This strikingly modern, supremely elegant picture is among the earliest independent still lifes in the history of Western art. Embodying the quiet, minimalistic grace which characterizes Ludger tom Ring II's masterly compositions, the present work is among only three still-life paintings the artist made, and is the last remaining in private hands. The crisply delineated flowers are set against a dark background which gives them a luminous, monumental presence, while the thin string that binds them together and the trefoil, white glass façon-de-Venise ewer which serves as their vase lends the image an unmistakable delicacy and refinement.
Although biographical information about him remains scarce, Ludger tom Ring II's epitomized the learned, cosmopolitan humanist-artist of the 16th century. Born into a dynasty of German painters, Tom Ring likely trained with his father in his native Münster and, in the 1540s, set off on a formative journey across Europe. In a small self-portrait of 1547 (Essen, Villa Hügel), he inscribed the day and hour of his birth, the date of the painting, and words consigning his art to the praise and glory of God. A man in the background holds a letter that identifies him as Josef Hesset of the Steelyard in London, thus indicating the artist's presence in England at that time, where he would have come to know the work of Hans Holbein II. Displaying the modern self-consciousness of a true Renaissance man, these marks of authorship are echoed in the present picture by the prominent signature that adorns the jug.
In the established pictorial tradition in which Tom Ring was raised, flowers and other humble natural elements appeared predominantly as bearers of Christian symbolism in larger religious compositions. Lilies, for instance, would almost invariably be included in scenes of the Annunciation as symbols of the Virgin's purity, as in Robert Campin's Merode Altarpiece (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art) in which, incidentally, the sprig of flowers also appears in a jug with a trefoil lip. Even Memling's Jug of flowers painted around 1490 (fig. 2; Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza), often hailed as the first autonomous still life, was actually the reverse of the portrait of a donor praying to the Virgin. Its flowers were highly symbolic and its vase bore Christ's monogram. While some of Tom Ring's flowers in the present picture may well have maintained their Marian associations - violets and other small flowers could be considered emblems of faith and humility – narcissi, the four white flowers which dominate the composition, were notoriously earthbound. By elevating them here to the status of objects worthy of an independent depiction, Tom Ring was making a dramatic statement of artistic intent, possibly fueled in part by the new curiosity in the natural world which had proliferated in the 16th century with the publication of numerous botanical treatises and the study of never-before-seen species brought from the New World. In the ensuing centuries, legions of artists have followed in Tom Ring's footsteps, from the flower-painters of the 17th-century to the iconic masters of today such as Jeff Koons, whose elegant, crisp treatment of daffodils (fig. 3) is strongly reminiscent of the present work.
Tom Ring's two other surviving flower pieces, now in Münster (Westfälischer Kunstverein, fig. 1) bear the following Latin inscription running diagonally across the swell of the vase: 'IN VERBIS IN HERBIS ET LA[PIDIBUS DEUS]', or 'God is in words, in plants and in stones', often quoted in Renaissance scientific texts. The idea that God's attributes were revealed in the beauty, order and intricate structure of the universe, even at its most earthly and humble, existed in philosophical and theological treatises from at least the fifth century B.C. Understanding Tom Ring's still-life pictures in this context reveals that, even if their Christian symbolism is not overt, they were still embedded in a religious framework. An erudite thinker attuned to the intellectual debates of his day, Tom Ring was, as clearly evidenced by the present work, a revolutionary in painting as well as a remarkably bold theologian in his own right.
Contemporary references mention paintings that were set into cabinet doors and counters in apothecary shops, and it has been suggested that this picture served such a function (Lorenz and Trescher, 1996, op. cit., p. 390). The small scale of the present work and the fact that it has been cut slightly on the right support this hypothesis, as does the aforementioned inscription proclaiming God's presence in even the smallest of earthly creations: this argument was central to the pharmaceutical theory and practice proclaimed by Paracelsus (1493-1541), who used it to advocate the use of medicines at a time when medicine was often treated with the same distrust afforded to alchemy. The choice of flowers is also quite eloquent in this context: narcissi were known for the narcotic qualities of their bulbs, from which their name derives, while the ruta graveolus (also called 'rue' or 'herb of Grace') on the ledge was not a decorative plant but a kind of aromatic cooking herb. Its casual placement next to, rather than inside, the vase suggests it may have been intended for a pharmaceutical and not simply decorative use.