Garlands of fruits and flowers surround eucharistic still lifes or pay homage to religious images or visions. Intended as trompe l’oeils, they form illusionistic frames within the picture frames. Focusing on three seventeenth-century Flemish artists – Jan Brueghel the Elder, Daniel Seghers and Jan Davidsz. de Heem – Susan Merriam discusses the shift in the function of garland pictures from devotional image to curiosity and decorative object. Reflecting on the state of the painted medallion within the image, she also investigates the patronage and reception of garland pictures in the seventeenth century.
An Antwerp invention, garland paintings are collaborations between two specialists: a still-life and a figure painter, the exception being some of the works by Jan Davidsz. de Heem whom Merriam discusses at the end of her book and who inserted chalices or hosts, i.e. eucharistic symbols, into the garlands painted by his own hand. Noting that the genre has been neglected in recent art-historical literature, Merriam pays special attention to the fundamental earlier works by David Freedberg (“The Origins and Rise of the Flemish Madonnas in Flower Garlands: Decoration and Devotion,”Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst 32, 1981, pp. 115-150), Pamela Jones (Federico Borromeo and the Ambrosiana: Art Patronage and Reform in Seventeenth-Century Milan, Cambridge 1993) and Victor Stoichita ( The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting, Cambridge 1997). Posing diverse questions about the diverse types of illusionistic garland paintings by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Seghers and De Heem, the author attempts to differentiate their forms.
Right at the beginning Merriam sets down the chronology of the paintings as a guide through the book, starting with the first garland painting, the Madonna and Child in a Garland of Flowers by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrick van Balen (who incidentally was not one of Rubens’s first teachers [p. 3]), created 1607-08 for Cardinal Borromeo (Milan, Ambrosiana). This is a so-called in-set image (Einsatzbild) in which Van Balen’s Madonna and Child, painted on copper and not silver (see Bettina Werche, Hendrick van Balen [1575-1632]: Ein Antwerpener Kabinettmaler der Rubenszeit, Turnhout 2004, pp. 86-89, cat. A 33), is inserted into Brueghel’s flower garland on panel. This is followed by the Madonna and Child in a Floral Garland by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens of 1621 (Paris, Louvre), and the Madonna and Child in a Garland of Fruits and Flowers by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens of c. 1620 (Madrid, Prado). However, the development of the genre between 1608 and 1620/21 is not discussed though it is especially during these years that garland paintings quickly rose in popularity. An interesting case are the works by Andries Daniels (1599 pupil in the workshop of Pieter Brueghel the Younger; 1602 free master in Antwerp) who together with Frans Francken II (1581-1642) further developed garland paintings, creating many special forms, among them garlands around medallions with the decades of the rosary (see M.-L. Hairs, “André Daniels: peintre de fleurs Anversois: vers 1600,” Oud-Holland 66, 1951, pp. 175-179). It is the “pietas mariana” and “veneratio virginis” of the Habsburgs and Antwerp Marian devotion geberally that stand behind the contemporary religious practice of adoring garland images as much as the teachings of the local Jesuit schools and the Habsburg veneration of the Eucharist.
The book is divided into five chapters – Origins; Making and breaking: the garland pictures and iconoclasm; Interiors; Daniel Seghers, “Flower Creator under God”; “The cake idol”: the Eucharist in a garland –, plus an Introduction and Conclusion with numerous sub-sections, which occasionally in the individual chapters but especially in the valuable Introduction are left untitled though separated by three asterisks. It is only via the index that the reader finds information pertaining to specific subjects scattered throughout the book, such as “vision”, “optical illusion” or “meditation and garland images”. These catchwords refer to discussions or observations distributed over all six chapters (including the Introduction). Such relatively unfocused structure without a tight classification system unfortunately inhibits the reader from easy access to much valuable information and ideas. For example, the perceptive discussion on the difference between the “naer het leven” garlands and the religious visions in the medallions would have been more effective in a fundamental theoretical chapter, along with a discussion of optical phenomena and the discoveries of Newton, Hobbes and Bacon on the subject. The lack of a more nuanced classification as well as some biographical errors might have been avoided by more attentive editing.
At the outset, Merriam defines the genesis and sequence of the function of garlands. Though strictly speaking, the term applies to wreaths, her discussion includes trophies and festoons. She also writes about the adornment of garlands, as for example in Frans Snyders’s Christ and John the Baptist as Infants in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, where a putto decorates a garland of fruit with flowers. Whereas the earliest garland paintings served as a means of meditation, later versions fulfilled a decorative role as trompe l’oeil images, such as painted festoons hung on walls or above doors as sopraporte in specified or unspecified locations. This paradigm shift, as the author convincingly claims, finds support in the actual practice of adorning cult images or works of art with garlands, as seen for example in Daniel Seghers’sMadonna and Child in a Niche Decorated with Flowers in Braunschweig or, going back to antiquity, in Rubens’s and Frans Snyders’s Statue of Ceres in the Hermitage.
The relatively quick, almost parallel path from the religious to the profane function of garland paintings is the result of the great popularity they reached already at the beginning of the seventeenth century, as witnessed by the large number of works by Antwerp artists, including those not mentioned in the book. In my view the author’s restriction to three artists in the interpretation and iconology of the genre leads to a misguided chronology and emphasis, thus limiting the culture of garland pictures, which are distinguished by more numerous and more multifaceted forms and motifs than discussed here. Daniel Seghers, for instance, left the interiors of some of his garlands empty, which in one well-known example in the Louvre (inv. 797) was filled by Domenichino by order of Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi (the cartouche shows The Triumph of Love). Others of Seghers’s garlands had mirrors inserted into them, and others yet had their cartouches with religious images later overpainted with profane representations. Merriam does mention however that, presumably sometime later, a eucharistic medallion in a painting by De Heem was replaced by a mirror (p. 126). Mirrors, especially Venetian mirrors, were precious objects, so that it is possible that, at least in the case of Seghers, some of his garlands were intended to adorn mirrors from the start.
According to Merriam, garland pictures disappear around the middle of the century. One should however remember the later works by Frans (1601-1693) and Pieter (c. 1648-1695) Ykens, Pieter Gijsels (1621-1690), Jan Pauwel Gillemans (1618-1675), and Jan Anton van der Baren (c. 1616-1686), quite apart from the continuation of the genre by Dutch artists. The author concludes her study with Jan Davidsz. de Heem’s paintings of eucharistic symbols surrounded by garlands in which the religious subjects as well as the garlands are painted by De Heem, among them two presumably commissioned by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in 1648.
The answers to the questions concerning content and function of garland paintings during the genre’s mature period, i.e. after 1620, are as diverse as the patrons, locations of display and variations in design. Within the limited and limiting focus on only three artists, Merriam offers an abundance of sources and much that is informative. However, it would have been desirable to have a more extensive study that included the early garland pictures from the period between 1608 and ca.1620.
Translated from the German by Kristin Belkin