Vienna, 14 July 2018
In our recent rapid tour of Belgium, our little group (my wife and I, a cousin of mine and his wife) visited Antwerp’s cathedral.
I suppose I could go on about it being “a masterpiece of Gothic architecture”, about its tower, “jewel of the monument, light, thin and beautifully sculpted”, about its “exceptionally large” interior whose “majestic coldness is warmed gently by numerous works of art”.
But that’s not really what caught my eye during the visit. That distinction goes to an exhibition which the cathedral was hosting of paintings from the late 16th-early 17th centuries. These paintings had for the most part been commissioned by Antwerp’s guilds and were to be mounted in side-chapels of the cathedral dedicated to these guilds. For obvious reasons, the painters had chosen scenes from the Bible that in some way reflected the work of the guilds. A straightforward example is the “Multiplication of the Loaves”, by Ambrosius Francken, commissioned by the city’s Guild of Bakers and Millers.
Here, obviously, the loaves – the backbone of the bakers’ and millers’ business – play a star role in this story from the New Testament. Guild members must have been proud to bathe in the reflected glory of the Lord through their humble product, the loaf of bread.
The same can be said of the “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, by Hans van Elburcht, commissioned by the Guild of Fishmongers.
Here, too, the fishmongers’ product plays a star role in another story from the New Testament. No doubt, guild members were pleased to remind non-guild members of the holiness of their product because of its close relationship to the Lord.
A rather straightforward, though more racy, connection between guild and subject matter is also made in the “Wedding at Cana”, by Maerten de Vos.
The commissioning guild in this case was the Guild of Innkeepers, who of course would be selling large quantities of wine (and other alcoholic drinks) on their premises (just to remind those readers who may not be too familiar with biblical stories, this is the story where Jesus turned water into wine). Perhaps this was a way for inn-keepers to gently suggest that their business was nothing if not holy.
A pretty straightforward relationship also exists between the subject and the commissioning guild in the next painting, the “Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Frans Floris.
Look at that mass of writhing flesh! So thrilling. It must have been very difficult for church goers to concentrate on the mass with this painting to look at. It was commissioned by the Guild of Fencers, whose job it was to maintain public order and defend the city. So the painter has chosen as his subject the Archangel Michael and his men, arch-defender of Good, beating back the arch-representatives of Evil, Satan and his hordes, using, of course, the arms which the fencers themselves would be using. In this case, the painter had to stray from the Old and New Testaments into the Book of Revelation for his subject matter; no matter, it was part of the accepted Canon. I mean, didn’t Milton use this story for his poem “Paradise Lost”?
The painting by Frans Francken, “Christ among the scribes”, highlights another issue: what to do if you wanted a painter to paint a nice painting for your guild but you weren’t rich enough to afford him, and you weren’t rich enough to support a side-chapel? The answer, obviously, was for a couple of guilds to share the costs. This is exactly what the Guilds of Schoolmasters and Soap Makers did. They shared a side-chapel in the cathedral and they shared the cost of the painting. To make sure that each guild was represented in the painting, they had a triptych painted. Since the schoolmasters were willing to pay a greater share of the painter’s fee, they got more square centimetres of painted surface for their subject matter.
More specifically, the schoolmasters got the centre panel and the right-hand panel, while the soap makers only got the left-hand panel. The scene in the centre panel is Jesus as a young boy instructing the teachers in the temple – no doubt the dream of every schoolboy and girl, and a rather strange subject for schoolmasters I have to say, unless Antwerp’s schoolmasters were a very humble lot. The scene in the right-hand panel is Saint Ambrose, patron saint of teachers and one of the Doctors of the Church (doctor as in PhD rather than in MD), baptising Saint Augustine, another of the Doctors of the Church.
The poor old soap makers had to make do with a very obscure story from the First Book of Kings (obscure at least to me). It has to do with the prophet Elijah, who miraculously ensured that the poor widow Sarepta was able to fill numerous pitchers of oil from the small jar that she had, thus allowing her to pay off her debts. For those of my readers who may not immediately see the connection to soap making, I should remind them that soap is made from boiling lye with oil (at least, it used to; God knows how chemists make it nowadays).
After that, the relationship between the subject of the paintings we saw in the cathedral and the guild commissioning it got a little more tenuous. For instance, we have the “Adoration of the Magi”, by Artus Wolffort.
This was commissioned by the Guild of Tailors. What does this subject have to do with tailors, readers may be asking. Well, through the expensive clothes that the painter can have the Magi wearing! Viewers could be reminded of the wonderful (and expensive) clothes the city’s tailors could make. And perhaps the tailors, admiring the painting during a particularly boring mass, could find in it a confirmation of their skills.
A painting with what seems to me an even more tenuous connection between subject matter and commissioning guild is the “Lamentation” by Quinten Metsijs.
The painting was commissioned by the Guild of Carpenters. I puzzled over this one for a while, and concluded that the only connection with carpentry and wood working were the three crosses far away in the background. I guess it is a carpenter who have sawed the wood from which the crosses were made. But why not simply a painting of Saint Joseph? He was a carpenter. Maybe that was too banal a topic. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t even seem to have been the patron saint of the guild. That honour went Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist, who are the subjects of the two side-panels.
Having done the tour of the exhibition, I wondered out loud to my cousin what could have been a suitable biblical theme for the guild he would have been a member of had he lived and worked in Antwerp in the 16th-17th Centuries. I should explain that until he retired my cousin had worked for many years for a company that makes trucks like these.
Of course, this particular mode of transport did not exist in biblical times (or indeed even in 16th century Antwerp) but I think we can all agree that the equivalent would have been the cart, rather like the one we have in that famous Constable painting, the “Hay Wain”.
And I’m sure there was a guild for cart-makers (or maybe carriage and cart makers).
Nothing came to our minds on the spot, but in my spare moments in Vienna I have returned to the question. What biblical scene has carts in it, which could have been a suitable subject for some famous Antwerp painter to paint? Not knowing the bible by heart, I have done the next best thing, which is to search on-line versions of it put there by various Christian associations earnestly hoping that you will dip into the Good Book. Dip I did, using “cart” as the search word. And I came up trumps! Not in the New Testament, where the word cart doesn’t appear once (no doubt a reflection of Jesus’s poverty; he walked everywhere and owned nothing to speak of), but in the Old Testament, specifically in the First Book of Samuel. The story is part of the eternal wars between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Philistines have captured the Ark of the Covenant and have borne it back in triumph to the temple of their god Dagon. But strange things happen in the temple, horrible diseases and other calamities strike the Philistines. The Philistine rulers decide to send the Ark back to the Israelites. Their diviners tell them to put the Ark on a cart drawn by two cows, add a chest of treasure as a guilt offering, and let the cows go free. If the cows go back towards Israelite territory, then all their troubles have indeed been caused by the Israelites’ God. And of course that is exactly what the cows do. The story more or less finishes as follows (I quote this for reasons which will become clear in a minute): “Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord [poor cows!]. The Levites took down the ark of the Lord, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. The large rock on which the Levites set the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.”
Unfortunately, I could find no painter of the 16th or 17th centuries who depicted this scene. The best I could come up with was this depiction by a 19th century American folk artist who goes by the wonderful name of Erastus Salisbury Field.
From the short piece of text I cited above, I think readers will immediately see that Erastus was depicting the moment when the cart arrived in Beth Shemeth.
Well, after this success at finding a painting to fit my cousin’s presumed guild, what about me? First of all, what could have been my guild? Well, my last job was for the UN, and that certainly didn’t exist in the golden age of guilds, so that couldn’t be an entry point for me. I suppose UN work could be associated to government work. But government workers didn’t get a guild either – they did (and still do) nothing practical, just write and file documents of one form or another. My job before that – as a consultant – doesn’t help either. Consultants just advise, with the real work being done by others. As I wrote in my home page, I suppose the one thing which has run like a thread through all my jobs is that I had to write. So maybe I could have been a member of the Guild of Scriveners!
So now the question is, what could have been a suitable biblical scene to have painted for this guild? Scriveners are the same as scribes, and the New Testament is full of stories of scribes. But they are all negative stories, scribes being depicted as nasty people on the same level as the Pharisees. I don’t want negative publicity for my guild! So I turned once more to the on-line bible and did a search in the Old Testament. The best I could come up with is another obscure story in the Second Book of Kings involving King Josiah. Josiah instructs that the money which has been collected in the Temple be used for the Temple’s maintenance. While gathering the money, the High Priest finds the Book of Law (presumably the book had fallen out of use and this particular copy was gathering dust in some corner of the Temple). He gives it to Shaphan the scribe along with a report on how much money has been given to the maintenance crew. Shaphan comes before Joshua and reads the report but also reads him the Book of Law. Josiah tears his clothes because he realises that the Israelites haven’t been following the Law and “great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book by doing according to all that is written concerning us.” I presume Josiah does something about this but I didn’t read any further. As my painting, I came up with this one, painted by the 17th Century Dutch painter Leonaert Bramer, showing Shaphan humbly reading the Book to a rather concerned-looking Josiah.
Well, this painting certainly fits with the period in which the other paintings in Antwerp cathedral were painted. Frankly, though, I prefer the painting I found for my cousin. But there you go.
Oh, and the rest of Antwerp was very nice.
POSTSCRIPT, 22 July 2018
After reading this post, a good friend of mine gave me some excellent suggestions for alternative paintings, both for my cousin’s guild as well as for my own. He was kind enough not to say it, but the key was to “think out of the box”, to put aside the straitjacket of finding a story in the Bible and to allow more creative ideas in. His suggestion for my cousin was Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Haywain Triptych”.
Pride of place in this triptych goes to a magnificent cart full of hay, the haywain, in the centre panel. The whole work is a rather delirious take – typical of Bosch – on the rather sad story of Man. On the left, after the rebel angels have been cast out of heaven (also the subject of that muscular painting above for the Guild of Fencers) we have Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with them eventually being thrown out for having disobeyed God’s instructions. Then, in the middle, as the haywain of our lives trundles inexorably along towards death on the right, we have people enacting out every possible sin of which we are capable, busily ignoring Christ our Saviour up in the clouds. The result of all this is shown on the right, where we are all burning in Hell. I suppose you could say that this is the Medieval version of “Life’s a bitch and then you die”. I will leave it to my cousin to decide if he wants his guild to be represented by such a pessimistic vision of life.
As to my guild, my friend suggested Dürer’s “St. Jerome in his Study”.
This is an excellent suggestion! St. Jerome’s main claim to fame these days is his translation of the Bible into Latin, which he spent years over in the Holy Land, busily scribbling away. I think I can definitely live with Dürer’s vision of learned and saintly paper scratching in a library-like environment as the image that my guild would want to project in its side-chapel in Antwerp cathedral. It’s a pity that Dürer only did an engraving, a painting would have been better. I could of course go for one of the hundreds of paintings on this theme which litter every self-respecting museum, but they all rather irritatingly show St. Jerome half-naked. I understand this is due to a confusion: this Saint Jerome has been conflated with another saint of the same name who did indeed go around half naked and who spent his time beating himself as penitence. To show what I’m talking about, I show a take by on the topic by Caravaggio, where the painter at least had the decency to pretty much cover Saint Jerome up.
But writing semi-naked is definitely not my style.
This mention of Caravaggio has suddenly made me think of another exciting possibility! I had quite forgotten that there are other very saintly acts of writing in the Christian Story, namely the writing of the four gospels by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. Caravaggio did an excellent painting of St. Matthew writing his gospel. Actually, he did two. The first was unfortunately destroyed in Berlin during the Second World War.
The patrons who commissioned the painting rejected it because it made St. Matthew look too stupid. It is certainly true that the St. Matthew in this painting looks completely befuddled as the young angel pretty much takes his hand and writes the story for him. So Caravaggio painted another version, still to be seen in all its glory in the chapel dedicated to Saint Matthew in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
As a caravaggiophile, I would love to have a Caravaggio represent my Guild of Scriveners! I have a feeling that my guild would have chosen the second Caravaggio for the same reasons as the original patrons, although personally I would have preferred the first. I love that completely confused look on St. Matthew’s face – writing is such a difficult task, you never know where your hand (left hand in my case) will lead you.
Antwerp cathedral exterior: http://www.visitflanders.com/en/things-to-do/attractions/top/the-cathedral-of-our-lady.jsp
Antwerp cathedral interior: http://www.medievalists.net/2011/01/medieval-origins-of-the-cathedral-of-our-lady-in-antwerp-belgium/
Ambrosius Francken, “Multiplication of the Loaves”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Multiplication_of_the_Loaves_(Ambrosius_Francken)_July_2015-1a.jpg
Hans van Elburcht and School of Ambrosius Francken, “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”: https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-antwerp-belgium-paint-miracle-fishing-scene-hans-van-elburcht-abbrosius-francken-year-september-cathedral-image77028241
Maerten de Vos, “Wedding at Cana”: https://www.gettyimages.at/detail/nachrichtenfoto/the-wedding-at-cana-oil-on-canvas-after-maarten-de-vos-nachrichtenfoto/526962934#/the-wedding-at-cana-oil-on-canvas-after-maarten-de-vos-kadriorg-art-picture-id526962934
Frans Floris, “Fall of the Rebel Angels”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Fall_of_rebel_Angels_(Frans_Floris)_September_2015-1a.jpg
Frans Francken, “Christ among the scribes”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Christ_among_scribes_(Frans_Francken)_September_2015-5.jpg
Artus Wolffort, “Adoration of the Magi”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Artus_Wolffort)_July_2015-1a.jpg
Quinten Metsijs, “Lamentation”: https://www.kmska.be/en/collectie/highlights/Schrijnwerkers.html
John Constable, “The Hay Wain”: https://www.planet-puzzles.com/grafika-john-constable-la-charette-de-foin-1821-puzzle-1000-pieces.p46141.html
Erastus Salisbury Field, “The Ark of the Covenant”: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/ark-of-the-covenant-erastus-salisbury-field.html
Leonaert Bramer, “The Scribe Shaphan Reading the Book of Law to King Josiah”: https://www.passionforpaintings.com/en/art-gallery/leonaert-bramer-painter/the-scribe-shaphan-reading-the-book-of-law-to-king-josiah-oil-painting-reproduction
Hieronymus Bosch, “the Haywain Triptych”: https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-haywain-triptych/7673843a-d2b6-497a-ac80-16242b36c3ce
Albrecht Dürer, “St. Jerome in his Study”: https://www.pinterest.at/pin/208995238931007942/?lp=true
Caravaggio, “St. Jerome writing”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Jerome_Writing-Caravaggio_(1605-6).jpg
Caravaggio, “Saint Matthew and the Angel”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Matthew_and_the_Angel#/media/File:Caravaggio_MatthewAndTheAngel_byMikeyAngels.jpg
Caravaggio, “The Inspiration of Saint Matthew”: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=136502