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Anonymous 12th-century sculptor

Carved column capital, Abbey Church of Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, Vezelay, France

 This allegory depicts the punishment of greed.  At the left side of the image shown here, a miser crouches bestially on his haunches.  His arms are stretched out, as if on a torture rack, by the weight of two bulging sacks of coins that seem as heavy as bowling balls.  Screaming and sneering at the same time, he’s being hauled up by the hair, torn away from his money by the angelic figure with a rod who stands behind him.  Two eagles, which symbolize St. John the evangelist and the Gospel itself, bracket the scene.  If a fool and his money are soon parted, this image is an eternal reminder that the greedy and their money are painfully parted.




Petrus Christus (active by 1444, died ca. 1475),
"A Goldsmith in His Shop (Possibly St. Eligius)," 1449

We stand in a main street of Bruges, the richest city in Renaissance Flanders (now Belgium), looking into a goldsmith's stall.  A mirror reflecting a view of the street reminds us that wealth was very much a public affair even then.  Not just gold but objects of precious coral -- believed to ward off the evil eye and, thus, to preserve wealth -- line the shop.  The goldsmith, dressed in scarlet robes that evoke the Passion of Christ, is in stark contrast to the ravishingly dressed couple he is fitting for wedding jewelry.  He may represent St. Eligius (also known as St. Eloy or St. Loy), who converted Flanders to Catholicism in the 7th Century and, as a miraculously talented metalworker, became the patron saint of goldsmiths.  After working in the royal court with gold and precious stones in his youth, St. Eligius took a vow of poverty and devoted the rest of his life to helping the poor, so his presence here would remind the painting's original viewers that the sole purpose of wealth was to serve God.  In fact, the picture is full of dramatic tension: With one firm hand, the groom urges his bride forward while he clutches the hilt of his sword with the other -- as if he means to drive a hard bargain, with force if necessary.  And the bride reaches for the ring before the goldsmith, scowling at their haste, has even finished weighing its price.  The painting thus tells a cautionary tale, warning that spiritual wealth is rarer and more precious than worldly wealth.


Quentin Metsys (1465/1466-1530),
"The Banker and his Wife," 1514

This dazzling image is probably based on a lost painting (formerly in Milan) by Jan van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441), one of the earliest representations of moneyhandling in European art.  Here, religious devotion and mundane wealth are set side-by-side.  The banker -- probably an Italian running a Flemish branch of one of the great Florentine banks -- painstakingly weighs and counts a small fortune in gold.  His wife, clearly disturbed by the clinking of the coins, looks up from her devotions to the Book of Hours.  These two people, representing the sacred and the profane, lean gently in toward each other, reminding us that in this era religion and business were inextricably linked.  Directly over the banker's head, an apple -- symbol of the fall of an earlier couple, Adam and Eve -- sits on a shelf, while the world that generated the banker's wealth peeks in through a shutter in the back and is reflected in a mirror in the foreground.


Marinus van Reymerswaele (active by 1509, died ca. 1567),

“Two Tax Gatherers,” ca. 1540
In a cramped chamber decorated with marquetry panels, the older man on the left is calmly recording entries in a tax register, which lists the duties owed on goods like beer, wine, and fish.  The younger man on the right, however, is the one who grabs our attention.  His bright blue eyes stare straight at us out of a face that is part repulsively demented, part ridiculously comic.  He seems to have burst into the room through the open door, toppling the papers and seals from the shelf behind him as he dives for the money on the table.  The coins, which were arrayed in neatly sorted stacks of silver and gold, have spilled away at the mere approach of his grasping claw, symbolizing the way wealth so often escapes us when we get too greedy and grab for it too soon.


Hans Holbein the younger (1497-1593),

“The Merchant Georg Gisze” (1532)
This cosmopolitan trader must have asked Holbein to make him seem as thoughtful and cultured as possible in this wedding portrait.  Books of various sizes litter his workspace, and the carnations (or “pinks”) that symbolize betrothal dominate the foreground and blaze against his black waistcoat.  His desk is covered with an Ushak rug imported from Turkey.  An intricate brass desk-clock, a reminder that time is fleeting, stands next to the delicate Venetian blown-glass vase that holds the flowers; coins, the symbol of Gisze’s wealth, are shown off to one side, an apparent afterthought idly heaped in a pewter dish with its lid askew.  Scratched on the wall at the upper left is Gisze’s personal motto, “Nulla sine merore voluptas” (“There is no pleasure unmixed with sorrow.”)  Seeming to float almost like the moon in a night sky, an ornately decorated string dispenser hangs from the shelf on the right.  Gisze’s bride must have been enchanted with this portrait, which remains one of the most humane and intriguing pictures of a businessman ever made.


Jacques Callot (1592-1635), “Beggar on Crutches with a Wallet” (etching), from his series “The Beggars”
Almost two centuries before the French Revolution, Callot captured the misery of life at the bottom of France’s social ladder.  The beggar in Callot’s etching hobbles along on painfully splayed feet (perhaps as a result of rickets, the dietary disease that results from a lack of Vitamin D).  And yet, even with his feet grotesquely twisted and his clothes in shreds, the man’s face has the dignity of a Michelangelo sculpture. The fact that Callot’s prints were enthusiastically collected by the wealthy only adds irony to the sympathy that he so clearly felt for the man he portrays here.



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