Category: Art Stories

Saint Joseph, the Carpenter from Nazareth

Saint Joseph, the Carpenter from Nazareth

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.

Robert Campin (1378 – 1444), “Saint Joseph” (right-hand panel of the “Annunciation Triptych – Merode Altarpiece”) (c. 1430), 65x27cm, Oil on Panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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.

Robert Campin (1378 – 1444), “Annunciation Triptych – Merode Altarpiece” (c. 1430), 65x118cm, Oil on Panel, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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.

French 15th century, “The Expectant Madonna with Saint Joseph” (c.1435), 71x35cm, Tempura on Panel, National Gallery of Art (Samuel H. Kress Collection), Washington DC.

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.

George de la Tour (1593 – 1652), “Saint Joseph the Carpenter” (1642), 137x102cm, Oil on Canvas, Louvre, Paris.

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.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682), “The Holy Family” (1650), 144x188cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

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.

Sir John Everett Millais (1829 – 1896), “Christ in the House of His Parents – The Carpenter’s Shop” (1850), 86x140cm, Oil on Canvas, Tate Gallery, London.

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.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682), “The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities – The Pedroso Murillo” (c. 1680), 293x207cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery, London.

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 and the god Mars

March and the god Mars

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!

Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588 – 1629), “Mars Asleep” (1629), 107x93cm and 152x140cm with frame, Oil on Panel, Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

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.

Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599 – 1660), “Mars” (1638), 179x95cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

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.

Sandro Botticelli (1445 – 1510), “Venus and Mars” (1485), 69x173cm, Oil and Tempera on Panel, National Gallery, London.

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.

Louis Jean François Lagrenée (1725 – 1805), “Mars and Venus, Allegory of Peace” (1770), 65x54cm, Oil on Canvas, Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

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.

Joachim Wtewael (1566 – 1638), “Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan” (1601), 21x16cm, Oil on Copper on Panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

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) and writing letters.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681) and writing letters.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “The Letter” (c.1663), 82x68cm, oil on canvas, Royal Collection Trust, London.

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 (1617 – 1681), “Officer Writing a letter, with a Trumpeter” (1658), 57x44cm, oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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.   

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “Curiosity” (1660), 76x62cm, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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?

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “An Officer Dictating a Letter” (c.1656), 75x51cm, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London.

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?

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “Woman Writing a Letter” (c.1655), 38x28cm, oil on panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

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.

Gerard ter Borch (1617 – 1681), “The Messenger” known as “The Unwelcome News” (1653), 67x59cm, oil on panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

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. 

Asparagus in Art

Asparagus in Art

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.

Adriaen Coorte (1660 – 1707), “Asparagus and red currants on a stone ledge” (c.1695), 34x24cm, Oil on Paper on Board, Auctioned Christies 2012, Private Collection.

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.

Jacob Foppens van Es (1596 – 1666), “Still Life with Fish, Asparagus, Artichokes, Cheese and Other Delicacies” (c.1631), 82x138cm, Oil on Canvas, Auctioned Sotheby’s 2011, Private Collection.

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 Fijt (1611 – 1661), “Vase of Flowers and Two Bunches of Asparagus” (c.1650), 64x75cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

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.

Edouard Manet (1832–1883), “Bunch of Asparagus” (1880), 46x55cm, Oil on Canvas, Wallraf–Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany.

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.

Edouard Manet (1832-1883), “L’asperge” (1880), 17x22cm, Oil on Canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
Louise Moillon (1610 – 1696), “Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus” (1630), 53x71cm, Oil on Panel, Art Institute Chicago.

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.

Herring in Holland

Herring in Holland

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.

Gabriel Metsu (1629 – 1667), “Woman Eating, also known as The Cat’s Breakfast” (c.1662), 34x27cm, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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.

Godfried Schalcken (1643 – 1706), “Woman Selling Herrings” (c.1677), 19x16cm, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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.

Christiaan van Couwenbergh (1604 – 1667), “Selfportrait with Herring” (1655), 78x59cm, Oil on Canvas, Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn.

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.

Gerard Dou (1613 – 1675), “Herring Seller and Boy” (c.1664), 44x35cm, Oil on Panel, The Leiden Collection.
Thomas de Keyser (c.1596 – 1667)

Thomas de Keyser (c.1596 – 1667)

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.

Thomas de Keyser (c.1596 – 1667), “Portrait of Loef Vredericx as an Ensign” (1626), 93x69cm, Oil on Panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

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.

Thomas de Keyser (c.1596 – 1667), “Portrait of a Silversmith, probably Christian van Vianen” (1630), 64x54cm, Oil on Oak Panel, Auctioned at Sotheby’s 2015, current whereabouts unknown.

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.

Thomas de Keyser (c.1596 – 1667), “Officers and other Civic Guardsmen of the IIIrd District of Amsterdam, under the Command of Captain Allaert Cloeck and Lieutenant Lucas Jacobsz Rotgans” (1632), 220x351cm, Oil on Canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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!

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634) and playing golf on ice

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634) and playing golf on ice

It’s winter. But the real winters are far behind us. When will we skate again on frozen rivers? Let’s have a look at the Dutch 17th century winter-wonderland paintings by Hendrick Avercamp. And let’s speak about those harsh winters and about the Dutch as the inventors of playing golf.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “A Scene on the Ice” (c. 1625), 39x77cm, Oil on Panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

First about the harsh winters. In the 16th and 17th century a climatic shift happened, nicknamed “The Little Ice Age”. It was an era with severe winters that started early and lasted long. The frigid weather came with heavy snow, freezing temperatures, and the Dutch waterways and lakes were frozen for months. Avercamp specialized in painting winter scenes and he could draw and paint what he witnessed firsthand. In his paintings, people young and old, rich and poor, share the joy and the hardship of The Little Ice Age. Avercamp shaped our perception of the Dutch winter.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Winter Games on the Frozen River IJssel” (c. 1626), 20x33cm, Pen and Ink with Watercolor on Paper, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Avercamp had a keen eye for detail. He captured children skating and gentlemen playing “kolf” on the ice. Avercamp emphasized the social contrast between the elegantly dressed kolf players, who were successful Amsterdam merchants, and the common people like fishermen and beggars. Peasants and tradesmen, young and old, men and women, on the ice everyone mingles and Avercamp knows how to tell those winter stories.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Winter Landscape with Skaters” (c. 1622), 19x31cm, Pen and Ink with Watercolor on Paper, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, The Netherlands.

The frozen rivers and lakes were the perfect place to play “kolf”. It’s a Dutch early form of golf, mainly played by the elite gentlemen. Kolf as a game was very popular in The Netherlands. It was played wherever there was space. Streets and public squares were favorite places, but city and church councils were not so happy with the cost of this sport, mainly the broken windows. There are many official ordinances, dating back to the 15th century, banning playing kolf from the narrow city streets and around churches. Kolf had to be played outside the municipal borders. And the severe winters offered the perfect solution. The kolf players took to the ice and found all the space (and joy) they needed for their game.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Enjoying the Ice near a Town” (c. 1620), 47x89cm, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

The Dutch in the 17th century were leading in wool trading with Scotland and that’s how “kolf” migrated to the Scots, where it is played on their coastal sandy grasslands, as modern “golf” on modern golf courses. Scots are right in claiming the origin of nowadays version of golf, but it’s the Dutch who are the original inventors of the game, known then as kolf and as depicted many times by Hendrick Avercamp.

Hendrick Avercamp (1585 – 1634), “Kolfplayers on the Ice” (1625), 29x51cm, Oil on Panel, Collection Edward and Sally Speelman.
Mary and the Immaculate Conception

Mary and the Immaculate Conception

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682), “The Aranjuez Immaculate Conception” (1675), 222x118cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Today December 8th is the day of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. It’s one of the major Christian feast days and it’s a holiday in many Catholic countries. But what is it about; what is the Immaculate Conception of Mary? First of all: do not confuse it with Mary’s virginal conception of her son Jesus! That’s only happening on March 25th, when it’s announced to Mary that she will be pregnant, being 9 months before the birth of her son Jesus, which happens on December 25th and that’s Christmas day. December 8th is about the Immaculate Conception of Mary herself, and it’s exactly 9 months before another feast day in the Catholic church, the Nativity or Birth of Mary, and that’s on September 8th. It’s all easy to remember when you count with those 9 months pregnancy.

The Immaculate Conception of Mary is nothing more than that she was born immaculate, pure, spotless and without any sin. That’s in contrary to any other human being. Everyone is born with the Original Sin, which is the inherited sin of Adam and Eve, who were eating the forbidden fruit while being in Paradis. That was the first sin of mankind ever, and it became an inheritable sin. It means that every baby is born with this Original Sin, to be washed away by baptizing, as soon as possible after birth. Mary on the contrary was born without this Original Sin, she was born Immaculate. That also makes her the one and only human being ever been without any sin. And Mary being so immaculate and the purest of all, is celebrated on December 8th.

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746 – 1828), “The Immaculate Conception” (1783), 80x41cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Mardrid.

The parents of Mary are Anna and Joachim, and these two are in that sense the grandparents of Jesus. Many believe that Anna, Mary’s mother, stayed a virgin herself while becoming pregnant of Mary. That’s not correct and officially considered an error by the Catholic doctrine. It’s also not so that Mary, after being born without the Original Sin, by default stayed without any personal sin. In general however, it’s believed that Mary was born without sin and stayed without sin.

Mary’s Immaculate Conception is a doctrine, being established as a faith by Popes and widely accepted within the Church. Already celebrated since the 5th century, the doctrine was only dogmatically defined in 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared so with “papal infallibility”. So, since then it’s a “true” story.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696 – 1770), “The Immaculate Conception” (1767), 281x155cm, Oil on Canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

It’s for artists not so easy to depict the concept of Immaculate Conception. Painters were struggling with the concept for long time, and only from the 17th Century onwards a standard image developed, based on paintings from the circle of the Spanish painter Murillo. It’s mostly an image of Mary in a heavenly realm with clouds and a golden light, surrounded by symbols of purity like white lilies and roses, with sometimes an image of God above Mary. On some painting symbols of the Original Sin, like snake and apple, can be seen at Her feet. Mary is standing on a crescent moon, symbol of virginity and chastity. It’s always an image of Mary herself and certainly without the baby Jesus, as that happened only later in the life of the Virgin Mary.

Narcissus and Echo

Narcissus and Echo

Meet Narcissus and Echo! Although we know them already, as they are around us every day and everywhere. But originally they are two mythological characters from the “Metamorphoses”, an 1st century book in Latin, by the Roman poet Ovid.

John William Waterhouse (1849 – 1917), “Echo and Narcissus” (1903), 109x189cm, Oil on Canvas, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Let’s start with Narcissus. He was in those ancient mythological times a most beautiful young man. One sunny day, while walking in a wood and being thirsty, he wanted to drink from a well. But then another thirst grew in him. As Narcissus drank, he was enchanted by an attractive young boy he saw in the pond. Narcissus fell in love with that pretty guy in the water, mistaking that shadow of himself for a real body. Absolutely spellbound, he could not stop looking at that mirror image of himself. But poor Narcissus, whenever he wanted to kiss his lover, and when his lips touched the water, the reflection disappeared. Whenever he reached his hands to that guy in the pond, the image faded away. The boy he fell in love with did not exist and was nothing else than his own reflection.

Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), “Narcissus” (c. 1598), 110x92cm, Oil on Canvas, Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Narcissus lay down next to the pond and being deeply in love kept on staring at his own image. No food anymore and no sleep. He started crying, but when his tears touched the water, the pool rippled and the object of his desire disappeared. Narcissus ultimately faded away and died. On that spot where he died, flowers started to grow; it’s the Narcissus flower, the daffodil, with its head hanging down, as if looking at the flower’s own refection in the water. See the painting by Waterford, some daffodils start to grow already next to Narcissus.

Anonymous, “Narcis” (c.1765), 30x19cm, Watercolor on Paper, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Would Narcissus have lived now and amongst us, he probably non-stop posted pictures of himslef on his social media. In that sense Narcissus invented the “selfie”, as ultimate passionate love for ones own image. We all know some of these guys and girls; check your InstaGram! We might even Narcissus ourselves?

Now about Echo, a young girl who fell in love with Narcissus. But first back to the beginning as described in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Echo was one of those girls who cannot stop talking, a chatterbox first class. Whenever in that mythological world the god Jupiter was playing around with girls, Echo distracted his wife Juno with her endless babbling. Juno got pretty angry and punished Echo. From that moment on, Echo could only repeat the last few words mentioned by someone else.

Alexandre Cabanel (1823 – 1889) “Echo” (1874) 98x67cm, Oil on Canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

When Echo noticed Narcissus walking in the woods, she immediately fell in love. Narcissus sensed that someone was around and said: “Who is there, come here!”. And Echo said: “Come here!”. Narcissus said: “Let’s meet” and Echo said “Let’s meet!”. But when Narcissus saw Echo, he did not like her at all. Echo, feeling ashamed and rejected, hide in a cave where she became old and wrinkled and then died. Only her voice remains and that voice can still be heard when you are hiking in the mountains. Poor Echo will forever continue to repeat your last few words. I guess we all know some of these girls, endless talking and basically saying nothing more than just a few echoed words.

Of course there are deeper psychological meanings behind being a Narcist or being like Echo. The Narcists around us are the self-centered persons and the Echoists are the ones always focusing on others and neglecting themselves. And that makes them attracting each other, but never really connecting. They both should learn to share a bit each other’s characteristics. For Narcissus to echo more and for Echo to become a bit more narcistic.

The Caravaggio painting became the iconic image of Narcissus. The painting is currently to be seen on the exhibition “Caravaggio & Bernini, the Discovery of Emotions” in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, until January 19, 2020. This exhibition (and Caravaggio’s Narcissus) will then move to the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam as “Caravaggio-Bernini, Baroque in Rome” from February 14 until June 7, 2020.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680)

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Still Life with a Roemer and Watch” (1629), 46x69cm, Oil on Panel, Mauritshuis, The Hague.

Let’s have Sunday brunch 17th Century style! And that’s best done with Willem Claesz. Heda, Dutch Golden Age painter from Haarlem, The Netherlands. He specialized in the genre of “banketjes” and “ontbijtjes” (banquets and breakfasts), and most of them in a monochrome manner. Not much known about his life, not even an exact date of birth or death. But his legacy can be seen in the important museums all over the world. Let’s have a closer look at the one from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And let’s find the hidden message in what seemingly is just a banquet still life painting.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Banquet Piece with Mince Pie” (1635), 107x111cm, Oil on Canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

This is the aftermath of a feast meal; a table filled with exotic food, luxurious tableware and precious glasses. The lemon and olives have been imported from the Mediterranean. The salt – expensive in those days – can been seen on a silver salt cellar. The mince pie, filled with meat and fruits and spices, is a dish for special occasions and on this painting has clearly been eaten already. A glass broke, the goblet fell over and the candle went out. But the message is shown exactly in the middle and in the front; it even sticks out of the painting right into our face. And that’s the piece of bread. The roll has not been touched. Bread in the Eucharistic meaning represents the body of Christ. Heda tells us that we should not overlook the Christian faith while being seduced by the pleasures and richness of food and earthly goods.

Willem Claesz. Heda (1594 – 1680), “Still Life with a Ham, Bread and Precious Vessels” (1654), 105x147cm, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

And here is another still life breakfast painting by Heda. It’s from the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. On the table a ham, lemon, oysters, the salt on the silver salt cellar, precious vessels, Venetian glass and even a “nautilus cup”, made of the nautilus shell imported from the Far East. This painting shows the wealth of a rich merchant from the Dutch Golden Age. But also here, on the left side of the table, is that very modest, untouched, lonely piece of bread. All the richness on one side of the table and on the other side, at that pure white clean tablecloth, the power of the Christian faith, symbolized by a simple bread roll. I guess the owners of these paintings, those rich merchants in the 17th Century, liked to show off their wealth and their taste for international and exotic treasures, but they also wanted to show how modest and down-to-earth they were. It’s true Calvinist behavior; almost as an excuse for wealth and success.