Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Religious Instruction (recto); Crucifixion (verso) 1570c.

 Brunswick School circa 1570 

Religious Instruction (recto); Crucifixion (verso),  Brunswick School circa 1570
Oil on Panel
16th Century
36 3/4 x 31 3/4 inches 93.4 x 80.7 cm
This unusual and finely painted picture is a rare family portrait from the mid-sixteenth century. The scene shows a group of boys, who are almost certainly all members of the same family, being taught from the bible by their father. Here, the sitter’s heads are clearly all individual likenesses, and are portrayed in a domestic setting, with books and other household goods delicately rendered on the shelf behind. The eldest son holds a small prayer-book in his hand, while the youngest, in a touchingly human portrayal, looks out toward the viewer, and seems not to be paying attention to his father.

The picture, therefore, is in effect an early conversation piece. Portraiture is the dominant theme, but it is set within a narrative of both education and religion. However, we can perhaps also detect the effect of the Reformation. In a more catholic setting we would expect to see the family painted in amongst religious figures, usually the Madonna, or various saints, in the manner of a ‘donor portrait’. Instead, the scene is entirely domestic, and it is notable that here religion is being taught within the home, and not in the church. Furthermore, it is being taught in German, not Latin, as evidenced by the translated text of the bible in the inscription at the bottom of the picture. On the reverse of the picture the death of Christ is painted en grisaille. Clearly, the picture is not entirely free from religious imagery, as the more extreme reformers, such as Calvinists, would have demanded. Only by turning to the text within the picture can we make sense of the scene on the reverse, for it is again part of the painting’s narrative.

The theme of the picture is the resurrection. The quote from the bible on the front is from John, chapter 3. It reads, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life”, and are the words spoken by Christ to Nicodemus. A serpent can be seen on the table next to the father, and is shown coiled around a branch of wood. This depiction of the snake harks back to ancient Greek mythology, for it is also used as the staff of Asclepius, the demigod of medicine and healing. Asclepius was known for his ability to raise the dead, but, through the misuse of his powers of resurrection, was struck down in anger by Zeus. The reverse of the picture, which shows the moment of Christ’s death as the last roman guard rides away, shows the imminent resurrection (or, ‘lifting up’) of Christ as predicted in John Chapter 3. The biblical text on the reverse of the panel is from Isaiah 53, in which the crucifixion of Christ is apparently predicted.

It is possible that the present panel formed part of a diptych, and was therefore on a hinge, or perhaps even as the door to a cabinet. The death of Christ may have been painted en grisaille to give the effect of sculpture. The picture would therefore not only have been a portrait of the family at prayer, but an elaborate visual aid for the boy’s religious education. We may further infer, from the fact that the symbol of a single serpent entwined on a staff was a medical emblem, that the father was a doctor himself.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.