It’s August, the month of “Pride” in many cities around the world and in Amsterdam today! What started as Gay Pride is now a celebration of LGBTQ+. I take this as an opportunity to speak about the beautiful boy Ganymedes, a hero from Greek mythology and a major symbol of homosexual love in the visual and literal arts.
Homer, who wrote in the 8th Century BC the legendary “Odyssey”, already describes Ganymedes as the most beautiful of mortals. Ganymedes was abducted from earth to become Zeus’s lover on Mount Olympus, serving wine to the Gods and blessed with eternal youth and immortality.
Ganymedes (Γανυμήδης) was a young man from Troy and the most stunning guy walking around. Even Zeus, the King of the Gods, couldn’t resist his beauty. Zeus first tried to seduce him in a traditional way as shown on the Greek vase hereunder (from around 480 BC). Zeus pursues Ganymede on one side while the youth runs away on the other side, rolling along a hoop and holding aloft a crowing cock. A cock (the bird, that is!) was a common gift presented by an older man to a younger to indicate romantic interest. This custom took place in ancient Athens where such relationships were widely accepted and depicted many times on the visuals from those days, which was painted pottery as paintings did not exist yet. Considering the connotation of “cock” with penis, the bird nowadays mostly called “rooster”!
This “krater” is an ancient Greek vessel used for diluting wine with water. It’s made in Athens, most likely for the export market as this krater was found in Italy like so many other Greek vases. “Berlin Painter” is the name given to a Greek vase-painter who is widely regarded as one of the most talented vase painters of the early 5th century BC and he got his name after a large vase in the Antikensammlung Berlin.
Ganymedes was a beautiful and young shepherd boy from the city of Troy. His beauty was so great and “godlike” that Zeus decided that Ganymede was too perfect to walk the earth. One day, when Ganymedes was tending the family flock of sheep, Zeus transformed himself into an eagle and abducted the unsuspected Ganymede, who was then taken to Mount Olympus. There, Zeus made him his cupbearer; it was Ganymedes’ duty to serve cups of wine and the divine drink nectar to Zeus and the other Gods.
On Correggio’s painting above, Ganymedes looks rather younger and less flagrantly showing the sensual male body. The boy seems happy to be abducted by an eagle, as if he knows that it’s Zeus who takes him into heaven. Rembrandt hereunder makes it more realistic. No toddler would like to be picked up by such ferocious bird, so Rembrandt has his Ganymedes bawling and urinating in fright.
Nicolaes Maes, famous for his children portraits, is portraying a child from the Bredehoff de Vicq family as Ganymedes. Guess the boy’s parents thought their son was the most beautiful one ever!
Not everyone was pleased with Ganymedes presence at Mount Olympus. Hera, Zeus’ wife and Queen of the Gods, was pretty jealous, certainly when it turned out that Zeus did not only abduct Ganymedes to serve the Gods wine, water and nectar, but also to become his lover. For the sake of family peace, Zeus promoted Ganymedes to an outside post and made him the stars in the sky that are the constellation Aquarius, the Water Bearer. And in post-Medieval times, Ganymedes’ name was given to the largest moon of the planet Jupiter.
Ganymede’s myth was popular amongst the Greeks and the Romans, the Greek version is with Zeus and the Roman version with Jupiter, both being the same King of the Gods. The first recorded mention of Ganymede is found in Homer’s Iliad dating back to the 8th century BC. The Greek vases shown are from around 500 BC and the Thorvaldsen sculpture is from around 1823. Ganymedes intrigues and inspires art and artists already more than 2500 years!
Ganymede’s myth is yet another piece in the history of sexuality, with particular importance for queer history. If the King of the Gods was allowed to have a male lover, then this certainly adds to the joy of all LGBTQ+ people attending Pride festivals this August.
Today July 29 is the official celebration day of two sisters and a brother: Martha, Mary and Lazarus. They are from Bethany, a city on the West Bank close to Jerusalem. And it’s the place where Lazarus miraculously resurrected from death, through the hand of Jesus, four days after his entombment. This has been a popular story throughout history and depicted for over 1000 years. Now we have Netflix and “The Walking Dead” series, but in those days there were only paintings to support imagination. The miracle of returning to life gave hope over the fear of death. And from a religious point of view this is a true “Act of God”.
The raising of Lazarus is a miracle of Jesus recounted in the Gospel of John (John 11:1–44) in the New Testament part of the Bible. Jesus raises Lazarus of Bethany from death, four days after his entombment. It went as follows. Lazarus became ill and his sisters Marta and Mary (note: this is Mary of Bethany and not Mary, the Mother of Christ) contacted Jesus to help curing their brother. He visited the sisters only after Lazarus already passed away. But no worries, they went to the tomb of Lazarus and Jesus said, “Take away the stone”. Martha then said, “it will stink, he has been in that tomb for four days”. That’s depicted by members of the crowd cover their noses with cloth. They took away the stone and Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead Lazarus came out, his hands and feet wrapped in his grave cloths, but alive and kicking and lived for another 30 years. Jesus also said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
On the pictures are usually Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus, whose gestures and expressions record successive states of awareness and awe, and a crowd of astounded witnesses and some of Jesus’ followers. And the two main characters of course: Jesus making signs to resurrect Lazarus, and Lazarus himself getting up out of his grave. The story goes on, as Lazarus never smiled during the thirty years after his resurrection, worried by the sight of unredeemed souls he had seen during his four-day stay in Hell.
The event is said to have taken place at Bethany. This is the last of the miracles that Jesus performs before the passion, crucifixion and his own resurrection, linking Lazarus’ resurrection with Jesus’ resurrection, and through faith as a sign of hope for all Jesus’ followers. John Calvin summarized it nicely when he said, “not only did Christ give a remarkable proof of his Divine power in raising Lazarus, but he likewise placed before our eyes a lively image of our future resurrection.” The Lazarus story also appeared in Islamic tradition. Although the Quran mentions no specific figure named Lazarus, among the miracles with which he Quran credits Jesus, the raising of people from death is included.
The reputed tomb of Lazarus is in Bethany (now called: Al-Eizariya, which means “Place of Lazarus”) and continues to be a place of pilgrimage to this day. Several Christian churches have existed at the site over the centuries. Since the 16th century, the site of the tomb has been occupied by the al-Uzair Mosque to serve the town’s (now Muslim) inhabitants and named it in honor of the town’s patron saint, Lazarus of Bethany.
In medical science “Lazarus syndrome” refers to an event in which a person spontaneously returns to life (the heart starts beating again) after resuscitation has been given up. The “Lazarus sign” is a reflex which can occur in a brain-dead person, thus giving the appearance that they have returned to life. The difference between revival immediately after death, and resurrection after four days, is so great as to raise doubts about the historicity of the Lazarus story. The hand of God is needed!
I cannot resist to share an image of a more modern “Lazarus”, an artist impression of Béla Lugosi as Dracula from the famous 1931 film. At night, Dracula awakes from death and steps out of his coffin. Béla Lugosi made this Dracula image as iconic as Giotto did with his Lazarus fresco around 1305. Death and resurrection are eternal themes, based on a mixture of fear and hope. It’s with much wonder how we look at death and at the possibility to come back from the underworld. Are we identifying ourselves with Lazarus? And how about the nowadays series on Netflix, like “The Walking Dead”? I dare to see a similarity between a 13th century visitor to the Scrovegni Chapel, looking amazed at Giotto’s Lazarus, and ourselves watching an episode of The Walking Dead. It’s all a mixture of fear and hope. May we conquer death and may we come back to life, not like a zombie but in true divine Lazarus style!
Today July 25 is the day of Saint Christopher, since the dark Middle Ages the patron saint of travellers and nowadays also the protector of motorists. He is a popular saint, but there is no certainty that he really existed. In 1969 his name was dropped from the official calendar of the Catholic Church. The calendar was getting crowded with many secondary saints and some clean-up was needed to make space for the more important ones. There are hardly any historical data about Christopher, but he became super popular over the centuries. And on top of that, images of Christopher arose, bigger in size than Christ’s, and belief in Saint Christopher became close to superstition. Although Christopher’s day is no longer official and obligatory, he is still recognised as saint. Villages and cities that carry his name celebrate the feast of their saint. And there are many places with his name (Spanish: San Cristobál, Italian: San Cristoforo, Dutch: Sint Christoffel, French: Saint Christofe), even up to the island country of Saint Kitts and Nevis in the West Indies, officially the Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis.
Images of Saint Christopher depict him as a giant man standing in water, holding a staff in his hand and with a child on shoulder who sometimes holds a terrestrial globe in his hand. This image tells the story of Christopher carrying a child across a raging river, and the child revealed himself as Christ.
According to the legendary account of his life, Christopher was a man of significant physical stature: 7.5 feet (2.3 m) tall, full of muscle and with a fearsome face. He took it into his head to serve the mightiest king on earth. He went to the king who was reputed to be so, but one day he saw the king cross himself at the mention of the devil. On thus learning that the king feared the devil, Christopher decided that the devil was even mightier and departed to look for him. He came across a gang of robbers, whose leader referred to himself as “The Devil”. But when this leader avoided a wayside cross out of fear of Christ, Christopher learned there was someone even more powerful than the devil. He left the gang of thieves and asked around where to find Christ. He met a hermit (often also depicted with Christopher, see hereunder the Joachim Patinir painting) who instructed him in the Christian faith. Christopher asked the hermit how he could serve Christ. The hermit suggested that because of his size and strength, Christopher could serve Christ by assisting people to cross a dangerous river, where many people with less strength had drowned.
After Christopher had performed this service for some time, a little child asked to take him across the river. During the crossing, the river became swollen and the child seemed as heavy as lead, so much that Christopher could scarcely carry him and found himself in great difficulty. When he finally reached the other side, he said to the child: “You have put me in the greatest danger. I do not think the whole world could have been as heavy on my shoulders as you were.” The child replied: “You had on your shoulders not only the whole world but Him who made it. I am Christ your king, whom you are serving by this work.”
It is because of this experience that Christopher got his name, for Christopher in Greek is Χριστό-φορος (Christó-foros), which literally translate as “Christ-bearer.”
So, the child revealed himself to be the Christ Child, and that the weight Christopher felt was the weight of the entire world he was carrying on his shoulders. Then the Christ Child told Christopher to fix his staff in the bank of the river and come back tomorrow to see what had occurred. This would be the sign to Christopher that the child was truly Christ. The child then vanished. When Christopher returned the next day, the staff had become a palm tree, bearing fruit. On some paintings we may see the staff already replaced by a palm branch or even an entire palm tree. On the Garofalo painting above and the Ghirlandaio one hereunder, the staff is growing into a palm tree.
Saint Christopher is still today valued by travellers. Small devotional medals with Saint Christopher’s name and image are commonly carried in a pocket or placed in vehicles by more religious (or superstitious?) travellers. Pilgrims who looked upon an image of St. Christopher were believed to gain a special blessing. Many medieval and later churches put up huge images that no pilgrim could miss, either on a prominent interior wall or on the outside of the building. Although condemned as superstitious, it appears this belief has endured. See the Ghirlandaio fresco, it measures almost 3 x 1.5 meters. Not to miss by any traveller or pilgrim.
Joseph de Ribera stripped the story of all the side elements, and kept it to the giant Christopher carrying the child and a terrestrial globe, juxtaposing the colossal size of the saint with the delicacy of the child, creating an image of great expressive power. Like a new Atlas, Saint Christopher crosses the river carrying a child, who is in fact Christ bearing the world. It’s a devotional image of a Christian story, but comparable to the Greek mythological story of Atlas carrying the celestial globe on his shoulders.
In Greek mythology, Atlas was condemned by the Olympian god Zeus to hold upon his shoulders the heavens or sky, for eternity and while standing at the western edge of the earth which in those ancient days was northwest Africa. Zeus ultimately felt sorry for Atlas carrying the celestial globe and turned him into an entire mountain range, reaching up to the sky. That’s how Atlas became commonly identified with the “Atlas Mountains”. Also, “Atlantic Ocean” is derived from “Sea of Atlas”.
The term Atlas has been used to describe a collection of maps since the 16th century when Flemish geographer Gerardus Mercator published his work in honour of the mythological figure of Atlas.
What to learn from the giants Christopher and Atlas? Apparently it will give eternal fame when you carry the world or the sky on your shoulders. But that’s not what we want, when dealing with our nowadays problems. Look at Christopher, he could carry a child so light, but once he started to overthink this burden, it became heavier and heavier. Stick to your sorrows as they are and do not make it heavier than it is. The weight on your shoulders is heavy enough, but you are able to carry it and deal with it. As long as no phantasy takes it over and adds all those kilos of worrying. Now to Atlas…, once your feet are in solid ground and stuck to earth like a rock, you will be able to carry even the heaviest on your shoulders. Make yourself standing up with both feet on the ground. First thing to arrange is your own stability. And then you can carry all that weight and deal with any burden, for yourself and for others.
This is a 101 crash course in Greek and Roman gods. In ancient Greek mythology, twelve Olympian gods and goddesses ruled over the affairs of mankind from their palace on Mount Olympus. Besides this canon of major deities, many other gods, half-gods, human offspring and heroes visited the Olympus, and these twelve Olympians descended frequently to earth to have their wars, love affairs, parties and weddings, with other gods and humans. With 2,917 meters, Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece, about 80 km southwest from Thessaloniki.
Roman mythology draws directly on Greek mythology and the Romans identified their own gods with those of the ancient Greeks. Greek and Roman mythologies are therefore often classified together as Classical mythology. The interpretations of Greek myths by the Romans often had a greater influence on narrative and pictorial representations of “classical mythology” and therefore the twelve Olympians are often known under their Roman or Latin names.
There is a certain hierarchy, with Zeus being the King of the Gods and Hera their Queen. Almost all of these twelve have family relationships, Zeus often is the father although his kids have different mothers. The Olympian Gods and Goddesses have their own field of reign, covering all aspects of antique mankind. They can be recognised by their posture and physics, and by their attributes. Hereunder the Twelve Olympians, also with their Roman names and of course with their attributes. After some practising it becomes an easy and fun task to recognise them. Here is the 101 crash course!
King of the Gods and ruler of Mount Olympus, god of the sky, lightning, thunder, law, order and justice. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter. He is associated with a bundle of thunderbolts and the eagle. Zeus is married to Hera.
Zeus (Greek Ζεύς, Roman Jupiter) is the senior god, ruling over the other deities who are living on their divine Mount Olympus. He held dominion over the earth and sky and was the ultimate arbitrator of law and justice. He controls the weather, specifically with thunder and lightning. He married Hera, but he had a wandering eye and a penchant for flings with any and all women and occasionally a man or boy. His romantic interests gave birth to numerous other gods, demi-gods, and mortal heroes on the earth. Many of the myths about Zeus concern his seemingly endless adulterous rapes of mortals and demi-gods. His wife Hera doesn’t like this at all of course. Zeus’ amorous adventures and Hera’s counterattacks and revenge provide an endless source of fun and many of these stories are inspiration for generations of artists. On the painting Zeus (Jupiter) enthroned, with the eagle at his feet and in his hand a bundle of thunderbolts.
Queen of the Gods, Goddess of marriage and family. The Roman equivalent is Juno. Her attribute is the peacock. Hera is the wife of Zeus.
Hera (Greek Ἥρᾱ, Latin Juno) rules as the queen of the gods. As the goddess of marriage and fidelity, she was one of the only Olympians to remain steadfastly faithful to her spouse, Zeus. Though faithful, she was also vengeful, and tormented many of Zeus’s extramarital partners. This has been depicted multiple times throughout history of art and is an endless source of stories and inspiration for painters. Acting as a matronly Queen of the deities of Olympus, she is normally associated with women, marriage and childbirth. Hera’s most usual attribute is her favourite bird, the peacock, as can be seen in-extremis on Glotzius’ drawing from the Rijksmuseum.
The God of the Sea. The Roman equivalent is Neptune. He can be recognised by his trident, horses and dolphins. Poseidon (God of the Sea) is a brother of Zeus (God of the Sky) and Demeter (God of the Land).
When Zeus became king, he divided the universe amongst himself and his two brothers of which Poseidon (Greek Ποσειδῶν, Latin Neptune) received dominion over the seas and waters of the world, its storm and earthquakes. He was the protector of seamen and the god of horses. Poseidon lived with his wife in a magnificent palace under the sea, though he was a frequent visitor on Mount Olympus. On the painting, as usual, Neptune is depicted as an old man with long flowing white hair and beard, riding over the waves of the sea in a coach made of a shell and drawn by his horses. His head crowned as king of the seas, trident in one hand and a big pearl in his other hand.
Goddess of the Harvest and Agriculture. The Roman equivalent is Ceres. Her attributes are wheat and the cornucopia, which is the horn of plenty. Demeter is the sister of Zeus and Poseidon.
Known as the “good goddess” to the people of the earth, Demeter (Greek Δημήτηρ, Latin Ceres) is the goddess of the harvest, who oversaw farming, agriculture, and the fertility of the earth. Not surprisingly, as she controlled the production of food, she was very highly worshipped in the ancient world. On the paining by Watteau she represents summer. Ceres wields a sickle and sits on clouds among sheaves of wheat. The figures surrounding Ceres — the crayfish, the lion, and the nude blond woman — represent the zodiacal symbols of summer (Cancer, Leo, and Virgo). The name of Ceres comes back in the word “cereal”.
Goddess of War and Wisdom. The Roman equivalent is Minerva. Her symbols are the owl and the body armour including a helmet. Athena is born out of Zeus’ head.
Athena (Greek Ἀθηνᾶ, Latin Minerva), was the daughter of Zeus, born out of his head and already at birth dressed in full armour. Athena’s strength rivaled that of any of the other gods. She refused to take any lovers, remaining determinedly a virgin. She took her place on Mount Olympus as the goddess of justice, strategic warfare, wisdom, rational thought, and arts and crafts. In the Rembrandt painting, Minerva can be seen in her study, looking up from her large folio. Her regal appearance is enhanced by the laurel wreath crowning her head. In the background are more books and parts of her body armour, a golden helmet, a spear and a large shield.
Goddess of the Moon and the Hunt. The Roman equivalent is Diana. Symbols are the moon, bow and arrow. She is a daughter of Zeus and Apollo is her twin brother.
Artemis (Greek Ἄρτεμις, Latin Diana) and her twin brother Apollo were children of Zeus. The twins became important Olympians, though they were as different as night and day. Artemis was quiet, dark and solemn, the goddess of the moon, forests, archery, and the hunt. Like Athena, Artemis had no desire to marry. She was the patron goddess of feminine fertility, chastity, and childbirth, and was also heavily associated with wild animals. On the painting she is easily recognised by the crescent moon worn as a tiara, the bow and arrow on her back and a hunting dog at her feet.
God of the Sun, Light and Music. His attributes are the lyre, sun and laurel wreath. Apollo is a son of Zeus and Artemis is his twin sister.
Artemis’s twin brother Apollo (Greek Ἀπόλλων and the same name in Latin) was the god of the sun, light, music, prophecy, medicine, and knowledge, and thus the exact opposite of Demeter. Zeus may have been the senior of the deities, but among the most important and popular with the Greeks and Romans, and later with artists, is Apollo. He is a beardless young man, and the epitome of male beauty. His most common attribute is the lyre, his constant companion for both music and poetry. Apollo was considered the most handsome of the gods. He was cheerful and bright, enjoyed singing, dancing, and drinking, and was immensely popular among both gods and mortals. He also took after his father in the chasing of mortal women and from time to time a boy. On the painting Apollo is depicted as a male beauty, with his lyre and a laurel wreath on his head.
God of Violent War. The Roman equivalent is Mars. Spear, shield and armour are his symbols. Zeus is Ares’ father.
The attributes of Ares (Greek Ἄρης, Latin Mars) are any part of arms and armour of a warrior, like a helmet and shield. Where Athena oversaw strategy, tactics, and defensive warfare, Ares revealed in the violence and bloodshed that war produced. Often depicted asleep, as on our painting here, which makes him more sympathetic. The God of War asleep becomes the Good of Peace. His name is still used in “martial arts”.
God of Fire and Blacksmith of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Vulcan. To be recognised by fire and the hammer. He married Aphrodite.
Hephaestus (Greek Ἥφαιστος, Latin Vulcan) learned the blacksmith’s trade, built himself a workshop, and became the god of fire and metallurgy. His forges produce the fire of volcanoes. Hephaestus was horribly ugly – at least by the standards of gods and goddesses – but he managed to marry the beautiful Aphrodite, goddess of love. His attributes derive from his role, and include the hammer and anvil as used in the working of metals. These tools can be seen on this painting, with fire in the background. The word “volcano” refers to the Roman name of Hephaestus, Vulcan.
Goddess of Love, Beaty and Sexuality. The Roman equivalent is Venus. She can be recognised a dove and beauty aspects like jeweller and flowers. Aphrodite married Hephaestos.
Aphrodite (Greek Ἀφροδίτη, Latin Venus) as the most beautiful woman, was married to the most ugly of the gods, Hephaestus. She enjoyed a number of flings with mortal humans, including an affair with the beautiful young guy Adonis. Aphrodite (mostly as Venus) has proved hugely popular in Western art, all too often as an excuse for painting a classical female nude and in the case of her affair with Adonis, also with a beautiful man. This tradition of depicting Aphrodite largely or completely unclothed dates from classical times, already on some of the wall paintings found in the ruins of Pompeii. The Boucher painting, formally called “The Toilette of Venus” was executed for the bathroom of Madame de Pompadour, the powerful mistress of Louis XV. Boucher devised a summary of the key features: Venus as female beauty, and an unfurling of luxurious furniture, fabric, flowers, and pearls. The name of the goddess still lives on in the words “aphrodisiac” and “venereal”.
God of travel, commerce and communication, Messenger of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Mercury. Attributes are winged sandals, hat with wings, and the caduceus, a rod with two entwined serpents. His father is Zeus.
Hermes (Greek Ἑρμῆς, Latin Mercury) is the god who spends as much time among mortals as he does on Olympus: he’s the divine messenger and emissary. Attributes associated with that role include winged sandals, a distinctive staff with a pair of serpents around it, known as a caduceus, and a hat or helmet which bears wings too. The pair of entwined serpents along the caduceus indicates his swiftness as a messenger. This is where the word “mercurial” comes from. There’s also a touch of mischief about Hermes, which has resulted in him being referred to as the divine trickster. He’s thus seen as the protector of all messengers, travellers, thieves, merchants and orators. On the Prado painting we can see the wings around his feet and on his head, and the two snakes around the rod; and of course the male beauty of Hermes himself.
God of Wine. The Roman equivalent is Bacchus. As God of Wine he can of course be recognised by the grapevine and a cup. Dionysus is the youngest son of Zeus.
As the god of grape harvest, wine and its making and consumption, Dionysus (Greek Διόνυσος, Latin Bacchus) was an easy favourite among Olympians and mortals alike. Dionysus was the only Olympian to be born of a mortal mother, and perhaps that was part of the reason why he spent so much time among mortal men, traveling widely and gifting them with wine. Like on the Caravaggio painting here, he is almost always associated with wine and drunkenness. His most distinctive attributes are grapes, wine leaves and of course a glass of wine. His name lives on in the word “bacchanal”.
Today March 19th is the day dedicated to Saint Joseph. Who is he? Joseph is one of the three members of the Holy Family, together with the Virgin Mary and her child Jesus.He is a carpenter from Nazareth and a widower, who married the Virgin Marry at that time already pregnant with Jesus. The virgin birth of Jesus is the Christian doctrine that Jesus was conceived and born by his mother Mary through the power of the Holy Spirit and without sexual intercourse. Joseph is therefore Jesus’s foster-father. In most paintings with the Holy Family, Joseph has a minor role and just in the background. Only from the 15th century artists gave more attention to Joseph and made him visible as head of the Holy Family. When the bible speaks about Jesus’s brothers and sisters, those are children of Joseph from a previous marriage.Saint Joseph is the patron saint of family life, fathers, unborn children and carpenters and in Western Christianity his celebration day is March 19th. And in Italy, this special day of Saint Joseph (San Giuseppe in Italian) is also Father’s Day. Joseph might be a lesser celebrity in the biblical world, but as “father” he is a figure that means so much in everyone’s life. Even when he is a foster-father.
This is the right-hand panel of a triptych. The old man Joseph, who is engaged to the Virgin Mary, works in his carpenter shop. The mousetraps he made, on the bench and in the shopwindow opening onto the street, are symbols of the crucifixion of Jesus which will only happen 33 years later. Jesus on the cross is considered the devil’s mousetrap.
Looking at the triptych as a whole, the middle panel shows the moment when the Virgen Mary gets the message from the angel Gabriel that she will be pregnant with Jesus. It’s even the moment of the divine impregnation itself. On the right panel Joseph in his workshop, busy making the mousetraps and no idea what is happening to Mary at this very moment. On the left the donors of this triptych.
When Joseph was engaged to Mary he found out she became pregnant, and certainly not by him! Joseph was very much doubting if he should indeed marry her. As he considered splitting up, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” As is written in the bible, see Matthew 1: 18-20. On the picture above you can see Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and Joseph as an old man doubting about what happened. This is not a very common image to see in paintings and it’s obviously a mysterious element in the whole story and even a bit embarrassing for Joseph. The message from the angel to Joseph is then solving this element to everyone’s satisfaction, including Joseph’s. From the 15th century the Holy Family (Maria, Jesus and Joseph) as a subject became way more popular and that helped to raise Joseph in public esteem. Joseph is from then on represented more sympathetically and more prominently.
This painting by George de la Tour (1642, from the Louvre) cannot be missed in any story about Joseph. As patron saint of carpenters, Joseph is working on a beam, helped by his foster son Jesus. The arrangement of pieces of wood on the floor evokes a cross and prefigures the crucifixion of Jesus. The young Jesus with the candlelight shining on his face makes already a reference to becoming the “Light of the World”. George de la Tour shows that even Jesus lived a simple and innocent earthly life, but he included divinity’s presence by way of the light of the candle.
Here we see the Holy family with a playing Jesus and two caring parents in a domestic scene. It shows home life but also work, symbolized by Saint Joseph’s carpenter tools on the right. The almost leading role of Joseph, the foster father, corresponds to the increased worship of Joseph as a father figure within the Holy Family. Over the centuries the image of Joseph developed from a grumpy old man to a caring – and younger – father.
This is a painting from the Pre-Raphaelite painter Millais, showing a scene from the boyhood of Jesus and placed in Joseph’s carpenter workshop. It’s full of symbolic messages. Jesus, as a boy, has wounded himself at a nail and is being comforted by his parents Mary and Joseph. Blood is dripping from his hand on his foot. Both spots of blood are foreshadowing the crucifixion. On the right we see the young Saint John the Baptist with a bowl of water, as reference to the baptizing of Jesus Christ. At the back on the wall is a carpenter’s triangle, referring to the Holy Trinity of God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus son of God. And the dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, is sitting on the ladder.
The pre-Raphaelites wanted to strip-away all traditions of painting since Raphael. Millais removed all beauty and placed the scene in an ordinary carpenter workshop, with common people as the Holy Family. The picture prompted many negative reviews. The Times described it as ‘revolting’ and objected to the way in which the artist had dared to depict the Holy Family as ordinary, lowly people in a humble carpenter’s shop. Charles Dickens was one of the most vehement critics, describing the young Christ as ‘a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown’. The painting can be seen in the Tate Gallery, London, where it’s now considered one of their masterpieces.
This painting illustrates the belief that Jesus was both human and divine, by placing him in the middle of the two “Trinities”. The vertical line is the Holy Trinity, with God the Father, the Holy Ghost (the dove), and Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus looks up towards heaven, but affectionately holds hands with his human parents, Mary and Joseph. The three together, as the horizontal line, make up the Earthly Trinity. Mary’s loving gaze and gracefully upturned palm are directed towards her young son. Joseph looks out of the picture towards us, inviting us to adore Jesus. Murillo transforms a complex theological principle into a very human and accessible image. With Jospeh as the connecting figure between us humans and the divine world of God.
March is the month named after Mars, in Roman mythology the God of War. He is also an agricultural guardian. The month March, opening the year of farming, is considered the start of the year for the Roman calendar, which had only ten months. With March being the first, September is number seven, October number eight and November and December nineth and tenth. But who is Mars? Although being the god of war, he is also a god of peace (when sleeping!), an epitome of male beauty, and the secret beau of Venus, Goddess of Love. Let’s look at a few paintings with Mars and also some together with Venus. The last painting is revealing the real scandal!
This is not a common soldier. This is Mars, God of War, in a 17th Century human form. The harness on the painting is a very rich and precious piece of work made in Italy. It was owned by Hendrick ter Brugghen and kept in his studio. Exactly the same harness and helmet ended up on other paintings by Ter Brugghen and by his colleagues from Utrecht. Around 1648, the end of the Eighty Years’ War and a final end to Spain’s rule over the Netherlands, the painting was placed in its current frame. The weapons and tools of war on the frame are chained together and cannot be used any longer. Mars fell asleep; he now represents peace. In the true Dutch tradition when Mars, God of War, falls asleep, Mercury, God of Trade, will get active again. A political painting in its time.
Here is Velázquez majestic painting of Mars. Mars is lazily seating on a soft, unmade bed. The bedclothes belong to a luxurious bed much more suited to amorous struggle than to battles and war. Mars is only wearing his helmet; his shield and armour lie at the ground. This picture is a defeat of arms by love which conquers all. The painting was made for the Spanish royal hunting pavilion on the outskirts of Madrid, in a century when Spain was in continuous wars. An amorous Mars seems certainly more sympathetic than a war-god in full armour.
This Italian Renaissance painting by Botticelli shows Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and Mars, god of war, surrounded by playful and naughty satyrs. Venus watches Mars asleep – and snoring – and she contemplates her victory: love has conquered war. Although it’s unfaithful love, as Venus was in fact married to Vulcan, god of fire and an unattractive blacksmith. The little satyr guys are playing with Mars’s armour: one put the too big helmet on his head and another crawled inside his breastplate. Even one blows a conch shell in his ear to wake Mars, but of course unsuccessfully. The couple have been making love, and Mars obeyed to the male habit of falling asleep after sex. Most likely the painting was commissioned to celebrate the marriage of a wealthy Florentine couple, and was meant to decorate the bedroom with that witty representation of sensual pleasure. There is another thought about Mars’s state of undress. It was thought that looking at an image of a beautiful man would help to conceive a boy – the most desirable heir in those days.
The French rococo painter Louis Jean François Lagrenée shows us Mars, throwing back the curtains to reveal a sleeping Venus. Mars is captivated by her beauty; his shield and sword lie on the ground. A pair of white doves are building a nest in Mars’s helmet. A 18th Century example of “make love not war”. Mars gives peace a chance.
This painting depicts the adultery of Venus and Mars. Venus’ husband Vulcan – god of fire and standing with his back to us on the left – has caught the couple in the act. When Vulcan heard that Venus and Mars had an affair, he – as a skilled blacksmith – made an invisible bronze net to catch them in their love bed. The metal net was so delicate that the two beautiful gods did not know that they had been captured until it was too late. Vulcan invited all the gods from Mount Olympus to come and laugh at the trapped lovers. A detail: Mercury, god of trade, is getting jealous and said he is willing to replace Mars. He can be seen above the bed and Cupido is already sending an arrow in Mercury’s direction. The still-life in the foreground is Mars’s armour, Vulcan’s hammer and Venus her red slippers, an old-fashioned symbol of adultery.
Because of the erotic subject matter, the painting’s early owners will have concealed the painting behind a curtain. For a longtime this painting was kept in depot by The Mauritshuis “to protect an immature public against itself”. Only from 1987 this small painting is shown to the public in its full splendor; painted on copper, which is excellent for expressing fine details. It’s an erotic picture, very attractive for the viewers. But it’s certainly also a showcase for the skills of the Joachim Wtewael. And above all an embarrassment for Venus and Mars!
Gerard ter Borch, 1617 – 1681, was a highly skilled Dutch Golden Age painter, who influenced his fellow Dutch colleagues Metsu, Dou and certainly also Vermeer. Ter Borch painted men and women, mistress and servant, soldiers and civilians, in the sanctum of guard room and home and hinting at their love lives. As this is the pre-email and pre-chat era, messages were sent by letters. The love letter was the appropriate start of dating. Letters are a returning subject in Ter Borch’s paintings. And a lot is left to the imagination of the viewer. Look at the painting from the Royal Collection, London. What is the lady reading from that letter? And is the dog, symbol of fidelity and now sleeping, a hint?
Gerard ter Borch situates this scene in a guard room. The ace-of-hearts card on the floor suggests that the letter being written is an amorous one. The pieces of the clay pipe scattered around the card may refer to frustrations the letter-writer is having in expressing his romantic feelings. And the Trumpeter, a soldier-messenger, is waiting to deliver the letter. And he looks at us viewers to make us part of the story.
Three women appear in a luxuriously appointed interior. On the table is a letter with a broken seal and the answer back is in the making. The girl peers over the shoulder of the writer and tries to read what’s being written. The standing woman appears pensive or lovelorn. In the 17the Century letter writing was a common feature of courtship. Perhaps the woman at the table is helping her friend craft a response to a suitor?
A young officer is dictating a letter to a man with the quill, probably a soldier on duty who could write and read. Their comrade, a trumpeter soldier and messenger, will deliver the letter. His faintly amused expression and the way he catches the eye of the viewer creates a conspiratorial air: is there love in that letter?
A woman is writing a letter and we can only imagine for ourselves if its love she is thinking and writing about. Maybe the large pearl she wears has a meaning; it can be interpreted as a symbol of virginity. This painting with such minimal scene, certainly was an example for other artists, like Vermeer.
Here, we see a soldier receiving a letter from a messenger. The door on the left is still open and the messenger has his hat in his hand. He came rushing in, to hand over that letter. That is for sure not a love letter, but most likely a call to the front, away from the girl who leans against him so lovingly.
Gerard ter Borch’s works are comparatively rare; about eighty have been catalogued. Ter Borch died in Deventer, The Netherlands, on this day December 8, 1681.
The end of the traditional asparagus season is June 24th, which is the day of the Christian celebration of the nativity of John the Baptist. Asparagus, the “White Gold”, is nowadays available much longer, but traditionally it’s a real season-vegetable. In ancient Greece, asparagus was considered a plant with sacred and aphrodisiac virtues. Starting in the 16th century, asparagus was served in the royal courts of Europe and in the 17th century it was cultivated in France for Louis XIV who was, apparently, very fond of it. Only in the 18th century did the asparagus make its appearance on the local marketplace.
Coorte produced small and modest still lifes. On this painting the asparagus, together with some red currants, contrast much with the larger sumptuous still live paintings that were fashionable in those days. Coorte painted on paper which was glued on board, opposed to the large oil on canvas or oil on panel pieces produced by his painter colleagues. Perhaps Coorte was more an amateur painter who had no studio space available and worked from home.
This grand still life by Jacob Foppens van Es is a painting where all the products are neatly displayed next to each other on a tabletop, as was the common way of displaying in the early days of still life painting. The two bundles of asparagus give it a bit of a frivolous touch. He belongs to the first generation of still life painters. Only later the arrangements become more artificially put together and food was painted together with flowers, animals, shells and various objects.
Jan Fyt, a painter from Flanders, travelled quite a bit and worked in Paris, Venice, and Rome. This still life is painted towards the end of his career when he was back in Antwerp and it’s in a remarkable style with free and loose brushstrokes. Almost with an impressionist touch.
Manet, a French painter and key figure in the transition from realism to impressionism, painted this rather big still live with asparagus in a free style, and shows with pleasure the beauty of such simple things like these asparagus on a marble table. It was painted for the French art collector Charles Ephrussi, who gave Manet 1000 francs for it, although Manet only asked for 800 as a purchase price. Manet then painted another much smaller piece with just one asparagus on the same marble tabletop. He sent that as a gift to Charles Ephrussi with a note: “There was one missing from your bunch”. Manet’s bunch of asparagus can be seen in Cologne, the one lonely asparagus is still in Paris.
Louise Moillon is considered one of the best still life painters of her times. About forty paintings remain, which were mostly bought by royalty and nobility. At the age of thirty she married and stopped painting. Louise Moillon’s Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus is a composition of all seasons: cherries, grapes, plums and asparagus. All seasonal products, but on this still life painting they live together in a timeless harmony.
The Herring Season 2020 starts tomorrow June 12th and from that day on, the “Hollandse Nieuwe” (New Dutch Herring) can be eaten everywhere, mostly as a street-food snack with finely sliced onion and pickles. A whole herring is consumed raw and often eaten by lifting the herring by its tail, tilt your head back, and then eat the herring by lowering it into your mouth.
The painting above is a monochrome still life by Pieter Claesz. It’s a serene composition, symbolizing our “daily bread”. But in fact, this was for centuries a common breakfast meal indeed: a glass of beer, a herring and a piece of bread. On the painting hereunder, known as “The Cat’s Breakfast”, we see a woman of humble origin sharing the herring from her breakfast with a cat.
These herrings are caught in the North Sea between May and August, before the breeding season starts. Herrings at this time are unusually fat and rich in oils. The herrings are preserved at sea, by removing the gills and placing it in a salty brine, traditionally in oak casks.
The Dutch started fishing and trading herring more than 1,000 years ago. Much of Holland’s wealth and sea trade can be attributed to this fish. Part of the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age is funded with the profits of the herring fishing industry. From the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum is this beautiful small panel by Gotfried Schalcken, depicting a woman selling herrings. And Christian Couwenbergh portrayed himself by holding up a freshly preserved herring.
In this panel by Gerard Dou, an old woman and a young boy seem to be discussing the herring she holds in her right hand. It’s the fisher boy who delivered the oakwood cask with the freshly caught and preserved herrings, and it’s the old lady as shop owner who will start selling the fish.
Thomas de Keyser (c. 1596–1667) was a Dutch painter, stone merchant and architect. His father was the famous Amsterdam architect and sculptor, Hendrick de Keyser (1565 – 1621). Thomas was buried on this day June 7th, 1667, in the family vault in the Zuiderkerk (Southern Church) in Amsterdam.
Thomas de Keyser excelled as a portrait painter and was the preeminent portraitist of Amsterdam’s burgeoning merchant class until the 1630s, when Rembrandt eclipsed him in popularity. From then on, Thomas’ style of painting became out of fashion and he received less commissions. This forced him in 1640 to return to the stone trading family business. His father was also the municipal stonemason of the city of Amsterdam.
The men on the 1627 painting above were the board and syndics of the Amsterdam guild of gold- and silversmiths. They controlled the quality of the raw material and of the finished products of the guild members. These group portraits were ordered by board members of the guilds and displayed in the guild’s hall, showing off success and authority. Thomas de Keyser put them together in a less static and almost informal manner, a composition that later will be followed by Rembrandt. The syndic on the right is Jacob Everts Wolff. He has a silver belt in his hand and seems to make an eloquent speaking gesture of persuasion, as if to say, “Trust us.” On the left is the dean of the guild, Loef Vredericx, of whom an individual portrait can be seen hereunder.
This is the portrait of Loef Vredericx, from the Mauritshuis in the Hague. In his daily life Loef was silversmith and dean of the guild. But here he is portrayed in the honourable position of Ensign of the Amsterdam civic militia. Although a full-length portrait, the size is relatively small and will have fitted better in the Amsterdam house of Loef Vredericx. Reducing the scale of such portraits to make them suitable for their patrons’ urban homes is one of Tomas de Keyser’s innovations within Dutch portraiture.
This is full-length portrait of another silversmith. Thomas de Keyser transformed Dutch portraiture from a static, formal approach towards a more informal and personal representation of the sitter, bridging portraiture and domestic genre scenes. It’s as if we interrupted this young silversmith while he was studying the design of the salt cellar. The identity of this silversmith has been debated ever since. It could be Christian van Vianen, who was the most innovative and celebrated silversmith in The Netherlands in those days. The large ornamental salt cellar on the table has a close resemblance to similar designs by Christian van Vianen.
This is a group portrait of very large size, more than 2 x 3 meters. It’s a portrait of the Officers and Civic Guardsmen of the IIIrd District of Amsterdam, under the Command of Captain Allaert Cloeck and Lieutenant Lucas Jacobsz Rotgans. Joining these guards was a privilege for the rich well-connected members of the Amsterdam merchant families. Although they were indeed a police force and had to safeguard their part of the city, being a member had a high social and networking purpose. And you had to be rich to join, as it’s on a voluntary basis and you had to pay for your own uniform and weapons. And occasionally paying for a group portrait!