Painted by Edwaert Collier, whose self-portrait peers at us from the lower right of the canvas, this picture demonstrates the artist’s playfulness and curious eye for detail. Collier, who was born in the Southern Netherlandish town of Breda in around 1640, and spent much of his life between Leiden and London, unveils a myriad of emblems that draw the viewer in to scrutinise each symbolic ingredient. But what are those ingredients, and what do they mean?
Edwaert Collier (Breda 1640-1708 London), A Globe, A Casket of Jewels and Medallions, Books, A Hurdy-Gurdy, A Bagpipe, A Lute, A Violin, An Upturned Silver Tazza and Roemer, A Nautilus Shell, A Recorder, A Shawm, A Print with a Self-Portrait of the Artist and a Musical Score on a Draped Table, A Curtain Above, 1662. Oil on canvas. 65.3/8 x 54 in. (166.1 x 137.2 cm.) Estimate: £80,000-120,000. This work is offered in the Old Master & British Paintings Day Sale on 9 December at Christie’s London
1. The hanging curtain in the foreground, drawn back as if to reveal the painting, demonstrates a conventional technique in Dutch still-life painting to emphasise spatial effect and increase a sense of depth and volume to the scene. While the background is wrapped in shadow, producing an ominous chiaroscuro, the brightly illuminated instruments, books and vanities are accentuated by a concentration of light so as to appear almost in relief.
2. The terrestrial globe exemplifies the tradition of contemptus mundi (contempt of the world) as an emblem of the transience of earthly accomplishment and wayward worldliness.
3. Bagpipes had particularly phallic significance in 17th-century iconography. Related to dissolute life, one particular 16th-century Flemish proverb stated ‘When the bagpipe is pumping up one sings better’.
4. A carnation discreetly decorates the hurdy-gurdy as a reminder of death, resurrection, humility and hope for eternal life.
5. Repeated across the design of the hurdy-gurdy is a dandelion motif. The dandelion, as one of the ‘bitter herbs,’ is a symbol of Christ’s Passion and the Resurrection.
6. The creeping ivy at the back of the composition acts as an emblem of resurrection and eternal life, one of the great concerns for the Dutch 17th-century observer.
7. The treasure box evokes the futility of riches and moral depravity in the pursuit of pleasures, with money and mortality commonly paired in 17th-century art.
8. The nautilus shell serves as a replacement to the more ubiquitous image of the human skull, acting as a reminder of the inevitability of death, or memento mori. On the surface of the shell, Collier paints an inconspicuous scene of a dog chasing a stag. The symbolism of the stag in Christian literary and artistic tradition derives from passages in Psalm 41 of the Old Testament; the stag, seen as a metaphor of the human soul, is hunted by the hound, a devilish symbol of carnal temptation. The most famous example of this can be found in an exquisite series of tapestries woven in the Netherlands in the late 15th or early 16th century, entitled The Hunt of the Frail Stag, held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
9. This ‘talon’ purse (a money pouch attached to a short staff) warns of the vanity of riches as one of the moral vices, and unambiguously alludes to the temptations of masculine lust.
10. The snapped strings of the violin symbolise the broken threads of time and evoke the ephemerality of earthly existence.
11. This is possibly an account of Hieronymus Scheyt van Erffor’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a pseudonym of the traveller Jacob Dircx Bockenberch, who made the journey in the 16th century. Travel reports of pilgrimages to the Holy Land quickly increased after the 15th century and not only offered a ‘spiritual pilgrimage’ to the armchair traveller but also held great social prestige. As such, the tome here symbolises both knowledge and the folly of human ambition.
12. The inverted green-glass roemer and silver tazza balance precariously at the edge of the table, alluding to the transience and fragility of life.
13. While also a symbol of transience, the lute made many appearances in Dutch 17th-century art and moralist literature as an emblem of sexuality. Temptation through music became a common theme, appearing as an image of erotic seduction, as in Dirck van Baburen’s The Procuress (1622) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Concert (1623) in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
14. From behind the lute peers the top of an hourglass, surreptitiously reminding the viewer of the inevitability of death, of which it is emblematic. The close juxtaposition of the hourglass and musical instruments harks to Hans Holbein the Younger’s woodcut series Dance of Death (1538), in which the skeletal personification of death, with hourglass in tow, led all classes of human society to their demise with musical accompaniment.
15. Since antiquity, sexual significance had been attributed to wind instruments. In the legend of the musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas, the former’s lyre stood for harmony and clarity while the latter’s double flute was the Bacchic instrument that aroused passion.
16. Decorative fabrics such as the tablecloth and tasselled turquoise drapery were expensive items and symbols of wealth and pride, the likes of which would have been brought into the Dutch Republic through trade and commerce. The sumptuous materials visually underline the painting as symbols of the emptiness of worldly possessions.
17. At the centre of the composition, a slip of paper bears the words ‘vanitantum et omina vanitas’ (‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ Ecclesiastes 1:2-3), warning the viewer of the brevity of human life and the vanity of worldly things.
18. Collier’s (painted) engraving of his self-portrait, in which he holds the tools of his trade, doubles both as the artist’s signature and a vanitas object; instruments such as the palette and brushes alluded to the vanity of worldly learning and indulgence in the arts.
19. This musical score by Jacob van Eyck entitled Der Fluyten Lust-Hof (The Flute of the Garden of Pleasure), published in 1646, lies open at a variation on the melody Questa Dolce Sirena by Gastoldi. The variation alludes to the sirens of classical mythology, whose voices lured sailors to their demise, and like the objects in the scene, are a warning against the seduction of transitory beauty. Music, often associated with ephemerality, time and lust, was also primarily a warning against a lazy and sinful life.
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