The trapped peasant

Alexandru Gh. Sonoc
Brukenthal National Museum, Sibiu, Romania (Summer 2014)

 

The Trapped Peasant, 1631
Adriaen van der Venne (1589-1662)  Brukenthal National Museum,
Sibiu, Romania

A strange looking dentist (tall hat, long hair, goatee, sword, tall boots) is pulling a peasant’s tooth. Behind the peasant, a woman (traditionally considered as his wife, but more likely a prostitute) opens a purse hanging together with a dagger on his belt, and picks some coins from it. Behind the dentist stands a locker with medicine bottles and boxes and two persons who are waiting. One of them tries to steal one of the medicine bottles. The paper with the signature of the artist hangs on the shelf of the locker. In front of the locker there is a small barrel covered with a cloth, and before it a smaller box and a medicine bottle on it. On the ground lies a strip of paper with the Dutch inscription in Gothic letters: Lÿdt en mÿdt, ie lijdt en mijdt, meaning “suffers and avoids” – the translation of the stoic maxim sustine et abstine.1 The painting was considered as one of the very popular Reformed parodies of the contemporary Catholic martyrdom scenes.1

The inscription, referring to the fact that the peasant, though armed with a dagger, must suffer and is robbed at the same time, has a moral meaning. It perhaps could be understood by knowing that in German (but also in Dutch) there is an obscene allusion (sich einen herunter-/heraushollen) which here could be inoffensively connected to the extraction of a tooth. At the same time, if the painting is interpreted as a parody of the martyrdom scenes, the strange appearance would suggest that the dentist or the barber in fact symbolizes the devil, by his goat-like physiognomy, by the feather on his hat reminiscent of goat horns, and by the rich cloths and sword suggesting that as ruler of this world he cheats and tortures the poor Christian (who like Adam) cannot resist being tempted by the woman.

This grisaille was mentioned in the handwritten catalogue of the Brukenthal collection as the work of an artist from the Netherlands,2 but in the first printed catalogue the signature was already known and therefore it was attributed to Adrian van der Venne.3 Karl Schellein confirmed this reading, how it is mentioned in the catalogue of 1893, where the painter’s name is spelled in the same German way.4 Theodor von Frimmel refairs also to this painting, mentioning the Dutch inscription in its lower part, but with the artist’s name spelled wrong as Adriaen van de Venne.5 In the catalogues of 19016 and 19097 the name is already spelled correctly.

At Szépművészeti Múzeum of Budapest there is a painting by Johann Lyss dating perhaps from 1616-1612, inspired by a copper engraving of 1523 by Lukas van Leyden8 and also showing a tooth extraction while a woman is stealing from the purse of the defenseless, ragged man. However, here the dentist (or better said the barber) does not wear such rich cloths as in the painting of Adriaen van der Venne from Sibiu, but is also armed with a sword, like the patient too and the prostitute with a dagger, while in the painting in Sibiu both the patient and the prostitute have daggers. Because of the presence of weapons in all three characters, the intention of Lukas van Leyden, the inventor of this scene, may perhaps have been inspired by the daily life in a military camp.

The inscription with the signature, location and date was wrong and incompletely reproduced in the catalogue of 1893 4 and even by Th. von Frimmel. 5My conclusion was based on the facsimile of the inscription in the catalogue of 1909 7 compared with the original and a recent digital photography taken during the restoration of this painting.

 

References

  1. Deutsche Buchgilde in Rumänien (ed.), Alte Meister. Fünfunddreissig Gemälde aus der freiherrlich Brukenthalischen Sammlung (Hermannstadt: Verlag von Krafft & Drotleff, 1936, 13).
  2. Der älteste handschriftliche Katalog – The handwritten catalogue, kept in the Library of the Brukenthal National Museum of Sibiu (mss. 628), ca. 1800. cat. nr.71.
  3. Die Gemälde- Galerie des freiherrlichen v. Brukenthalischen Museums in Hermannstadt (Hermannstadt: 1844, 59, cat. nr.150).
  4. Freiherr Samuel von Brukenthal’sches Museum in Hermannstadt: Führer durch die Gemäldegalerie, herausgegeben von der Museumsverwaltung, vierte Auflage (Hermannstadt: 1893, 21, cat.nr.72).
  5. Theodor von Frimmel, Kleine Galeriestudien, Neue Folge (Wien: Verlag von Gerold & CIE, 1894, 21).
  6. M. Csaki,Baron Brukenthal’sches Museum in Hermannstadt. Führer durch die Gemäldegalerie, 5. Aufl. (Hermannstadt: Selbstverlag des Museums, 1901, 324, cat. nr. 1159).
  7. M. Csaki, Baron Brukenthalisches Museum in Hermannstadt. Führer durch die Gemäldegalerie, 6. Aufl. (Hermannstadt: Selbstverlag des Museums, 1909, 360-361, cat. nr. 1204).
  8. József Antall, Bilder aus der Geschichte der europäischen Heilkunde und Pharmazie. (Budapest: Corvina Kiadó, 1981, 33).

 

Related article

Medical art from the Brukenthal Museum, Sibiu, Romania

 


 

ALEXANDRU GH. SONOC, PhD, MA, MS, Brukenthal National Museum, Sibiu, Romania.

 

Hektorama  | Art Flashes