If you could put an average European male from, say, 1500, next to his 2008 counterpart, it would not be hard to tell which era each belonged to. Even were you to strip Renaissance man of his giveaway clothes and restyle his hair, he would still stand out by standing shorter - by an average of four inches. If, however, he had been lucky enough to escape the pitting of smallpox and if he kept his mouth closed to hide his rotten teeth, there would be nothing in his features to distinguish him from today's model: faces are immutable.
The visitor to Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian, at the National Gallery from October 15, will confront an extraordinary array of ageless visages. There are some 60 paintings in the show as well as sculptures, drawings and medals. A large proportion of the exhibits are foreign loans to complement the National's strong 15th-century holdings. The artists represent a roll-call of the period: Van Eyck, Holbein, Dürer, Lotto, Bellini, Raphael, Botticelli and Titian among them. As an opportunity to confront the great and the good - both artists and sitters - this is a select gathering.
Prior to the Renaissance, portraiture was concerned with death rather than life. Tomb effigies, votive images and medals were made less to record physical appearance than to symbolise the temporary home of the departed soul. It was humanism that led to an explosion in portraits as living likenesses. The two great centres were the Netherlands and Italy: in the north, artists initially used oil paints to show sitters three-quarter or full face (such as Hans Memling's mesmeric Portrait of a Man Holding a Coin of Nero, c.1475), while in the south they used tempera and painted faces in profile (such as Pisanello's heraldic depiction of Leonello d'Este, c.1441). Such was the cultural traffic of the time that these distinctions did not last long.