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My Avatar, My Salvation

Originally published 04 Dec 2010

Immersion in virtual worlds begins with the ability to enter that world, usually as a character, be it human, android, or furry.  This character, our avatar, represents our self – a variable blend of who we think we are and who we might want to be, if even for a moment.

If we see our avatar all dressed up and doing marvellous things in high resolution graphics, it becomes more than a mental fantasy: it becomes alternative reality.  Add in a peer group, be it a few friends or a limitless online multiplayer community, and your avatar also has a social stage.  Some aspect of our self has the potential to become known to us and perhaps to others who might even care.

Although we normally associate immersive avatar experiences with digital environments, one of the more striking aspects of the early Renaissance, particularly in northern Europe, was the trend for donors and patrons to be painted into narrative religious scenes.

The Wilton Diptych, ca. 1395-9, unknown artist, The National Gallery London

One of the earliest examples of this at the National Gallery London is the Wilton Diptych, circa 1395, believed to be commissioned by Richard the II.   In it he is being presented by three saints to the Virgin Mary and child.  It’s thought this painting was a portable altarpiece for private devotional purposes.  But what it meant to Richard is not entirely clear.  It may have been an enactment of his divine right to be King.  If he had any doubts about this, the exquisite work of art reflecting him surrounded by divine beings would help to banish them.

Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, Oil on panel, Musée du Louvre, Paris

By the mid-1400s, Jan van Eyck’s ability to create ultra-realistic portrayals of his patrons in sacred settings won him high powered clients including Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor to Philip the Good.  In the The Virgin with Chancellor Rolin Chancellor Rolin is seen to be meditating in the presence of the Virgin and Child overlooking a symbolic landscape depicting a bridge to Heaven.  The narrative depicts his desire for his most pious and noble qualities to find expression.  As this painting was to be viewed in the Chapel of St Sebastian in Baume to commemorate his financial patronage of the Church and Hospital there, it was also meant to communicate these qualities to his community.  The church interior to some extent mirrored that depicted in the painting which further lent a sense of tangibility to the scene and to the assertion of these personal qualities.

Following in his footsteps was Gerard David, (d 1523) who became the most popular painter in Bruges, at a time when the Donor altarpiece format was all the rage.  In The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor we can see Richard de Visch de la Chapelle, who was a senior cleric in St Donation’s Church in Bruges, kneeling on the left hand side.  This painting, which depicts St Catharine’s mystic marriage to Christ, was destined for St Catherine’s altar in the church.  The walled garden surrounding the scene is possibly a very specific rendition of the actual church garden at the time, and includes miniature details of everyday life such as a cat washing itself on window ledge in the background.  These details created a level of familiarity for the audience of the day which in turn enhanced believability.

Detail from The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor ca. 1510, Gerard David, The National Gallery London

Richard de Visch, like Chancellor Rolin, was a “man striving for salvation and status in a courtly world”.

These paintings helped their donors achieve psychological immersion in a sacred world via a realistic reflection of themselves there (in their best clothes).  They not only had a high resolution picture of themselves in sacred territory, they had all the tools they needed to re-construct their participation in a legendary narrative event.  Importantly, their sacred aspiration was viewable by the public.

So what do our current avatars tell us about ourselves today?  A 2008 study published in Cyberpsychology explored the relationship of players of ‘Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games’ (MMORPG) to their avatars.

Here it is notable that the adolescent players create avatars that most closely resemble their true identity.  As players progress through to adulthood and particularly marriage, the avatar becomes less tightly bound to identity.  It also suggests that the success of their avatar may help some adolescents with real developmental issues.  Success in the MMORPG realm is importantly success amongst peers.  But what constitutes success?  Mastery and progression is the mechanism for success in a game, but what this study touches upon is a public complementing and idealising of the player’s ego.  In a super individualistic and secular society, this feels like a close cousin of the Renaissance man’s striving for salvation and status.

Freedom is key to the seeker of virtual experiences.  This freedom to be who you want includes having celebrity friends.  The Shaun White Snowboarding game invited the player to:

“Enter a snowboarding world of total freedom. Developed in close collaboration with Olympic Gold Medalist Shaun White — the most successful snowboarder in the history of the sport.  Shaun is a friend and mentor in the game, and will help you with your skills. And if you are deemed worthy, you may even be able to play as Shaun in the game…”
Shaun White Snowboarding, released by Ubisoft, 2008
Shaun White Snowboarding, released by Ubisoft, 2008

For a person of the early Renaissance, a world of total freedom with a famous mentor may well be imagined as a heavenly garden with your patron saint at your side.  He, and sometimes she, also needed to be deemed worthy by their peers to gain a spot in an altarpiece in a place of public worship.  This worthiness, of course, was often bought, in the spirit of indulgences and donations.

Much has been made of Second Life’s users being ‘overweight men pretending to be fashionista women’.  This is, of course, a whole other topic, (explored on the The Daedalus Gateway) but  illustrates the avatar as a means to hide and bend identity, as well as to heal identity.

Transitional Online Post-deployment Soldier Support

One of the more interesting uses of the Second Life platform was for anonymous therapeutic groups.  The Coming Home space was an example of a support service for returning US military veterans.  It allowed veterans to participate in a virtual support community including group therapy without having to relinquish their anonymity.

In Coming Home, as in The Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor,  the avatar bares the soul which has come to be seen and to be saved.


Archived Comments

Jacki Morie 23 Nov 2010 One of my favorite topics! And thanks for the mention of our work for healing in Second Life. The avatar is a huge part of that process.
Joe 16 Aug 2011 It would be interesting to know the extent to which some of the Renaissance artists took the aspirations of their patrons seriously. Bernini quietly mocks Cardinal Borghese’s obesity with the button that strains and doesn’t quite pass through the button hole on his bust. Perhaps there are visual jokes to be found in the kind of salvation art described above. Clearly as an artist you wanted to be paid (and stay alive), but equally it must have been tempting to subtly mock the pomposity (and maybe hypocrisy) of your esteemed patron.


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