Welcome to the Golden Cabinet

Rockoxhuis - Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp

What would an art collection have looked like in the sixteenth century, Antwerp’s Golden Age?

We decided to find out by turning the former home of burgomaster and art lover Nicolaas Rockox (1560–1640) in Antwerp’s Keizerstraat into a luxurious cabinet of art, complete with masterpieces from the collections of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA) and the Rockox House itself. Visit us soon and discover it for yourself.

This is Nicolaas Rockox
Your host. A fascinating man. He served as Antwerp’s burgomaster or mayor no fewer than eight times, and was also head of the arquebusiers’ guild, the police force of the time. He was knighted and was also a justice of the peace, settling disputes between his fellow citizens. The walls of his home were filled with works by artists like Frans Snyders, Anthony van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, and Rockox’s good friend Peter Paul Rubens. He also collected coins, Chinese porcelain, Venetian glass, books, seashells and coral, and kept a beautiful garden with special and rare plants.

You are now standing in the first exhibition room, where you can see some remarkable pieces of late-mediaeval art.

During the Middle Ages, the greater part of the iconography consisted of religious subjects and portraits.

The first to herald the Renaissance were Italian artists who added a three-dimensional effect in their painting and introduced expression in the figuration. Like Antonello da Messina, whose Calvary you can see to your right.

Nico Van Hout is a curator at the Royal Museum. He worked on this exhibition and thinks you should take some time to study this work by da Messina as it is a small painting that contains many symbols. Let’s have a closer look.

The snake coiling through the skull stands for death and the devil, while the owl refers to sinners who turn away from the true faith. Medieval people believed that Adam was buried on Golgotha, the hill where Jesus was crucified, and this skull refers to that belief.

Adam and Eve brought sin to humanity, while Christ’s death on the cross brought it redemption. Original sin and Christ’s victory over it are thus brought together in this panel.

We also find strawberries, a rabbit and a piece of paper inscribed ‘1475 – Antonello da Messina painted me’ nailed to a wooden stump. Only 46 works by this Sicilian master survive anywhere in the world, and this is the only one in Belgium.

This second exhibition room features works on the verge of mediaeval art and Renaissance. Look around and discover works by Flemish Primitives like Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck.

This ‘St Barbara of Nicomedia’ is a favourite of Manfred Sellink, Director of the Royal Museum. It is the oldest unfinished panel in Netherlandish painting. Van Eyck painted the sky and then stopped working on it.

Barbara is shown sitting before a Gothic church tower. The artist used the saint’s story as an opportunity to paint a contemporary building site – an unfinished tower in an unfinished painting.

He laid the scene down with an extremely fine brush in dilute black ink. Numerous adjustments can also be made out. The execution of the work is so refined that some refuse to believe it is unfinished; they view it as a fully autonomous drawing.

You have entered the Cleyn Salette or Small Parlour. Rockox used this room as a reception room. Today it emits a Renaissance atmosphere.

Let’s get closer to the chimney and admire the portrait of St. Jerome by Van Hemessen, right above the door.

Jerome was one of the four Latin Fathers of the Church. He is shown in this panel as a scholar studying in his cell.

According to his legend, Jerome had a lion as a pet, which went out each day with a donkey to find firewood. One day, while the lion was sleeping, the donkey was taken by a passing caravan of dromedaries.

The skull, Christ’s cross and the Bible are all symbols of transience.

In the sky, we see Christ on a rainbow, with angels blowing the trumpets that summon the dead to rise for the Last Judgement.

In the same room as St Jerome’s portrait, you can admire a landscape by Lucas van Valckenborch.

Lucas van Valckenborch painted the Meuse valley on a number of occasions. Here he has captured an almost infinite and highly detailed panorama in a panel measuring barely twenty centimetres by thirty.

Pig-keepers in the foreground throw sticks up into a large oak tree to knock down acorns for their pigs to eat.

Beyond them we see the river with furnaces along its banks for smelting iron ore. – evidence that the metallurgical industry in the region around Liège goes back to at least the sixteenth century.

Details in the distance tell us where this landscape was situated: we make out the church, the Namur Gate and the castle of the town of Huy.

Here you can see a view of Huy as it exists today.

Back in Antwerp we take a look at this amazing flower still life by Osias Beert.

Beert painted floral still lifes in the early seventeenth century. This is not a natural bouquet, however, because tulips are spring flowers, while roses and carnations bloom in the summer.

The arrangement includes a sprig of rosemary, which was a symbol of fidelity and often featured in wedding bouquets.

Various insects have also been subtly incorporated: caterpillars, flies and a cabbage white butterfly.

In 1603, Rockox purchased his house on the Keizerstraat. It was a double-fronted property and there was a small town garden to the rear. Rockox had it rebuilt in Flemish Renaissance style and added this art gallery - Trgoot Salet or the Great Parlour - and a study.

In 1608, Peter Paul Rubens returned from Italy where he had stayed for nearly 8 years. Following his return to Antwerp, Nicolaas Rockox became one of his major patrons. Rubens painted this Mary in Adoration Before the Sleeping Child Jesus for Rockox’ house. Isabella Brant, Rubens’s first wife, was probably the model for this work, painted around 1616, while the Christ Child has the features of Nicholas Rubens, the couple’s young second son.

Rubens generally situated his religious scenes in a domestic context. The little blanket suggests warmth and simplicity. Rubens often painted his little son, Nicholas, as a cherub with blond curls.

The Renaissance chimney piece in the art gallery immediately draws the attention and is now the only original chimney piece in the building. Look up from there and see a magnificent painting by Jacob Jordaens.

‘As the old sang, so the young twitter’ is a centuries-old proverb meaning that if adults set a good example, youngsters will follow it.

It is inscribed in Dutch at the top of the painting. The Antwerp Baroque artist Jacob Jordaens loved it, and painted the theme several times. This is thought to be his first version.

The old man is probably Adam Van Noort, Jordaens’s teacher and father-in-law. The bagpipe-player might be Jordaens himself, but that is far from certain.

All sorts of delicious foods are set out on the table. The work in general is a very sensory one, with Jordaens focusing on hearing, looking and tasting.

The room behind the Great Parlour used to be Rockox’ study with room not only for paintings, but also for smaller objects of study, like seashells and a variety of busts. Here you will find – among many other objects – Two studies of a Man’s Head by Anthony van Dyck.

Van Dyck was an important portrait painter in the second quarter of the seventeenth century. He was particularly skilled in capturing the character of his sitters.

Van Dyck applied the paint in several layers, enhancing the contrast and expressiveness of his portraits.

The beards are worked out in considerable detail. Van Dyck used paintbrushes with a single bristle to render them as realistically as possible.

At the centre of this room we find a beautiful painting with an astounding frame: The Prodigal Son by Peter Paul Rubens.

Rubens liked to head out into the countryside, where he sketched barns, agricultural implements and animals. He kept these drawings so that he could incorporate them in his different compositions. The farmer’s cart on the far right, for instance, had already featured in another work.

The Prodigal Son begs the maid for some pig feed, shedding a tear to gain her sympathy.

Grooms tend to the horses in the stables to the rear, their work lit by candles.

Another servant watches the kneeling beggar suspiciously.

We end our visit with this landscape by Jan Bruegel I. Travel was unusual in the sixteenth century, and was mostly the preserve of the wealthy. The furthest it was possible to journey by horse and cart in a day was about fifty kilometres.

Jan Brueghel attached great importance to working out the details of the scene. Here, for instance, the horseman’s stirrups, the goods on the cart and the wicker cover of the wagon have been meticulously painted.

The distinctive lighting is cast by the setting sun in the background. Travellers needed to reach the safety of a town’s walls before nightfall.

We finish our visit in Rockox’ beautiful garden. Even during his lifetime this was an amazing oasis of nature in the city centre.

Want to see more? You are welcome to visit us in the Rockox House up until July 2nd 2017.

Credits: Story

You can visit The Golden Cabinet until July 2nd at Museum Rockox.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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