INTRODUCTION

The Antwerp Port Authority and The City of Antwerp in collaboration with Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya - CSMVS, will showcase for the first time in India,Flemish Masterpieces from Antwerp. Exclusive Paintings and Engravings from the 17th Century at the Premchand Roychand Exhibition Gallery. This exhibition will display 28 exclusive and magnificent paintings of the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp along with 25 engravings of the Plantin-Moretus Museum.

Antwerp in the 17th century

A country at war: Religion and politics

From the 15th until the 17th century, Antwerp was one of the major European art centres. Belgium did not exist yet, and Antwerp, on the River Scheldt, was the centre of ‘the Low Countries’ – nowadays Belgium and The Netherlands together. This region was also called ‘Flanders’. 

In 1566 a religious war started which was to change everything. 
The cause of the conflict was the resistance of reformed movements to abuses and excesses within the Catholic Church. These reformers, Protestants and Calvinists, severed ties with Catholicism. 

The use of images in religion played a core part in the entire discussion. Visual representations were very important in the Catholic Church, picturing as they did stories from the Bible and the lives of saints for those who could not read. They helped in praying and meditation. However, this picture was just an object that had no sacred value, but this nuance was lost in the course of time. Many people ascribed a miraculous function to visual representations. Reformers thought that this image worship was pure idolatry. That is why they pleaded for churches without images. In 1566 followers of the reformed faiths broke into churches and destroyed numerous paintings and sculptures. 

But there were far more issues than just the religious convictions.
In the Low Countries, the Catholic faith was defended by the Spanish rulers. Religious resistance therefore was also a political protest. The separation between the from then on autonomous Calvinist Northern Low Countries (nowadays The Netherlands) and the Catholic South (today’s Belgium) was a fact. 

So in the Southern Low Countries, to which Antwerp belonged, religious images continued to be very important. The ransacked churches had to be filled again with overawing paintings. Altar pieces were very large and painted with great boldness, to convince churchgoers of the richness of Catholicism. The flamboyant style called ‘baroque’ turned out to be the perfect medium to create a powerful visual representation of this religious and political message. 

 

Supply and demand : the emergence of genres

Paintings were not only made on command for churches and high-nobility clients. Antwerp experienced in the 16th century an overwhelming economic boom. With the rise of an affluent bourgeoisie, a new outlet had emerged for the visual arts (1). To meet this huge rise in demand, Antwerp’s artistic fraternity took a step unprecedented in the history of Western art: production was no longer restricted to commissioned work but extended to the open market. Wide landscapes, opulent still-lifes and picturesque scenes of daily life: all tastes were catered for. In many cases these paintings were  still permeated by a religious message, but this was often shifted to the background. 

The emergence of genres had also a practical reason. In order to comply with the enormous demand there was increased distribution of tasks in the studio, so that production became faster and cheaper. One artist painted the background of a scene and another the flowers in the foreground. This specialisation contributed to the generation of these new types of visual representations or genres. The little landscapes in the background became more and more prominent, and the figures increasingly smaller until they completely disappeared (2). The same happened to flowers, the still-life parts or the scenes from everyday life, which originally only functioned as decoration in a religious scene. These representations developed into genres in their own right.  

The golden age of the art of printing can also be understood against this background. Printing had been known in Europe since the 15th century and made it possible to distribute visual representations on a hitherto unknown scale. It was easy to make hundreds of copies of an engraving. The possibility of simple reproduction made pictures affordable for anybody. 

Thousands of printed representations were brought on to the market every year. Prints were easy to transport and available in large quantities and were distributed from Antwerp all over the known world, to America and to the East. In the 17th century the city on the River Scheldt functioned as the Hollywood or AOL/TimeWarner and CNN today: it played a key role in imaging all over the world.

    

New self-confidence

However, such up-scaling did not result in poor-quality mass products. Many names of 17th-century artists are still known today, because artists proudly signed their work. Artists considered themselves not as a mere craftsmen, but instead they positioned themselves as intellectuals. After all, does the artist not need a knowledge of anatomy or of mathematical perspective for his purpose of evoking reality in a convincing way?  A good example is Rubens:  he was far more than just any painter or craftsman. To use a Latin term he was a ‘pictor doctus’, a ‘learned artist’, who in addition did not just supply paintings to the major churches and courts all over Europe, but who was also active as a diplomat (3)

     

Flemish painting: Technique and religious background

The Flemish art of painting is very special because artists enjoyed a tradition of fantastically true-to-nature details. In many works the tiniest flower, the finest blade of grass is represented accurately. This was possible due to the use of oil paint, a technique that in its turn was developed in the Low Countries by Jan van Eyck. This technique, that consists of paint pigments mixed with oil, allows for an enormous sense of detail and luminosity. This special effect was achieved by applying the oil paint in thin glazing layers: layer after layer of transparent paint is applied on top of each other. Before a new layer was applied, the previous one had to have dried properly. In this way a very deep and shiny result was created, which was typical for Flemish painting.

We may assume that visual art can give us a relatively good idea of how the world must have looked in the 17th century. Yet we cannot just regard many paintings as literal representation of reality: they often convey a deeper message. 

The leitmotiv in many of the works is continuous awareness of the sinfulness of mankind, the transience of existence, and therefore the importance of a virtuous life. By living a devout, honest and chaste life, you would be granted admittance to heaven. It was therefore very important that mankind was aware of the vanity of worldly temptations. This notion of ‘vanitas’ (Latin) is therefore of crucial importance in 17th-century works of art and could be expressed in numerous ways in the visual arts. Skulls or hourglasses, soap bubbles or snuffed-out candles were favourite motifs. And so did musical instruments because sounds are fleeting (4). Still lifes were a favourite subject: Flowers will wilt and fruit will rot (5).

In their turn landscapes may also be the medium of a spiritual dimension. Just as reality had to be understood as a veiled reference to the divine, many a painting had to be considered as a kind of ‘pretence’ which the viewer has to see through. Only in this way would the religious person find the divine. For was the world not created by God? For the 17th-century viewers of these works a painted landscape could be the symbolic summary of the entire cosmos. Every part of nature is God and breathes his spirit. By studying such works the religious person could therefore attempt to understand who composed this wonderful universe. By means of the worldly the believer thus regained insight in the divine.  

But very often that believer was also warned that the natural order may be disrupted by mankind’s sinful or immoral behaviour. Genre paintings held up a negative mirror to the viewer: this was definitely not the way to behave.  

Even portraits were not spared a religious-spiritual image agenda. The man in the Family portrait by Cornelis van der Voort is emphatically holding up a pear. That pear is probably the symbol of fertility, and therefore of chaste married love, a Christian virtue which contrasted sharply with the vice of lust (6)

 

 

•   •   •   •   •   •  

Frans II Francken

The collection of paintings of Sebastiaan Leerse

Oil on panel, 77 x 114 cm,
Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts,
Inventory no. 669