Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536) was celebrated throughout Europe in his own lifetime. In 2008 some 150 extraordinary works of art were brought together from all over the world in a major cultural and historical exhibition. Some of were never seen in the Netherlands before. They provided a picture of Erasmus’s importance and the influence his writings had on society and the arts. Portraits The greatest artists of his day counted it an honour to portray Erasmus. The most important of these portraits were done by Quinten Massys (1466-1530), Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/98-1543) and Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). The exhibition explores the way Erasmus himself wanted to be seen by posterity.
The exhibition also focused on four other themes. Erasmus’s views on scholarship and education, war and peace and church and art, and his book The Praise of Folly were illustrated with the aid of works of art and objects.
Erasmus spoke out frankly about the social ills of his age. He lived at the time of Charles V and constantly called for peace in those turbulent times. As a humanist he believed in education. Jan van Scorel’s portrait of a young scholar illustrates the importance Erasmus attached to scholarship and the upbringing of children.
It was the age of the Reformation. Although Erasmus did not subscribe to Luther’s theses, he was critical of the ostentation in the Church of Rome. He also thought that artists should portray the Virgin soberly and respectfully. The erotic classical goddess Jan Gossaert made of her in his Madonna and Child in the Prado held no appeal for him. Erasmus deplored the unrest that Luther caused and was opposed to the iconoclasm.
The Praise of Folly
Erasmus’s writings, particularly The Praise of Folly, written in 1509, were extremely influential. The artist Hans Holbein made illustrations for it. Later he was to paint Erasmus’s portrait. The Louvre waived its usual policy and agreed to lend this painting by Holbein for the exhibition. The Praise of Folly inspired artists to paint worldly subjects that they had never dared tackle before and a new genre emerged of fools, misers and swindlers. Massys, for example, was inspired by Erasmus to paint 'The Moneychanger and his Wife'.
Erasmus had set his heart on having his portrait made by Dürer. He called him ‘our modern Apelles’, after the most renowned artist of classical antiquity. Erasmus wrote a eulogy to the artist as a token of gratitude for the famous portrait engraving that Dürer made in 1526.
It could be said that Erasmus himself carefully shaped our image of him.
Erasmus is one of the pioneers of modern thinking. In the exhibition a multimedia tour applied his views and ideas to topical social and cultural issues.The exhibition was accompanied by a substantial and richly illustrated catalogue.
The design of the exhibition was a result of a unique collaboration between artist Krijn de Koning and graphic designer Tessa van der Waals.
The exhibition was made possible by the support of the Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), Erasmus University Medical Centre (Rotterdam), the Trustfund EUR, the City of Rotterdam, Sikkens and the Erasmus Foundation, and the assistance of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation and Rotterdam Festivals.
The exhibition was the central event of the official programme of Holland Art Cities 2009-2010 and of Erasmus in Rotterdam in the autumn of 2008.