During this religious holiday, let us pause to contemplate still-life paintings in which, to borrow from the Transformers, there is ‘more than meets the eye / Flowers and food-plates in disguise.’ This article by Cath Pound on ‘Secret Symbols in Still-Life Painting‘ discloses the hidden, especially religious, symbols in seventeenth-century still-life paintings and influences on later art-works. Pound notes (now replaced by pound coins) how they would sometimes act as warnings against earthly overindulgence, as in Velázquez’s Christ at The House of Martha and Mary, depicting a servant preparing a Lenten meal (fish, eggs on the table, i.e., eggs-ess is always fishy) with Christ at Martha and Mary’s house in the corner/window/mirror (you never know with Velázquez!), and an older lady’s gesture to the servant indicating that piety is better than ‘pie & tea’.
In the Netherlands, experiencing a golden age from the overseas wealth pouring in from East- and West-Indian trading, still-life paintings would feature various memento mori (such as skulls or hour glasses, and sometimes eels, which would be memento moray) alongside luxury items and foods to remind the prosperous Dutch commercial class of the vanity of worldly goods. A striking example is Osias Beert’s Still Life With Cherries and Strawberries in China Bowls, pictured above: Pound (who should not be devalued, even after Brexit) writes that ‘Educated collectors would recognise that the luscious fruits in their fine china bowls actually represented a fearsome battle between good and evil over men’s souls’. The fruits are the souls, while the dragonfly symbolises the devil. Thus, such a still-life painting requires a ‘cherry-table’ interpretation of human beings at their last ‘straw’ after being ‘berried’ in their graves. It’s as if Beert is saying to his fellow Dutch, ‘life may be Gouda, but the afterlife is even better’.
In the last EMSP classes of the 2017-18 academic year: In EMSP 2000, Laura Penny adapts Matthew 20:16 in her curricular fiat ‘So the last shall be Faust, and Faust shall be last’. Kathryn Morris‘s EMSP 3000 students will be ‘Shelley-shocked’ when they read about his romantic vegetarianism: doubtless their heart-ichokes will beet furiously as they succumb-er to the delettuceable chards of romaine-tic onion. ‘The Body in Early Modern Europe’ will be closing the early modern body by ‘Clothing the Early Modern Body’. And her Witchcraft class will conclude with the decline of the witch-hunts, occurring simultaneously with the declension of the witch-hunts as inspired by Life of Brian, in which a Latinist soldier corrected an early modern graffito proclaiming malefices eunt domus (‘those called witchies they go to the house?’) to maleficis ite domum.
Jannette Vusich’s course on ‘The Renaissance Print and Cross-Culture Exchange’ will discuss Susan Dackerman’s article on Renaissance prints as authentic hotel after-meal candies, ‘Prints as Inns’ true mints’. Students in her course on Leonardo Da Vinci: Between Art and Science will consider Leonardo scholarship today, including art historians microwaving Leonardo’s final dinner leftovers when ‘Restoring the Last Supper’. My Pirate & Piracy students will watch sea-robbers on oily waters as we discuss ‘piracy on film’, and EMSP 4000 turns to Schiller’s dramatic account of the legendary Swiss bank employee and part-time archer who successfully hit an apple off his son’s head, William Teller.
Never fear, dear readers, I intend for Early Modern Times to continue on most weeks after the end of classes and throughout the year to report on early modern news & tidbits. Like William Tell, I’ll give it my best shot.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Studies Program