Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 11, 2011
Walter S. Gibson Figures of Speech: Picturing Proverbs in Renaissance Netherlands Berkeley: University of California, 2010. 256 pp.; 81 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (9780520259546)

Walter Gibson’s latest book investigates aspects of the relationship between word and image in early modern Netherlandish art. Although his subject is the depiction of proverbs, he does not dwell on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s famous painting in Berlin that depicts more than one hundred proverbs set in a human landscape. Rather, he discusses the general phenomenon of the reliance on proverbs in Netherlandish culture, charting the rise of proverb books and the use of proverbs in several literary genres. Gibson then introduces a series of case studies, some drawn from earlier publications but revised for this venue.

The introduction, “A Passion for Proverbs,” tells of the great popularity of the proverb, not only in the Netherlands but throughout Europe. The first compendium of Dutch proverbs was published at Delft in 1480—a pairing of Latin maxims with their vernacular counterparts—but was quickly overshadowed by the enormously successful Adagia of Erasmus. Though Erasmus’s bestseller, originally published in Paris in 1500, was wholly in Latin, it gave rise to a series of adaptations that included Dutch equivalents for the classical sayings that Erasmus had collated. In fact, these adaptations of the Adagia largely dispense with the extended discussions that Erasmus included in his entries which made his volume a handbook or primer of ancient thought. Little more than the sayings themselves were preserved by his followers.

Interestingly, the authors of these proverb compendia freely collected (and translated) sayings from neighboring countries to increase their count. Many of these proverbs were, in fact, common to several lands and languages, but many were not. The proverb books in effect transplanted foreign maxims, reducing their accuracy in gauging the vernacular traditions of their native country. One of the early Dutch proverb books of the sixteenth century, for example, the Seer schoone spreeckwoorden oft proverbia published by Hans de Laet in 1549, had adopted more than five hundred of its entries from an earlier French anthology, the Bonne response à tous propos, published in Paris in 1547. This French volume had, in turn, taken much of its material from an even earlier Italian counterpart.

Although medieval proverb compendia in manuscript often claim through their titles to have taken down the speech of the common villager, Gibson maintains that the sixteenth-century interest in proverbs has nothing in common with the contemporary curiosity concerning peasant life. Rather, the myriad proverb volumes have to do with a burgeoning linguistic nationalism that marked the Netherlands a bit after it appeared in Italy and France. Dutch literature enjoyed a long tradition, but its practitioners lamented its relative poverty in comparison with Italian and French. In his preface to the publication of the plays performed at the Antwerp Landjuweel in 1562, Willem van Haecht openly hoped that the Netherlands would soon have poets equal to the likes of Petrarch, Ariosto, and Ronsard, “who would contribute to the embellishment of our Netherlandish language.” Proverbs were one of the favored tools taken to “ornament” the language—as several of the editors of these proverb collections claimed. Indeed, Joachim Du Bellay and Henri Estienne pointed to proverbs as a source of enrichment of the French language.

But proverbs were also about authority. Erasmus’s adages derive much of their worth from their ascription to the august authors and philosophers of the ancient world. This is certainly true of the more general and wide-ranging sententiae, which were occasionally grouped according to their author. The editors of these anthologies clearly relied on the reputation of the disparate writers. The process of their invocation strongly resembled the older scholastic habit of coordinating respected opinion.

There are, of course, many different sorts of proverbs, and here one might delve into their ideological charge. In an age of fractured and competing sources of authority, proverbs were increasingly invoked as the voice of long experience and common sense. They often exert a distinctly urban ideological force, as can be seen in some of the earlier proverb illustrations that Gibson reproduces. Among the first is Israhel van Meckenem’s engraving of five mixed characters from around 1500. King David appears at the left, standing above the Latin text of a psalm. At the center are three artisans who practice their trades, while beneath them appear punning texts in low German, roughly proverbial, each announcing the deceptive practice of the respective craftsman. At the far right appears a fool holding a cat, a clear illustration of the proverb beneath: “beware cats who lick your face but scratch your back.” Here proverbs speak the pragmatic wisdom of the city dweller who must contend with the world’s deceit. Similar in spirit is a print purportedly designed by Hieronymus Bosch but executed by a Netherlander around mid-century. The print depicts several proverbs performed in a village setting, all of which refer to sloth, which is invariably attributed to these extra-urban inhabitants. These are not proverbs chosen at random but rather sayings that pertain to an evolving urban ethic of urban wisdom and self-sufficiency.

Gibson is careful to review the depictions of vernacular sayings in the local culture that predate Bruegel. These range from a fragment of a late fifteenth-century tapestry that represents a number of proverbs including several that Bruegel would later paint. This fragment, today in the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, is the only surviving example of what must have been a popular genre. There are two fifteenth-century texts that specifically list proverbs for inclusion in tapestry or stained glass.

With his third chapter, Gibson begins a series of case studies. This chapter examines Hieronymus Bosch’s Haywain and the proverbial value of hay in Netherlandish art and letters. Gibson analyzes Bosch’s complex adaptation of the colloquial associations between hay and nothingness, present in many languages, and his use of the hay wagon as the ultimate symbol of human vanity. This wagon becomes for Bosch the chief actor in his drama of the progression from creation to damnation. Gibson demonstrates that Bosch was hardly alone in his visual references to hay as sign of the emptiness of human desire. Several paintings and prints of the sixteenth century likewise represent the haywain at the center of their design, while other artists, such as Frans Pourbus, favored the haystack as the center-piece to their allegories. These representations seem to have reached their apogee during the second third of the sixteenth century. In 1559 Frans Hogenberg, for instance, repeated Bosch’s invention of the hay wagon in his etching of Al Hoy (“Everything is Hay”), an encyclopedic visual account of society’s greed and empty longing. At about the same time, his brother, Remigius Hogenberg, transformed this primary metaphor. Perhaps feeling that hay had had its due, he chose to play on the similar associations with the turnip, a cheap and ubiquitous vegetable. Turnips were likewise proverbally associated with objects of no value. Remigius fashioned the visual allegory of the turnip wagon, which like the haywain attracted all of society’s search for gain. The turnip was a fitting vehicle, for the Dutch word for the vegetable was also a verb meaning “to amass” or “to gather.” Thus Dutch proverbs linked Remigius’s turnip wagon both to empty goals and to vain acquisition.

The following chapter confronts the twelve well-known engravings by Johann Wierix and Pieter van der Heyden, purportedly after paintings by Bruegel. Gibson analyzes the loose relationship between these prints and the panel that houses twelve roundels depicting proverbs by Bruegel in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp. He shows that the prints developed a life of their own; a few were adapted by Johann Theodor de Bry in his Emblemata Saecularia, published at Frankfurt in 1596. Gibson, moreover, traces the migration of meaning throughout these adaptations. The eponymous hero of Bruegel’s The Misanthrope (1568) becomes at the hands of Wierix an ascetic vainly fleeing the afflictions of the world. In de Bry’s book the figure is transformed into a monk who remains fraudulently attached to worldly goods. Gibson not only examines the transition in meaning that the individual designs undergo, he also discusses the relation between proverbs and emblem books, that elite intellectual genre of the sixteenth century.

The final chapter is concerned with depictions of the proverbial “battle for the breeches.” As Gibson shows, this subject was less frequently an elaboration on the evil wiles of women than on women’s sex-crazed pursuit of the seat of male virility. Following the lead of Abby Warburg, Gibson traces the origins of the theme to a pronouncement by the prophet Isaiah. He further relates this sexually open subject to the cult around the sculpture of Priapus in Antwerp and to other erotic texts and images in the Netherlands of the sixteenth century.

Figures of Speech: Picturing Proverbs in Renaissance Netherlands is a welcome addition to the scholarly discussion of text and image in Netherlandish art. It explores that particular penchant for proverbs and proverb illustration that marks a sub-discipline of the culture, helpfully elaborating on the iconology and Nachleben of several interesting images and series. It is an invitation to further research into this profitable field of inquiry.

Ethan Matt Kavaler
Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of Toronto