Collecting Ancient Proverbs in Renaissance Netherlands and Shaping of the New Visuality
Keywords:adagia, Renaissance, pictorial ecumenism, the Reformation, popular culture
This paper focuses on the study of the ways in which the revival of reintegration into European culture, particularly in the culture of the Netherlands, ancient proverbs and sayings – the so-called "adagia" – took place. Both Humanists’ collections of adagia and artistic depictions of proverbs fall within the scope of our research. Firstly, we will show how the great preoccupation with ancient proverbs shifted toward vernacular ones. Secondly, we will explore how proverbial expressions were transposed into pictures.
Erasmus of Rotterdam, the famous Dutch humanist was among the first ones to publish a collection of proverbs and sayings in Latin taken mainly from the Greek and Roman literature. Soon, his work was followed by bilingual collections (in French and Flemish). The success of the adagia collections published by Dutch and German humanists inspired artists to depict the most popular sayings in their paintings. Consequently, proverbs became a part of the “new visuality”. By this term, we mean a new secular imagery, which replaced religious gothic imagery in the last decade of the 15th century.
As one can notice, picturing ancient and vernacular proverbs was in vogue in the second half of the 16th century at a time of rapid dissemination of ideas of the Reformation in the Netherlands and the first performances of opponents of the Icon worship – iconoclasts. Religious confrontations forced Dutch artists to search for the new themes and iconographic schemes. The themes and their iconography had to be convenient as to Protestant so to Catholic clients. At the same time, they should not have contradicted the artists’ religious beliefs. As stated by K. Jonckheere, one can call these efforts of artists to legitimize art after the Iconoclastic Fury and to find a way of pragmatical coexistence of opposite religious views “a quest for pictorial ecumenism”. Pictured proverbs complemented this new, “ecumenical” imagery, the imagery that was convenient to all people regardless of their religious views.
Therefore, ancient and vernacular proverbs have become an integral part of both the Dutch Renaissance literature, and the "ecumenical" art, the religious art beyond borders.