A Vanitas Still Life with Musical Instruments, Sheet Music, Books, a Skeleton, Skulls and Armour
Oil on canvas, 29 x 36½ ins. (73.5 x 92.5 cm)
Private Collection, Switzerland, for circa 35 – 40 years, until 2018.
We are grateful to Dr. Fred G. Meijer for confirming the attribution on the basis of a photograph. We are also grateful to Bronac Holden and Richard Ashbourne for their help in translating the Latin texts.
One of the most accomplished seventeenth-century Flemish still-life painters, Christiaan Luycks remains surprisingly little known. He was born in Antwerp in 1623 and received his training there, becoming a master in the city’s Guild of St. Luke in 1645. He lived and worked in the city for a number of years, but, judging from the French inscriptions on many of his later works, he moved to France later in life. He apparently remained active for many years after leaving Antwerp, but died in obscurity. His varied oeuvre includes floral bouquets, fruit and pronk still lifes, bird and game pieces, vanitas still lifes and a variety of garlands and festoons. In the past, his works have often passed under the names of other painters.
This remarkable painting, recently discovered in a Swiss private collection, is a major work by Luycks and occupies a unique position in his oeuvre. Although the artist painted a number of vanitas still lifes, none compares with this large and ambitious canvas. It surpasses all his other known vanitas paintings in size, complexity and allegorical intent, and is surely his masterpiece in this genre. By means of a veritable arsenal of objects, together with Latin texts, Luycks here presents a carefully coordinated symbolic programme designed to challenge and engage the viewer. Whilst most of the objects represented in this elaborate allegory are fairly common components of vanitas still lifes, the inclusion of certain items and the way in which they are arranged add another layer of meaning to the familiar vanitas message that reminds us of the inevitability of death and the impermanence of all worldly things. Taken together they may be interpreted as a political allegory relating directly to concerns and events of Luycks’s day.
The historical event to which this composition likely refers was the French invasion of the Spanish Netherlands in 1667-1668. When Philip IV of Spain died in 1665, the French king Louis XIV, who was married to Philip’s eldest daughter Maria Theresa, immediately laid claim to parts of the Spanish Netherlands, including the Marquisate of Antwerp. On 24 May 1667, Louis marched on the Spanish Netherlands at the head of a large army. Ill-prepared for war, Spain offered little resistance and the French swiftly occupied much of Flanders, Hainault and Franche-Comté. Alarmed by the sudden French expansion, The Dutch United Provinces formed an alliance with England and Sweden in 1668, which eventually forced Louis XIV to return part of the conquered territories to Spain under the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.
Luycks’s painting proclaims unambiguously that Death rules over all. Pride of place is assigned to a full-length skeleton – a personification of Death – whose vacant eye sockets and toothless grin set the macabre tone. Standing beside a stone tomb, surrounded by a plethora of richly symbolic objects, it brandishes a scroll of paper in one bony hand bearing the words“Statutum est omnibus hominibus semel mori” (“It is decreed that all men will at some time die”), while snuffing out a candle with the other. This uncompromising message is reinforced by the presence of further memento mori objects -reminders of mortality - in the form of three prominently displayed skulls. Further symbols of the brevity of human existence can be found in the hour-glass, whose sands have run through, the pocket watch, the smoking wick, the roses strewn across the ground, and the small child blowing bubbles (homo bulla – Man is but a bubble), seen in the left background. The mask leaning against the base of the column may allude to the idea of life as a play of short duration. Other objects carelessly piled up around the sarcophagus make reference to the transitory nature and hollow achievements of worldly existence – so-called vanities. For example, the book, trampled beneath the skeleton’s feet, suggests man’s futile quest for knowledge, while the musical instruments, sheet music (i), cards and dice all refer to the pleasures of life: yet all such pleasures are ephemeral like music, which is more fleeting even than life itself, for no sooner is a note sounded than it fades away. The temporary nature of worldly power, whether political, or ecclesiastical, is referenced by the crown and sceptre and the bishop’s mitre, crosier and cushion, while the vainglorious triumph of military achievement is alluded to by the paraphernalia of war.
Latin phrases inscribed on the tomb likewise belong to the vanitas theme, but at the same time point to the deeper meaning of the still life, supported by various attributes of war and other symbols of the military might of Louis XIV. A sceptre and a French royal crown, adorned by fleurs-de-lys, occupy a central position on top of the tomb. Immediately above hangs a French cavalry standard from a royal guard unit, emblazoned with the royal double coat of arms of Bourbon-Navarre, framed by the orders of Saint Michel and the Saint Esprit, with the motto “Homo natus de muliere brevis vivens” (“Man that is born of a woman is of few days”) (ii), while below are a military bugle and banner, both also belonging to the equipment of a French royal horse guard. On the right, appears a splendid plumed French officer’s suit of armour. These explicit references to Louis XIV’s military power most probably refer to the French invasion of the Spanish Netherlands in 1667-68.
This painting can therefore be dated to around this time, or shortly after the conflict, when the horrors of war were still uppermost in the artist’s mind. Against this background, the painting can be interpreted as an expression of the artist’s dismay at the havoc wreaked by the invading troops upon his homeland. Using the language of allegory, it strongly criticises Louis XIV’s aggression and warns of the dire consequences of war. The inscriptions on the tomb take up this secondary theme, warning that: “Pallida mors aequo pulsat pede pauperum tabernas regumque turres” (“Pale death strikes impartially in the huts of the poor and in the palace of kings”), while various symbolic objects refer to the different classes of people, but also points to their common fate in times of war. A flail and begging bowl stand for the general population, while the attributes of kings and bishops represent the authority of the church and state. In the end, war brings only death and destruction.
Quite apart from the myriad vanitas allusions, the impressive scale of the painting and its rich colours and textures demand our attention. The sombre mood is offset by the vibrant reds and blues, the latter almost certainly achieved through the use of ultramarine, a pigment made from precious lapis lazuli. The backdrop of a truncated column and red velvet draperies in heavy folds add to the theatricality of the image. Such an extraordinary work could only have been a special commission, but for whom we can only wonder, since unfortunately the early history of the picture has been lost in the mists of time.
The son of David Luycx and Margriet Cloot, Christiaan Luycks (whose name has many different variations of spelling) was baptised in Antwerp on 17 August 1623. He became a pupil of the still-life painter Philips de Marlier in 1639, before working in the studio of Frans Francken III from 1642 to 1644. In June that year he made a brief journey to Lille but was back in Antwerp by 27 May 1645, where he married Geertruid Janssens van Kilsdonck in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk: the couple had one daughter, Maria. Luycks was registered as a master in the Antwerp guild of St. Luke on 17 July 1645. In a document dated 18 September 1646, Luycks is referred to as being “in the service of His Majesty the King of Spain”. Following the death of his first wife, Luycks married Maria Matthijssens in Antwerp’s St. Walpurgiskerk on 24 September 1648. The same year, Luycks painted a still life of fruit for his surgeon, in return for medical treatment rendered (iii). There is no further documentary reference to the artist after the baptism of a son on 16 August 1653. Only two dated works are known, both from 1650. However, a collaboration with David Teniers II and Nicolaes van Verendael in Dresdeniv, signed by all three artists, suggests that Luycks was still active in Antwerp in the late 1650s, when Verendael was starting out on his career. Subsequently, Luycks seems to have moved south as many of his later works bear French inscriptions. Although his place and date of death are not known, judging by the stylistic development of his later oeuvre, it seems likely that he remained active for many years after leaving Antwerp.
TRANSLATION OF LATIN TEXTS
On a scroll of paper, held in the hand of the skeleton:-
"Statutum est omnibus hominibus semel mori" (“It is decreed that all men will at some time die”).
Inscribed on the base of the column (above a mask):-
"sic transit gloria mundi" (“so passes the glory of the world')
Inscribed on the top of the stone tomb:-
"mors omnia aequat" (“death makes all equal”)
"putredo in exortu Bulla in omni vermium" (“decay is rising in every bubble of worms”)
"Ecca morte" (“Behold death”)
Inscribed on the stone tomb:-
"pallida mors pulsat aequo pede tabernas pauperum Regumque turres" (“pale death strikes impartially in the huts of the poor and the palace of Kings”)
"Scio quia morti trades me, ubi constituta est domus omni viventi" (“I know that death delivers me up to that dark abode where all living [beings] are designated [to go]”)
"Miserrima Hominis conditio" (“the condition of Man is most wretched")
"Abyssus tenebrosa, terra misera" (“dark abyss, wretched earth”)
"Vas sterquilinii concha putredinis plenus faetore et horrore" (“an empty vase, a putrid vessel full of dregs and terror”)
Inscribed on the base of the stone tomb:-
"Figmentorum complementum" (“the companion of inventions”)
Embroidered on the royal standard:-
"Homo natus de muliere Brevi vivens" (“Man that is born of a woman is of few days”)
i The open book of music is a vocal composition by Orlando de Lassus, Receuil du méllange d’Orlande de Lassus, contenant plusiers chansons tant en uers Latins qu’en francoyse, a quatre, & cinq parties, first published in Paris in 1570. The book often appears in vanitas still lifes by Christiaan Luycks.
ii “Man that is born of a woman is of a few days….” comes from the Old Testament Book of Job 14:1.
iii Luycks had suffered injuries as a result of an unspecified accident, see Eric Duverger, Antwerpse
kunstinventarissen uit de zeventiende eeuw, 9 vols, Brussels, 1984-97, vol. 5, 1984, p. 438, doc. no.
iv David Teniers III, Nicolaes van Verendael, Christiaen Luycks, Before the Kitchen, oil on canvas,
83 x 120 cm, Dresden, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, No. 1091.
1623 - Antwerp - after 1657
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