Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Moneychanger and his Wife

Marinus Claeszoon van Reymerswaele (c. 1490 – c. 1546)
The Moneychanger and his Wife 1539
Oil on panel
83 cm x 97 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Amongst the works of the Flemish-Dutch painters Quentin Matsys (1466–1529) and Marinus Claeszoon van Reymerswaele (c. 1490 – c. 1546) are two themes: Money lenders (or Bankers and clients) and Tax gatherers.

They were very popular themes.

The theme of moneylending seems to have been first popularised by a lost half-length Banker and Client by Jan van Eyck of 1440, that was probably commissioned by Italian financiers working in Bruges

Van Eyck's composition appears to have been adapted by Quinten Metsys in two works including The Banker and his Wife of 1514 in the Louvre, Paris

It would appear that it was Metsys' work that was the source of the theme by Marinus van Reymerswaele. But there are major differences between the two works.

Van Reymerswaele repeated the composition shown in the Prado many times.

Seated at their table a rather attractive married couple in 16th century Flemish dress are seated at a table totally rapt and absorbed in the process of counting money. It is obviously one of their deep shared interests. It is one of the main (or only ties ?) which binds them together. In modern terms it could be said that it shows the family as an economic unit in society or a modern economy

It is a satirical work. The husband and wife do not have eyes for each other: only the coins of gold and silver on the table. They relate to each other through money, not touch or conversation. The treasure which they value is not each other or their children (there do not appear to be any) but the little lumps of metal which are the centrepiece of the painting.

The room in which they are sitting is rather disordered, drab and untidy. Sheets of paper litter the room. The room is devoted entirely to the practice of moneychanging. There are no paintings, decoration or religious symbols.

However their clothing is quite fine. It is good bourgeois clothing. The husband has fur cuffs and collar and a strange hat with a pendant. The woman wears a red suit and a white cap

Amongst the accoutrements of their trade are the scales, the symbol of justice. But they ascertain value by the process of weighing the lumps of material metal in a method which seems mechanical and roughly scientific.

They are not stupid people. They can read and write. But it would appear that their book are entirely related to their calling. They are account books.

Above their heads is a candle. The candle has been extinguished. It provides no light.

Alsoon the jumble on the shelf above their heads is an empty beaker stuffed with account papers. In medieval art, the carafe of water often symbolised the purity of the Virgin, the receptacle for the Water of Life. There is no Water in the beaker and no room for any water to be there.

The trade of currency exchange was a lucrative one. It was one which Christians could carry out in medieval times without apparently contravening the prohibition againist usury. However there was also some doubt about this. The Florentine bankers developed a system of currency exchange which was a form of lending but on the face of it did not appear to be a loan. It was derivative. It was an adjunct of trade and without which international trade could not flourish. It was therefore necessary. But for the medieval Christian the dangers were obvious.

Why was there such a theme popular in Flemish painting at the time ? Antwerp was a major trading centre and rapidly became the principal city for commerce between northern and southern Europe. Portuguese and Spanish merchants and powerful Italian bankers visited Antwerp for trade, making the bustling city the economic capital of Europe in those times.