Today’s 100 object blog is by Peter Hewitt, AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Researcher with the SBT and the University of Birmingham and is about an interesting oil on bevelled panel from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
Looking at this panel painting today, we are immediately drawn to its virtuoso rendering of the familiar – rabbits, pike, trout, a suckling pig, lemons, onions, hooves, and most striking of all, a skinned cows head on a wooden block. To its early seventeenth century audience however, this impressive panel may have had a deeper significance – the imagery emerges from a tradition which explored the Four Elements, the Galenic system of the four humours, and was permeated also with biblical references.
In the 1570s, the Antwerp painter Joachim Beuckelaer made four panels entitled Earth, Water, Air and Fire that can be viewed on the website of The National Gallery in London. They depict market stalls, or, as in the case of Fire, a kitchen interior where food is being prepared. Each painting associated the natural world with the element itself – in Air for example, birds are for sale; in Water, it is fish; whilst in Fire, a selection of birds and beasts are being prepared for the spit, whilst a fire is stoked in the background.
These paintings had two intertwining ‘themes’ – Galenic theory and Christian teaching. The former was a system outlined by a Roman physician in the second century which united almost aspect of classical knowledge into an integrated whole. The human body was thought to be regulated by four fluids, or humours, which corresponded to the four elements themselves, which in turn comprise every living thing. The second theme introduced episodes from Christ’s life and teachings to explain the character traits of a particular humour.
According to Galen, and early modern commentators such as Robert Burton (in his Anatomy of Melancholy, published 1621), character traits for an unbalanced humour dominated by Air were irresponsibility, gluttony, drunkenness and lust. Beuckelaer therefore incorporates a scene from Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son – with the adolescent drinking and eating to excess, and wasting ‘his substance’ with prostitutes.
So what message might our painting have communicated? It is true that there is not the same level of narrative here as we have seen in Beuckelaer’s work. Galen’s theory of humours was however deeply embedded into the culture of early modern England and it is possible that contemporaries may have read this painting as a representation of Fire with its attendant character traits of directness, industry and energy. This idea is reinforced by the figure of the maidservant in our picture, and Beuckelaer’s choice of religious narrative for his own Fire scene: Jesus as a guest in the house of Martha. In this story, Martha’s sister Mary listens to the teachings of Jesus whilst Martha is left to do all the work. When Martha complains to Jesus, he responds: ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one good thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her’ (Luke 10: 41-42). In our image, a solitary figure plucking a goose follows the iconography established by Beuckelaer – but further to this, as a single female servant, getting on in her ascribed sphere, it reinforces seventeenth-century ideas of female domestic labour and service, and their integral importance to the household economies of Shakespeare’s England.
We have seen how moral and religious teaching could be incorporated into paintings like this. Depictions of richly laid tables or cornucopias of produce could have acted as warnings against the sins of luxuria and greed. The fly on the (rotting) cow’s head may allude to the memento mori tradition with its sense the transitory, whilst the moth in the top left reminds us also of Christ’s teaching on worldly riches (which can be found in the New Testament of the Bible, Matthew chapter 6, verse 19). But whilst elements of the moralizing medieval past persist, this image seems to celebrate domestic plenty and the industriousness of female domestic labour.
We are given a clear idea of the intended location and ‘purpose’ of this painting by a brilliantly illusionistic paper-note painted in the top-left hand corner, which reads: ‘I have more choice for my kitchen’. It is unlikely that this image would have hung in the actual kitchen – if it was part of a cycle of paintings it was almost certainly hung in a long gallery or hall. But whose ‘kitchen’ are we looking at here? Some art historians think that panels like this document actual eating habits* – and perhaps the swan in the foreground is a clue: as a foodstuff swans were limited to the social elite during this period. Whoever owned this painting, it is a fascinating and revealing glimpse into the changing values of domestic life in early modern England.
*Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays of Still Life Painting (1990); and Julie Hochstrasser ‘Stil-Staende Dingen: Picturing objects in the Dutch Golden Age’ in Paula Findlen (ed.) Early Modern Things (2013).