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Baroque Art

The Italian word "baroco" means bizarre or ridiculous. The name "Baroque" may also come from the Portuguese word for an irregular pearl.
Baroque art started in the beginning of the seventeenth century, primarily in Rome. It was concerned with the response of the spectators to images, and like the counter-reformation, its objective was to attract people, to gain support for its concepts and ideas.
In Baroque art we can discern between several schools and types of painting, which although belonging to the Baroque mainstream distinguish themselves by particular themes.

Hereafter I providee some information on a few of these trends and schools.


Tenebrism was a movement of the Baroque started by the Italian painter Caravaggio. The Caravaggist painters emphasised contrasts between light and dark. They painted backgrounds in dark tones and brought figures dramatically to the forefront, out of the sombre tones in full light. Typical pictures were scenes lit by a single candle that threw its light on a group of people. Tenebrism characterised especially Caravaggio and Rembrandt, but also Spanish painting of the seventeenth century. Spanish devotional pictures were made in very low tones, dark in colour and content.

Genre painting

"Genre" denotes paintings of daily life. As such it denotes content, not an art historical period. This art contains no idealised or religious themes. The style was however created in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, and it is as such very characteristic of the Baroque period. Genre painting was applied also in the eighteenth century in other countries such as France (Jean Siméon Chardin), Italy (Pietro Longhi) and Great-Britain (William Hogarth). Dutch genre not only represents themes of the life inside the houses of common people, but also often scenes of taverns and brothels. The scenes often convey a moral message.

Dutch Italianates

The Dutch Italianates were a group of painters of the seventeenth century in the Netherlands. The painters incorporated Italian subjects in their work. Those were often typical arcadian scenes, such as taken from Claude Le Lorrain’s pictures, and shepherds grazing their flocks among ancient ruins. These artists made pictures that much differed in themes from their contemporaries in the Netherlands. Some of them were also Caravaggists. Painters of this group were Bartholomeus Breenbergh, Andreas Both and Jan Both (both of Utrecht), Cornelis Poelenburgh, Pieter van Laer, Karel Duyndam, Nicolaes Berchem and Jan Asselijn (both of Haarlem).

Bamboccio Bamboccio was a style of Baroque painting that was created in Rome in the first quarter of the seventeenth century by the Dutch painter Pieter van Laer. In Bamboccio, picturesque scenes of many figures are shown, usually of daily Italian country life, with humble and poor peasants, and sometimes also gypsy themes or themes of thefts and attacks on country roads.

During the Baroque period, discovery was made of the usage of slanting lines for movement. Vertical lines were abandoned as preponderant directions of aspiration. Horizontal and diagonal lines were preferred.

Baroque was characterised by curved forms, much decoration, evasive symbolism, pathos, confusion of figures, and energy of movement in dynamic scenes. The left and right basic triangles of composition were often used, as the diagonals were followed as supportive lines around which the drama of the scenes evolved. The stage composition was much used in narrative pictures. Some painters also arranged their scenes in compositions of horizontal layers (such as for instance Paolo Veronese).

Strong hues were used in Baroque, often in broad brushstrokes. This freedom in applying paint, sometimes in thick layers, was a new expression of the emotions of the painters. Baroque is characterised by a preponderance of warm red and ochre colours, in quite low tones. Usually, however, strong vitality of colours was used to underscore the passion and drama.

Baroque art was mostly the religious art of the Counter-Reformation of Roman Catholicism. In Italy and Belgium, Baroque was about Contra-reformation, so still many devotional pictures were made. Also, mythological scenes were popular. Not all art of this period was so luxurious or sumptuous. Caravaggio’s contrasts of dark and light in naturalistic, but still stern scenes, are also counted to the Baroque period. In the Netherlands and Germany more restrained subjects were painted, many Old Testament themes were taken up. Typical characteristics of Baroque art are the strong appeal on the emotions of the viewer, also in the devotional themes.

Baroque applied great illusion of depth, sometimes in very mannered stage compositions. Aerial perspective was much used. There was less emphasis on wide and deep landscapes with linear perspective.

Painters of the Baroque period were Caravaggio, Pieter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Aelbert Cuyp, Orazio Gentileschi, Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, Guido Reni, Sanchez-Cotan, Diego Velazquez, and Francisco Zurbaran.

Mainly two features mark Baroque art, as compared to the Late Renaissance. One was unbridled show of emotions in a dramatic, theatrical way. However, Mannerism had already much evolved in this, so that Baroque art is for this aspect only an evolution of Mannerism and one that was less ruled by tension, more natural, and not so violent. Baroque art introduced a freedom in brushstrokes that was unknown to Mannerism, however, and the pathos that was still more visible.
Mannerism stayed to a large extent a contemplative art, and an art of idealised scenes. Baroque would introduce naturalism. The other novelty that was introduced was the use of the contrast between light and dark.

Caravaggio truly started a revolution also in two ways, which modified forever the art of painting. He introduced full realism in his pictures. Showing Jesus Christ as the portrait of a real person was new. It shocked by its naturalism. Caravaggio explored like no one before him the play of light and darkness to a kind of painting called Tenebrism, but that aspect was not taken up as far by all Baroque painters. Caravaggio learned moreover how to use oblique lines to give an impression of movement, and that style element was fully acquired by subsequent artists.

These were the ingredients that Baroque art needed to be a spectacular new way of very showy representation of emotions. Baroque may have in this been a logical evolution merely of Mannerism, but Caravaggio accelerated the change. Then the change was exploited for at least a century. Thus Baroque art was a powerful, mature and enduring art form.

The Descent from the Cross

Pieter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). The Courtauld Institute and Art Galleries. London. Painted in 1611.

The inevitable pictures of Baroque and of the theme of the "Descent of the Cross" are the several versions Pieter Paul Rubens made of the subject.

Rubens was born in Siegen in Germany in 1577, but moved when he was very young to the metropolis of Antwerp. Antwerp was then probably the largest and richest port of Western and Northern Europe. Pieter Paul had various masters to teach him the art of painting in Antwerp, but he left in 1600 for Italy and stayed in Mantua, Rome, Genoa and even in Venice. Around 1608 he returned to Antwerp, and became the painter of the Archdukes Albert and Isabella who governed the Southern Netherlands and thus also Antwerp. After 1620 Rubens would start again on a series of travels to Italy, the Northern Netherlands, Spain and England. He travelled not just as one of the most renowned painters of his era, but also as a diplomat.
Rubens’ style was famous throughout the whole of Europe. He was a painter of Kings and Queens. Maria de Medici, then Queen of France, commissioned to him an enormous set of pictures on her and her husband’s life, which paintings are still kept today in one vast hall of the Louvre in Paris. Rubens died in 1640.

His painting "The Descent of the Cross" for the Antwerp Cathedral dates from 1612 to 1614. The version in the Courtauld Institute of London is from a somewhat earlier date, from 1611. So, this was a first try at a subject to which he seems to have turned to several times in his life.

The picture strikes by its bold composition around one of the diagonals. Jesus is lowered from the cross and his body hangs in a line going from the lower left to the upper right. Rubens had learned how to use diagonals probably from Caravaggio, who used these lines with preference. Rubens had been in Italy and in Rome just before Caravaggio’s death, and had seen this master’s innovations for instance in the use of oblique lines of composition. Rubens had a much less rigorous character though than Caravaggio in the art of painting. Caravaggio was uncompromising and indomitable, and so were his pictures, especially his later ones. Rubens compromised with his commissioners. But he condescended as a Seigneur. Of course he grew very rich. Rubens was all abundance, greatness, unrestrained pathos, grandness in design, and he always tried to browbeat any viewer by his stunning effects.
In some pictures, such as in the series he made for Maria de Medici, Rubens was unrestrained in his exaggeration. But Rubens could also, without leaving his personal Baroque way of painting, be strangely intimate and quiet. Thus, we have marvellous landscapes of him such as the "Winter" and "Summer" in the Wallace Collection in London. In the "Descent of the Cross", Rubens has applied his usual exuberance, but he created at the same time a devote and very expressive image of Jesus.

Jesus hangs lifeless in a white shroud. He is lowered in and by the shroud. The shroud follows in a long movement the diagonal of the painting. The body of Jesus hangs in the linen, almost as pale and livid as the cloth. His arms still hold the form of the cross. Rubens has Jesus’s arms supported by a disciple who has climbed to the top of the cross. Thus in death, Jesus has retained the first form of the symbol of Christianity.
In the triangle to the right of the diagonal of Jesus are Saint John, Jesus’s beloved disciple, and a figure that could be Joseph of Arimathea. John wears a red robe, which Rubens painted in marvellous colours and detail.
In the triangle on the left, the upper triangle, is Nicodemus. He may be recognised by his richer dress, but also by his large cloak and cap, for Nicodemus was the one who came secretly in the night to argue with Jesus on his teachings. Nicodemus also is dressed in red.

The red of Nicodemus’ cloak answers the red surface of John symmetrically, and these two volumes are aligned along the second diagonal of the frame. Thus there is strong composition, strong lines and balance to be found in an otherwise seemingly chaotic scene.
The scene is in intense movement. Lowering Jesus is a difficult task with so many figures around, probably with all people giving a hand but nobody in command, and all in awe over the body of the dead Son of God. A dynamic scene with strong underlying composition is always one of the main features of the greatest artists.

Mary Magdalene kneels at the foot of the cross, as was the tradition. She holds the lowest tip of the shroud and she is knelt, together with the other Mary, the mother of James and John. Jesus’s mother in the blue maphorion is on the left. The Virgin Mary shows her grief and tenderness for her son by trying to touch her son, even though Jesus is not fully lowered yet. Hence her outstretched arm and long hand touching Jesus’ elbow, in a dramatic demonstration of love, which remains however entirely credible despite the obvious mannerism of the gesture.

The three Maries form again a triangle, which is matched symmetrically by the triangle of the two workmen that are on top of the cross, and their outstretched arms. The two men are half-naked, and the bare arms and necks of the two Mary’s match these colours of flesh. The workmen are powerful, and Rubens has once more used the occasion to show his skill in depicting male anatomy.
The arm of the man on the left is strong and very muscular. Rubens has painted this arm with the shadows of the muscles brought to full volume. The arms of Jesus are more slender and fine. Rubens has expressed here the difference between the delicacy of the intellectual Jesus and the rough workers.
Colour symmetry can be found furthermore in the blue of the Virgin Mary’s robe and on the other side of the point where the diagonals intersect, that is the middle of the frame, stands Joseph also dressed in the same blue.
The whole structure of the composition then is also a pyramid, formed by the two ladders that have been put against the cross, on which stand Joseph of Arimathea to the right and Nicodemus on the left. An attentive viewer will be astonished to discover the many deliberate lines, the balance and symmetry of colours, and the structure of volumes that the seemingly unbridled Pieter Paul Rubens has used, underlying in this picture.

Rubens had made a painting around 1609 of the "Lance Thrust", in which he had a soldier pierce Jesus’s right side. Here Rubens shows the wound of the lance, but on the left side of Jesus.
Jesus is shown totally lifeless and livid. His head hangs down powerless, and also his lips have opened, in what could be understood as the last pain. Jesus is depicted as an ascetic man. The lines of the white shroud are strict, elongated, and almost straight. All around Jesus however are folds, curves, flowing robes, and round forms. There is an encircling movement of heads and robed bodies around Jesus, which surround him in human emotion. Emotion is all curves and volume; emotion is not expressed in straight geometric lines. Thus, although this "Descent of the Cross" has very strong structure, the tondo form of the humans around Jesus is the central theme of feelings. The picture is a warm expression of compassion. The warm and harmonious colours used by Rubens enhance this feeling.

With the "Descent of the Cross", Rubens has undeniably created a masterpiece. The exuberant master has shown here that he could contain the apparent exaggeration of expression of feelings within strict geometrical structure. The result is an example of the greatness of image the best painters could aspire to.

The Entombment

Michelangelo Merisi called Il Caravaggio (1570-1610). Pinacoteca. The Vatican. Painted in 1604.

Although Rubens had good masters in Antwerp like Adam van Noort and Otto van Veen, none of these could have taught him such sophistication in expression. Rubens had seen and studied this in the pictures of Caravaggio in Rome. Rubens had learned a lot of Caravaggio, but he added empathy and sentiment to the immediate realism of the Italian master.

Michelangelo Merisi, called Caravaggio, painted an "Entombment" in 1602 to 1604, during the time when he was still in Rome. This painting is now in the Vatican Pinacoteca. Rubens must have seen it while he stayed in Rome; such a picture was not to be missed. Caravaggio’s "Entombment", however, is quite another scene than Rubens’. The cross, the form of which is very apparent in Rubens’ image, lacks here. Caravaggio was a true innovator and it is no wonder that he pictured an "‘Entombment" without the obvious sign of the cross. This painter was subtler and less conformist. Caravaggio’s scene is more a scene relating how Jesus was brought down Golgotha to his tomb. Joseph of Arimathea and John are carrying the lifeless body of Jesus. They are bent under the effort. Somewhat higher are the three Maries.

Caravaggio also has used the diagonal that goes from the lower left to the upper right, expressed in the line that goes from Jesus’s right arm to the heads of Joseph and Mary Magdalene. The form of the cross could not entirely be missed in the picture, so Caravaggio has shown the third Mary with outstretched arms in the form of a cross. This becomes credible since also the arms of a cross are high.

In Caravaggio’s painting there is much movement and gestures, as the scene is caught in the flux of the moment. But equally, there is such strong structure as to be almost unbelievable.
There is the diagonal. There is a pyramidal structure with as top the head of Mary Salome, and further on as basis the body of Jesus and the slab of stone at the bottom. There are two very strong horizontal lines, one in the body of Jesus and one in the stone slab, emphasising the earth to which Jesus returns.
The stone slab shows in an ominous way the border between life and eternal death. The heads of Joseph and of John are in symmetry, and along the sidelines of the pyramid. So are the heads of Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. The long, bright red robe of John indicates the second diagonal.

Caravaggio has shown his great talent of realism and of expressing the psychology of the persons in their faces.
John is a worried, very sad youth. He remains in the darkness of shame and private pain. Joseph of Arimathea - a figure that may also be Nicodemus - is an elderly man with a wrinkled face, very intent, but tired. John is knelt and does not seem to suffer of the weight of Jesus. But Joseph is bent under the effort. Joseph is totally concentrated on his act of lowering Christ into the tomb, yet he also looks at the viewer and thus seems to call us in to testify and to seek comprehension for the drama.
Mary Magdalene holds her eyes down in shame and true sadness. She has wept, and dries her eyes with a white cloth, maybe a corner of the shroud. She is a young girl with marvellous curls around a beautiful face. The Virgin Mary is the suffering mother, not the young Virgin anymore but the ageing mother of the mature Jesus. She has covered her head in an ancient sign of mourning. Mary Salome throws her hands to the heavens in an outcry of grief. She may be a servant woman, with a more plain face. In these expressions of the various faces lay one of the many strengths of the remarkable painter Michelangelo Merisi.

Rubens must have stood in awe at Caravaggio’s tour de force of combining movement and static lines, not in one but in so many pictures.

Caravaggio has painted then all flesh and muscles in splendid volume by the play of the shadows. Jesus again is not a very muscular man, but a graceful person. His chest is forceful but hairless; it is painted very respectfully. Here also, the white shroud is around Jesus, but hanging in loose curves down from him. Remark that Caravaggio has shown Jesus with a head hanging aside powerless, and with open lips. Rubens’ image of Jesus is similar.

Who of these two painters has made the most powerful image? Both pictures are undeniably masterpieces, and since the two scenes are different we need not ask such a question. Caravaggio’s picture is maybe a little too static, whereas Rubens has known perfectly to blend complete and extreme lively movement with the strong structure and symmetries. But Caravaggio’s picture appeals to us more, as we are plunged in the middle of the scene and very close to the lifeless Jesus. Both pictures are unforgettable. They show the final sophistication in expression of the highest moment of Jesus’s passion.

The Descent from the Cross

Harmensz Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen. Munich. Painted around 1633.

Rembrandt’s scene happens in the evening. A dead corpse is lowered from the cross. We see only a highlighted white cloth into which lies an inert body. The body needs to be supported at legs, arms and head, and it sags miserably together. But for the centre scene of brightness, all is dark. The "Deposition" of Pieter Paul Rubens and the "Entombment" of Caravaggio show a Jesus of dignity, but there is no dignity in Rembrandt’s Jesus.

Rembrandt painted from a very austere composition. The cross stands high and ominous. It dominates the scene by its verticality. It divides the painting exactly in two and its vertical beam does not go much beyond the horizontal part that once held the arms of Jesus. This sign of the cross is unusual. It resembles more the Egyptian Tau symbol, and it shows that Rembrandt deliberately wanted to make a picture that differed from traditional presentations, also in this detail.
The monumentality of the cross is very apparent. Jesus is lowered down the cross and as the human body disappears, the symbol becomes more towering, as it will be from now on the symbol of Christianity, the symbol of a movement that will conquer the European world. Jesus is lowered, the cross shows transcendence and it grows in meaning. Yet, the horizontal beams stop its élan, its movement towards the skies, and Rembrandt painted there, at the top, a simple man. This man needed to climb there to lower Jesus. He is just any man, a simple worker who has seen the only practical solution to lower a corpse down gently without regard for the formidable symbol of the cross. With the simple means of a horizontal line that stops a vertical direction and the figure of a common man, Rembrandt brought a scene of very spiritual aspirations back to earth. This was a very Protestant view, in which the clergy and the religious community always stressed the humility of humans, the humanity of the broken Christ, as compared to the emphasis of the Roman Catholic Church on the splendour, glory and epic of Jesus and the Kingdom of the Heavens.

Rembrandt worked in the Tenebrist way. Everywhere is darkness, but for the central scene. This scene is exactly in the middle of the frame considered as a rectangle. Here Rembrandt used his famous lead-white hues in harsh brightness. The white cloth and the white, nude corpse enhance the light. It shows in full misery the sagging body that crumples together as it is lowered. There is no rigor mortis in the body. The various parts of Jesus, his arms and belly slump under their own weight and must be supported everywhere. Rembrandt had to draw Jesus like this to show him entirely as lifeless, without energy, and without the later dignity given to him by the New Testament.

The symmetries of the composition are multiple and built around Jesus’s head. A triangle of three other heads surrounds Jesus’s face. These three heads confine the central theme of the suffering Christ. They imprison the view, so that the viewer’s gaze would stay for a longer time on Jesus’s face.
Rembrandt constructed a second triangle to a traditional pyramid composition in the figures standing below on the right and on the left.
Rembrandt’s picture of the "Deposition" has therefore a very strong structure that realises the unity of forms. The structure is very stable and solidly positioned on the base of the frame, supporting the symbol of the cross. This solidity seems to build in a sense of eternity, and yet the act of the moment also breaks this feeling.
These contrasts between the strong composition and the obvious monumentality of the cross on the one hand, and the various almost picturesque details on the other hand, create a tension and a feeling of uneasiness in the painting that is quite deranging for the viewer.
The deposition was the real moment of horror in the Passion of Jesus. Until then, Jesus had been venerated like the God he proclaimed he was. He was respected. He taught and reproached people. Even on the cross he had been formidable, calling on his Father and a terrible storm with darkness, wind and lightning had still testified to his power. Now the God had died and only a miserable human is lowered. This corpse has to be touched, to be manipulated, and nobody really knows how to do this with dignity and respect. Therefore, a man has climbed on top of the cross, oblivious of the future power of the sign. Here is the meaning of the tension in Rembrandt’s picture.

The "Deposition from the Cross" was a picture that Rembrandt made around 1633. He was then only twenty-six years old, having been born in the town of Leiden in Holland in 1606. But Rembrandt was already a well-known artist. He had been living in Amsterdam since two years, in the house of the art merchant van Uylenburgh and he received many commissions. He met the niece of van Uylenburgh, Saskia van Uylenburgh, and he would marry her the next year 1634. So these were quite happy years for the painter. And yet, in all happiness and with the longing for fame, fortune, and bursting with creative energy, Rembrandt made an intimist and sad painting such as this "Deposition". His potential to reflect seriously on a theme, live himself into its essence, was formidably present in him, already at a young age. He had already discovered how he wanted to paint his life through. His scenes would always emerge out of the darkness with a dramatic immediacy, fully impressing in the viewer the strong emotions of the figures. This was where the genius showed, as Saskia must have sensed.

Rembrandt had been a painter before, in Leiden, and Constantijn Huygens, the secretary of Prince Frederick-Henry of Nassau, had remarked his talents. In 1632 the Prince bought paintings from Rembrandt and commissioned him a cycle on Jesus’s Passion. Rembrandt worked on the panels from 1633 to 1639. The "Deposition" was made for this series. It has remained the best known of the five pictures, because it is the most poignant.


We have shown three Baroque paintings that were very different.
Caravaggio’s painting is the earliest. Caravaggio practically invented Tenebrism, but we saw that his picture, despite a very dark background, was still in splendid colours, and all the figures were painted well visible. We found in Caravaggio strong structure, organised around the left diagonal, but in which also the horizontality was stressed, as Jesus is returned to the earth. Jesus was still a powerful man for Caravaggio, and Jesus's body is treated with respect. Caravaggio mainly showed the grief, but there is much energy in his painting.
Pieter Paul Rubens showed a lifeless body, but equally a strong muscled man that everybody wants to touch, as life still seems to linger in it.
Rubens and Caravaggio showed triumphant scenes, even if the scenes were scenes of death. These were scenes of epic.
Rembrandt then only showed the misery of a scene that is almost a sacrilege, or in which all the figures seem to fear touching Jesus, thus let the God slump together. Rembrandt had another concept in mind than Caravaggio and Rubens. Rubens represented glory, Caravaggio the realism of sadness and confusion, Rembrandt showed misery.
The "Deposition", however, was indeed the saddest moment of Christianity. It was the moment between the Passion that accomplished Jesus’s mission and his Resurrection. It was the most terrible moment, for hope was destroyed. The presumed God had died ignominiously, had become a sagging corpse that needed to be handled in the normal but always disrespectful way to bring it down the cross and into the tomb. Nothing seemed to remain then from all the hopes and aspirations that the disciples and family of Jesus might have had, all promises quenched.
In Rubens' and in Caravaggio’s picture, the cross is practically invisible. With Rembrandt, in spite of all the humility of the corpse, the symbol of the cross becomes formidable, such as it was to conquer the European world.

Still life with Parrots

Jan Davidsz. De Heem (1606-1684). The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Sarasota, Florida. Painted in the late 1640s.

Many still lives are bleak pictures, without inspiration, closed and without joy. There are often only a few objects displayed, the pictures are exercises in style, or the painter had no other meaning but to show his craftsmanship. Although colours may be bright, especially for seventeenth century Dutch paintings, the background is often brownish, quite vast and without interest. After all, although in most languages these pictures are indeed called "still lives", they are called in French "Nature Morte" or "dead nature".
We usually are at unease with these paintings. We have an impression of solitude, such as we can feel when we wake up in an afternoon alone in a quiet house. We feel lost and aching, without aim in life. Undefined fears take possession of our minds. These were the feelings that the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called "La Nausée", the existential fear, and the one emotion that was so hated and utterly refused by Europeans. It was the loneliness and fate of the frail human being confronted with vast eternity.

The painting "Still Life with Parrots" also is supposed to be such a picture of things dead, of life that was, of lifeless objects, things drawn artfully together either to show the skill of the painter or to be an object of decoration. Yet this picture of Jan Davidsz De Heem is something quite different, isn’t it?

Life is crawling all over the place. The parrot is well alive though not flying; he proudly guards and shows the exhibition. There are shells of sea life with contorted forms, and dark green leaves reminiscent of a half-wild garden. There are apples and citrus fruit, luscious grapes, and the menacingly long knives of a lobster. It is all a feast for the eye and one easily believes the whole to live a life of its own. These objects talk to us, as they are together. They talk of joy, of far countries; they make us dream and wonder. We will enjoy a feast and while looking at them or eating them, we will not be alone anymore. One object says, "I grew in an untended and wild orchard in Holland". Another, "I stood with my sisters in a meadow in Spain". Yet another, "I was crawling under a hundred fathoms of water". Or, "I am to be found on the beaches of the South Seas, I open my interiors to you – please come in to find a mystery, a pearl, and a dream". "And I, the nut, am so small, but I am the boss of it all, see: I climbed on a pedestal!" This is pure happiness in colours and forms!

The art of the painter is of course present. The objects are not just thrown together at random. There is mathematics and geometry here, as good as in the best Piero della Francesca. There is a hard line of sharp-angled objects going from down right to upper left. One of the seashells in the lower right points to the lobster and the parrot’s beak. This line is drawn from sea-life very deep (the shells) over the earth-things (fruit) to air-life very high (the birds, the parrot) with the lobster as an animal in-between. The lobster is an odd-man-out here. It should have been at the lower part of the picture, not so high. And it peeks from behind the curtain. It has apparently escaped from the design of the artist. It has a life of its own, it was not quite dead, and it has crawled from where it should be, to another place. De Heem's painting really is alive. The parrot is the deviation from structure that brings life. It is also the only creature that can talk.

Another line is at a right angle to the former. This line starts left, and goes to the right. This is the soft line of small round things: citrus fruit, apples, round oysters on a long oval plate that accentuates the direction. It goes from acid (citrus, oysters that just ask for lime) to sweeter fruits (the grapes). So we have to look twice: once from the big shells to the lobster and parrot, to the animal that hangs in the air biting a cut round object, and then we follow the other, lush, soft round flesh citrus-grapes line. Even the large golden vase is all made of round protruding rose buttons, eyes, or whatever your imagination dictates you instantly after following the other round things. It makes the vase also alive.

Most of the objects are open to you, not closed. They invite you to enter or to touch them. They cry out “you are not alone, we invite you amongst us. Touch us, feel us, plunge your hands in us, penetrate us and wallow in us”. The horn shells open their mouths, the citrus is half undone and shows its juicy interior, the oysters are all ready and moist, the melons show their red flesh inside until - following the first line always - we can rest and hide in the green foliage. One can easily surmise very sexual meanings in all this display of open flesh. The other line may then tell us of the angular, thorny pains of sin that can follow.

The overall theme of de Heem’s picture is abundance. There is profusion above the structure. The displayed fruit and objects have all been used in Dutch still lives for their symbolism. Thus, the white and red grapes, with in between the peaches, are a recurrent theme. The grapes generally are symbols of the union between Man and God.
Grapes need much tending and long maturation. The grapes are symbols of the virtue of patience. The white grapes give white wine, which is drunk by the Catholic priest during the Holy Mass liturgy in the Roman Catholic Church. The red grapes pressed and their skins added, become a liquid as red as the blood of Christ. The half-filled glass next to the grapes, holding a wine, refers to the Eucharist. This idea is emphasised by the butterfly near the glass. The butterfly is ready to fly and so lightly that it was a symbol of the soul.

The peaches among the grapes were a symbol of truth in ancient iconography. A peach with one leaf represented heart and tongue. Truth springs from the union of heart and tongue G41 . Christ’s good message was a true message.
The grapes and peaches are on the left side next to a blue box on which stands another wineglass. Blue was always the colour of heaven, of piety and of divine essence.
The pomegranates that are close also are a Christian symbol. They refer to the Resurrection of Christ. The many seeds contained in its case are a symbol of the unity of the many under one authority, the authority of the church’s clergy.
The lobster also has been cited as a symbol of the Resurrection, but most often it represented extravagance and ephemeral pleasures.
Vases are symbols of smell, one of the five senses. A golden vase such as in de Heem’s picture can refer to abundance. Its position close to the grapes and wineglass can indicate a ciborium, used to contain the hosts of the Eucharist.
All the elements in this part of the picture thus refer to Christ’s sacrifice.

Symbolism continues in the tilted dish with the oysters. A tilted dish was used for special meaning in Dutch paintings. It was for instance the main theme of a Roelof Koets still life now in the Museum of Fine Arts of Orléans- France. De Heem used the theme in other of his pictures, as for instance in a still life of the Louvre, Paris. The tilted dish was an additional means to show more fruit in the still life. The tilted dish however meant instability, moral degeneration. In de Heem’s picture the element is associated with open fruit showing their opulent flesh. The oranges near the oysters are symbols of sin. Oranges are often a replacement of the apples of original sin. The oysters themselves are a symbol of lust and sexual desire. Oysters are shown frequently by Dutch painters in genre scenes, for instance next to a man holding a woman’s breasts. Spices were supposed to arouse sexually, a spice holder for pepper is near the oysters.

The dark, silver pitcher on the lower left is an attribute of Hebe, who was the handmaiden of the Gods. Hebe personified temperance G41 . Thus, the pitcher can be understood as a symbol of temperance. It contains the water to put out the fires of lust. The pitcher symbolises sexual temperance.
The citrus fruit down from the oysters are unwound, representing the passing of time. This feeling is strengthened by the empty seashells, which may indicate the emptiness of life.
Finally, the red damask tablecloth is withdrawn from one corner of the table to show a dark mass of foliage. This may represent hell, a dark disorderly space into which an immoral life leads.
Underneath we see a lamp. It is not lit, but Jesus referred to himself as the light in the darkness. This light is extinguished here.

The upper part of the painting represents the virtues of a life according to God’s word. Here all objects are reminiscent of Jesus’s life. The lower part represents lust and lechery, immorality.

The painting "Still life with Parrots" of de Heem does not just show abundance of objects and forms. It contains dense symbolism. It seems to be almost an encyclopaedia of spiritual symbols used in Dutch still lives of the seventeenth century. De Heem puts all the symbols and meanings skilfully together in an ordered and yet natural manner. The painting is all order beneath the confusion. It looks so simple, yet it has several hidden meanings to what is a complex moral message. The five senses can be discerned in the images. The parrots can represent hearing, the oysters represent taste, and the protuberant forms of the golden vase can represent touch and all the luxuriant food, and a symbol for sight. Wonderful smells are certainly in the air, and the prominent golden vase was also an ancient attribute of smell G41 .

Dutch still lives most often were full of underlying moral meaning. They were then called "Vanitas" still lives, which admonish the viewers to remember the transience of life and the worthlessness of earthly pleasures. "Vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas" is a phrase from the Ecclesiasticus book of the Bible, referring to temperance and the passing of time. In the painting of de Heem the magnificently coloured parrot looks with pity at a killed, dark parrot hanging head down and dead from the ceiling. Thus, life is immediately linked to death. This idea is also emphasised by the border of the table. Here is the end of the space of the scene, the end of life, and the oyster dish dangerously slips off that space and time into dark oblivion.

Finally, the whole movement of symbols leads to the nut on the pedestal, just on the border of the table. The outer, green case of nuts represented the flesh of Christ. The hard shell of the nut was the wood of the cross. The kernel of the nut represented Christ’s divine nature. The nut stands in de Heem’s painting between lust and death. The nut has also been used as a symbol of female virginity. The breaking of the nut was thought to represent the breaking of the hymn in marriage. The oysters also refer to this image. In de Heem’s painting, the nut can either symbolise continued lust, or the remembrance of Christ at the time of death, and the last redemption.

De Heem was Dutch, born in the town of Leiden in 1606, so he would be prone to some moralising since he was brought up amidst the stern Protestant Holland environment. He moved to Antwerp in 1635, and spent most of his career as a painter there, until he died in 1684. Antwerp was then still an important port, but her golden days were over. The worse times of the religious wars seemed past, but they had broken the city. Alexander Farnese had conquered and taken the town in 1585 for the Catholic Spanish king. Most of the Protestant clergymen had to leave after that or convert, and had indeed left the town. With them, of course, went most of the wealth. Businessmen and merchants left the town for Amsterdam, which would know from then on, through the whole of the seventeenth century, a booming economy, and its Golden Age in arts.

The town of Antwerp was to be Roman Catholic. The flamboyant counter-reformation kind of Catholicism prevailed. And while to the north of Antwerp the more austere Amsterdam flourished with its newly found wealth brought by the Protestants that had fled from Antwerp, the Brabant Antwerp was left between hope for better times and fear for worse. The hope and fear you can find in both lines of the painting of de Heem. Worse was to come.

But the first three decades of the 1600s were still benign to Antwerp, and de Heem could find all the exotic (exotic to Flanders and Brabant) fruit, birds, animals and objects that are depicted here. De Heem could find still here wealthy burghers to buy his paintings, as painters at all times looked for, and worked where the money was. The new Catholic South Netherlands had both (still) the money, the tolerance and the joy of life that a painter like de Heem needed to thrive on. He was not just an artist, but also an excellent artisan, a skilled professional, who knew all the tricks of his profession. Such as to build in delight of oysters and surprises like the lobster and the nut to discover.

De Heem was certainly not the only Antwerp artist in that period: the most famous Rubens lived there from 1577 to 1640, Anthony van Dyck from 1599 to 1641, and Jacob Jordaens from 1593 to 1678. There were many, many others. Look at the dates. David Teniers lived from 1610 to 1690, Adam van Noort from 1562 to 1641, Marten Pepijn from1575 to1643. Abraham Janssens lived from 1575 to 1632, Gerard Seghers from 1591 to 1651. Theodore Rombouts lived from 1597 to 1637, Cornelis Schut from 1597 to 1655, Erasmus Quellin from 1607 to 1678. Theodore van Dulden lived from 1600 to 1669, Jan Boeckhorst from 1605 to 1668, Thomas Bosschaert from 1613 to 1654, Abraham van Diepenbeeck from 1590 to 1675, Cornelis de Vos from 1585 to 1651 and so many more. Many still life painters lived there also, such as Frans Snijders, Daniel Seghers, Jacob van Es and others. Antwerp was a marvellous town for painters, with many rich citizens avid for visual delight in their houses, always ready to boast among each other and show off as true Brabanders with their acquisitions of luxurious paintings.

Antwerp, as Brussels, was in earlier centuries a part of the Duchy of Brabant. The last Duchess of Brabant had died childless in the fourteenth century, and left her lands to the Duke of Burgundy. The last Duchess of Burgundy then, Mary of Burgundy, had married the Austrian prince Maximilian. This marriage would lead to an enormous empire that would encompass in the seventeenth century the North and South Netherlands (with Flanders and Brabant), the Austrian lands, as well as of course Spain with all its wealth in South America.
The Protestant Antwerp revolted to the Catholic King of this empire, but contrary to the Northern Netherlands, it could not hold. The Brabant joyful spirit continued to live, however. A Dutch writer, Gerbrand Bredero of Amsterdam, wrote in 1617 a novel called "The Spanish Brabander Jerolimo", in which he brings mockingly on the scene a boisterous, cantankerous Brabander. The rich and poor shared the same joy; you can find it also represented in Pieter Bruegel’s paintings of Brabant village feasts. Despite the war lost to the King of Spain, despite the loss of half of its population, humiliated and castigated, the Antwerp Brabanders did not loose their joy. They continued to show off as if they were the proudest and richest people of Europe.

Therefore this painting had to depict expensive fruit and rare animals. The lobsters are always associated with luxury and extravagance. Citrus fruit certainly did not come cheap in the Antwerp of the seventeenth century, and oysters were a luxury, just as they are now in Paris, where they are still symbols of opulence and richness when you see them in the stalls of the restaurants along the fancy boulevards. Parisians would be quite surprised to find out that their favourite oysters were not one of their twentieth or at best nineteenth century’s inventions, but were already on the plates of burghers of the seventeenth century. By the way, in Antwerp today you find no open stalls with oysters. The restaurants are full of mussels and French fries for the masses. And of course, our contemporary clothes have lost the buoyancy of colours and different textiles of the seventeenth century.

One can easily understand why John Ringling bought this painting in the 1920s. The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art is entirely dedicated to Baroque art. Ringling liked Italian art, but also the Rubens, Jordaens and van Dyck paintings, and those of other Antwerp masters. He liked the exuberance of Baroque art. The museum gives these pictures the splendid vast rooms, which suit them so well. It is an enormous Italian Renaissance villa, with two long wings, lined with vaults and columns, around fountains in a wide patio garden. There even is a full-sized copy of Michelangelo’s David in the courtyard. Ringling was a showman and collected some of the finest, most grandiose paintings in the world. Among which this de Heem's "Still Life with Parrots".

The Baroque era appealed most to a person as of a character like John Ringling. He was a partner in the Ringling Bros. Barnum and Bailey circus, maybe the most fabulous circus the earth has ever seen, and you can still find his circus museum next to his art museum in Sarasota, Florida. He built a Venetian villa close to the museum, and Mable Ringling had a real Venetian gondola to make trips in Sarasota bay.
The Ringlings came to Sarasota because the Barnum and Bailey circus held its winter quarter there. This tradition has been continued for four or five generations of circus people now. Sarasota is the winter quarter of most of the independent circus people of the United States of America. They remain in Sarasota for the three winter months with their caravans, elephants and tigers. In the evening, they meet in their own tavern hall "Show folks", where the walls are lined with memories and photographs of the artists. There is even a circus school in Sarasota. The town has really remained the circus capital of the world.

European intellectuals can be scandalised by the incongruous and odd display of nouveau-riche fortune that John and Mable Ringling assembled in the Sarasota museums. They may find this all "kitsch" art. But we cannot but admire the joy and the self-confidence of the Ringlings, which would have appealed to the old Brabanders. The Ringlings were certainly encouraged by their artistic environment. All this display testifies to what circus people try to show: we can do many amazing things on this earth, wherever we want, whenever we want. Dream, and your dream will come true. And dream also of higher learning and higher art. So, Ringling brought back to the Unites States some of the art that was as much his heritage as the heritage of contemporary intellectual Europeans.

We should be grateful to John Ringling, and admire him for the wonderful museum built in the town of the winter quarters of his circus.
As Robin Skynner and John Cleese remark in "Life and how to survive it" G27 , "a circus is a place of apparent madness where we can enjoy the excitement of seeing wild animals, but circus people do know how to handle them." Baroque art and this "Still Life with Parrots" are certainly like that. Baroque art waz the "madness over the structure".

De Heem knew how to keep order in his own circus … well, except for the lobster.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
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