“A Hobbling Wight” and Details from the Rijksmuseum

Following a frisbee related injury, I have received intimations of my own fragility and, at least for today, am unable to walk. Appropriate then that I am reading Moby Dick, and while my condition renders the mad, one-legged captain Ahab unusually sympathetic, the narrator, Ishmael reminds me that this fragility is a more usual condition than I normally admit.

Considering that a man with two legs is but a hobbling wight in all times of danger; considering that the pursuit of whales is always under great and extraordinary difficulties; that every individual moment, indeed, then comprises a peril; under these circumstances is it wise for any maimed man to enter a whale boat in the hunt? As a general thing, the joint owners of the Pequod must have plainly thought not.

– Herman Melville, Moby Dick, ch. 50

Similar reminders of personal frailty were presented during my recent European travels and the day I spent at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. There, where photographs are permitted, I occupied myself with the details of the paintings. Now, in my infirmity, I am able to post these with links to the full paintings in the captions.

With so many still lives, or natures mortes, there were not a few maggots and worms to remind the viewer that, even for the fleet-footed, life itself is fleeting. Here, for example, is a triple act performed by a lizard, a snail, and a maggot beneath a splendid, if seasonally impossible arrangement.

Flowers and Maggots
Flowers with Maggot, Lizard and Snail. Detail from Stilleven met bloemen by Hans Bollongier, 1639.

Also rather good is this depiction of a naval battle near Gibraltar. From a distance, the sky above the ships looks like pretty wallpaper with lots of details over the seascape; close up, these details reveal themselves to be the severed bodies of the sailors who died in the explosions.

Exploded sailors
Exploded sailors. Detail from Het ontploffen van het Spaanse admiraalsschip tijdens de zeeslag bij Gibraltar by Cornelis Cleasz. van Wieringen, ca. 1621.

If all this death makes one wonder what is important in life, then less gruesome are these two lovers who have stolen a moment of privacy while Amsterdam is out skating on frozen canals,

Lovers in Winter
Lovers in Winter. Detail from Winterlandschap met schaatsers by Hendrick Avercamp, ca. 1608.

Difficult to say which is more important, kissing or skating. My favourite detail, from Fishing for Souls, offers a clearer choice. Here, as the theological and military forces of the Protestant Dutch Reformers and the Catholic Holy Roman Empire gather on opposite sides of a river to bring the souls of the dead to their respective cause, two boys stake out their own philosophy and their own claim to the riverbank; one is collecting shells in his hat, while the older, with his hands in his pockets, strikes a nonchalant pose, suggesting that the apparently weightier concerns of religion can go whistle.

Collecting Shells in the Reformation
Collecting Shells in the Reformation. Detail from De zielenvisserij by Adriaen Pietersz. van de Venne, 1614.

1 Comment

  1. I love the Avercamp piece and the different messages + scenes incorporated within. I missed the kissing couple though. Thanks too for pointing out the two boys in ‘Fishing for Souls’ – this too was a very interesting work!

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s