Orpheus enchanting the animals

Amsterdam, circa 1640

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Orpheus enchanting the animals

A Dutch micro-carving, sculpted in relief, representing Orpheus enchanting the animals, in a contemporary embossed wood and gilt case, with brass hinge and hook mount.

The most famous story in which Orpheus figures is that of his wife Eurydice (sometimes referred to as Euridice and also known as Argiope). While walking among her people, the Cicones, in tall grass at her wedding, Eurydice was set upon by a satyr. In her efforts to escape the satyr, Eurydice fell into a nest of vipers and suffered a fatal bite on her heel. Her body was discovered by Orpheus who, overcome with grief, played such sad and mournful songs that all the nymphs and gods wept. On their advice, Orpheus travelled to the underworld. His music softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone, who agreed to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.

In traditional representations Orpheus is mostly depicted playing his lyre, the instrument he received from Apollo. However, in a number of other 17th-century depictions of the subject the instrument he plays is the viola da gamba, indicating a freer interpretation of the story, which we can see e.g. on paintings by members of the Savery family, a.o. Roelant Savery (1576-1639), who worked in Prague and Utrecht, and his brother Jacob Savery (1565 – 1604). Also on prints by Nicolaes de Bruyn (1570-1656), who was a printmaker in Amsterdam, Orpheus is depicted playing a viola, instead of a lyre.

The artist has meticulously followed the print by De Bruyn when he carved this ‘small wonder’. He must have known other prints by the latter, which is demonstrated by the resemblance between a print depicting wild boars from a series of wild animals and the small boar under the tree, carved to the left of Orpheus.

The fascination for the extreme small has been extant for a long period of time. For centuries people have been captivated by the Gothic micro-carvings created in the Low Countries in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. These ‘miniature altarpieces’ or so-called gebedsnoten (prayer nuts), were initially admired for the religious visions that unfolded upon opening them, but there was soon equal fascination with and admiration for their artistry and craftsmanship. These objects became highly sought-after and found their way into some of the most important noble collections of the period. It is assumed a great number of prayer nuts with micro-carving were manufactured in a few studios in the northern Netherlands and the lower Rhine area, near Cologne. Dr Frits Scholten, curator of sculpture in the Rijksmuseum, recently established that the majority of micro-carvings are so technically and stylistically consistent that they must have come from one particular workshop and  that the majority of the still extant prayer nuts were most probably manufactured by Adam Dirksz. and his workshop, in Delft (see exhibition catalogue Small Wonders, Late-Gothic Boxwood Micro-carvings from the Low Countries, Rijksmuseum, nai010 publishers, 2017, pp.31-32). Equally surprising is the finding – based on identifying and tracing the whereabouts of some of the purchasers and early owners of these micro-carvings – that his studio was not in the southern Netherlands, as was long assumed, but must have been in the north, probably in Delft. This discovery challenges the often prevailing view that the flourishing of the arts in the late Middle Ages occurred mainly in the southern provinces of the Low Countries.

During the 17th century these devotional objects were still cherished and kept in cabinets of curiosities as miracles of human craftmanship. In a hymn by the Amsterdam poet Jan Vos (circa 1610 Amsterdam 1667), dedicated to Catharina Hooft (1618 Amsterdam – Ilpendam 1691), the wife of burgomaster Cornelis de Graeff (1599 Amsterdam 1664), a carved cherry pit with more than one hundred heads is described. The fact that a hymn was written to honour a micro-carving does not only prove its rarity but also supports the fact that the Amsterdam regents and burgomasters knew about this type of micro-carving.

Another micro-carving which undoubtedly must have been admired remained in the possession of its creator, Albert Jansz. Vinckenbrinck (circa 1604 Spaarndam – Amsterdam 1664). Until his decease, this Amsterdam sculptor possessed a small carved apple, comparable to a prayer nut, opening to reveal a representation of The Seven Works of Mercy. This proves that 17th-century carvers were still fascinated by the extraordinary technique which, at that time, formed the basis for their creations and that they were extremely skilled and talented craftsmen. Hitherto no other micro-carving by Vinckenbrinck is known. He owes his fame to the design of David and Goliath from the old maze, today in the collection of the Amsterdam Museum, and to the design and implementation of the pulpit in the Nieuwe Kerk in that city. Due to the apparent fascination for such small miracles of craftmanship it may be presumed that more micro-carvings were made in 17th-century Holland. The present work is the only micro-carving known carved with a non-religious subject.

Until recently very little was known about this specific craft. Large works that were often installed in houses, such as panelling, chimney pieces and doors are sometimes saved, however, these are often not signed. Small works such as the present piece were manufactured on a small scale and merely for the upper class of the population. Relatively many works by Vinckenbrinck are still known today, but of the works by his Utrecht colleague, Ambrosius van Swol (active in Utrecht, 1643-1679) only two pieces are known: a gilt limewood auricular picture frame kept in the collection of the Centraal Museum, Utrecht (inventory nr. 18045b), and a small figure in boxwood, representing a seller of rat herb, now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum (inventory nr. BK-NM-2926).

Private collection, Belgium;
John Endlich Antiquairs, 2012;
Private collection, USA

Amsterdam, circa 1640

4.4 x 4.7 x 1.1 cm, Contemporary leather-lined, gilt-stamped case, 5.6 x 5.5 cm

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