terminology applies at all to the visual production of the time. As many other literate men, Helias probably indulged in drawing and incorporated some of this inclination and skill into his work in a peculiar manner. Over the period of two decades, the depicted figure went through several transformations. Starting from a relatively realistic and quite detailed depiction, in the second phase Helias simplified the drawing and enhanced its elements of caricature, ending with a partially stylized and unified version of his sign. Generally speaking, his drawings were closer to the genre of caricature than an official visual representation, which is why he could style them rather freely as compared to the norms that could be observed in the professional circles, especially in the monumental painting of the 14th century. Despite the fact that they seem somehow timeless, their visual features indicate certain knowledge of the formal language of representative painting. Helias’s skilful handling of lines and the ease with which he used a minimum of expressive devices to outline not only the portrait itself, but also the psychological characteristics of the depicted person, are basically a legacy of Gothic visual culture. Self-portrait as a form, albeit absent at least declaratively from medieval monumental painting, was nevertheless present, even if quite rarely and only in isolated cases, in medieval miniature painting (e.g. the self-portraits of St. Dunstan, the notary Vigil, the painter Hildebertus and his assistant Everwinusa, friar Rufillus, the nun Gude, the miniature painter Matthew Paris, or the illuminator Richard de Montbaston and his wife Jeanne). Nevertheless, the paucity of such examples, as well as the spatial and temporal (partly also cultural) distance, makes it difficult to assess the place of Helias’s self-portraits within a broader context. In any case, the group of some fifty portraits from the 14th century, regardless of their dimensions and character, is certainly a peculiar phenomenon in the context of European visual culture. The key point is thereby not the artistic quality of the drawings, but rather the variety of visual communication in 14th-century Dalmatia.
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