From God to the Individual

Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools Access Guide

Worshippers were supposed to kneel and pray before holy scenes. But you can’t pray all the time: You need to live your life too! Fortunately, someone had the bright idea that you could also pray symbolically, using your portrait as your stand-in. Additionally, your prayers would continue to reach heaven even after you were long dead.

Emperors and kings were the first to realize that portraits could also be an expression of power and status. And whatever the ruler did, his subjects were quick to follow. But not all his subjects. Only the lucky and advantaged townspeople, who were able to build wealth through trade and enterprises, could commission impressive portraits that rivaled the ones of the traditional elite. For this privileged section of society, the focus shifted from God to the individual.

Jan van Scorel
North Netherlandish, 1495–1562
Portrait of a Gentleman Wearing a Fur-Lined Cloak and Hat
About 1520–40
Oil paint on panel
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

The thick fur-lined coat and leather gloves tell us this sitter is wealthy and able to afford the fine things in life. His hat, with flaps covering both ears, resembles those worn by both clergymen and gentlemen, but no other details provide a clue to the man’s identity. The choice of the artist, perhaps the most influential Netherlandish painter of the 1520s and 1530s, further speaks to the sitter’s prestige.

Jan van Hemessen
South Netherlandish, about 1500–1556/57
Double Portrait of a Husband and Wife Playing Tables
1532
Oil paint on panel
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

A woman’s hand lovingly rests on a man’s shoulder. The intimacy and familiarity exuding from this double portrait, as well as a number of symbols connected to marriage (the cut quince by the bowl) and the Eucharist (the grapes and glass of wine), suggest it may commemorate a wedding. The couple plays triktrak—an early Dutch version of backgammon—and may be discussing a play, perhaps the reason for the woman’s affectionate gesture.

104. Jan Sanders Van Hemessen, Double Portrait of a Husband and Wife Playing Tables, 1532

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Narrator: A game of backgammon – what could be simpler and more homely? In fact, almost every detail of this portrait of 1532 reveals important information about this couple and their aspirations.

Katharina Van Cauteren: They were the very kind of people that made the Southern Netherlands rich. He is obviously a well-to-do entrepreneur. You can tell because he's fully dressed in black and so is she - and black was one of the most time consuming, and thus most expensive, colors to make. So, it's really showing off.

Narrator: The wife also has red velvet sleeves – once the exclusive right of the nobility. The fruit plate is both elegant refreshment and symbol of fertility. The grapes and glass of wine represent the Christian Mass, and therefore their faith. And the Amazonian parrot? A prestigious pet – but also a reference to paradise. These are all good marital omens, as are the glances and gestures they exchange.

Katharina Van Cauteren: It's so loving, the man and his wife. They're playing a game of backgammon, but the players are not competitors. You can see how she very caringly touches him.

Narrator: The artist suggests that they help each other successfully navigate the board game of life and business, just as they do with backgammon at home.

Earlier, wealthy individuals might have their family portrayed in a religious scene, kneeling in worship. But more recently, royalty and nobility had realized the power of a portrait in its own right – especially as a way to display status.

Katharina Van Cauteren: And if it's good enough for the nobility, well, the rich citizens follow.

Joos van Cleve
South Netherlandish, about 1485–1540/41
Portrait of a Young Man, probably Charles of France, Duke of Angoulême
About 1532
Oil paint on panel
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

In the 1500s, portraits were expensive, which is why all the sitters in this room were either rulers, nobles, or wealthy citizens—the only ones who could afford a painting of themselves. Portraits of children were even rarer. This boy is most likely Charles, the beloved son of Francis I, King of France. Joos Van Cleve traveled to France in 1532 to paint the royal family, and Charles, having just inherited the duchy of Angoulême after his aunt Marguérite renounced the title, appropriately holds a daisy (marguerite in French) as an homage.

Catharina van Hemessen
South Netherlandish, 1527/28–after 1567
Portrait of a Lady
1550
Oil paint on panel
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

“See here what a noble face in the flower of youth.” The inscription on this panel reminds the viewer of the transience of beauty, but for this 31-year-old woman, the portrait ensures that viewers will always know her beauty. If portraits of women were less common than those of men, portraits of women painted by women were even rarer. The accomplished artist was the daughter of the prominent master Jan van Hemessen, who, like other female artists of her time, specialized in small-sized portraits.

Jan van Hemessen
South Netherlandish, about 1500–1556/57
Portrait of Elisabet, Court Fool of Anne of Hungary
About 1525
Oil paint on panel
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Elisabet was the beloved court jester of Anne of Hungary, who was the wife of Hapsburg Emperor Ferdinand I. Unlike typical depictions of fools, who are often described in a cartoonish way, this painting is an actual portrait. Elisabet wears an outlandish green and yellow dress and hat, and many rings adorn her fingers. Court fools were hired for entertainment, but because of their perceived innocence, they were often the only ones who could get away with telling a ruler the harsh truth.

Peter Paul Rubens
South Netherlandish, 1577–1640
Portrait of Archduke Albert of Austria
About 1615
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

105. Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Archduke Albrecht, 1615

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Narrator: It’s obvious this is no ordinary person. Artist Peter Paul Rubens expertly ensures that we look up to this splendidly-dressed man. He is Archduke Albert, who ruled the Netherlands in the early 17th century with his wife, the Spanish princess Isabella.

Katharina Van Cauteren: Albert is shown in all his noble glory. You can see his archducal hat on the table behind him. He also has his cartwheel ruff, which was very fashionable. And lace was almost as expensive as diamonds, so he's really showing off here.

Narrator: The ruff’s gleam is picked up by the dancing light on the gold and silver embroidery of his sleeves, conjured up by Rubens’ dazzling brushwork.

Katharina Van Cauteren: It's really something only Rubens could or dared to do at that time. It's like dot-dot-dot-dot, and there's the result. That's magic!

Narrator: The ruff also serves to isolate the ruler’s face, which Rubens paints with penetrating insight. He gives us the sense of a stern, somber character, preoccupied with state affairs.

Rubens was one of Albert and Isabella’s foremost court painters.

Katharina Van Cauteren: Royal portraits are used as political propaganda. So, what happens is that an artist not only paints one portrait, but an entire series of it. And then, well, the archdukes in this case, they can use it as a political gift. And they are sent all over Europe to all the friends and enemies alike just to say, "This is me! - If you hang me in your hall, it also says something about your political background and your alliances.”

De gelegenheid maakt het verlangen

Opportunity makes desire

South Netherlandish artist
Triptych with Saint Luke Painting the Virgin Mary
About 1520–30
Oil paint on panel
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Made for private worship in the home, this small triptych could easily be placed on a table or windowsill. The central panel shows Saint Luke painting the Virgin Mary’s portrait. Mary poses with the Christ Child in the left panel. According to legend, Luke’s painting was the first portrait ever made, which is why Luke was chosen as the patron saint of painters. Commissioned by the Benedictine monk on the right, the triptych reminded him—and viewers like us—what he ought to visualize while praying.

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.