Allegory of Prudence (Allegory of Faith), David Teniers the Younger

Description of the picture:

Allegory of Prudence conquering earthly vanity (Allegory of Faith) – David Teniers the Younger. The beginning of the 1650s. Wood, oil. 45.5×34

   In the inventory of the Hermitage, the painting was called “Vanity” (“Vanitas vanitatis”). Varshavskaya clarified her plot: “Allegory of Prudence, conquering the earthly vanity”. According to Warsaw (orally, 1958) and Smolskaya (1962), the image of two cupids below in the Teniers painting is a repetition of similar figures on the canvas by Anthony Van Dyck “Lady Venice Digby in the Form of Prudence” (circa 1633-1641). In fact, Teniers borrowed from the original Van Dyck the figures of both two cupids below and three angels above (“Lady Venice Digby in the Form of Prudence”).

   The composition and iconography of this allegorical portrait of Van Dyck were largely used in the painting of Teniers. It is unusual for Teniers, because it is replete with numerous symbols characteristic of the Baroque era. For example, the image at the bottom of the work of a transparent sphere entwined with a snake is a symbol of sin, defeated by Christian virtue. According to de Jong (1975/76), who studied in detail the iconography of the allegorical portrait of Van Dyck and the Hermitage painting by Teniers, “a woman rests her foot on a glass ball, symbolizing a despicable world.” The image of a bustling, earthly world rejected by a woman is emphasized by the reflection of the window on the ball. Under the elbow of her right hand is a skull. This is a sign of death and other objects lying on the table and on a pedestal in the lower right corner (hourglass, mirror, jewelry box, books, musical instruments, coins, gold cups) are attributes of the Vanitas still life. De Jong believes that the artist is hinting at the concept of “faith conquering death.”

   In the picture of Teniers the woman with the index finger of her right hand touches the pearl in the earring. With her left hand she holds the pearls of a necklace hanging on her neck. Under the necklace you can see another large pearl decorating the pendant on the chest. According to de Jong, with these gestures and a devout gaze, “the figure shows the pearls of his faith to heaven.” We are talking about the “gospel pearl” – a motif that is mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew (13: 45-46) and is interpreted by Francis de Salem in the book “Pious Life” (1608; translated from French into Dutch and published in Antwerp in 1616) . At the bottom left are two frivolous putti, a kind of Eros and Anteros (or Eros and Anteroth). The first of them, Eros, is shown as cupid with an arrow in his hand and a blindfold (he embodies the image of Blind love). The second, the cupid’s twin with butterfly wings, holds a dying torch, which, apparently, indicates ignorance or unbelief. Eros and Anteros, symbolizing earthly love, are as if defeated by a woman representing the Christian faith.

   In the upper part of the composition are visible three angels personifying heavenly love. Two of them crown a virtuous woman with a wreath of flowers. The third angel holds a burning torch, meaning, according to Cesare Ripa, “enlightenment of the mind through faith.” According to Ripa, “holy faith” is perceived through hearing, as evidenced in Teniers’ picture of the “gospel pearl” in the ear of a woman listening to the voice of heaven. Undoubtedly, Teniers turned to Cesare Ripa’s book “Iconology” (1593), published in Dutch by Dirk Perce in 1644.

   Warsaw (orally, 1958) dated the Hermitage painting with 1640-1650s. In our opinion, the work was completed in the early 1650s. In 1635 and 1651 Teniers visited London, where, perhaps, he saw one of the versions of the famous portrait of Lady Digby by Van Dyck or his reproduction in engraving. After his second visit to London, the artist created not a copy from the picture, but his own variation on the theme of Van Dyck, and not in the portrait genre, but in the form of an abstract allegorical image.

   “Iconology” by Cesare Ripa was the source for many European artists of that time. As an iconographic parallel to the Teniers painting, one can consider the work of the Dutch artist Vermeer Delft’s “Allegory of Faith” (1671-1674, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Teniers and Vermeer each in their own way interpreted the individual attributes of Vera’s allegory. Vermeer, more than Teniers, followed Ripa’s instructions. Teniers handled the emblematic model much more freely, so the Hermitage painting need not be renamed “Allegory of Faith”, as de Jong did in his article, but giving her that title as a subheading seems entirely legitimate."

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