We have Dionysius Exiguus to thank, but we’ll get to that later.
|“Arnolfini Portrait” detail.|
Jan van Eyck. 1434.
(National Gallery, London)
Dating a piece of art can be a pain. There is no guarantee any given piece will be given a date by its creator. Artists will usually take the credit – or blame, as warrants the case – and sign their name, but artists are less likely to assign a year to something they’ve created. Without that date, it becomes a nightmare for others to place pieces in chronological order or put them in context with the artist’s life. Artists, of course, can either follow normal dating conventions or their own whims, making things even more interesting.
Jan van Eyck was the John Hancock of the art world. Shoppers probably wasted half the day waiting for van Eyck to write a check in the twelve-items-or-less lane. For at least one of his pieces, the artist inserted a couple of extra words next to his signature, because, well, he was already over the top.
Albrecht Dürer. 1515.
(State Museum of Berlin)
For the well-known “Arnolfini Portrait,” van Eyck used a Latin phrase which, when translated, reads “Johannes de Eyck was here 1434.” The painting is surrounded by so much symbolism, speculation, and study that we forgive van Eyck for his flamboyant signature and cavalier attitude toward the date.
Albrecht Dürer clearly dated his “Rhinocerus,” and even gave a name to the strange beast for the benefit of viewers. But don’t get confused by the “AD” in the engraving – those are only the artist’s initials.
Starting in the sixth century, a very different “A.D.” began appearing in various forms, usually spelled out as “Anno Domini” instead of the modern abbreviation. Translated from the original Latin, the phrase means “In the year of our Lord.” Occasionally it was elaborated as “Anno Domini nostri Iesu Christi” – "In the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
Alphonse Mucha. 1896.
Alphonse Mucha used the sixth century convention in dating an 1896 poster design for Sarah Bernhardt’s performance in “Lorenzaccio.” The Art Nouveau style allowed for the Latin phrase, complete with a Roman numeral year, although one might argue that its use as a design element trumped any sacred connection.
My latest painting, “The Parables of the Vineyard,” uses the same convention, with a couple of additions: A cross is placed between the “Anno” and “Domini” to traditionally indicate who the “Lord” is, and two dates, 500 years apart, are included. The first date is the year of the Reformation, 1517, and the second is 2017.
Nearly 1,500 years ago, a Scythian monk standardized our historical numbering of years by counting the years from Christ’s birth. Thanks to Dionysius Exiguus – Dionysius the Humble – The A.D. dating system is still used today, and dates following his formal convention can be found on cornerstones, monuments, and the occasional art piece. It is fitting that we give a nod to his humble efforts and precisely date the fruit of his labor – in the year of our Lord, 525.
"The Parables of the Vineyard" detail.
Edward Riojas. 2017. (Collection of the artist)