In recent years – primarily inspired by the publication in 1997 of Edward Muir´s Ritual in Early Modern Europe – scholars have focused on the question of the role of rituals within a community and their importance for and reflection of social order in Early Modern society. Apart from rituals such as the coronation of a king or the consecration of a bishop, there was also the phenomenon of the ritual as a parody. Dominik Fugger’s book, Das Königreich am Dreikönigstag. Eine historisch-empirische Ritualstudie, deals with one such ritual – The King Drinks – and is a very welcome addition to existing literature. Early Modern society celebrated on January 6th the ritual creation of “The Kingdom of the Bean King”, a festivity which was also the subject of a wide range of genre paintings by numerous artists, including Jacob Jordaens and Jan Steen.
The author presents a broad selection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources, both textual (archival and literary) and visual (paintings and prints), primarily from the Netherlands, France and Germany. The cultural history of the phenomenon is of relevance for scholars in many different fields: musicology (sacred music), European ethnology, history, art history and cultural studies. Fugger’s twenty page introduction presents his methodological approach as a case-study in historical empiricism. In the first chapter, he describes the form of the ritual, its social and geographic distribution and the main elements (e.g. cake, crown, costumes). The oldest written source is a marginal note in a chronic from 1282, written by the abbot of St. Martin in Tournai, who mentions the election of a king from amongst the city’s well-to-do citizens. The expression “kingdom” is first mentioned in fourteenth-century sources.
In his second chapter, Fugger draws connections that brilliantly illuminate the sense of the ritual by analyzing written sources from 1525 to 1680. The main function of the ritual was the common memoria, as demonstrated by the formulaic patterns such as “memoria recolendum” that can be found in many textual sources. The point of reference for the ritual was not, as often mentioned, the feast of the Three Magi, but the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. In his third chapter, Fugger examines the language of the ritual using textual sources such as so-called “King’s Letters” and clerical songs, many of which were written from the 1550s onwards and contain the aphorism The King Drinks. He distinguishes between ritual-immanent language (e.g. performative) and ritual-transcendental language.
The fourth chapter on depictions of the festivities by Netherlandish artists may be of the greatest interest to art historians. No other ritual is as common in seventeenth-century art as The King Drinks. Fugger distinguishes two different iconographic traditions: most of the paintings show the king lifting up his glass surrounded by his “royal household”. Jacob Jordaens, Jan Steen, Jan Miense Molenaer and Richard Brakenburgh depicted exactly this moment, which also explains the name given such scenes: “Eenen Coninck drinck”, as recorded in many contemporary inventories. Relying on Anke Ariane van Wagenberg-ter Hoeven’s Het Driekoningenfeest. De uitbeelding van een populair thema in de beeldende kunst van de zeventiende eeuw (Amsterdam 1997), Fugger lists 83 versions by 31 different artists. Only four depictions – a Book of Hours for Adelaide of Savoy, Duchess of Burgundy, a painting by Gillis van Tilborgh, and two eighteenth-century French paintings – showing the king’s cake as the main subject of the composition are known. (This is the cake in which a bean was hidden. Whoever found it in his slice was appointed ‘king’.) Fugger examines the degree to which paintings of The King Drinks can be seen as a visual source for the ritual, in other words: do the paintings show the ‘reality’ of the festivity or are they a symbolical and moralizing statement, an aspect often raised in studies dealing with genre painting. Fugger convincingly argues that even when paintings share many common features, as for example with the iconography of As the Old Sang, So the Young Pipe and The King Drinks, it is problematic to assume that because certain elements recur in several works by the same artist – or indeed different artists – they will have the same symbolic meaning. He shows that repetition in the rituals and in the visual depictions was in many cases rooted in economic interests. Accordingly, each individual work has to be analyzed to see if it has its own specific symbolic meaning. Fugger discusses the example of the fool, who repeatedly appears in depictions of The King Drinks. While it has been argued that his appearance is connected to Shrovetide plays or the motif of the topsy-turvy world, Fugger plausibly shows there is no verifiable link between these themes and The King Drinks.
Another theme developed within this chapter concerns the issue of confessionalization. Fugger tries to establish the extent to which an artist’s visualization of the ritual was affected by his own faith and confession. He concludes that Catholic artists like Jan Steen emphasized completely different aspects of the ritual from Calvinist counterparts like Jacob Jordaens: while the Catholic painters emphasize the Feast of the Epiphany or Twelfth Night, the nursing mother, or the star of the Three Magi as symbols of medieval Catholicism, Jordaens focuses on motifs of alcoholism, excretion and urinating children or dogs as an anti-Catholic critique. Even though Fugger’s interpretation is fascinating, his reasoning is not quite as convincing as in the rest of the book: firstly, there are paintings which do not at all fit into Fugger’s categorization, for example Jan Steen’s Twelfth Night of 1668 in Kassel (Museum Schloss Wilhelmshöhe), which shows several motifs of excess including a partially naked drinking king and a nun in the foreground. Secondly, the idea of a strict connection between the artist’s faith and the iconography of his paintings is most unlikely in the first years of confessionalization from the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 until the end of the seventeenth century. It would be at least necessary – in a broader study – to take into consideration the confession of the different owners of the paintings and patrons of the artists.
Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that Dominik Fugger’s book provides a challenging interpretation of a very famous textual and pictorial subject. His case study will surely inspire further art historical research in this field, and most importantly clearly defines the parameters that are essential to a general interdisciplinary approach to dealing with the complexity of Early Modern rituals.
Birgit Ulrike Münch
University of Trier