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The Scythians at the British Museum

“The Scythians: Warriors of ancient Siberia” is the title of a major new exhibition at the British Museum, London, running until 14th January. The show attempts to redeem from oblivion the culture and character of a people who strewed their path across the steppe with gold but who are otherwise little remembered and little understood.

The Scythians flourished in the 9th–3rd centuries BC. Their heartland was the Siberian steppe, but at their greatest extent they controlled territory and maintained trading links from north China to the Black Sea. They were never a single people, but a loose confederation of tribes, sharing certain customs and, it appears, speaking a language or languages with Iranian roots. They were herdsmen and hunters, nomadic and warlike, fighting both outsiders and each other over territory and livestock. They were superb horsemen. Their mounted archers, riding with saddles but without stirrups, struck fear into the hearts of Persians, Assyrians and Macedonians. And it appears that Scythian women rode as expertly—and fought as dauntlessly—as Scythian men. Scythian art is filled with representations of totem animals: deer, big cats, birds of prey. Chief of all these, though, was the horse. It was the horse that, in death, was caparisoned for the final great ride, to the world beyond, where it is presumed it would live again with its owner, roaming and grazing Elysian pastures. It is thanks to the Scythians' mastery of the horse and their skill with metal that they were able to rise to dominance.

 

The first room sets the tone for the show with an audio display of howling Siberian wind. As it whistles in your ears, you can admire the stunning gold belt plaque of the 4th–3rd century BC: a warrior, presumed deceased, lies in the lap of a woman, presumably a deity, under a tree in whose boughs he has slung his quiver of arrows. Beside him a groom holds two horses, their harness very carefully rendered. It is exquisite—and in Scythian terms, quite late. This type of narrative scene does not seem to emerge until about the 4th century and human representations before this seem to be rare. Instead we find examples of the so-called “animal style”: gold plaques fashioned in the form of stylised beasts: stags, vultures, panthers, often shown tortuously attacking each other, often inlaid with pieces of turquoise. Some of these plaques are quite large in size, designed to be worn on a belt around the waist. Others are smaller, for decorating bow cases or quivers or for use as bridle fittings. Others are tiny appliqué pieces that would have been attached en masse to articles of clothing.

 

These gold pieces were first revealed to the world in the early 18th century, when Peter the Great sent out exploration parties to Siberia in search of natural resources and trade routes. The pieces that were unearthed, from grave mounds, were all sent back to St Petersburg and drawings of all of them were made to serve as a record. It is from the Hermitage Museum that most of the pieces in the current exhibition have come.

 

A section of the finds in this exhibition were also preserved by ice. Water percolating into the tomb barrows, and afterwards freezing, has remained there ever since as a layer of permafrost. As the arid conditions in Egypt, so the freezing conditions in the Altai have preserved materials otherwise rare to find: human skin, leather, wood and textiles. There are pieces of clothing, horse apparel and tomb hangings made of wool, leather, squirrel fur, sable and felt. The women, presumably the high-born ones, had diamonds on the soles of their shoes, almost literally: a beautiful moccasin with a geometric decoration of pyrite lozenges on the sole is extraordinarily well preserved. The tomb remains of a Pazyryk chief from the Altai Mountains shows that these Scythians extensively tattooed their arms, legs and shoulders. It also shows how savage their battles could be. This man—not young, about 60 years old; and not short, about 176cm tall—died of axe blows to the head. Scythian warfare did not only take the form of mounted archery; they also fought hand to hand in close and bloody combat.

 

Which brings us to the question of what they looked like. This man was scalped, so the top of his head is missing. But as far as we can tell, the Pazyryk Scythians shaved their heads leaving only a tuft of hair at the crown. This applied equally to the women, who twisted this tuft into a tall topknot, threading it through a narrow, very tall conical headdress to form a sort of fountain pony tail. There is some debate as to whether the men wore facial hair. The gold belt plaque showing the dead warrior and his groom portrays both men with walrus moustaches. The Kul Olba cup (4th century), from the Black Sea (modern Ukraine), shows figures with flowing beards. There cannot have been a single type, or a single style. Fashions must have come and gone, as they do today, and different Scythian groups probably had different habits. The Pazyryk chieftain seems to have been clean shaven, but in death he was equipped with a false beard. Scholars speculate that it might have had a ritual function. False beards as divine appurtenances are not an anthropological oddity; they are known from ancient Egypt, for example.

 

The Scythians did not write anything down, which is frustrating, because we never hear them speaking for themselves. Instead, we hear from Herodotus, who encountered the Scythians of the Black Sea and wrote about their customs and behaviour. Some finds appear to bear out his accounts. He mentions their custom of inhaling the vapour of toasted hemp seeds at the funerals of their chiefs, and “howling with pleasure” as they did so. And sure enough, a hemp-smoking kit has been unearthed. Contact with Greece from the 8th century BC had an influence not only on their art but on their diet, as the traditional fermented mare’s milk was replaced with wine (a Greek kylix is one of the grave goods on display here), which they apparently drank undiluted, gaining a reputation for alcoholic excess. The famous Pazyryk rug, the world’s oldest known carpet, was found in a Scythian tomb, but in its design shows clear Persian influence. It would be fascinating to know who made it: a Scythian influenced by Persian forms? Or a Persian working to Scythian taste? The Scythians, at least in origin, were a nomadic people, and their goods are mostly portable. A round wooden table with lathe-turned legs reminds us of this: it is a collapsible table, which can be folded up and easily carried away. They took their art with them, and assimilated other styles and ideas as they went. But to what extent did they depend on settled peoples for manufacture?

7th-century gold plaque in the form of a stag, Hungarian National Museum.

The supremacy of the Scythians was waning by 200 BC, as other nomads moved in to replace them, or, as is probable in some cases, as they themselves settled down. They flashed brilliantly across the screen for a mere few hundred years. There is probably much of their culture left to find. And they are not entirely forgotten. In Hungary, for instance, the “Scythian gold stag” has mythical significance. There are two examples in the Hungarian National Museum in Budapest.

 

This is a very enjoyable exhibition, tantalisingly suggestive. It answers fewer questions than it asks, which is always the best way, leaving you thinking long after you have left the museum.

 

Annabel Barber

Grammar and Grace

St Martin altarpiece (1490, unknown provenance), Hungarian National Gallery.

This October it will be 500 years since Luther made public his famous 95 theses in Wittenberg. The anniversary is being celebrated on the web, by a pilgrimage and festival, with events in and around Wittenberg itself, as well as in print. In Budapest, the Hungarian National Museum has devoted an exhibition to the subject of the Reformation in Hungary: Ige-idők (Grammar and Grace), which runs until November 5th.

 

The displays open with a huge black and white reproduction of a Last Judgement scene, as an illustration of the late medieval mindset. The world is presented as a place beset by sin and temptation. When the final trumpet sounds, the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished. Altarpieces of the northern European school reinforce the point--and make it clear that the only hope we have of navigating the journey successfully is by bargaining and mediation. God's Word is our guide, but it comes down to us in Latin, a language we do not speak, so His message has to be transcribed pictorially, through stories of Christ and the exemplary lives of the saints. We cannot communicate directly with God, so the saints intercede for us, helping us to achieve salvation. This will never be attained without the purifying fire of Purgatory; the tools for getting out quickly are faith and good works, but because these are notoriously unreliable currency, we are offered the chance to pay, through the purchase of indulgences.

 

This, in a nutshell, is the pre-Reformation Christian world. Mysterious, untransparent, trammelled by an unwieldy bureaucracy of saints, and, as an inevitable result, corrupt. The first room spends some time presenting Rome as the arch culprit. It is Rome that allows the system of indulgences. Rome also wilfully misleads her flock. This is illustrated by a woodcut of two feet. As a piece of evidence to support the curators’ point it is well chosen. The footprints are those that occur on a crude stone block preserved in the church of San Sebastiano fuori le Mura on the Via Appia in Rome. They purport to be the imprints left by Christ's feet as he appeared to St Peter, who was fleeing the city in an attempt to avoid martyrdom. It’s a charming story but the footprints are a blatant fake, precisely the sort of hoaxing that the 16th-century Reformers aimed to root out.

 

Background information is presented through a series of wall banners. The texts are long and I would have appreciated somewhere to sit down while reading them. The exhibited objects themselves (some of them never exhibited before) are captioned erratically, sometimes with a translation (but more often not, so visitors with no Hungarian will struggle). These are quibbles, but it makes the information difficult to digest.

Anonymous 15th-century woodcut. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

The English title of this exhibition, Grammar and Grace, has a good alliterative ring. But the Hungarian can also be translated as “The Age of the Word”; and it is really this that the exhibition is about, because it is through the Word (of God, transmitted to man in comprehensible form) that the Reformers sought to do their work. Whether salvation is achieved through faith or through works, or, as Luther had it, through grace alone (or only by grace), is a theological debate that the exhibition does not wrestle with. It concentrates on Protestantism's fixation with text and the way text replaced images.

 

Altarpieces cease to be the principal tool of communication and what we get instead are books. A number of early Bibles and prayer books are exhibited, for example the Greek and Latin translation of the New Testament by Erasmus (Basel, 1516), intended as a basis from which vernacular translations could be made, translations which would make the phalanx of intermediary saints redundant, as Holy Writ was rendered in the common language of men. Men speaking the common tongue quickly became the problem. In early 16th-century Hungary, ecclesiastical leadership was in crisis. Many prelates were also military commanders and most were wiped out at the Battle of Mohács, the great Ottoman victory of 1526. Into the void stepped itinerant preachers, spreading the ideas of Luther and Calvin.

 

A wall banner notes that none of the achievements of the Reformation could have been accomplished without zeal. The examples of early Bibles, though--however remarkable--cannot speak to us in the way the altarpieces do. Deprived of the personality of the preachers who used them, these tomes struggle to convey the quality of this zeal. Some of the preachers will have been ardent and inspirational, opening up whole new realms of spirituality for their hearers. Others will have been fanatics, banishing imagination, insisting on the literal.

 

Text comes not only in the form of devotional books, which after all were rare and expensive (the early, 16th-century Bibles were mainly for the use of the preacher; copies for individual study took another century to arrive). Instead, altarpieces were redeployed as vehicles for the Word. Suddenly they are awash with writing. The exhibition has found a brilliant example: a 1519 Crucifixion altarpiece from Sibiu (Hermannstadt/Nagyszeben) in Transylvania, which was painted over in 1545 by the first Protestant minister. The entire lower section, which would have shown mourners at the foot of the Cross, has been overlaid with texts from St Matthew’s gospel and the book of Isaiah. Mary Magdalene's hands can still just be seen in the central strip, clutching the Cross.

Crucifixion altarpiece of 1519, overpainted with text in 1545.

Translation, however, had its drawbacks. Just as the Internet is today, so the invention of printing in the Reformation era was a disruptive technology. Suddenly, vernacular Bibles were everywhere, being used by individual preachers with their own individual interpretations of God's message. It was difficult to enforce an official line. In Reformation Hungary there were no burnings at the stake; instead different denominations co-existed. This seems to have been especially true because of the power vacuum created by the Ottomans, with their semi-tolerant approach and their appetite for tribute money. The town of Debrecen, for example, paid tribute in exchange for being left alone: it existed as a Christian republic, a ‘new Jerusalem’ on the Geneva model, referring to itself as Christianopolis (it remained self-governed in this way until the mid-1750s). That was the stronghold of Calvin. Both the Calvinist (Református) and Lutheran (Evangélikus) churches took root in historic Hungary. But the two reformers were very different temperamentally. The difference is nowhere better illustrated than by the pavement slabs in nearby Kálvin tér, close to the National Museum building. Here, underfoot, the flagstones are inscribed with quotations from Protestant theologians. “God in his mercy denies to his own what of his wrath he permits to unbelievers,” says Calvin stoically. Luther is more mischievous and less austere: “If I  believed that God had no sense of humour, I would not want to go to Heaven.” The fathers of the Reformation did not sing from the same hymn sheet (Calvin didn't sing, for a start).

 

Today we worry about fake news. During the Reformation people worried about free interpretations of scripture. In another 15th-century Sibiu altarpiece (here shown in an early 20th-century copy), Protestantised in 1650, Christ is shown behind bars at the bottom. St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible springs to mind (Lamentations 4:20), where his Latin translation makes mention of "Christ the Lord" a captive of our sins, something the original does not exactly say. If St Jerome could do it, what might a provincial pastor do? Inevitably there had to be a clampdown.

 

As surely as Catholicism ever did, Protestantism begins to use the tools of propaganda. The result is a kind of sententious, moralising religiosity, as exemplified by the Dutch-inspired 18th-century Vanitas still life by an unknown Hungarian painter. All the stock elements are there, to indicate the transience of this worldly existence: the skull, the snuffed candle, the soap bubbles, the dog-eared book, the fading flowers. Fickle fortune is indicated by the dice. False riches by the coins. The only thing that can save us is Christ and the Spirit, symbolised by the goldfinch.

Inevitably, as it becomes established, Protestantism also enters the realm of politics. In Hungary’s case this was particularly true in Transylvania, but after Joseph II’s Edict of Tolerance (1781), it becomes true in general. Protestants also make significant contributions to science (understandably) and the arts. The vernacular Bible in Hungary was influential in shaping language and thus thought. But the Reformation as a lathe on which identity is shaped also brings with it identity politics. If a Reformation brings choice, then one has to self-identify. No longer can we talk of one people under the imperial aegis of a pope or a Habsburg monarch, but separate nations of denomination, each with its own belief systems. Public expressions of religion have elements in common with modern virtue-signalling. In the end, much comes down to personal preference and inclination. It is difficult not to return to the first room, as the one where the objects speak most freely to each beholder. There is a lovely panel showing St Martin (illustrated at the top of this article). The bishop saint, with a huge gold halo, stands before an altar raising the Host aloft as angels drape his naked arms (naked because he has charitably given half his cloak to a beggar). In the background, in a doorway, stands a man, observing the scene just as we do, but from the opposite side. It is a lovely and subtle work of art, linking God and Man. What better way to communicate mystery and transcendence?

 

Some of the early altarpieces in this exhibition now seem modern in a way that many of the later, once-revolutionary artefacts do not. Bibles, prayer books and orders of service, once translated, are in need of constant revision, as language, society and its values change. A little columbarium vitrine in the penultimate room contains quotes from modern authors. The one from Péter Esterházy sums it up: “The spectrum of language is not only spatial but temporal. Words have their time, or, to put it another way, time lies couched within words. Our time, the time of those who use the words, our history, our very selves.” A reformation which puts mysteries into words sets itself on a path of perpetual re-reform as the words date and lose their revelatory power.

 

That does not mean we should not reform. But how should reformations be conducted? How can we prevent them either from degenerating into riot or from fossilising into the very sclerotic structures they sought to sweep away? This exhibition poses all these questions. It is extremely thought-provoking. How far have we actually come in the half-millennium since Luther railed against Tetzel?

The Seuso Saga

Together again under a single roof. In July 2017, the Hungarian government revealed that it had acquired the remaining seven pieces of the famous Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure. All fourteen known pieces of the hoard are now in Hungary, bringing to an end years of intricate negotiations. In 2014 the first seven items were secured from a private family foundation, along with the copper cauldron in which the hoard was found. Now the remaining pieces have been obtained from a second private trust for a total of 28 million euros, paid not as a purchase price but as compensation for many years of custodianship: the silver is regarded as Hungarian patrimony which, after many twistings and twinings, has duly returned home. For the story of the silver, its discovery and subsequent murky, star-crossed career, see here.

 

The silver has brought little luck to its owners thus far. One hopes that this may change. At the end of August 2017 the fourteen pieces embark on a national progress through Hungary before returning to Budapest to be placed on public display in the Hungarian National Museum.

 

The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that has enveloped the silver, along with sensational talk of a ‘Seuso curse’ have tended to deflect attention away from the beauty and craftsmanship of the articles themselves. This is a pity. The seven pieces belonging to the second Hungarian acquisition are, like the first seven, a mix of restrained engraved and moulded elegance (the ‘Western’ style) and exuberant, bubbling repoussé (the ‘Eastern’ style). They are as follows:

 

1: The ‘Animal Ewer’, decorated with engraved wild animals and slaves with whips (aimed at forcing animals to engage in bloody combat in the empire’s ampitheatres).

Detail from the Animal Ewer.

2: The ‘Dionysiac Amphora’, a globular vessel for wine, with handles in the shape of panthers (the god’s totem animal), its body embossed with a frenzied procession of satyrs and maenads and Dionysus himself, astride an enormous goat.

Dionysys and Pan: detail of the Dionysiac Amphora.

3, 4 and 5: The three silver-gilt vessels decorated with the story of Hippolytus and his stepmother Phaedra. One is a ewer, the other two are situlae, or water buckets. They were probably made as a set. The most charming scene is that of Hippolytus preparing to go hunting. The youth is shown heroically naked except for sandals and a cloak, with his dogs at his side, having received the love letter from his stepmother which he has cast to the ground.

Hippolytus with the rejected love letter falling to the ground between his feet.

6: The ‘Meleager Plate’, almost 70cm in diameter, with a central relief of the Calydonian Boar Hunt.

Central field of the Meleager Plate, showing the victor with the defeated boar slumped by his side.

7: The ‘Achilles Plate’, measuring 72cm across, with beautifully rendered reliefs of the life of Achilles. At the bottom is his birth, showing his mother on a bed attended by her waiting women, one of whom is washing the child while another pours water from a ewer not unlike those belonging to the Sevso hoard. At the top is the contest between Poseidon and Athena for hegemony over Athens. Athena is shown receiving the prize on one side while Poseidon slinks away on the other. In the centre is the famous scene of Achilles revealing his true identity. His mother Thetis had clad him in women’s attire to save him from having to take part in the Trojan war. Testosterone will out, however: on hearing the blare of the war trumpet, the hero instinctively reaches for spear and shield.

Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: the birth of Achilles.
Detail from the rim of the Achilles Plate: Athena receives the crown and palm of victory while Poseidon retreats.
Achilles hears the trumpet blast and seizes his spear and shield, causing consternation among the women. His manly leg is shown bursting from his chiton.

Excavations of the believed findspot of the hoard, between Székesfehérvár and Lake Balaton in western Hungary, are to be conducted. Whether this will reveal anything remains to be seen: if, preparatory to flight, the owners of the silver secreted it in an out-of-the-way place, intending to return for it later, a dig may yield little. On the other hand, the area is rich in Roman remains. Much may remain to be discovered.

 

Annabel Barber

Hedonist's travel, Hungarian wine

"Robert Smyth’s Hungarian Wine ... is a really pleasurable wine book and hedonist’s travel guide. It would make a great Christmas present for almost anyone who is interested in good wine and travel."

A nice review from wine blogger Quentin Sadler:

A Lovely Wine Book for Christmas

I love wine and I love books and I really, really like books about wine, so when my friend Robert Smyth gave me a copy of his excellent new book I leapt into action and little more than a year later I wrote this review.

Read his full article: https://quentinsadler.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/a-lovely-wine-book-for-christmas/

Comments on Hungarian Wine: A Tasting Trip to the New Old World

Hungarian wine has never been so exciting. More than ever before, wine tourism is taking off in the country, revealing a beguiling mix of tradition and innovation. With ancient, underground, rock-hewn cellars and wineries of cutting-edge design, Hungary offers much to experts and amateurs alike. This new guide, written by Budapest resident and wine writer Robert Smyth, visits each of the country’s wine regions, meets the winemakers, tastes the wines and makes recommendations of who to watch.

13.07.2016
18:10

Wine guide wins prize

"Hungarian wine" by Rob Smyth has been awarded a special commendation in the OIV's prestigious prize for the best wine book published in the last year.

The OIV - l'Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin - is a Paris-based "a scientific and technical" intergovernmental body.

Hungarian wine: a tasting trip to the New Old World is a widely-appreciated approachable and comprehensive introduction to the wines and vines of Hungary.  The special commendation was issued in the OIV's category "Wines and Territories".

02.06.2016
17:16

Budapest, Freedom and the Olympics

Photo by Hadley Kincade

Rising steep and craggy over Budapest from the west bank of the Danube is Gellért Hill, the best vantage point in the city. If you want to test the panorama photo function on your smartphone, this is the place to come. The Habsburgs were well aware of its commanding position too: after the suppression of the 1848 Hungarian revolution they built a citadel here, from which gun shafts pointed across the river into Pest to remind a rebellious population who was in charge. The Hungarians called it the Budapest Bastille and universally loathed it. Today its influence is benign. It is beloved by locals and tourists alike for its fine views.

 

Others besides the Habsburgs have been mindful of the hill’s supreme location. “It is here,” wrote the Panoráma Guide to Budapest in 1969, “at the southeastern corner of the old citadel, that Zsigmond Kisfaludi Strobl’s beautiful 29-metre-high Liberation Monument was erected in 1947. In the centre stands a female figure, a symbol of freedom, holding aloft the palm of victory and peace. Her silhouette can be seen from almost every corner of the city. Over the course of time this graceful sculpture has blossomed into a symbol. Small-scale copies of it can be found in offices and public buildings throughout the land.”

 

It’s all still true except for the name. The statue is now the Freedom Statue, evoking Liberty instead of “Liberation”, because the liberation in question was that of Hungary by the Soviets, the Allied troops who beat back the Germans and freed the city from Nazi rule in 1945 but brought a different tyranny in its stead. The Russian marshal Kliment Vorosilov was placed in charge of consolidating Communist control of Hungary and it was he who chose the sculptor, Kisfaludi Strobl (1884–1975), an artist known for statue groups composed of grandiose, monumental figures. Twenty years previously he had produced a memorial to the fallen of World War One for the city of Nyíregyháza, its central figure a muscular youth beating down a many-headed dragon with his bare fists. Strobl used the motif again for the Soviet memorial, but relegated it to a supporting role, placing a heroic nude dealing a death blow to the Hydra to one side. It was a good decision to leave it at the side, because this kind of bombastic allegory rings so horribly hollow. The stock hero standing for whatever he is required to stand for, defeating a stock embodiment of evil which can be equally flexibly interpreted. Posterity has chosen to ignore the allegorical side sculptures. It has also removed the pair of Soviet soldiers who flanked the Freedom statue and picked off the grateful inscription to the Soviet fallen. The statue is now dedicated to the memory of all who have given their lives for the independence, freedom and prosperity of Hungary. The central figure of the slender young woman reaching for the sky from her victor’s podium has remained constant, though, and her silhouette is as iconic as ever.

 

Budapest is one of the candidate cities hoping to host the 2024 summer Olympics. The Freedom Statue is its logo.

Annabel Barber

Rembrandt and the Dutch Golden Age

Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest. Until 15th February 2015.

This ambitious and extraordinarily ample exhibition will be the last of the Szépművészeti’s blockbuster shows, as the gallery is due to close in spring 2015 for large-scale refurbishment and reorganisation. The exhibition proudly presents works from the Szépművészeti’s own exceptionally rich 17th-century Dutch collection alongside loan works from the Rijksmuseum, the Metropolitan in New York, the National Gallery in London, the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, the Louvre, the Uffizi, the Getty and the Prado—to name only a few. “Over 170 works by some 100 painters”, we are told, and of those some 20 are Rembrandts and there are three Vermeers. A colossal show indeed.

 

How will order and sense be brought to this vastness? The scope of the exhibition is briefly set out at the beginning. Seventeenth-century Holland was a young country responding to great religious and social change as well as to inspiring, life-improving and sometimes disquieting scientific advances. Much of its art was commissioned by men who had made money from commerce. Thus new genres resulted: we can expect to see cityscapes, landscapes, scenes of civic and family life. Rembrandt is included as a sort of breakout display, alongside works by his master and pupils, for the sake of comparison.

 

The rise of Holland as a world power is dated to the time when the Dutch provinces, led by William of Orange, threw off Habsburg rule in the late 16th century. The very first work of art on show is a portrait of William (1579) hung alongside a naval battle scene showing an engagement between Dutch and Spanish galleys, then an allegory of peace followed by another of colonial power. With the scene thus summarily set, the themes of the succeeding rooms are as follows:

 

Faces of the Golden Age: The Building of a New Society

Wealth and Moderation?

The Influence of Protestantism on Religious Painting

Rembrandt and his Circle

Cities and Citizens

Landscapes

 

These themes are then illustrated, copiously. “Faces” shows us portraits of wealthy burghers, their wives and families. Members of a civic society are shown witnessing a dissection—though in fact they are all eagerly facing the viewer, just like any modern crowd jostling to be in the photograph. Members of another society are shown at a banquet. “Wealth and Moderation?” begins with still lifes (a lovely painting of tulips by Bosschaert) and domestic interiors (a superb Young Man Reading by Candlelight by Matthias Stom; 1620–32).

Matthias Stom: Young Man Reading by Candlelight.

Later manifestations of both these genres show a moralising message creeping in. An old crone short-sightedly squinting at a coin, for example, becomes Sight or Avarice? A young girl looking at herself in a mirror becomes an Allegory of Profane Love. Pre-eminent here is Jan Steen’s In Luxury Beware (1663). A chaotic household is brought before us, dominated by a drunk and debauched young couple. Food and debris are all over the floor with a symbolic deck of spilled playing cards, the baby has got hold of a pearl necklace instead of its rattle, an untended fire blazes offstage right while the dog eats the remainder of dinner in the background on the left. The still lifes, too, become more sinister. Not merely celebrations of nature or of painterly virtuosity, they turn into allegories of the transience of life, of ephemeral luxury. Painting after painting (including Steen’s) includes the stock image of the half-peeled lemon, a symbol not only of passing time but a warning of bitterness below the surface. Snails invade the bouquets of flowers by Rachel Ruysch and Jan Davidsz de Heem.

 

“Religion” contrasts the paintings of the Utrecht school (the only city in Holland which retained a majority Catholic population) with stark depictions of image-free Protestant church interiors. The 20 Rembrandts are hung alongside his master Lastman and his pupils Flinck, Bol, Arent de Gelder, Hoogstraten (his wonderful, hyperrealist Letterboard one of the works on display) and Dou (master of the genre scene; his The Quacksalver of 1652 is a supreme example). “Cities and Citizens” gives us cityscapes (De Witte’s important c. 1680 interior of the Amsterdam synagogue) and urban domestic interiors, including Vermeer’s Astronomer and Geographer and some representative works by De Hooch, one of them expertly rendering the sunlight as it falls on a courtyard wall and another delicately capturing the effect of sunlight falling on the further wall of a room, reflected through the panes of a window opposite.

 

The last room, “Landscapes”, has some splendid works by Hobbema, Avercamp, Cuyp, Ruisdael, Wouwerman and Berchem. “But this is a terribly big exhibition!” one lady protested to another as she steeled herself to tackle it, “It's impossible to take it all in!” Sadly, she’s right. There is too much to see. Partly the problem is that there is nowhere to sit and admire any of the works (except for two stools in the De Hooch room). Partly that the physical division of the exhibition spaces does not correspond to the thematic division of the exhibition itself, which is confusing. You pass through a partition which leads you to assume that you are done with “Cities and Citizens”, for example, only to discover that this is not the case. There are still two more sections to go.

 

The visitor is left with the problem of how to digest an over-ample meal, of the kind that leaves you replete but stupefied. Less would be more. A couple of choice still lifes; a single moralising genre scene. And if we had had fewer still lifes and genre scenes to work through, it would have been easier to notice (they are several rooms apart) that Stom’s Young Man Reading is as Caravaggist if not more so that Terbruggen’s Calling of Matthew. Stom was also from Utrecht. He spent most of his career in Italy. Thematically his work belongs where it has been placed; temperamentally it does not. The “Influence of Protestantism on Religious Painting” is one thing but what we see here, and what 17th-century Dutch painting so wonderfully illustrates, is the influence of Protestantism on ALL painting. With images banished from churches, the wealthy began to commission not altarpieces of their patron saints but portraits of their own selves. A still life with a skull and candle can serve just as well for personal devotion if there is no longer the opportunity to endow one’s local church with an expensive St Jerome in the Desert.

Hendrick Terbruggen: The Calling of Matthew (1618/19).

And how did the artists themselves fare? In Rome a landscapist like Claude could find favour with popes and cardinals. Was there a similar network of protection and patronage in Holland? Still lifes commanded less money than a genre scene, less by far than a vast canvas of scrubbed and beaming members of a city guild crowded around a banqueting table, each face a portrait from life, the whole to go on public display. Such a work could make a painter’s name and fortune. But the exhibition does not deal with this aspect of the subject.

It does, though, show us some wonderful paintings. Here are a few more of them:

Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606–84): Still Life (detail).

A lovely example of the Vanitas school of still life painting, showing the abundance of nature and the things money can provide while at the same time hinting at transience and decay. Oysters are swift to putrefy; the snail will devour the flowers; the butterflies are but fleeting flashes of pied beauty (or allegories of the soul?); the taper (seen glowing in the far left of the crop) marks the passage of time; the earwig hastens corruption; the china bowl is an epitome of fragile beauty.

Vermeer. Allegory of the Catholic Faith (1670/2; from the Metropolitan Museum, New York).

The setting is a “house chapel”, a room in a private home where Catholics were permitted to worship (public worship in churches was forbidden to them). A rich curtain patterned with a secular scene of a horseman and fruit, normally drawn across the chapel to screen it, is pulled back to reveal an altar on which are placed a chalice, crucifix and Bible. The backdrop is a large-scale painting of the Crucifixion. Beside the altar sits the personification of Faith, her foot upon a terrestrial globe, clutching her heart in ecstasy as she contemplates the pure sphere of Heaven symbolised by the crystal ball suspended from the ceiling by a ribbon of bright blue, the symbolic colour of the spirit, matching Faith’s shawl. On the floor is a snake, crushed and bloody, its life knocked out of it by the heavy masonry block, a symbol of Christ the cornerstone (as he is described in St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians).

Cuyp: River Landscape with Five Cows (c. 1650; Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest).

The Dordrecht painter at his very best.

 

And what of Rembrandt? Many of his works in this exhibition are early paintings, including a wonderful stock character study of a turbanned man (1627–8), the gold threads in his white headdress glisteningly picked out, the face half in deep shadow. Also here is his splendid penitent St Peter (1631), toothless and full of remorse in a Roman prison, his heavenly keys cast uselessly aside on a heap of stinking straw. Rembrandt seems much less at home in the Classical world (his stout Minerva and his Cupid with a Soap Bubble are two examples of a genre to which his genius was ill suited). Much more successful is his The Kitchen Maid, a scene of life as it is lived, without symbolism or allegory. This is art for art’s sake; the meaning is what the viewer finds in it.

Rembrandt: The Kitchen Maid (1651; Nationalmusem, Stockholm).

Rembrandt’s famous self-portrait of 1640 is also here (on loan from the National Gallery in London), the image of an artist at the peak of his career and fame, confidently signed with his name writ large at the bottom. Contrast this with his much later self-portrait (late 1660s; on loan from the Uffizi). The eyes, like those of the Laughing Cavalier, follow you wherever you turn, but not with a merry gleam. Instead they fix you with an unsettling, almost cynical scrutiny. What went wrong in Rembrandt’s life and career? This exhibition is not going to tell us. For that, we have to turn to the show of his late works currently running at the National Gallery in London.

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