Images of Erasmus 2008
Images of Erasmus 2008

Prepublication catalogue

Exclusively for our Newsletter readers, here is a prepublication of the catalogue accompanying Images of Erasmus. Two fragments from chapter I by curator of the exhibition Dr. Peter van der Coelen throw light on the portraits of Erasmus.

Cover catalogue
Cover catalogue

Portraits of Erasmus
Among the earliest likenesses of Erasmus we have are his self-portraits, or more accurately his self-caricatures. They are found in a manuscript of around 1515 with notes about the letters of St Jerome. Amusing little pen-and-ink scribbles, they function as reference marks in the text. The author of the Praise of Folly was no stranger to self-mockery, and he drew his nose disproportionately large, as befits a caricature. This sort of humour is utterly lacking in the ‘official’ Erasmus portraits, where his unarguably prominent nose is always balanced by a large beret. We may infer from this that the scholar thought long and hard about the image he wanted to present to the world.

In the last twenty years of his life Erasmus was painted by some of the most accomplished artists of his day. The first portrait ‘from life’ was done in 1517, when he was already fifty; the last was made in 1536 as he lay on his deathbed. In this period, and for a long time afterwards, countless copies and imitations were painted. To a significant extent, it is the sublime portraits by Quinten Massys, Hans Holbein and Albrecht Dürer that govern our image of Erasmus. We see him, as it were, through the eyes of the artists, particularly Holbein, who was responsible for the great majority of portraits of the scholar.

Without doubt more portraits were painted of Charles V likewise by great artists such as Bernard van Orley, Lucas Cranach, Parmigianino and Titian, but if we leave monarchs out of account, Erasmus was one of the best portrayed figures of his time. Martin Luther was also depicted many times, but all his portraits without exception were done by one artist, Lucas Cranach, who, like Luther, lived in Wittenberg. Portraits of Erasmus were made in more than one place – they origin from Antwerp, Nuremberg and Basel. When it came to choosing the artists who would paint him, the humanist settled for nothing less than the greatest masters in the field. He consequently did not have any portraits painted in England, Louvain or Freiburg, where he lived for considerable periods. And yet despite this diversity there is also a degree of uniformity in this collection of portraits. Unlike Luther, of whom we have portraits spanning almost the whole of his career, we know Erasmus only as a man over fifty.

Remembrance, Admiration, Vilification
In a letter to his patron William Warham in 1516, Erasmus referred to the custom in antiquity of placing ‘statues and pictures of the authors themselves everywhere in cloister and library, to protect them from oblivion'. Eight years later, when he sent Warham his Portrait with the Renaissance Pilaster, he presented it as a keepsake for the time when he would no longer be there in person. It was for the same reason that he sent the diptych of himself and Pieter Gillis to Thomas More in 1517. Memory is the primary motivation for portraits. Absent friends are always in sight and they do not vanish into obscurity after death.

Some letters to his friend Pirckheimer, who had sent him a portrait medal, swiftly followed by his likeness engraved by Dürer, reveal how Erasmus treated portraits. He hung them both in his bedroom, the medal on the right-hand wall and the print on the left. That meant that whichever way he looked, whether he was writing or walking around the room, he always had Pirckheimer in view. The portrait also prompted him to begin conversations about Pirckheimer with friends. Erasmus would not have been Erasmus had he not added that he did not need portraits to remember his friend by. When an admirer wrote to tell him that he felt his affection grow every time he saw the portrait medal of Erasmus, he must have felt flattered, but he may also, perhaps, have raised a wry eyebrow.

Elsewhere he mocked the practice, particularly when it involved excessive adulation. The Ciceronian is about a man who decorated his whole house with portraits of Cicero – the living room, the study and all the doors. Not satisfied with that, he always wore a medallion engraved with a portrait. Erasmus himself had to some extent been the subject of similar admiration. In 1531 he wrote that he had heard ‘that there are people who kiss the bronze portrait of Erasmus and whose love of study is fired by the sight of it.’ To counter this he related an anecdote about a canon from Constance who hung his ‘portrait printed on paper’ – probably Dürer’s engraving – in his bedroom ‘simply and solely because it gave him pleasure to spit on it every time he walked past.

We find another example of vilification in the treatment to which the portraits were subjected in a copy of Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia universalis. The person who committed this mutilation – the blinded eyes, the mouth sewn shut and the slashed lines like prison bars – must have hated Erasmus with a passion. Dia metri cally opposed to such ‘damnatio memoriae’ is the honour Erasmus was accorded in the city of his birth from the mid sixteenth century onwards. Rotterdam’s pride had assumed such proportions that a painted portrait in the town hall no longer sufficed. The veneration for this son of the city also found expression in the open air, when a wooden statue of Erasmus was erected in 1549 on the occasion of the visit of Prince Philip. Another small statue was later placed on the façade of the house where Erasmus was born, which had become a tourist attraction soon after his death. The simple stone portrait seems to be a distant echo of the Erasmus ‘im Gehäus’, with Terminus replaced by a cartouche containing the places and dates of the scholar’s birth and death. From 1557 onwards, more or less permanently, there was a statue of Erasmus in the market square, in various versions in stone or wood. The definitive version of this symbol of Rotterdam’s respect – the impressive statue by Hendrick de Keyser – was dedicated in 1622. And so Erasmus himself ended up ‘cast in bronze to stand in the market-place’, a custom he had disparaged more than a hundred years before in the Praise of Folly.

Fragments from Chapter I of the catalogue door Peter van der Coelen.

Images of Erasmus 
Authors: Peter van der Coelen, Marjolijn Bol, Alexandra Gaba-van Dongen, Christian Rümelin, Hans Trapman
Design: Tessa van der Waals
Published by: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen
Size: 29 x 21,5 cm, 295 pages
Richly illustrated
Price: 37,50 euro
ISBN 978-90-6918-234-6