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Over het 16de en 17de-eeuwse portret in de Nederlanden als memento mori

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image of Oud Holland - Journal for Art of the Low Countries

The two sides of the current debate on the nature of 16th- and 17h-century realism are represented by an interpretation based on the recognition of familiar psychological and social factors on the one hand, and one which is averse to all empathy and endcavours to trace the intellectual process that determined function and meaning of images in the past on the other hand. This formulation of the problem also bears on portraiture, to which certain recent interpretations have assigned the significance of sociological documcnts. It is argued here that the portrait, too, had its place in the metaphorically structured and religiously orientated thought that still played a dominant role in the 17th century. Closely linked with the portrait's primary function - which is to perpetuate the memory of the sitter- is the reminder of death and transience cncountered in many (not all!) portraits. In a Family Group painted in 1661 by Jan Mytens in Dublin (fig. 1), the father points to two figurcs on the left who arc obviously deceased (as the papaver comniferum in front of them probably indicates). The piece of paper in his pointing hand is a frequent attribute of sitters in early sixteenth-century portraits, rolled up or folded (fig. 2). Seventeenth-century texts and a large number of vanitas still lifes (fig. 3) suggest that the motif was a symbol of transience: it is in this capacity that it was still being used a century ago in tomb sculpture (together with a skull) (fig. 4). The early sixteenth century saw not only the introduction of the sheet of paper but of a number of other motives which endowed the by now autonomous portrait with a religious meaning and which, together with more familiar symbols such as the skull, hourglass and carnation, alluded to the transience of earthly existcncc and the hope of eternal life. Some of them were only occasionally used, others (like the sheet of papicr) maintained their status as fixed items in the iconographic tradition. They include: - the glove (figs. 5 and 7): a frequently used motif (chiefly, but not exclusively, in male portraits) whose meaning the rejection of the false illusion of eartly existence and the search for truc life in the hereafter becomes only apparent from a relatively late printed source; - the cast shadow (fig. 7), which features in various biblical texts as an image of earthly transience and in the 16th and 17th centuries (in portraits, as well as genre scenes and still lifcs) was clearly understood as such; - musical instruments (fig. 8), which not only suggested the harmony of married life but also, due to their short lived sounds, were used as a vanitas motif in portraits and still lifes; - sumptuous architecture (fig. 8), which recalled the wealth of the rich man in Luke 12 and hence, again, the brief enjoyment of earthly possessions. Used less often, but with similar implications, were: - the butterfly (notes 42-44); - the vase of flowers (fig. 9); - the broken column (fig. 10). The meaning of the frequently occurring intact column, sometimes in combination with a curtain is still unclear. Even quite late in the 17th century a new motif was introduced in portraits to express he old vanitas idea: the waterfall, which notably in works by Jacob van Ruisdael had developed into an accepted vanitas motif (fig. 11).


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