June 24th 2016
‘Erasmus year 2016: Erasmus ‘I yield to no one,’ Museum Gouda, Gouda, The Netherlands.
This is a cracking exhibition which display’s the life and works of Gouda’s most famous son, Erasmus. I think that he would have disapproved of this show of ostentation as he was critical of celebrity but his writings also suggest but he was not above managing the ‘brand’ that was the progressive thinker, ‘Erasmus.’
One of the most interesting features of this exhibition is a series of very famous portraits of the man. They raise the issue of what is a portrait ‘likeness’ and can the picture of a person be enough without signage and text to show the way?
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) was a celebrity throughout Europe in his lifetime. He was painted by the greatest artists of his day: Quinten Massys, Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer. Letters and writings reveal that Erasmus kept very strict control of the way he was portrayed.
Erasmus by Holbein
This picture of Erasmus by Holbein shows him in huge gown writing at his desk. The text is from The Bible which he spent his life investigation old texts and writing a more contemporary and accurate translation of the New Testament – it was not well received by the Roman Catholic church. The curtain in the background is opulent and decorated with flowers. This is the 50-year-old man at the height of his powers; friend of Thomas More and tutor to the Charles V’s son. We learn that Erasmus approved of this portrait.
“This 1523 portrait is considered to be the most impressive picture of Erasmus. The image it conveys is idealised and the question remains if especially the tranquillity radiated by this picture equals Erasmus’s actual basic state of mind. Erasmus donated this portrait in September 1524 to his patron William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury. Apart from the smile, also the lettering on the edge of the book is striking: Herakleioi Ponoi Erasmi Roterodami or “Herculaean works by Erasmus of Rotterdam.” This refers to Erasmus’s own experiences in writing and the constant revision of his “Adagia”. In 1531 French theologian Mallarius would name Erasmus the Batavian Hercules, a commendable qualification in his view. Erasmus does not express his aversion of this.
Erasmus by Durer
The Greek signifies: “His works shall convey a better picture.” Dürer made this engraving at the insistence of Erasmus’s Neurenberg friend Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530) without having met Erasmus recently and without a recent portrait at his disposal. Despite his great admiration for Dürer’s skill this picture failed to charm Erasmus. In March 1528 he wrote to a friend: “Dürer has portrayed me, but it is no likeness at all.” Erasmus himself was to blame for this as well. After all, he had been the one that had given Dürer the poor advice to base his likeness on a combination of a five-year-old drawing and the Metsys medallion. The last-named however had been made from a completely different vision on Erasmus than Dürer’s drawing, probably already dooming the project at its outset.
Erasmus by Quinten Metsys
The face of this 1519 Erasmus medallion by Quinten Metsys shows Erasmus’s profile. The back contains a picture of Terminus and the adage “Concedo Nulli.” Thomas More’s only comment on the double portrait of Gilles and Erasmus had been that the material it had been painted on (wood) was so unsteady. Apparently Erasmus took this criticism seriously, for two years later he commissioned Metsys to produce a medallion with his portrait on the face and the god Terminus at the back. Here we also find his above-named motto “Concedo Nulli” (I yield to no-one). His enemies interpreted this as arrogance, attributing the statement to Erasmus himself. Erasmus defended himself, putting forward that the saying had a bearing on death and should be attributed to Terminus. The edges of the medallion face show Latin and Greek texts, signifying: “His writings will convey him better: portrait true to life”, the year 1519 and on either side of the head “.er.. rot.” or ”Erasmus Roterodamus”. Erasmus distributes this medallion among his friends, although he often indicates his dissatisfaction with its quality. Another striking fact is that Erasmus rarely mentions the name of the artist. Is this perhaps a sign of the low esteem Erasmus generally had of the visual arts and artists?(Historic Museum, Basel)
Erasmus centre for early modern studies. Spin doctoring. http://www.erasmus.org/index.cfm?itm_name=portraits-EN
What do I think?
Erasmus’s reaction to Durer’s picture is interesting as he said “this is not a likeness at all.” I think that this is an issue for me and all of us as we consider that gaze from an us that we may not like or identify with – things have not changed in 500 years.
The other issue here is image management. I control what people see of me and this is not a new thing. It is back to this psychological idea of seeing ourselves in a mirror when young and growing that image in our lives.