The story of Zeus and Callisto is part of Greek mythology and involves Zeus, the king of the gods, and Callisto, a beautiful nymph and one of the companions of the Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the equivalent of Diana in Roman mythology. Zeus is the same king of the gods as the Roman god Jupiter. The story of Zeus and Callisto serves as a tale about the capricious nature of the gods in Greek mythology. One of the most well-known versions can be found in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”.
According to the myth, Callisto was a devoted follower of Artemis (Diana) and like the other companion nymphs in the group of Artemis, Callisto also swore to remain a virgin for her entire life. They are hunting together, bathing together and were a great subject for painters throughout the centuries to depict a group of female nudes. With the exception of Vermeer, who portrayed Artemis and her nymphs in a very discreet and decent manner.
However, Zeus, known for his numerous affairs and infidelities, set his eyes on Callisto and decided to seduce her. Disguising himself as Artemis, Zeus approached Callisto and took advantage of her, resulting in Callisto becoming pregnant.
When the truth came to light, Callisto faced the wrath of Artemis, who was furious at her for breaking her vow of chastity. The goddess could not bear to look at Callisto anymore, and she banished her from her company. Callisto was devastated and left to live a life of solitude.
As her pregnancy progressed, Callisto’s appearance began to change and she now has a baby belly. Hera, Zeus’s wife and the queen of the gods, noticed these changes and grew suspicious of her husband’s involvement. Feeling betrayed and enraged, Hera sought revenge on Callisto. After the nymph gave birth to a son named Arcas, Hera transformed Callisto into a bear.
Arcas, son of Zeus and Callisto
In the meantime Arcas, the child of Zeus and Callisto, grew up and became a skilled hunter. He lived in a beautiful land and was chosen to be the king of that peaceful and pastoral area, called “Arcadia”, named after Arcas. Throughout history the name “Arcadia” has continued to be a symbol of an unspoiled and idyllic natural world.
As a bear, Callisto was forced to roam the wilderness, unable to communicate or return to her human form. Years passed, and one day, Arcas, now a young hunter, came across his mother-bear in the forest. Unaware that the bear was his own mother, he prepared to shoot it with his arrow. However, Zeus, who had been watching the events unfold, intervened to prevent a tragic outcome. To protect Callisto and her son, Zeus turned Arcas into a bear as well and placed them both among the stars, forming the constellations Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Smaller Bear). In this way, they were immortalized in the night sky, and their bond was forever preserved.
Hera did not like this at all; too much honour for Callisto and Arcas to be in the sky as stars. So, Hera descended from heaven and arrives with her carriage drawn by peacocks on sea-level, to complain to her friends the god Oceanus and his wife Tethis, a sea-goddess. Hera tells them that, in punishment for having such honorable place at the sky, they should never let the Callisto and Arcas, as Great and Smaller Bear, touch their waters and be able to wash themselves. Hera therefore instructs the gods of the sea that they shall not let either constellation sink below the horizon, and passing into the waters of the ocean. Indeed neither Ursa Major nor Ursa Minor ever set below the horizon, viewed from most regions in the Northern hemisphere.
Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Smaller Bear)
The Big Bear constellation is also known as Ursa Major, which means “Great Bear” in Latin. The more popular term “Big Dipper” is actually a colloquial name for a prominent asterism within the Ursa Major constellation. The Big Dipper is a group of seven bright stars that form a distinctive shape resembling a ladle or a dipper. This shape is a well-known feature of the northern night sky. The Great Bear has served as a navigational tool for travellers to determine directions.
Polaris (North or Pole Star)
Polaris, commonly known as the North Star or Pole Star, is the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Minor (the Smaller Bear). It holds a special place in the night sky because it appears very close to the celestial north pole, the point in the sky around which all other stars appear to rotate as Earth spins on its axis. This makes Polaris a valuable navigational reference point, especially for travellers in the Northern Hemisphere. Polaris appears relatively stationary in the sky while other stars appear to move in circles around it as the night progresses. This unique characteristic made Polaris an important celestial marker for ancient sailors, explorers, and navigators who used it to determine their northward direction. Polaris can be found by extending the two outer stars of the Big Dipper’s bowl (from the constellation Ursa Major) in a straight line. This extension leads you to Polaris, making it a helpful guide for finding true north in the night sky.
Greek and Roman Gods
The three gods involved in the story of Zeus and Callisto are:
Zeus (Ζεύς) is the god of the sky and thunder, and king of the gods, married to Hera. His symbol is the eagle. The Roman equivalent is Jupiter, also knows as Jove. Read more about Zeus in The Twelve Olympians.
Hera (Ήρα) is the goddess of marriage, women and family and the queen of gods, wife of Zeus. Her symbol is the peacock. The Roman equivalent is Juno. See Hera in The Twelve Olympians.
Artemis (Ἄρτεμις) is the goddess of the hunt, and to be recognised by the moon crescent as tiara on her head. Her Roman equivalent is Diana. More about Artemis in The Twelve Olympians.
The prophet Jonah (Yunus يُونُس in Arabic) is a prominent figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is best known for the biblical story of “Jonah and the Whale” or “Jonah and the Great Fish.” According to the Bible, Jonah was a prophet sent by God to deliver a warning to the people of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire and the biggest and most beautiful city of the ancient world; Nineveh is now Mosul in Iraq. The warning was that destruction of their city will happen because of the wicked and sinful behaviour of the Nineveh inhabitants. However, instead of obeying God’s command, Jonah attempted to flee in the opposite direction by boarding a ship heading to faraway. During the voyage, a great storm arose, and the crew believed that someone on board had angered the gods. Jonah eventually confessed that he was fleeing from God’s call, and he asked the crew to throw him overboard to calm the sea, which the crew then did. As the story goes, God calmed the sea, but also sent a large fish (commonly referred to as a whale) to swallow Jonah, saving him from drowning.
Jonah spent three days and three nights inside the fish’s belly, during which time he prayed and repented; he felt so very sorry that he had not followed God’s wish and order to go to Nineveh. He repents for his actions and promises to fulfill his mission if given another chance. In response to Jonah’s repentance and prayer, God commands the fish to release him. The fish spits Jonah out onto dry land, giving him a second chance. With a renewed sense of obedience, Jonah finally traveled to Nineveh to deliver God’s message of warning to the city. He warned the people of their wickedness and the impending destruction that would come if they did not repent. Surprisingly, the Ninevites listened to Jonah’s message, repented, and turned away from their evil ways. In response to their repentance, God showed mercy and spared the city from destruction. The story of Jonah is often interpreted as a lesson on the importance of obedience to God and the concept of divine mercy and forgiveness. It serves as a reminder that God’s compassion extends even to those who have strayed from the right path. It’s a message to everyone that even after having done bad things and being a not so good person, there is hope if you repent, change your life and say farewell to your sins.
The link between Jonah and Christ is a significant theological parallel found in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The primary scriptural reference to this connection is found in the Gospel of Matthew, specifically in Matthew 12:38-41: “As Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so Jesus will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” On this basis Christians saw Jonah as a type of Christ and his story as a promise of resurrection, first for Christ but then also for everyone and all of us, there will be resurrection after death. But of course under the condition of being a good person and having said goodbye to your bad habits and sins.
The story of Jonah underscores the idea that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are part of a divine plan, prefigured in the Old Testament narratives. The story of Jonah in the Whale in the Old Testament is seen as a prefiguration of Jesus’ resurrection. And subsequently as everyone’s resurrection from death at the day of the last judgement. With other words: the story of Jonah gives hope that there will be life after death, but only if one repents and is obedient and does not lead a sinful life.
Big Fish or Whale?
Although the creature that swallowed Jonah is often depicted in art and culture as a whale, the original Hebrew text uses the phrase “big fish”. In the art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the species of the fish that swallowed Jonah became closer to a whale. Most likely that’s also because in those centuries people got familiar with the concept of whales as truly big fish though prints of stranded whales. Before that hardly anyone will have seen a whale, let alone a huge whale that’s capable of swallowing a human person.
Nineveh was an ancient city located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in present-day Mosul, Iraq. It was one of the most important and influential cities in the ancient world and served as the capital of the Assyrian Empire for several centuries. The city’s history spans over 3,000 years, and it was a center of culture, commerce, and military power. Nineveh as capital of the powerful Assyrian Empire is considered to have been the biggest and most beautiful city in ancient times. Nineveh was surrounded by a series of massive defensive walls that were over 12 kilometers long. These walls were among the most impressive feats of engineering in the ancient world and provided excellent protection for the city. Despite its military might, Nineveh faced its eventual downfall. In 612 BC, a coalition of Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians attacked and razed the city. This marked the end of the Assyrian Empire, and Nineveh was abandoned and largely forgotten for centuries. The ruins of Nineveh were rediscovered in the mid-19th century during excavations by archaeologists such as Austen Henry Layard. These excavations unearthed numerous artifacts and cuneiform tablets, providing valuable insights into the history, culture, and language of the ancient Assyrians.
Today, the ancient site of Nineveh, along with other nearby Assyrian cities like Nimrud and Khorsabad, are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. However, the region has faced challenges due to political instability and armed conflicts, leading to damage and looting of its precious historical remains, mostly by ISIS around 2014.
Al-Nabi Yunus (The Prophet Jonah) Mosque
The Al-Nabi Yunus Mosque (Arabic: جامع النبي يونس) also known as the the Prophet Jonah’s Mosque, is an important religious site located in Nineveh, now Mosul, Iraq. It holds significance for both Muslims and Christians due to its association with the prophet Jonah (known as Yunus in Islamic tradition) from his stories in the Hebrew Bible and the Quran. The mosque is situated on top of a hill on the eastern bank of the Tigris River in Mosul. Its location is believed to be the site where the prophet Jonah was buried.
The Al-Nabi Yunus Mosque is considered a place of veneration for Muslims, who come to pay their respects to the prophet Yunus. However, it also holds importance for Christians, as Jonah is recognized as a prophet in Christianity as well. This interfaith significance has made the site an important symbol of religious coexistence. The mosque’s origins can be traced back to the 14th century. The site itself however, has religious significance dating back to much earlier times.
In 2014, during the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), the mosque suffered destruction along with other historical sites in Mosul. ISIS militants considered the veneration of shrines and tombs to be against their strict interpretation of Islam and targeted such sites. The mosque was used as a prison and later blown up by the militants. After the liberation of Mosul from ISIS in 2017, efforts were made to restore and rebuild the Al-Nabi Yunus Mosque. The reconstruction work has been carried out as part of broader efforts to preserve and revive the cultural and historical heritage of the city. During the reconstruction an even older Assyrian palace was found under the remains of the mosque.
The Rijksmuseum has purchased four outstanding silver salt cellars made by the renowned Amsterdam silversmith Johannes Lutma. These partially gilded objects are among the most important examples of 17th-century Dutch silversmithing. Costly cellars of this kind would stand on the tables for important banquets given by wealthy merchants and art lovers, or at the headquarters of citizen militias or the navy. Two of the salt cellars were previously displayed in the Rijksmuseum from the 1960s onwards; the other pair was held in the Amsterdam Museum. Prior to the Second World War, all four were the property of Hamburg resident Emma Budge, who was Jewish. Following her death in 1937, the cellars were sold at auction. The proceeds of this sale went to the Nazis rather than to Budge’s heirs. The Dutch Restitutions Committee recently decided that the salt cellars be returned to the descendants.
Johannes Lutma (1584 – 1669) was Amsterdam’s foremost silversmith in the 17th century. He was a contemporary and friend of Rembrandt, who etched a portrait of him, and Joost van den Vondel and other Dutch poets also praised him in their work. The four salt cellars are undisputed masterpieces in his oeuvre, very little of which has survived to the present day. These objects were the first in which Lutma combined the ornamental auricular (in Dutch: “kwab”) style with a classical formal idiom.
Emma and Henry Budge
Before the Second World War, the four salt cellars were owned by Emma Budge (1852-1937) and Henry Budge (1840-1928), a Jewish couple from Hamburg. Emma and her businessman and banker husband accumulated an extensive art collection. They also contributed to charities and the founding of the University of Frankfurt.
Following the death of Emma Budge in 1937, her property was sold off at Paul Graupe’s ‘aryanised’ auction house in Berlin. The proceeds of the sale were confiscated by the German Nazi party, the NSDAP, rather than being passed on to Budge’s heirs. It is believed that the four salt cellars were bought by a German dealer named Greatzer, about whom little else is known. These objects eventually found their way into the famous collection of silver belonging to W.J.R. Dreesmann. In 1960, central government and the City of Amsterdam acquired the four salt cellars at an auction of the Dreesman collection; two went on display in the Rijksmuseum and two in the Amsterdam Museum.
Investigation and Restitution
An investigation carried out by the Amsterdam Museum concluded in 2013 that the two salt cellars in its collection were of suspicious origin. This prompted the Rijksmuseum to initiate an investigation into the two salt cellars in its own collection. In 2014, restitutions committees in various countries designated the 1937 auction of Emma Budge’s estate as involuntary. This led to the return to Budge’s descendants of silver, porcelain, tapestries and busts by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the German food conglomerate Dr. Oetker. The Dutch Restitutions Committee arrived at the same conclusion in 2018, leading to the return of the bronze sculpture of Moses attributed to Alessandro Vittoria from the collection of Museum de Fundatie in Zwolle.
Following the publication in 2018 of the conclusions of the Restitutions Committee, the descendants of Emma Budge submitted a claim for the two salt cellars in the Rijksmuseum collection, the two salt cellars in the Amsterdam Museum collection, and two objects in the collection of Kunstmuseum Den Haag in The Hague. On 16 November 2022, the Restitutions Committee issued its recommendation that these objects be returned to Budge’s descendants. In the case of the salt cellars held by the Amsterdam Museum, the recommendations were binding. On 12 May 2023, the Dutch state and the City of Amsterdam returned the objects to the claimants. That same day, the heirs sold all four salt cellars to the Rijksmuseum. On 6 September 2023 the complete ensemble will go on display at the Rijksmuseum, which will continue to draw attention to both the art-historical importance of the objects and the story surrounding their provenance and restitution.
In 1638, Lutma commissioned Amsterdam artist Jacob Adriaensz Backer to paint portraits of himself and his wife Sara de Bie. The fact that the silversmith chose to be portraied next to an early version of these cellars strongly suggests that he regarded them as breakthrough works. The portraits are also held in the Rijksmuseum collection, and they will be displayed with the four salt cellars, which Lutma made as two pairs in 1639 and 1643. The Rijksmuseum will place the four salt cellars on public view from 6 September 2023 in a special display that also tells the story of Emma Budge.
Wives of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).
In the context of the Jewish and Christian Bible, the term “matriarchs” refers to a group of prominent women who are considered the female founders or ancestral mothers of the Israelite people.
Sarah: wife of Abraham and considered the first matriarch. She is known for her faith and trust in God, as well as her role in the birth of Isaac, her son with Abraham.
Rebecca: wife of Isaac and the mother of Jacob and Esau. She played a crucial role in facilitating Jacob’s reception of his father’s blessing. Rebecca is remembered for her beauty, kindness, and her participation in God’s plan for the chosen lineage.
Leah: the older daughter of Laban and the first wife of Jacob. Though initially unloved by Jacob, she bore him many children. Leah is recognised for her perseverance and her significant role in the establishment, through her sons, of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Rachel: the younger daughter of Laban and the beloved wife of Jacob. She is known for her beauty and her deep love for Jacob. Rachel gave birth to Joseph and Benjamin, two significant figures in the biblical narrative. Her tragic death during Benjamin’s childbirth is also a notable event.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam hold that the patriarchs, along with their primary wives, the matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah and Leah, are entombed at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a site held holy by the three religions. Rachel, Jacob’s other wife, is said to be buried separately at what is known as Rachel’s Tomb, near Bethlehem, at the site where she is believed to have died in childbirth.
Sarah (wife of Abraham)
Sarah is a biblical figure and the wife of Abraham. She is an important figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Sarah and Abraham faced challenges in conceiving a child, but according to the biblical account, God promised them a son. In their old age when Sarah was 101, she miraculously gave birth to Isaac, who became a significant figure in the religious traditions that followed. Sarah is celebrated for her faithfulness, loyalty, and resilience. Her story emphasizes the importance of trust in God’s promises and the strength of the family lineage that descended from her and Abraham. On the Goltzius engraving we see the very old Sarah laughing when she hears the angels on the background tell Abraham that they will get a son. Sarah cannot believe what she is hearing. It’s the background narrative on te print that depicts the encounter between Abraham and three angelic visitors who deliver this important message.
According to the story, Abraham saw three men standing near him. Recognising their divine nature, he hurriedly approached them and offered them hospitality, inviting them to rest and partake in a meal. Abraham and his wife Sarah quickly prepared a generous meal for their guests, consisting of freshly baked bread and cooked meat. As the guests enjoyed the meal, they engaged in conversation with Abraham. During the conversation, the visitors revealed that they were messengers from God and brought a message of great significance. They informed Abraham and Sarah that they would soon have a son, despite their old age and Sarah’s previous inability to conceive. Sarah overheard the conversation from inside the house and laughed incredulously, as she found it hard to believe such news. In response to Sarah’s laughter, one of the visitors questioned Abraham about her disbelief, asking, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” This emphasized the divine power and ability to fulfill their promise. It also served as a reminder that God’s plans can exceed human expectations and limitations.
The story of Abraham and the three angels highlights themes of hospitality, faith, and divine intervention. Abraham’s generous and welcoming nature, serves as an example of righteousness and compassion. The announcement of Sarah’s impending pregnancy, despite her age, showcases the fulfilment of God’s promises and the possibility of miracles. And indeed, Sarah gave birth to Isaac.
Rembrandt’s Abraham Entertaining the Angels of 1646 depicts the foretelling of the birth of Isaac to the elderly Abraham and his wife, Sarah. This episode, from chapter 18 of Genesis, begins with the visit of three travelers, to whom Abraham offers a meal and water with which to wash their tired feet. While eating, the guests ask about Sarah, and one of them announces that she will give birth to a son in a year’s time. Hearing this, the old Sarah, on the painting standing in the doorway on the right, laughs in disbelief, prompting the speaker – now identified in the text as God – to chastise her, asking, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” He thus reveals to the couple the divine and providential nature of his announcement.
Abraham (as Ibrahim) is also one of the most important prophets in Islam and is seen as a father of the Muslim people through his first child, Ishmael.
A Son Is Promised to Sarah, Genesis 18: 1-151One day Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day. 2He looked up and noticed three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran to meet them and welcomed them, bowing low to the ground. 3Abraham said, “if it pleases you, stop here for a while. 4Rest in the shade of this tree while water is brought to wash your feet. 5And since you’ve honored your servant with this visit, let me prepare some food to refresh you before you continue on your journey.”
“All right,” they said. “Do as you have said.” 6So Abraham ran back to the tent and said to Sarah, “Hurry! Get three large measures of your best flour, knead it into dough, and bake some bread.” 7Then Abraham ran out to the herd and chose a tender calf and gave it to his servant, who quickly prepared it. 8When the food was ready, Abraham took some yogurt and milk and the roasted meat, and he served it to the men. As they ate, Abraham waited on them in the shade of the trees.
9“Where is Sarah, your wife?” the visitors asked. “She’s inside the tent,” Abraham replied. 10Then one of them said, “I will return to you about this time next year, and your wife, Sarah, will have a son!”
Sarah was listening to this conversation from the tent. 11Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. 12So she laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my my husband is also so old?”
13Then the visitor (who in meantime revealed himself as God) said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh? Why did she say, ‘Can an old woman like me have a baby?’ 14Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” 15Sarah was afraid, so she denied it, saying, “I didn’t laugh.” But the Lord said, “No, you did laugh.”
Rebecca (wife of Isaac)
Rebecca is a biblical figure, also mentioned in the Book of Genesis. She is one of the matriarchs and the wife of Isaac and the mother of Jacob and Esau. According to the biblical narrative, the patriarch Abraham wanted to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac. He sent his servant with a convoy of camels to his homeland to find a wife and there the servant encountered Rebecca near a well. He approached Rebecca and asked for a drink of water. In a remarkable display of hospitality, Rebecca not only gave him water but also volunteered to draw water for his camels until they were satisfied. He was impressed by her kindness and hospitality and believed she was the chosen woman. The servant gave her gifts of jewellery and asked for her hand in marriage on behalf of Isaac, and Rebecca agreed to go with him.
Rebecca married Isaac and became the mother of their two sons, Jacob and Esau. She played a significant role in the story of the deception that led to Jacob receiving Isaac’s blessing instead of Esau. The story of Rebecca at the well highlights themes of divine guidance, hospitality, and faith. It is regarded as a pivotal event in the biblical narrative, shaping through Jacob the future of the Israelite people.
A Wife For Isaac, Genesis 24: 1-67
1Abraham was now a very old man, and the Lord had blessed him in every way. 2One day Abraham said to his oldest servant, the man in charge of his household, 4"Go to my homeland, to my relatives, and find a wife there for my son Isaac. 9So the servant took swore to follow Abraham’s instructions. 10Then he loaded ten of Abraham’s camels with all kinds of expensive gifts from his master, and he traveled to the distant land. 11He made the camels kneel beside a well just outside the town. It was evening, and the women were coming out to draw water.
12“O Lord, God of my master, Abraham,” he prayed. “Please give me success today, and show unfailing love to my master, Abraham. 13See, I am standing here beside this spring, and the young women of the town are coming out to draw water. 14This is my request. I will ask one of them, ‘Please give me a drink from your jug.’ If she says, ‘Yes, have a drink, and I will water your camels, too!’—let her be the one you have selected as Isaac’s wife.” 15Before he had finished praying, he saw a young woman named Rebecca coming out with her water jug on her shoulder. 16Rebecca was very beautiful and old enough to be married, but she was still a virgin. She went down to the spring, filled her jug, and came up again.17Running over to her, the servant said, “Please give me a little drink of water from your jug.”
18“Yes,” she answered, “have a drink.” And she quickly lowered her jug from her shoulder and gave him a drink. 19When she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels, too, until they have had enough to drink.” 20So she quickly emptied her jug into the watering trough and ran back to the well to draw water for all his camels. 21The servant watched her in silence, wondering whether or not the Lord had given him success in his mission. 22Then at last, when the camels had finished drinking, he took out a gold ring for her nose and two large gold bracelets for her wrists.
50Then later Rebecca's brother said 51"Here is Rebecca; take her and go. Yes, let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has directed.” 52When Abraham’s servant heard their answer, he bowed down to the ground and 53then he brought out silver and gold jewellery and clothing and presented them to Rebecca. He also gave expensive presents to her brother and mother. 54Then they ate their meal, and the servant and the men with him stayed there overnight.But early the next morning, Abraham’s servant said, “Send me back to my master.” 55“But we want Rebecca to stay with us at least ten days,” her brother and mother said. “Then she can go.” 56But he said, “Don’t delay me. The Lord has made my mission successful; now send me back so I can return to my master.”
“Well,” they said, “we’ll call Rebecca and ask her what she thinks.” So they called Rebecca. “Are you willing to go with this man?” they asked her. And she replied, “Yes, I will go.” 59So they said good-bye to Rebecca and sent her away with Abraham’s servant and his men. The woman who had been Rebcca’s childhood nurse went along with her. 61Then Rebecca and her servant girls mounted the camels and followed the man. So Abraham’s servant took Rebcca and went on his way.
62Meanwhile, Isaac, when one evening as he was walking and meditating in the fields, he looked up and saw the camels coming. 64When Rebecca looked up and saw Isaac, she quickly dismounted from her camel. 65“Who is that man walking through the fields to meet us?” she asked the servant. And he replied, “It is my master.” So Rebecca covered her face with her veil. 66Then the servant told Isaac everything he had done.
67And Isaac brought Rebecca into his mother Sarah’s tent, and she became his wife. He loved her deeply, and she was a special comfort to him after the death of his mother.
Leah and Rachel (wives of Jacob)
Leah and Rachel are prominent figures in the biblical narrative, specifically in the Book of Genesis. They are sisters and the daughters of Laban, who is Rebecca’s brother. They become the wives of Jacoband play significant roles in the story of the patriarchs.
Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, traveled to the land of his uncle Laban in search of a wife. Jacob encountered the beautiful Rachel at a well, where she was going to water her sheep. Jacob fell in love with Rachel at first sight and desired to marry her. In exchange for marrying Rachel, Laban asked Jacob to work for him for seven years. However, on the wedding night, Laban deceived Jacob by giving him Leah instead of Rachel. Upon discovering the deception, Jacob confronted Laban, who explained that it was not their custom to give the younger daughter in marriage before the elder daughter. Laban offered Rachel to Jacob as well but required him to work for an additional seven years. As a result, Jacob married both Leah and Rachel, becoming polygamous according to the customs of that time. Leah, who was described as having “weak eyes,” became Jacob’s first wife, while Rachel, whom Jacob loved more, became his second wife.
The story of Leah and Rachel portrays a complex and often troubled relationship between the two sisters. Leah, feeling unloved by Jacob, yearned for his affection. She gave birth to several sons, including Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. Rachel, on the other hand, initially faced infertility and struggled with jealousy over Leah’s ability to bear children. Eventually, Rachel conceived and gave birth to two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Tragically, Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin.
The story of Leah and Rachel encompasses themes of love, rivalry, fertility, and the complexities of family relationships. Their roles as the wives of Jacob and the mothers of the twelve tribes of Israel make them significant figures in the biblical narrative.
At the well, Jacob noticed a large stone covering its mouth. He asked the shepherds about the well and the people of the area. They informed him that they were waiting for all the shepherds to gather before they could remove the stone and water their flocks. While they were conversing, Jacob saw Rachel, Laban’s daughter, approaching the well with her father’s sheep. Overwhelmed by Rachel’s beauty, Jacob was immediately drawn to her. Filled with excitement, he approached the shepherds and asked them to remove the stone so that Rachel’s sheep could drink.
As Jacob helped Rachel water her flock, he was overcome with emotion. Without hesitation, he kissed Rachel and wept aloud. Jacob’s meeting with Rachel at the well is often romanticized as a moment of love at first sight. The story serves as a turning point in Jacob’s life, as it leads to his eventual marriage to Rachel and marks the beginning of his years of service to Laban in order to earn Rachel’s hand in marriage.
Jacob fell in love with Rachel and to earn her hand in marriage agreed to work as a shepherd for her father, Laban, for seven years. But, presumably under cover of the marriage veil, Laban substituted his elder daughter Leah for Rachel. When Jacob discovered the deceit the morning after the marriage, he was bitterly disappointed. He reproached his new father-in-law, but Laban argued that the elder daughter must be married first. He compromised by offering to allow him to marry Rachel as well – in return for another seven years work. The determined Jacob agreed, and was eventually simultaneously married to both sisters, and had 12 children.
Jan Steen in the painting above, portrays the dramatic moment of surprise when Jacob discovers the Laban has deceived him. The younger woman in the bed is Leah whom Jacob married the night before. Her handmaid kneels before her offering a bowl of water. To the left stands Rachel, while Laban is obliged to explain the deceit to a beseeching and agitated Jacob. Celebrants from the wedding night’s festivities give context and a bit of levity to the scene. The rich, theatrical setting and lush appointments of the bedroom set the scene in the historical past, a device that Steen may have adopted from contemporary Dutch theatre.
The story of Jacob and the speckled lambs depicts a scheme devised by Jacob to increase his own wealth while working for his father-in-law, Laban. After Jacob’s marriage to Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, he agreed to work for Laban for a total of 14 years in exchange for marrying Rachel. During his service, Jacob became a skilled shepherd and developed a keen understanding of animal husbandry, although more relying on the hand of God than on Mendel’s Laws of Genetics.
Jacob noticed that Laban’s flock consisted mainly of solid-colored sheep and goats. He proposed a deal to Laban, suggesting that he would continue to work for him but requested a specific arrangement regarding the offspring of the flock. Jacob proposed that he would keep any lambs that were speckled, spotted, or otherwise marked differently from the rest of the flock as his own.
Laban agreed to this arrangement, likely thinking that the chances of such offspring were slim. However, Jacob had a plan. He took rods of poplar, almond, and plane trees and peeled off strips of bark to create striped patterns on them. He placed these rods in the watering troughs where the flock would come to drink. When the flock mated, Jacob strategically positioned the rods in the watering troughs so that the sight of the striped patterns would be imprinted in the minds of the animals during conception. As a result, many of the offspring were born with speckled, spotted, or striped markings.
Over time, Jacob’s flock began to grow, and Laban’s flock dwindled in comparison. Jacob’s understanding of animal breeding and the use of selective breeding techniques allowed him to increase his own wealth while Laban’s flock decreased. The story of Jacob and the speckled lambs demonstrates Jacob’s resourcefulness and cunning in outwitting Laban and increasing his own wealth. It also highlights the theme of divine intervention, as Jacob attributes his success to God’s guidance and favor.
Jacob arrives at the well, Genesis 29: 1-141Then Jacob hurried on, finally arriving in the land of the east. 2He saw a well in the distance. Three flocks of sheep and goats lay in an open field beside it, waiting to be watered. But a heavy stone covered the mouth of the well. 3It was the custom there to wait for all the flocks to arrive before removing the stone and watering the animals. Afterward the stone would be placed back over the mouth of the well.
7Jacob said, “Look, it’s still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals. Why don’t you water the sheep and goats so they can get back out to pasture?” 8“We can’t water the animals until all the flocks have arrived,” they replied. “Then the shepherds move the stone from the mouth of the well, and we water all the sheep and goats.”
9Jacob was still talking with them when Rachel arrived with her father’s flock, for she was a shepherd. 10And because Rachel was his cousin, the daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother, and because the sheep and goats belonged to his uncle Laban, Jacob went over to the well and moved the stone from its mouth and watered his uncle’s flock. 11Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and he wept aloud. 12He explained to Rachel that he was her cousin on her father’s side, the son of her aunt Rebecca. So Rachel quickly ran and told her father, Laban.
13As soon as Laban heard that his nephew Jacob had arrived, he ran out to meet him. He embraced and kissed him and brought him home. When Jacob had told him his story, 14Laban exclaimed, “You really are my own flesh and blood!”
Jacob Marries Leah and Rachel, Genesis 29: 14-30
14After Jacob had stayed with Laban for about a month, 15Laban said to him, “You shouldn’t work for me without pay just because we are relatives. Tell me how much your wages should be.”
16Now Laban had two daughters. The older daughter was named Leah, and the younger one was Rachel. 17There was no sparkle in Leah’s eyes, but Rachel had a beautiful figure and a lovely face. 18Since Jacob was in love with Rachel, he told her father, “I’ll work for you for seven years if you’ll give me Rachel, your younger daughter, as my wife.”
19“Agreed!” Laban replied. “I’d rather give her to you than to anyone else. Stay and work with me.” 20So Jacob worked seven years to pay for Rachel. But his love for her was so strong that it seemed to him but a few days.
21Finally, the time came for him to marry her. “I have fulfilled my agreement,” Jacob said to Laban. “Now give me my wife so I can sleep with her.” 22So Laban invited everyone in the neighborhood and prepared a wedding feast.
23But that night, when it was dark, Laban took Leah to Jacob, and he slept with her. 25But when Jacob woke up in the morning—it was Leah! “What have you done to me?” Jacob raged at Laban. “I worked seven years for Rachel! Why have you tricked me?” 26“It’s not our custom here to marry off a younger daughter ahead of the firstborn,” Laban replied. 27“But wait until the bridal week is over; then we’ll give you Rachel, too—provided you promise to work another seven years for me.”
28So Jacob agreed to work seven more years. A week after Jacob had married Leah, Laban gave him Rachel, too. 30So Jacob slept with Rachel, too, and he loved her much more than Leah. He then stayed and worked for Laban the additional seven years.
Jacob’s Wealth Increases, Genesis 30:25-4325Soon after Rachel had given birth to Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Please release me so I can go home to my own country. 26Let me take my wives and children, for I have earned them by serving you, and let me be on my way. You certainly know how hard I have worked for you.”
27“Please listen to me,” Laban replied. “I have become wealthy, for the Lord has blessed me because of you. 28Tell me how much I owe you. Whatever it is, I’ll pay it.” 29Jacob replied, “You know how hard I’ve worked for you, and how your flocks and herds have grown under my care. 30You had little indeed before I came, but your wealth has increased enormously. The Lord has blessed you through everything I’ve done. But now, what about me? When can I start providing for my own family?” 31“What wages do you want?” Laban asked again.
Jacob replied, “Don’t give me anything. Just do this one thing, and I’ll continue to tend and watch over your flocks. 32Let me inspect your flocks today and remove all the sheep and goats that are speckled or spotted, along with all the black sheep. Give these to me as my wages. 33In the future, when you check on the animals you have given me as my wages, you’ll see that I have been honest. If you find in my flock any goats without speckles or spots, or any sheep that are not black, you will know that I have stolen them from you.” 34“All right,” Laban replied. “It will be as you say.” 35But that very day Laban went out and removed the male goats that were streaked and spotted, all the female goats that were speckled and spotted or had white patches, and all the black sheep. He placed them in the care of his own sons, 36who took them a three-days’ journey from where Jacob was. Meanwhile, Jacob stayed and cared for the rest of Laban’s flock.
37Then Jacob took some fresh branches from poplar, almond, and plane trees and peeled off strips of bark, making white streaks on them. 38Then he placed these peeled branches in the watering troughs where the flocks came to drink, for that was where they mated. 39And when they mated in front of the white-streaked branches, they gave birth to young that were streaked, speckled, and spotted. 40Jacob separated those lambs from Laban’s flock. And at mating time he turned the flock to face Laban’s animals that were streaked or black. This is how he built his own flock instead of increasing Laban’s.
41Whenever the stronger females were ready to mate, Jacob would place the peeled branches in the watering troughs in front of them. Then they would mate in front of the branches. 42But he didn’t do this with the weaker ones, so the weaker lambs belonged to Laban, and the stronger ones were Jacob’s. 43As a result, Jacob became very wealthy, with large flocks of sheep and goats, female and male servants, and many camels and donkeys.
Abraham & Sarah
Two sons: Isaac (with Sarah) and Ismael (with Hagar).
Isaac & Rebecca
Two sons: Jacob and Esau
Jacob & Leah
Six sons and one daughter: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah
Jael, Samson, Judith and David are heroes from the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament who risked their own lives to save their people from the enemy. They are unlikely but true heroes, charming, clever and cunning, and in the case of Samson fighting with physical strength. Paintings with these true heroes had often a political or moralising message. Their stories were associated with the underdog defeating an oppressor; a small country fighting victoriously against the big enemy. The four are commonly depicted as follows: Jael holds the hammer and peg with which she killed Sisera (Judges 4:17-23), Judith displays the head of Holofernes and holds the sword with which she decapitated him (Judith 13:6-10), David leans on the gigantic sword with which he cut off the head of Goliath (I Sam.17: 51), and finally Samson who holds the jawbone with which he slew a thousand Philistines (Judges 15:15-20).
The topic of the canvas is the moment in which Jael is about to kill Sisera, a general of the enemy. Jael welcomed Sisera into her tent and covered him with a blanket. Sisera asked Jael for a drink of water; she gave him milk instead and comforted him so that he fell asleep in her lap. Quietly, Jael took a hammer and drove a tent peg through Sisera’s skull while he was sleeping, killing him instantly. Jael was the woman with the honour of defeating the enemy and their army.
Besieged by the Assyrians, the beautiful Israelite widow Judith went into the enemy camp of Holofernes to win his confidence. During a great banquet Holofernes became drunk, and later in his tent Judith seized his sword and cut off his head. Often an elderly female servant is depicted taking away the head in a bag or basket. Look at the Mantegna painting, you can see Holofernes on the bed, just by way of one of his feet! Their leader gone; the enemy was soon defeated by the Israelites. This ancient heroine was understood in the Renaissance as a symbol of civic virtue, of intolerance of tyranny, and of a just cause triumphing over evil. The story of Judith and Holofernes comes from the “Book of Judith”, a text that’s part of the Old Testament of the Catholic Bible. The Book of Judith is excluded from the Hebrew and Protestant Bible, but still considered an important additional historical text.
This is the story of the Israelite boy David and the Philistine giant Goliath. The Israelites are fighting the Philistines, whose champion – Goliath – repeatedly offers to meet the Israelites’ best warrior in single combat to decide the whole battle. None of the trained Israelite soldiers is brave enough to fight Goliath, until David – a shepherd boy who is too young to be a soldier – accepts the challenge. The Israelite leader offers David armor and weapons, but the boy is untrained and refuses them. Instead, he goes out with his sling, and confronts the enemy. He hits Goliath in the head with a stone from his sling, knocking the giant down, and then grabs Goliath’s sword and cuts off his head. The Philistines withdraw and the Israelites are saved. David’s courage and faith illustrates the triumph of good over evil. Donatello’s bronze statue is famous as the first unsupported standing work of bronze cast during the Renaissance, and the first freestanding nude male sculpture made since antiquity. It depicts David with an enigmatic smile, posed with his foot on Goliath’s severed head just after defeating the giant. The youth is completely naked, apart from a laurel-topped hat and boots, and bears the sword of Goliath. The phrase “David and Goliath” has taken on a more popular meaning denoting an underdog situation, a contest wherein a smaller, weaker opponent faces a much bigger, stronger adversary.
The biblical account states that Samson was a Nazirite, and that he was given immense strength to aid him against his enemies and allow him to perform superhuman feats, including slaying a lion with his bare hands and massacring an entire enemy army of Philistines using only the jawbone of a donkey. Holding the jawbone as his attribute, Samson looks upward, perhaps to God. The great strongman just slew a thousand Philistines with that jawbone. Overcome by thirst, he then drank from the rock at Lechi, a name that also means “jawbone” in Hebrew. Due to a mistaken translation in the Dutch Bible, some artists, like Salomon de Bray on the paining above, depicted Samson with a jawbone and water dripping out of the bone, rather than the rock issuing water.
Jael, Judith, David and Samson are just a few of the many heroes depicted in art. These four are exceptionally brave. Through their courage their people found victory and freedom. The message these four send, is to be brave in difficult times. Keep hope, keep faith, and set a step when there is the opportunity. It can change history, for oneself, and maybe for the world!
Jael, Judith, David and Samson; a print series.
In 1588 Hendrick Goltzius designed a series of four Heroes and Heroines from the Old Testament, after which Jacob Matham made the engravings. The print series could refer to events during the Dutch Revolt or The Eighty Years’ War (1568 – 1648), an armed conflict between The Netherlands under the leadership of William of Orange (“The Silent”) and Spain under King Philips II, the sovereign of The Netherlands. An end was reached in 1648 with the Peace of Münster when Spain recognised the Dutch Republic as an independent country. It’s the unlikely hero and heroine fighting and defeating the enemy; a print series with stories from the old bible books, translated into a contemporary political message.
On the drawings and the corresponding prints Jael, Judit, David and Samson are all portrayed full-length, in the foreground, with their characteristic attributes, while in the background their heroic deed is depicted. Jael holds the hammer and peg with which she killed Sisera, Judith displays the head of Holofernes and holds the sword with which she decapitated him, David leans on the gigantic sword with which he cut off the head of Goliath, that he carries in his left hand, finally Samson who holds the jawbone with which he slew a thoudanss Philistines. The preparatory drawings all still exist and are in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Hereunder on the left the drawings by Goltzius and on the right the prints as engraved by Matham. Once engraved into a copper plate and after printing, the print becomes a “negative” of the original drawing.
Now that we are in the middle of the winter, I’ve started thinking about how this “winter” concept has been represented in art. It’s the harshest season of the year, certainly when there was no electricity or gas, but some touching images have been produced over the centuries.
It was not just landscape painters who gave us winter scenes with frozen rivers and skaters. Painters also personified winter as an old man with a fur coat and warming his hands at a brazier. And from the the 18th century, artists depicted winter as a young woman, adding a sensual and warm touch to the cold.
I choose some ten works of art, all depicting winter as a “personification”; as a human figure depicted with symbolic attributes, representing the abstract idea of “winter”. Starting with the French Impressionist Berthe Morisot, as I like her paintings so much. And then going back in time to the 17th century Flemish painter David Teniers, to Madame de Pompadour – lover of King Louis XV of France, to the bedroom of King George III of England, to La Frileuse, the chilly girl, by the French sculptor Houdon. It’s an eclectic batch of art, but all lovely. They give inspiration and warmth in this cold season. Like Vivaldi’s Winter from The Four Seasons.
Along with its Summer pendant, Winter depicts a fashionable Parisian woman who personifies a season. Berthe Morisot debuted the paintings together at the Paris Impressionist exhibition in 1880. Morisot’s images of the Parisienne, a popular figure type representing an elegant, upper-class Parisian woman, were considered utterly contemporary. A critic said about Morisot’s Winter: “with its figure, so courageously modern, of the Parisian woman braving the cold in her furs.”
Berthe Morisot (Édouard Manet’s model and sister-in-law) was one of the most respected members of the Impressionist movement. At the beginning of the 20th century, her aura began to dim and her painting, labelled “feminine”, was relegated to second rank. Only recently, thanks also to the grand 2019 Morisot exhibition in the Musée d’Orsay, Berthe Morisot was incontestably regarded again as a great artist.
This old man by the Dutch Golden Age painter Abraham Bloemaert is representing Winter. Wearing a fur hat and very carefully warming himself at a small stove full of red-hot coals or charcoal. His nose and cheeks reflect the heat of the coal. It’s not only a representation of winter, but also hinting to love and passion. Love – and it’s pleasure – happens to be gallant to the ones who court the fire of love with caution.
David Teniers the Younger brings the cycle of the seasons to an end with an old man representing Winter. Wrapped in velvet and fur, he hunches over to warm his hands at a brazier, a small stove that’s heated with charcoal. His face is wrinkled, his beard long and frosted with white. In the background a small, monochrome skating scene. It’s a personification of winter and Teniers chose a character of an appropriate age and dressed him accordingly. Winter as the last season of life.
The tiny picture is on a copper base, which allowed the paint to flow more freely than it would on canvas. Teniers could show minute detail: the facial characteristics and expressions, Winter’s splendid hat and the objects on his table. Allegorical paintings of the seasons were popular at the time, and Teniers painted several versions of the subject. David Teniers was cashing in on the popularity of the series and turning them out quickly to fulfil demand.
This young woman by Caesar Boëtius van Everdingen warms her hands above a dish of glowing coals, holding her hands under a piece of cloth. She personifies Winter. This season was usually represented as an old man: old because the year is coming to an end, like towards the end of life. Van Everdingen’s choice of a young, richly attired woman is rather unusual. Cesar Boëtius van Everdingen was a Dutch Golden Age painter, from Alkmaar.
For this allegory of Winter and Summer, the painter Giovanni Battista Pittoni turned to traditional iconographic examples. Summer is personified as a young woman, and Winter as an old man warming his hands over a brazier. Summer gestures to a small angel-like figure in the top right corner (difficult to see on the picture). That’s the Spirit of Dawn whose urn of water provides the dew droplets of summer and frost in the winter.
The Winter pastel by Rosalba Giovannia Carriera was acquired by George III, King of England. It entered the Royal Collection in 1762 as “a Beautiful Female covering herself with a Pelisse”. In traditional images Winter was typically shown as an old man, but Rosalba Carriera transformed the subject into a beautiful young woman. “Winter” was put on display in George III’s bedchamber at Buckingham Palace, alongside “Summer”.
Rosalba Carriera was born in Venice. She began her career as a painter of snuffboxes, but rose quickly to fame for her pastel portraits, which became highly desired across Europe. Carriera made several sets of allegories of the Four Seasons. The largest group of pastels by Carriera belonged to Frederick Augustus Elector of Saxony. Over 100 of her pastels were on display at his residence in Dresden in a ‘Rosalba Room’. The artist became blind in later life and died in 1757.
François Boucher painted this Winter from the series The Four Seasons in 1755 for Madame De Pompadour, King Louis XV’s long-term official mistress. Their original location is unknown, but their peculiar shape suggests that they were used as overdoors, no doubt in one of Pompadour’s many properties in France.
Instead of the hardship that traditionally illustrates the theme of winter, Boucher depicts a delightful encounter in joyous colours, a frosty background and a landscape buried under snow. A Tartar in pseudo-Russian dress pushes an elaborate sleigh with the heroine – most likely referring to Madame de Pompadour herself. Glancing out at us coyly, she sports a billowing fur-trimmed gown and a little fur necklace. Her hands may be warmed by a muff, but her upper body is completely exposed. This combination of luxury and seduction, treated in a fanciful and humorous manner, is typical of Boucher.
In April 1764, the 42-year-old Madame Marquise de Pompadour, the official chief mistress of King Louis XV of France unexpectedly died, and in the workshop of her beloved sculptor Etienne Maurice Falconet, the last of the statues she commissioned remained unfinished – the marble Winter, a young woman sitting on an ice cube and gracefully covering flowers with her robe.
A year later Falconet received an invitation from the Russian Empress Catherine the Great to work at her court. It was agreed that at the expense of the Russian treasury all unfinished work from the Falconet workshop would travel with him to Russia. And part of that deal was the unfinished “Winter” sculpture. Falconet completed “Winter” only 5 years after arriving in Russia. That’s how this statue, made by a French sculptor, ended up in the Winter Palace of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. Contemporaries of Falconet received the work as a masterpiece and the artist himself wrote: “This might be the very best work which I can do; I even dare to think that it is good.”
L’Hiver or Winter is a bronze statue of a young woman cast by the neoclassical French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The statue personifies the winter season and is nicknamed La Frileuse, The Chilly Girl. This is reflected in both the medium (a cold, dark bronze) and the features of the sculpture, a young woman clad only in a shawl. Upon its completion and presentation at the 1787 Salon, the French yearly art fair, Winter shocked the French artistic establishment but delighted art lovers. The critics at the Salon indulged in some irony: “La Frileuse by Monsieur Houdon does not seem to achieve its effect. When someone is really cold, he tries to pull all his limbs close to him and covers his body more than his head. Nevertheless, it is pleasant to the eye and the proportions are correct” and “One must concur that winter would be a very desirable season if pretty shivering girls did not cover themselves in any other way.” Don’t think this critic will still have a job after saying this nowadays. In terms of her clothing, the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes it as “elegant but hardly adequate”. La Frileuse made me think of the song Let it Go from Frozen, “The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway.”
The statue was bought by Louis Philippe Joseph, Duc d’Orléans, confiscated during the French Revolution and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Shrouded in a heavy hooded cloak, this elderly man by Paul Heermann looks down with a deeply furrowed brow. As a personification of Winter, the bust gives visual expression to the chilling cold of that season. His old age refers to winter’s occurrence at the very end of the calendar year. This bust was probably part of a series of sculptures personifying the four seasons. At the Versailles Palace, it was fashion including statues of the seasons in the program for garden sculpture. The high level of finish and finely worked details of this bust, however, suggest that Winter was meant to be viewed up close, in an indoor palatial setting.
This Winter engraving has a very traditional iconography. The personification of Winter is an elderly man wearing a coat and warming his hands by holding a pot containing a fire; beyond is a wintery townscape with ice skaters and people collecting fire wood; the signs of the winter zodiac (Pisces, Aquarius and Capricorn) in the sky; and a cute little putto plays the cold Northern wind blowing into a cloud which results in rain and snow. And just so that we do not get it wrong, Hendrick Goltzius put the name “Hyems” just above the man, which is Latin for “Winter”.
Hendrick Goltzius designed four series with the seasons; Winter depicted here is from the set engraved by Jacob Matham.
The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam presents Clara the Rhinoceros, an exhibition about an animal who travelled far from her native land of India and became the most famous rhinoceros in the world, a true pre-intstagram Jurassic Park hype in the 18th century. The objects on display show the celebrity status of Clara and how “Claramania” spread over Europe.
Clara is just one month old when she is captured by hunters in her native Assam, in present-day India, in 1738. Her mother was killed in the process. A powerful prince presents Clara to director Sichterman of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) trading post in Bengal. The aim of exchanging gifts is to maintain sound mutual relations and promote trade. Bengal is vital to the Dutch: this is where they buy cotton fabrics, saltpetre, opium and enslaved people.
Clara is cherished in the household of director Sichterman and looked after by an Indian caretaker. She is considered so special that Clara is sometimes allowed to mingle with the dinner guests. After about two years, she has grown so much that she is passed on to a new owner, VOC captain Douwe Mout, who takes her with him when he sets sail at the end of 1740. He is the first person to successfully bring a rhino to the Netherlands safe and sound.
Clara tours Europe for seventeen years, from her arrival in 1741 until her death in 1758. Her owner, former VOC captain Douwe Mout from Amsterdam, has a wooden carriage made in which Clara is transported from town to town, over mountains and rivers, in winter and summer. Mout exhibits her wherever there is an audience, at fairs and markets at inns and palaces, and against a fee of course.
Clara is a hype during her lifetime. Precisely her unknown, extraordinary and exotic aspects are emphasised. She features in clocks and sculpture and even influenced Parisian fashion “mode au rhinocéros“. Clara is no longer an individual but has become an archetype. She remains the Rhino model for many years after her death in 1758.
People touched, teased, admired and studied Clara. She prompted this sensational level of interest because no one in Europe had ever been able to see a real live rhinoceros. She was a hyped up, must-see cultural and scientific phenomenon.
Clara became famous because she lived virtually her entire life in captivity in countries where she did not belong, far away from her own habitat. She served as entertainment, as decoration as well as a source of knowledge. But what might Clara have thought of her experiences?
Clara never fails to be a sensation. Douwe Mout is nothing if not enterprising. Anyone can see here – for a fee! He has prints made for advertising purposes, which can also be bought as a souvenir. He calls her a wonder beast, tells how heavy and large she is and also how much she eats and drinks per day: 60 pounds of hay, 20 pounds off bread, and 14 buckets of water. Clara becomes a celebrity. A veritable must-see!
Clara may not have been the first rhinoceros to come to Europe, but she did become the most famous one. After her long voyage from India, she travelled around Europe in her custom-made cart, accompanied by her entourage. She travelled for 17 years, far and wide: to Vienna and Paris, to Naples and Copenhagen, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, everywhere. Eventually, Clara died in London in 1758.
Clara was almost never free to walk or run. She depended on humans for her survival, and was rarely able to display natural behaviours – except for example the occasions when she needed to cross a river by swimming, and clearly enjoyed the water. In 1750 the Neurenberg biographer Christoph Gottlieb Richter published a conversation between a rhinoceros and a grasshopper, in which the rhinoceros bemoans the way people treat her and stare at her. This book presents a role-reversal, with the rhinoceros appraising and studying people rather than the other way around.
"Were it possible in the future to liberate myself from the slavery that presently imprisons me and return to my homeland, in revenge I would exhibit men to my brothers. I am sure that the genus of rhinoceroses will look upon the wonder beast that man seems to be with more favour than human beings view a rhinoceros."
- said the rhinoceros, according to Christoph Gottlieb Richter.
Clara the Rhinoceros runs to 15 January 2023 in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The texts above have been adapted from the Rijksmuseum press release and the exhibition sheets.
The Four Church Fathers were influential theologians and highly intellectual writers who established from the 4th to the 5th century the foundations of Christianity. Let’s see how we can identify these four guys in pictorial art, based on some of their legends. Their Latin names are Ambrosius, Augustinus, Gregorius and Hieronymus, in English Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory and Jerome. Each of them has its own fairytale legend, and these stories are perfect for recognising them as a group and as individuals.
Their common attributes are books, quills to write with and sometimes a dove, who whispers holy spiritual inspiration into their ears. They are scholars and sitting in their study while writing, reading or discussing; or at least they give the impression that they are in deep thoughts! And they are all saints and you might see the “halo”, which is a symbol of holiness represented by a circle around the head of a saint. Ambrose and Augustine were Bishops, they wear a “mitre” on their head. Gregory was Pope, he wears the papal “tiara”. Jerome was Cardinal and he wears a “galero”, the Cardinal’s hat.
Ambrose (Saint Ambrosius, c.340 – 397) was Bishop of Milan. He is dressed as a Bishop, with a mitre and the pastoral staff. There is a famous legend about Ambrose. When he was in his cradle as a baby, a swarm of bees covered his face and left a drop of honey. That’s the sign of Ambrose’s future ability as an eloquent and sweet-tongued speaker. His attribute is a beehive and he is Patron Saint of beekeepers, candle makers, and Milan. Ambrose is buried in the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, Milan. His feast day is December 7th.
Augustine (Saint Augustinus, c.354 – 430) was a Bishop, like Ambrose, and dressed as such with a mitre and Bishop’s staff. Often Augustine is portrayed with a child with a spoon in his hand. According to the legend, Augustine was walking along a beach one day when he meets a child trying to empty the sea with a spoon into a hole in the sand. When Augustine asked the child if he would ever succeed, the child replied: “Certainly before you will understood the essence of God”. Augustine is also often depicted with a flaming heart, as symbol of his love for God. He is the Patron Saint of printers and theologians and his feast day is August 28th.
Gregory (Saint Gregorius, c.540 – 604) was Pope, and thus shown in Papal vestments and with the Papal tiara, the three-tiered crown. Gregory renewed church music, now known as “Gregorian Chanting”. He is the Patron Saint of musicians, choristers and singers, teachers and Popes. His feast day is September 3th and he is buried in Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Jerome (Saint Hieronymus, c.347 – 420), was Cardinal and is depicted with the crimson Cardinal’s attire and hat, or just with the cardinal’s hat when he is depicted as a hermit in the wilderness, desert or cave, when Jerome lived for a few years a life of penitence. He is most famous for translating the Old and New Testament from Hebrew and Greek into the “Vulgate”, the simplified Latin Bible version, which became the official version of the Bible for over thousand years. Jerome is mostly depicted together with a lion. There is a well-known legend in which St. Jerome drew a thorn from a lion’s paw. The beast became his companion wherever Jerome went. It is the symbol of compassion conquering brute force. Jerome is the Patron Saint of translators, librarians and teachers. His feast day is September 30 and he is buried in the Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
Looking at the paintings in this article, we see Church Fathers who lived from the 4th to the 6th century, but dressed as Church officials from the 16th and 17th century. This imagery appeals probably more to the contemporary viewer than some ancient monk-style non-elaborate dressed men from the pre-medieval centuries. Jerome’s Cardinal hat (“galero”) was only worn from the 14th century. The Bishop’s headgear (‘mitre”) as worn by Ambrose and Augustine was only en vogue from the 11th century, and the Pope’s ceremonial headdress (“tiara”) was used from the 8th century.
In the last painting, by Pier Francesco Sacchi and painted around 1516, we see again the Four Church fathers, but now they are hijacking the symbols of the Four Evangelist. As if they want to identify themselves with the writers of the Four Gospels, written 1st and 2nd century, opposed to just being the translators and commentors of these holy books. The symbols of the Evangelists are as follows from left to right: John – Eagle, Luke – Ox, Matthew – Angel, and Mark – Lion. The animals are under the table, the angel peeps in between two of the Church fathers. The lion on the right bottom corner is therefore Mark’s lion and not Jerome’s! The Church Fathers from left to right are Augustine, Gregory, Jerome and Ambrose.
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”.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.