Pursuit of Wonder

Saints, Sinners, Lovers, and Fools Access Guide

To gather the world, and all its wonders, in a room: Such ambitious endeavors developed in the 1500s and became the pursuit of educated rulers and discerning humanists. In the Southern Netherlands, wealthy townspeople also wished to prove their success and show off their newly achieved status.

Collectors sought to gather and organize “curiosities”—shells, corals, rare animals, scientific instruments, precious gems, fashionable art, and rare antiquities—as objects representative of the known and unknown worlds, which were now explored and coveted in colonial endeavors.

Seeking to own the marvels of the world, though, would seem an act of supreme arrogance, a God-like pursuit, and these rooms, no matter how lavish, could not grant immortality. Many of the objects in this space display skulls and skeletons, symbols of the fleetingness of time and of human vanity and are a brutal reminder of the brevity of human life on Earth.

Vroeg rijp, vroeg rot;
Vroeg wijs, vroeg zot.

Soon ripe, soon rotten;
Soon wise, soon foolish.

114. Cabinet of Curiosities Room introduction

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Narrator: Exotic minerals and butterflies. Intricate medieval carvings and ancient classical sculptures. Paintings that tell stories or present a vase of beautiful flowers that could never in reality bloom at the same moment. Mechanical marvels. Even a stuffed albatross! This space recreates what it might feel like to visit a Cabinet of Curiosities – a room in a wealthy European citizen’s home where such collections were displayed. Feel free to move around the gallery as you listen. Here's museum director Christoph Heinrich again:

Christoph Heinrich: It was almost a theater of the world that people knew at that time. So, it was not just a collection of many different things. It was a depiction of the universe -

Narrator: - of course, the universe as it was understood by the collector! The first Cabinets of Curiosity appeared in the palaces of European rulers. By the 1500s, wealthy citizens wanted their own versions. Cabinets were organized into categories: nature, art, exotic objects from afar, and scientific instruments. Prized rarities thought to be from mythical beasts were especially popular -

Christoph Heinrich: A horn of a unicorn was a very wonderful showpiece of every cabinet, or a dragons egg, or, well, things that really live more in the realm of fantasy.

Narrator: Such collections were certainly status symbols, demonstrating your wealth, and your global connections as a banker or merchant. They also enabled you to entertain visiting friends and scholars with lively discussions on history, art, science, nature … the possibilities were endless!

Christoph Heinrich: You would display your knowledge, but I think you would as well discuss maybe your theories or your ideas - how something occurs in nature and can be reflected in art.

Absolutely these Cabinets were the precursors of modern museums and especially I would say of the idea of the encyclopedic museum - the world art museum, like the Denver Art Museum is one, where you can see objects from very different cultures and very different periods in time.

Gillis van Tilborgh
South Netherlandish, 1625–1678
Elegant Interior with Twelve Gentlemen Surrounded by Paintings, with a Game of Backgammon at the Center
About 1661
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Newly wealthy townspeople began investing in paintings. An art collection was tangible proof of a successful life—not only because paintings were expensive but because they signaled cultivation and discernment. New connoisseurs like the ones portrayed here enjoyed viewing and discussing works of art and visited each other’s picture galleries—rooms filled from floor to ceiling with art. Every self-respecting collector needed biblical and mythological scenes, as well as a few portraits, some still lifes, and one or two good landscapes. Each of these genres developed in Antwerp in the 1600s.

Peeter Neefs II
South Netherlandish, 1620–after 1675
Gillis van Tilborgh
South Netherlandish, 1625–1678
Portrait of an Elegant Couple in an Art Cabinet
1652 and about 1675
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

115. Peeter Neeffs and Gillis Van Tilborch, Elegant Couple in a Collector’s Cabinet, 1652 and c. 1675

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Narrator: Some private collections included so much art that you might have a special gallery for it, like the one we see here.

Christoph Heinrich: There's a very broad variety of //paintings represented in this work, and it's landscapes, it's religious scenes, it's still lives, portraits.

Narrator: Such a collection represented considerable wealth.

Christoph Heinrich: I think collecting, then and now, had a lot to do with status. You would establish your rank in society, in having not just a big house, but I think as well, taste and access to the sources where these objects came from - and connoisseurship, so, to know paintings, to know one painter from another.

Narrator: There’s also room for a little comedy – this is Flanders, after all. In the lower left corner, a dog growls at a monkey. A monkey is of course another expensive, exotic possession, who might indeed have jumped out of one of the paintings – especially since the Flemish had a saying, “art is the ape of nature”.

Originally the scene featured five men inspecting and discussing the artworks. But they were painted out, and this couple was added instead. They’re enjoying the art collection that they may have purchased in real life – or perhaps only ever owned in their dreams!

This is the last stop on your audio tour today. We very much hope you’ve enjoyed the exhibition. If you borrowed a device, please return it at the kiosk as you leave.

Anton Günther Gheringh
South Netherlandish, 1630–1668
Interior of the Antwerp Jesuit Church before the Fire of 1718
About 1660
Oil paint on canvas
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Construction began in 1615 on a new Jesuit church in Antwerp, and no expense or effort were spared. Peter Paul Rubens supplied 39 monumental paintings for its ceiling, but a fire in 1718 destroyed the artworks. Only the surviving preparatory studies give us an idea of how the paintings once appeared. The oil sketch to the left shows one of Rubens’s studies, Saint Margaret and the dragon, from whose belly, according to the legend, she escaped.

Jan Cossiers, South Netherlandish, 1600–1671
A Young Man Lighting His Pipe (Allegory of Smell)
About 1650
Oil paint on panel
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp
Image © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

Jan Cossiers likely painted this work that invokes the sense of smell as part of a series dedicated to the five senses. Yet, what is striking is the complacency of the man staring at us, the viewers, with mild curiosity. If we imagine him as the collector of the objects in this room, he seems to be relishing the sense of wonder that he expects his collection will generate. In his mind, no doubt, he is on top of the world.

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.