The Discovery of the World

Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools Access Guide

The Flemish believed that to understand the mysteries of the divine, you had to explore the wider world. Every detail of creation deserved to be examined, described, and studied.

Encyclopedias portrayed nature in terms of an all-encompassing religious undertaking. But the closer you looked, the more there was to tell, so the universal project came to include countless disciplines. The botanist looked for God in every plant; the physicist in the light; the anatomist in the body; and the geographer in the earth. Southern Netherlandish artists responded to these developments as well, incorporating new discoveries into their techniques and subject matters.

Nature became a playground for ever-more curious scientists, who developed microscopes and telescopes, compasses and quadrants, as well as for artists, who found in it endless motifs for their subjects.

Hans Collaert II and Theodor Galle after Johannes Stradanus
South Netherlandish, 1561/1566–1620/1628, 1571–1633, and 1523–1605
The Invention of Oil Paint, from Twenty-Sheet Set of Prints Nova Reperta (New Inventions of Modern Times)
About 1590
Engravings
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

108. Johannes Stradanus, Nova Reperta: The Invention of Oil Paint, c. 1590 and other prints in the series

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Narrator: In this bustling studio, a finely dressed master artist works on a large picture. Paint in tubes wouldn’t be invented until the 19th century, so apprentices prepare his oil paints.

To the right, a young man grinds pigments made from colored minerals and other organic materials to a fine powder on stone slabs. These were mixed with linseed oil to produce paint. The younger apprentice beside the artist is organizing a new color palette.

Oil paint, pioneered by Flemish artists in the early 1400s, was a revolutionary invention. Previously, pigments were mixed with egg yolk. You had very little time to work before it dried into an opaque, matte surface. Now, artists could build up a scene with layers of translucent oil paint that could be reworked and blended over a long period of time. This gave their work a sense of depth, richness and luminosity.

This print is surrounded by others in the same series portraying inventions and discoveries. They give us a vivid insight into people’s fascination with innovations of all kinds in late 16th century Flanders. You’ll find everything from the printing press and windmill, to the discovery of longitude, glasses, cane sugar – and the Americas.

Hans Collaert II and Theodor Galle after Johannes Stradanus
South Netherlandish, 1561/1566–1620/1628, 1571–1633, and 1523–1605
Allegory of America, from Twenty-Sheet Set of Prints Nova Reperta (New Inventions of Modern Times)
About 1590
Engravings
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

The Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci traveled to what he considered the New World between 1497 and 1504. Unlike Christopher Columbus, Vespucci was credited for recognizing that he had reached a continent unknown to Europeans, which was later named after him in 1507: America. The scene designed by Stradanus is full of stereotypical details, including the voluptuous and tempting allegory of America and an episode of cannibalism in the background. These engravings were widely disseminated and shaped the harmful perception of the yet-to-be colonized lands as “sinful” and “uncivilized.”

Abraham Ortelius
South Netherlandish, 1527–1598
Theater of the World (World Atlas)
1575
Ink on paper and leather binding
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

In 1570, the Antwerp geographer and cartographer Abraham Ortelius abandoned the traditional focus on the details of individual places in favor of the bigger picture. His Theatrum orbis terrarum (Theatre of the World) is the first true atlas—a collection of 53 maps. Ortelius copied his maps of the world and of Europe from Gerard Mercator, the man known as the Father of Cartography. Mercator’s maps point to a crucial shift in which the world was no longer presented according to Christian beliefs but rather through exploration and empirical facts.

Andreas Vesalius
South Netherlandish, 1514–1564
De humani corporis fabrica libri septem (On the Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books)
1543
Ink on paper and leather binding
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Direct observation was crucial to faithful representation and understanding. The physician Andreas Vesalius took this lesson to heart when he picked up his scalpel to dissect the human body. He then recorded and collaborated with artists to illustrate his findings in what most consider to be one of the most important textbooks on human anatomy.

Meten is weten

To measure is to know

Rembert Dodoens
South Netherlandish, 1517–1585
Book of Herbs
1563
Ink on paper
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Rembert Dodoens, a physician from Mechelen (currently in Belgium), collected over 1,300 specimens of plants, every one a gateway into the divine mystery. In the Cruydt-Boeck (Book of Herbs), he did not arrange them alphabetically but instead according to their appearance, to the physical attributes that you can see.

Peter Paul Rubens and Studio
South Netherlandish, 1577–1640
Diana Hunting with Her Nymphs
About 1636–37
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

In 1636, the Spanish king Philip IV commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to create more than 60 paintings to decorate the Torre de la Parada, his new hunting lodge near Madrid. These canvases centered on mythological themes, imagery that continued to be popular among the elite. Though Rubens designed the compositions, leading Flemish artists executed them by dividing the work, including Paul de Vos, who, most likely, was responsible for the exquisite details of the animals.

Maarten de Vos
South Netherlandish, 1532–1603
River Landscape with the Baptism of Christ
1568
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Saint John baptizes Christ in the foreground of this grandiose painting by the Antwerp artist Maarten de Vos, while at the top, the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove. Two angels point out the sacred character of the moment to the viewer, while small groups of Jewish religious scholars look on, full of disbelief and awe. De Vos probably found his inspiration for the scene during his journey to Italy. This landscape though is not a specific place: It is an idealized vision of God’s creation.

109. Maerten de Vos, The Baptism of Christ, 1568

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Narrator: Painted in pale colors and brightly lit to attract our gaze, Christ is baptized in the river by St John the Baptist. But… wait a moment. This definitely isn’t the sunbaked, Mediterranean landscape of Israel. Instead, we see lush, green meadows, thatched cottages and rocky mountains under a cloudy sky. So… what’s going on?

Flemish artists often set biblical scenes in landscapes that look like those they might see on a journey south. Many would travel down through Germany and the Alps to study in Italy as part of their education. This particular scene is by Antwerp painter Maerten De Vos, who spent time in Venice. We can see the rich, bright colors fashionable in Venetian art reflected here.

Katharina Van Cauteren: But also, the ideal anatomy of his figures reminds us of the classical sculptures he must have seen there. He mixes Northern and Southern traditions in this marvelous painting.

But beware, none of this was painted outside. It was all neatly composed inside a painter’s studio. Which makes total sense because it would take until the 19th century before paint in tubes was invented - before you could go out to sketch. But making paint was very, very complicated, so you couldn't start messing around with pigments and linseed oil outside. You could make sketches outside and then compose the general picture in your studio.

Gilles Coignet
South Netherlandish, about 1542–1599
Allegory of the Fortuna Marina
About 1560
Oil paint on panel
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Embarking on voyages of discovery, whether geographical or intellectual, required courage and, as the Latin saying “Fortune favors the bold” reminds us, a good dose of luck. Here the personification of Fortune balances on a small shell, while the wind blows unpredictably around her. It is uncertain whether you will be directed to the safe harbor on the left or destined for the burning coastline on the right.

Hendrick de Clerck
South Netherlandish, 1560–1630
Denijs van Alsloot
South Netherlandish, about 1570–about 1627
The Garden of Eden with the Four Elements
1613
Oil paint on copper
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

110. Hendrick De Clerck and Denijs van Alsloot, Paradise with Four Elements, 1613

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Narrator: Under the apple tree in the center here are Adam and Eve – the first man and woman according to the Biblical Old Testament. They’re about to eat the fruit that God forbade them to touch. To the right, an angel drives them out of Paradise. They emerge into a world filled with riches from land and sea, presided over by four larger figures representing air, fire, earth and water.

The painting was made for the Archdukes Albert and Isabella. It’s full of glimpses of their precious possessions kept in their palace and gardens in Brussels. We see exotic shells, tulips from Turkey, lions, bears – even a Peruvian guinea pig down at the front!

Katharina Van Cauteren: This is almost like a catalog of creation.

Narrator: These natural wonders bear witness to the contemporary fascination with global exploration and scientific discovery.

Katharina Van Cauteren: As from the 16th century, you see how well these new researchers, they start exploring the world around them. //They want to study every flower, every detail.

Narrator: On one hand, we see scientific precision. On the other hand – the lions, bears and sheep coexisting in perfect harmony – probably more symbolic than realistic!

Katharina Van Cauteren: So this is really a political statement.

Narrator: It suggests that the Archdukes will recreate a peaceful, harmonious paradise here on earth. The painting is intriguing for another reason too – Hendrick De Clerck painted the figures, and the landscape is by Denijs Van Alsloot.

Katharina Van Cauteren: The 17th century sees the emergence of the art connoisseur, someone who can discern different hands and styles. And that's why collaboration between artists is something new and exciting for these connoisseurs, for these collectors.

Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools: 300 Years of Flemish Masterworks is co-organized by the Denver Art Museum and The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp (Belgium). It is presented by the Birnbaum Social Discourse Project. Support is provided by the Tom Taplin Jr. and Ted Taplin Endowment, Keith and Kathie Finger, Lisë Gander and Andy Main, the Kristin and Charles Lohmiller Exhibitions Fund, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Christie's, the donors to the Annual Fund Leadership Campaign, and the residents who support the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. Promotional support is provided by 5280 Magazine and CBS Colorado.