The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting the Collection of Pierre Roose by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A Thousand Words

The Archdukes Albert and Isabella Visiting the Collection of Pierre Roose

by Hieronymus Francken II & Jan Brueghel the Elder

In this picture, painted in 1621–1623, the archdukes Albert and Isabella, the Hapsburg regents of the Southern Netherlands, have come to pay a visit to the collector Pierre Roose. More specifically, they have come to pay a visit to Roose's cabinet of curiosities. With the rise of bourgeois wealth and the mania for collecting and investing in art in the Low Countries, pictures like this became a minor specialty, and they often involved the collaboration of several artists. Not all of these paintings (in fact, very few) can be connected, as this one is, with a specific collector. Rather, such paintings often stood in for the actual assembly of such an encyclopedic collection: if you couldn't afford to build a collection yourself, you could at least have a painting that stood in for everything such an assembly implied.

For this painting is more than just a catalogue of Roose's holdings, or a pictorial guest book of an important visit; instead, the formation of such a collection and its organization carried a weight of (to us) hidden meaning. The encyclopedic collection of the seventeenth century was meant to represent the full scope of human knowledge, a rational, graspable reproduction of the world at large, a microcosm of the universe. The collection embraced art and science. In the ideal collection, Naturalia, viewed as the handiwork of creation and thus ultimately of God, were gathered from all the known seas and continents, as represented here by the map, the atlas, and the book of geography on the table at the right. The natural specimens themselves, flowers, plants, fruit, animals, a stuffed bird of paradise, seashells, coral, and mineral samples, range across the foreground from left to right.

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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.

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