We are in the run-up to Christmas and many of us will be struggling to come up with ideas for the perfect gift for a beloved friend. The problem is even further exacerbated if the friend is wealthy and wants for very little. What do you give somebody who has everything? What gift can you give someone which will forever remind him or her of your close and enduring friendship? My featured painting today is all about this. It is about three friends, two of whom want to give the third a gift; a memento of their friendship and so they decided to present their friend with two portraits of themselves, known as a friendship diptych. To make their gift even more special they decided to commission the foremost painter of the time to carry out the work. The two gift givers were the humanists, Desiderius Erasmus and Pieter Gillis and the recipient of their gift was Thomas More. The artist they commissioned to paint the friendship diptych was the Flemish painter Quinten Massys.
The beneficiary of the two paintings was Thomas More, an Oxford University graduate. During his time at university he wrote comedies and studied both Greek and Latin literature. In 1494, after he had obtained his university degree, he returned to London and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn and in 1501 became a barrister. He was a very religious man and at one time had decided to give up his career in law and become a monk and for a time lived at a Carthusian monastery. His mental torment between following a secular or religious life was finally decided three years later when he chose to serve his country as a parliamentarian and entered Parliament in 1504.
In 1499, whilst Thomas More was living in London he met the Dutch Renaissance humanist and scholar, Desiderius Erasmus. This initial meeting of the two men turned into a lifelong friendship and they continued to correspond on a regular basis during which time they worked collaboratively to translate into Latin and have printed some of the works of the Assyrian satirist, Lucian of Samosata. It was through his meeting with Erasmus that Thomas More met Erasmus’ friend, Pieter Gillis, a fellow humanist, a printer by trade and town clerk of Antwerp. One of Thomas More’s most famous compositions was his two-volume work entitled Utopia. It is a depiction of a fictional island and its religious, political and social customs and was More’s way of commenting upon the social and political ideas of the day as well as highlighting and satirising the failings he saw all around him. In the first volume, entitled Dialogue of Counsel, it began with correspondence between More himself and others, including Pieter Gillis. The whole idea of the book came to Thomas More whilst he was staying at the Antwerp home of Gillis in 1515. On his return to England in 1516, Thomas More completed the work and the first edition was edited by Erasmus and published in Leuven. Thomas More dedicated this work to Pieter Gillis.
In 1517, a year after the publication of the first edition of More’s work, Desiderius Erasmus and Pieter Gillis, decided to send portraits of themselves to Sir Thomas More. This friendship diptych would act as a virtual visit to their English friend in London and they approached Quinten Massys to carry out the two paintings as he was the leading Antwerp painter at that time. Erasmus’ portrait was the first to be completed because the portrait of Gillis was constantly being delayed due to him falling ill during the sittings. The two men had told Thomas More about the paintings which may not have been a wise move as More constantly queried them as to the progress of the paintings and became very impatient to receive the gift. The two works were finally completed and were sent to More whilst he was in Calais.
The portrait of Erasmus, which is part of the Royal Collection and is currently on show at the Dürer to Holbein; The Northern Renaissance Exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery in London, depicts Erasmus working in his study. The way in which Massys has portrayed Erasmus was a popular way of depicting St Jerome, and so the setting used in the portrait probably alludes to the fact that Erasmus had just published a new edition of the writings of St Jerome.
It is interesting to look at the books on the shelves in the background. On the upper shelf of the Erasmus painting there is a book which has the inscription Novum Testament which alludes to Novum Testamentum Graece, the first published edition of the Greek New Testament produced by Erasmus in 1516. On the lower shelf there are three books. The bottom tome has the inscription Hieronymus which refers to Erasmus’s editions of the New Testament and St Jerome; on top of that book there is one with the inscription Λουκιανός which is the Ancient Greek word for Lovkianos or Lucian and refers to Erasmus and Thomas More’s collaboration in translating Lucian’s Dialogues. The inscription on the uppermost book is the word Hor, which originally read Mor. The first letter was probably altered during an early restoration, for besides Mor being the first letters of Thomas More’s surname they almost certainly refer to the satirical essays written by Erasmus whilst staying with Thomas More in his London home in 1509 and entitled Enconium Moriae (Praise of Folly). This collection of essays was considered one of the most notable works of the Renaissance. We see Erasmus writing in a book. This depiction has been carefully thought out for the words one sees on the page paper are a paraphrase of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the handwriting is a careful replication of Erasmus’s own hand, and the reed pen he holds was known to be Erasmus’s favourite writing tool. If you look closely, in the folds of Erasmus’ cloak you can just make out a purse. It could be that Erasmus wanted the artist to include this in order to illustrate his generosity. Erasmus and Gillis made a point of informing Thomas More that they had split the cost of the painting because they wanted it to be a present from them both. If you look at the two paintings side by side then one can see that Massys has cleverly continued the bookcase behind the two sitters and this gives the impression that the two men depicted in the two separate panels occupy the same room and are facing each other.
If we were to look now at the two paintings of Erasmus and Gillis, side by side, we would question whether they were in fact two halves of a diptych as they have different dimensions. This has been explained away by the fact that the Royal Collection painting of Erasmus has been cut and the one of Gillis, which is in the private collection of the Earl of Radnor at Longford Castle, has been extended but it is believed that the original dimensions of both had matched perfectly. Furthermore, both panels have the brand of Charles I on the reverse and the fact that they were together in the seventeenth century seems to confirm that they constitute the original friendship diptych.
The artist, Quinten Massys also spelled Matsys or Metsys, was the foremost artist of his day in Antwerp. He was born around 1466, in the town of Louvain which is situated in the Flemish Province of Brabant in Belgium. His father Joost Massys was a blacksmith and his mother was Catharina van Kincken and they had four children. For a time Quentin helped his father in his blacksmith and metalwork business. Little is known about Massys’ early life and what we do know could be based on fanciful legends! One such story was that Quentin abandoned working as a blacksmith and became an artist in order to impress a young lady, an artist’s daughter, who found art and artists romantic. However a more mundane reason for Quinten to give up as a blacksmith was given by the painter, art historian and biographer of Netherlandish artists, Karel van Mander, in his 1604 Schilder-Boeck, who wrote that Quinten was a sickly youth and lacked the physical strength needed by somebody working in the metalwork and blacksmith profession.
Quinten Massys moved to Antwerp where he was admitted to the Antwerp St Lukas Guild. He married when he was twenty-six years of age. His wife was Alyt van Tuylt and the couple went on to have three children, two sons, Quinten and Pawel and a daughter Katelijne. His wife died in 1507 and Quentin remarried a year later. His new wife was Catherina Heyns and she and Quinten went on to have a further ten children, five sons and five daughters. Shortly after their father’s death, two of his sons, Jan and Cornelis went on to become artists and members of the Antwerp Guild.
Thomas More was knighted in 1521 and in 1523, he became the speaker of the House of Commons and in 1525 chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Seventeen years after Thomas More received his friendship diptych from Erasmus and Gillis, he was dead. He had risen to power under Henry VIII but had fallen foul of the English ruler in 1534 by refusing to swear to the king’s Act of Succession and the Oath of Supremacy, statutes which made Henry the supreme head of the Church of England. Sir Thomas More believed that the supreme head of the church was the Pope and this stated belief lead to him being indicted for treason on charges of praemunire, which was the offense of introducing foreign authority into England and was intended to reduce the civil power of the Pope in England. The jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, which was the usual punishment for traitors who were not the nobility. However Henry VIII commuted this to execution by decapitation. Sir Thomas More was executed on 6 July 1535. His last words were a declaration that he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first”