Readers of this review need no introduction to the NKJ, which is still publishing important annual volumes on designated themes. This latest volume punningly plays on the term “values” to designate both literal, material worth for objects of trade but also to assess – through the lens of visual art, chiefly – those morality issues or spiritual values raised in early modern Antwerp, at the hub of Europe’s international trade network. Each of these three distinguished editors contributed an essay as well as a joint introduction to the volume; all are well versed in Antwerp topics. Ramakers also edited a major recent related volume on a narrower period, Understanding Art in Antwerp: Classicizing the Popular, Popularizing the Classic (Leuven: Peeters, 2011; here reviewed April 2014). What further distinguishes this volume is how it does not remain content, as usual, to stop at the era of Rubens and Van Dyck, nor to focus exclusively on Antwerp painting, but instead includes studies that follow Antwerp culture across the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries alike and also include other media (illustrated books, glass, and prints as well as paintings). In a short review like this one, only a sketchy overview can be laid out, but this new volume’s importance and its range should be clear.
Antwerp’s centrality emerges clearly in local Adoration of the Magi pictures, which became a staple of the burgeoning export painting market, as Dan Ewing elucidated (Jaarboek Antwerp Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 2004-05, 275-300). But as the introduction makes clear, value exchanges in Antwerp also emerged from the three Chambers of Rhetoric and constkamer collections, which ranged across media and even became a pictorial subject in their own right (Z. Filipczak, Picturing Art in Antwerp, 1550-1700, 1987; E. Honig in NKJ46, 1995, 253-97).
The volume begins with its cover painting, the epitome of a new, mercantile Antwerp: Quinten Massys’s Man Weighing Coins and his Wife (1514), discussed in a probing essay by Woodall. Here values are literally in the balance, posing for the viewer a dialectical challenge between materiality and spirituality. Woodall even proposes a particular audience in the Antwerp humanist community: Erasmus’s friend and city secretary Pieter Gillis, who married in that same year. A decade afterwards, Massys produced another seminal genre painting about money but without the same nice balance, his Tax-Collectors(Liechtenstein Coll.) – a discussion by this reviewer, in the latest JHNA(vol. 7: 2, on line), “Massys and Money,” complements Woodall’s learned study.
Besides coins, the painted materiality of kitchen scenes by Aertsen and Beuckelaer also poses value issues after the mid-sixteenth century about consumption and indulgence; those images are explored by historians Inneke Baatsen, Bruno Blondé, and Julie De Groot. Historian Arjan van Dixhoorn uses Lodovico Guicciardini’s Descrittione (1567) as a lens for celebrating Antwerp and “Belgica” as a paragon of free trade and foundation of a utopian society. That book appeared among Europe’s largest output of printed books, the subject of Hubert Meeus’s discussion of vernacular translations as both an economic and an intellectual activity in Antwerp. Stephanie Porras focuses on a Maarten de Vos print, Big Fish Eat Little Fish, which already draws upon Bruegel’s own imitation of Bosch for print publisher Hieronymus Cock. But instead of seeing this later image as a similar commentary on materialism and acquisition, she interprets its cannibalistic details as a different commentary on Antwerp’s trade hegemony and relationship, through Spanish rule, to the New World – with its own cruel imagery of conquest and cannibalism. Such public distribution of imagery through books and prints confirms the cultural centrality of Antwerp, while advancing, yet questioning basic values in accord with this volume’s larger theme.
In a highly poetic analysis, historian of science Sven Dupré discusses local glass-making, which remained a major luxury industry in Antwerp across the two centuries. The transformation of glass from raw materials into coveted material objects becomes a metonym of Antwerp’s refinement and taste as well as crafts-manship. Here the topic of “values” literally encompasses value added and craft sophistication, but is tied to the sixteenth-century value accorded to transfiguration through alchemy (which could still spur creation of porcelain in early eighteenth-century Dresden).
Challenges to traditional values, however, came thick and fast as Reformation ideas arrived in Antwerp. Koenraad Jonckheere, already known for important studies of Antwerp painting in the era of the Reformation, contributes an interpretive study of Bruegel’s 1563 Tower of Babel (Vienna). He argues that such a negative, manmade construction aroused issues regarding the value of religious art and architecture, including Antwerp’s own church tower of Our Lady. But Bruegel, characteristically, does not resolve the issue for viewers any more than Massys did. Indirect representation of both violence and destruction during the Wonder Year of 1576 and other turbulent events of the raging civil war emerges through nocturnal fire imagery by Gillis Mostaert (d. 1598), as interpreted by Göttler. Mostaert’s pictures vacillate between scenes of conflagration and pacific markets, the very backbone of Antwerp’s trade economy. Göttler also considers how the seventeenth century valued Mostaert highly: in Antwerp constkamerimagery, beginning with Frans Francken II, connoisseurs (liefhebbers) depict such pictures in their galleries, while some paintings show further iconoclastic destruction outside, perpetrated by asses.
After many turbulent political and religious upheavals, including organized iconoclasm in 1566, Antwerp finally settled into the Catholic camp, again as a major publisher of books and prints for Counter Reformation faith. Ralph Dekoninck analyzes a print series by the Wierix brothers for Antwerp’s Jesuits in the Evangelicae historiae imagines (1593; interested readers will also want to consult the many studies by Walter Melion on Antwerp Jesuitical publications). In Dekoninck’s view, such non-verbal imagery distilled the Catholic message for world-wide distribution, appropriately disseminated from Antwerp. He emphasizes this imagery as simple in style, historically plausible, and decorous for any audience.
The intellectual circles initially introduced by Woodall open up in concluding essays, which build upon van Dixhoorn’s moment, Guicciardini’s portrayal of the city’s apogee of cultural history, but carried well into the next century. These three essays converge nicely to assess Antwerp’s seventeenth-century cultural network. Ramakers uses tragedies penned and illustrated by Willem van Nieulandt II to show how financial sponsors, history painters, and leaders of the Rhetoric Chamber De Violieren, containing both writers and painters, interacted in Antwerp. In effect, he animates the imagery of Van Dyck’s Iconographia, especially for less familiar figures, liefhebbers beyond the painting community.
Similarly, the latter two essays on later Antwerp culture demonstrate lingering ambitions to reassert the city’s artistic eminence in prose. Following up on Dekonick, Reingard Esser discusses historical works, chiefly by Jesuits led by Carolus Scribani (d. 1629) as extensions of Guicciardini’s encomium. Sarah Joan Moran analyzes Cornelis de Bie’s Gulden Cabinet (1662; title page by Diepenbeeck), the volume’s last word, through the literal terms of its title. She considers how Antwerp painting resembles that elaborate contemporary storage furniture with painted panels, linking pictura and poesis (like van Nieulandt II) and echoing other contemporary aspirations in Europe to establish an Academy. Thus the endpoint of this well organized volume gestures not to the Golden Century of Antwerp’s past, but instead to a hoped-for future.
University of Pennsylvania