ArtWay

‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord’ – that is what art does. Phyllis Novak

Artists

Snyders, Frans - VM - Marleen Hengelaar

Frans Snyders: The Scene in the Kitchen; Christ at Emmaus

Take and Eat

by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker

The Antwerp painter Frans Snyders (1579-1657) treats us to a richly filled table with vegetables, nuts, fruits and poultry, bread and wine. The painting is bathed in light, its composition well balanced and the spectrum of its palette bright. The young woman (the lady of the house or the maid) kindly smiles at us with an open face and a lovely bonnet of lace from Bruges. At the lower right an amusing cat tries to snatch secretly its share from the table. At first glance this looks simply like an agreeable kitchen scene, a joyous celebration of the abundance of life.

But you have already noticed: behind the table a view into a space behind the kitchen has been painted, where – as the title of the work also tells us – Jesus and two of his followers have supper together. The combination of still lifes with religious stories – for instance the ones about Emmaus and Mary and Martha – was not unusual at this time. Sometimes the religious scene in the background seems to be a trivial excuse for the sumptuous display of food in the foreground. The question is however whether that is also the case here.

That takes us back to the kitchen table. As is quite common in still lifes until around 1700 the various elements in this painting have a symbolic meaning. In the 17th century still lifes – and more in general flower paintings, landscapes, church interiors and genre pieces – hardly ever were simple naturalistic renderings of random scenes, but usually were carefully put together with a view to deeper biblical and moral significance. That becomes immediately clear when we look at what is depicted in the very center of the kitchen scene: a cluster of grapes, held up by the young woman for all to see, and in front of it an apple. The one fruit stands for sin (the ‘apple’ of the fall) and the other for grace (the red grape that points to the wine which in its turn refers to the blood of Christ).

The other elements of the still life further elaborate this contrast between fall and redemption, the old and the new life. To the new life belong the wine jug, the wineglass and the bread of the eucharist as well as the brimming basket, which acts as a variation on the cornu copia or horn of plenty. To the old life belong the cock (think of Peter’s denial that he was a follower of Jesus), the dead birds and the cat, who stealthily pulls the lower bird towards itself and is guided by the cravings of its heart.

The young woman stands outside this contrast, but by looking us into the eye with the cluster of grapes in her hand she puts a choice before us. Do we choose a superficial life that revolves around our own grabby, grubby satisfaction or a life with an extra dimension focused on Jesus and his kingdom? Do we opt for forbidden fruits or for the Lord’s Supper? 

The Emmaus meal in the background ties in with the Lord’s Supper, the former being the meal during which Jesus blesses the bread and lets his disciples discover that he is their risen master (Luke 24:13-35). Usually this scene is set in a dark room, but here light falls on the table through a window with wooden slats in the form of a cross. And as the dining room is filled with light, the artist could add a third layer of meaning to the work: a painting on the wall behind Jesus in which we can decipher (after some hard gazing) a figure who is preaching to a crowd with his hand pointing upwards. This could be Jesus while opening the Scriptures or maybe John the Baptist, the last of the prophets pointing forward to Jesus.   

This brings us to the heart of the Emmaus story: Jesus who opens the eyes of his followers by expounding his Word. But that is not all. He also makes them see the truth of what was foretold by – when he blesses the meal – showing them his pierced hand. And then they see it, just like Thomas, with their own eyes: Jesus is risen indeed!

*******

Frans Snyders: The Scene in the Kitchen; Christ at Emmaus1620, oil on wood, 115 x 102 cm. Brukenthal National Museum, Sibiu, Romania.

Frans Snyders or Snijders (1579-1657) was a Catholic Flemish Baroque painter, who was the most-noted 17th-century painter of animals. His subjects included still lifes of markets and pantries (featuring both live animals and dead game), animals in combat and hunting scenes. A highly skilled painter who was celebrated for his ability to capture the textures of and play of light on feathers and fur, Snyders was part of a group of artists who helped transform Antwerp from a city of commerce and finance to a vibrant center for the arts. The inn kept by Snyders’s parents was popular with artists. As a young man Snyders studied under Pieter Bruegel the Younger. He is also believed to have studied under Hendrik van Balen, the first teacher of Anthony Van Dyck. As a result of Snyders’s talent and training he became a master in 1602 in the Guild of St. Luke, the Antwerp painters’ guild. Thereafter, like many other Flemish artists of the day, he visited Italy, staying for several months during 1608–09 in Rome and then in Milan, where his patron was Federico Cardinal Borromeo. About 1610, after his return to Antwerp, Snyders began a long friendship and professional collaboration with Peter Paul Rubens and in 1611 he married Margriet (Margaretha) de Vos, the sister of Flemish painters Cornelis and Paul de Vos. Snyders was appointed principal painter to Albert VII, archduke of Austria and sovereign prince of the Low Countries, for whom he executed some of his finest works. Also Philip III of Spain commissioned the artist to paint several hunting scenes.

Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker is editor in chief of ArtWay.

ArtWay Visual Meditation April 8, 2018