Tag: Rijksmuseum

Saint Christopher and Atlas

Saint Christopher and Atlas

“The World On Your Shoulders”

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.

Benvenuto Tisi “Il Garofalo” (1481 – 1559), “Saint Christopher” (c.1535), 33x37cm, Liechtenstein, The Princely Collections, Vaduz – Vienna.

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.

Joachim Patinir (c.1480 – 1524), “Saint Christopher” (c.1522), 125x170cm), Royal Site of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid.

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.”

Jheronimus Bosch (c.1450 – 1516), “Saint Christopher Carrying the Christ Child” (c.1500), 113x72cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

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.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (c.1448 – 1494), “Saint Christopher and the Infant Christ” (c.1473), Fresco, 285x150cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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.

Jusepe de Ribera “Lo Spagnoletto” (1591 – 1652), “Saint Christopher” (1637) ,127x100cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

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.

Giovanni Francesco Barbieri “Guercino” (1591 – 1666), “Atlas” (c.1545), 127×101cm, Museo Stefano Bardini, Florence.

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.

Bernard Picart (1673 – 1733), “Atlas Turned Into A Mountain” (1731), engraving, 35x25cm, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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.

The Olympian Gods

The Olympian Gods

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.

Cornelis van Poeleburgh (1594 – 1667), “Feast of the Gods” (1623), 32x84cm, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut.

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!

Zeus (Jupiter)

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.

Heinrich Friedrich Füger (1751 – 1818), “Jupiter” (c.1800), 103x79cm, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest.

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.

Hera (Juno)

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.

Hendrick Goltzius (1558 – 1617), “Juno” (c.1595), 13x11cm, Drawing on Paper, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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.

Poseidon (Neptune)

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).

John Singleton Copley (1738 – 1815), “Neptune” (c.1754), 70x113cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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.

Demeter (Ceres)

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.

Antoine Watteau (1684 – 1721), “Ceres” (c.1717), 142x116cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

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”.

Athena (Minerva)

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.

Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669), “Minerva” (1635), 138x117cm, The Leiden Collection, New York.

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.

Artemis (Diana)

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.

Pietro Antonio Rotari (1707 – 1762), “Diana” (c.1740), 109x77cm, Private Collection, latest at Sotheby’s.

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.

Apollo

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.

Rosalba Carriera (1675 – 1757), “Apollo” (c.1743), 67x52cm, Pastel on Paper, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

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.

Ares (Mars)

God of Violent War. The Roman equivalent is Mars. Spear, shield and armour are his symbols. Zeus is Ares’ father.

Hendrick ter Brugghen (1588 – 1629), “Mars” (1629), 107x93cm, Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

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”.

Hephaestus (Vulcan)

God of Fire and Blacksmith of the Gods. The Roman equivalent is Vulcan. To be recognised by fire and the hammer. He married Aphrodite.

Pompeo Girolamo Batoni (1708 – 1787), “Vulcan” (c.1750), 98x76cm, Pinacoteca Civica, Como.

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.

Aphrodite (Venus)

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.

François Boucher (1703 – 1770), “Venus” (1751), 108x85cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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”.

Hermes (Mercury)

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.

Peter Paul Rubens (workshop), “Mercury” (c.1637), 180x69cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

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.

Dionysus (Bacchus)

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.

Michelangelo Merisi, known as Caravaggio (1571 – 1610), “Bacchus” (c.1598), 95x85cm, Le Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence.

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”.

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.
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.

Mary Magdalene

July 22nd is the feast day of Mary Magdalene. But who is she, and how to recognize her in art? If there had been more gender equality in the days of Jesus, than Mary Magdalene certainly would have become one of the 12 Apostles. She was the number one female follower of Jesus and is generally considered a historical figure. Most likely Mary Magdalene was wealthy, mundane, intellectual and beautiful. Rumors say that Mary Magdalene was a penitent prostitute and the lover of Jesus, that she was washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying His feet with her hair and rubbing His feet with precious ointment. These are fantasy stories made up from the Middle Ages onwards. But it’s through these stories that we can identify Mary Magdalene in art: as a beautiful long-haired woman with a perfume or ointment jar, or as a penitent sinner.

Jan van Scorel (1495 – 1562), “Mary Magdalene” (1530), 66x76cm, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Mary Magdalene depicted as a prostitute or sinful woman, whose sins are forgiven by Jesus, was a popular image. As everyone has some sins, big or small, one would love to see a painting with a sinner whose sins are forgiven and who sees the light of salvation. So let’s now look at this painting by El Greco. It’s the ecstatic moment when the penitent Mary Magdalene converts to the heavenly light and the skull representing her earthly mortality is rolling out of her hand. And of course in the left bottom comer is the omnipresent ointment jar.

El Greco (1541 – 1614), “The Penitent Mary Magdalene” (1576), 157x121cm, Oil on Canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Another story is about Mary Magdalene wiping and anointing Jesus’ feet with precious perfume or ointment. Or washing His feet with her own tears and drying with her long hair. That’s pretty dramatic and will certainly appeal to any sinner who is looking for forgiveness.

James Tissot (1836 – 1902) “The Ointment of the Magdalene – Le Parfum de Madeleine” (c.1886), 22x28cm, Watercolor on Paper, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

As a historical figure, Mary Magdalene most likely was present when Jesus was crucified. See hereunder the crucifixion triptych by Rogier van der Weyden. And just so that we do not mix up Mary Magdalene with anyone else, she is the person carrying the jar with the perfume or ointment. The jar is Mary Magdalene’s traditional attribute and a great trademark to recognize her in art.

Rogier van der Weyden (1399 – 1464), “The Crucifixion Triptych” (c.1443), 96x123cm, Oil on Wood, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Jan Lievens (1607 – 1674)

Jan Lievens (1606 – 1674), “Samson and Delilah” (c. 1632), 131x111cm, Oil on Canvas, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

On the 4th of June 1674, death of Jan Lievens, Dutch Golden Age painter and friend, colleague and rival of Rembrandt. Only a year younger than Rembrandt, they grew up together in Leiden and shared a studio in Amsterdam. Rembrandt became the well known favorite of all times, and Lievens always stayed in his shadow. But let’s look now at Jan Lievens’ “Samson and Delilah” painted around 1632. The story is from the Old Testament (Judges 16: 17-20) and goes as follows. The Israelite Samson is the strong invincible super-hero. Delilah is a treacherous smart woman, bribed by the Philistines, who seduces Samson into telling her the secret of his heroic strength. He tells her that he will lose his strength when his hair will be cut. When Samson falls asleep on her lap, she hands a pair of scissors to a frightened Philistine and in the next scene Samson’s powerful hairlocks will be gone. This is a scene of terror and suspense. On the painting it’s the moment when Samson still has all his strength, and the Philistine guy knows that and looks pretty anxious. But Delilah is determined and Samson’s hair (and strength!) will be gone in a second. This subject appeals to the viewer for a few reasons. It’s about a strong muscled guy, who now sleeps like a baby and will be powerless very soon. It’s also about women being smart and able to seduce men. And there is a moral: strong as you may be as a man, you are weak in the arms of a beautiful woman. And Lievens is depicting the moment when Samson still has all his power and strength. It can all still go wrong! There is suspense in this part of the story!

Here is also a painting that’s actually more a sketch. Over the centuries this small painting has been attributed on and off to Rembrandt or to Lievens. There are endless discussions between historians of art who the artists is behind this painting. Its for sure from the Rembrandt/Lievens studio, from around 1626, and it shows again the terrifying moment just before the cutting of Samson’s hair. Currently this painting is attributed to Rembrandt.

Attributed to Rembrandt (1606 – 1669), “Samson and Delilah” (c. 1626), 28x24cm, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

In the days of Rembrandt and Lievens, artists were using prints as source of inspiration. It could very well be that the below print has been seen by Rembrandt and Lievens. It’s a print from 1611 by the Dutch artist Jacob Matham, after a painting by Rubens made in 1609. Most likely Lievens and Rembrandt have never seen the Rubens painting and only know the work through the Matham print. Rubens is depicting the moment of cutting the hair. But Rembrandt and Lievens choose the moment just before that, creating masterly that sense of terror and suspense. It can still go wrong! That’s like a Hitchcock thriller, but painted in the 17th century!

The Four Evangelists

The Four Evangelists are the ones who wrote the four gospels in the New Testament, which is the second volume of the Bible. These gospels describe the life of Christ and are therefore in essence four times the same story but written by four different authors. The word “evangelist” comes from the Greek word εὐ-αγγέλιον (eu-angelion), which means “the good message”; εὔ = good, αγγέλιον = message. The word “angel” has the same origin and actually means “messenger”. The authors of these 4 gospel-books are the Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Jacob Jordaens (1593 – 1678), “The Four Evangelists” (1625), 133x118cm, Oil on Canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

The Four Evangelists are mostly depicted separately, but here is a 1625 painting by Jacob Jordaens in which they form a group. It’s clearly a group of four wise men, writing books. And therefore these can immediately be identified as the Four Evangelists. Identifying the individual evangelists is the next step. Each of them has his own symbol, and that’ the easy way to recognize them. That can be seen on the painting (c. 1614) by the Utrecht painter Abraham Bloemaert. Luke’s symbol is the ox, Mark has a lion, John his eagle, and for Matthew it’s an angel. It’s still the group of the Four Evangelists, together in one painting. But in most cases they are depicted in individual pictures, and as there are four of them, it’s excellent for series of four paintings, prints and even sculptures. Look for the ox, lion, eagle or angel and you know who is who.

Abraham Bloemaert (1566 – 1651), “The Four Evangelists” (c. 1614), 179x227cm, Oil on Canvas, Princeton University Art Museum.

Here are two Dutch Old Master prints from a series of the Four Evangelists. It’s Saint Matthew with the angel, and Saint John with the eagle. And both of them are receiving holy and spiritual inspiration for writing their gospel: the Gospel according to Matthew and the Gospel according to John. Prints from 1606 by Crispijn van de Passe after paintings by Gortzius Geldorp, 42x30cm, Engraving on Paper, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.