Herri met de Bles's sleeping peddler: an exegetical and anthropomorphic landscape.

Author:Weemans, Michel
Position:Essay - 16th century painter - Belgium - Critical essay

The Sleeping Peddler Robbed by the Apes (Fig. 1) is one of the most significant works of the exegetical painter Herri met de Bles, a Flemish artist working in the second third of the sixteenth century. (1) Given the fact that the profane subject of this painting is an exception in Bles's oeuvre, this statement may seem paradoxical. (2) On a structural level, however, its conformity to a common model of visual exegesis is striking, despite its iconographic singularity. (3) Because of what it represents--the accident that thrusts the traveling merchant from the ordinary sense of his existence, the boundless immoderation of the apes who rob him in his sleep--The Sleeping Peddler Robbed by the Apes is an extravagant painting in the usual sense of the term. But there is a second meaning at work here, an exegetical extravagance. Certain representatives of structural exegesis (Ian Ramsay, Paul Ricoeur) see biblical stories--parables, proverbs, proclamations--as having a common principle of extravagance: (4) their enigmatic and paradoxical dimension is meant to shake the reader and provoke a break with his usual conception of existence, thereby leading to a "reorientation through disorientation." (5) According to Ramsey, this trait of extravagance is indissociable from a second characteristic of biblical stories, their telos, or common qualifier (the eschatological announcement called the Celestial Jerusalem, the Kingdom of God, or the Vision of God). Extravagance is thus a response to the tension between the ordinary nature of the story and the extraordinary aspect of the telos, for which Ricoeur prefers to use the stronger term scandal. (6) In the painter's own time, Desiderius Erasmus reformulated the classical theory of exegesis of the four senses in a comparable manner. For Erasmus, exegesis is the dialectical tension between the two extremes of literal and anagogic meaning, reconciled by the paradoxical, enigmatic figure of allegory. (7) Envisaged in this light, as a visual exegesis, The Sleeping Peddler Robbed by the Apes becomes a space of transformation and conversion in which, for centuries, a visual challenge--a surprise for the eyes, an extravagant anamnesis--has been lying undetected. (8)

Apes or Diaboli

For Karel van Mander, the singularity of the subject of The Sleeping Peddler Robbed by the Apes was matched only by the importance of the landscape, which he qualified as "grandiose." It is the only painting described in detail in his biography of Bles. (9) The subject--the story of a peddler who stops to rest in the forest and is fleeced in his sleep by a band of apes who then proceed to string his treasure in the tree branches like garlands--has its origin in the medieval tradition of diaboli, in which apes represent the irrational, absurd side of human nature, the idea of evil opposed to good and virtue. The tradition of diabolical apes was reworked extensively in painting, engraving, literature, and proverb during the sixteenth century. The Antichrist and demons were called apes or imitators of God in sermons and religious pamphlets, and preachers warned against "apes of the apostles who destroy all, like the apostles of the Antichrist." (10) Martin Luther believed in the diabolical nature of apes, and John Calvin denounced the Anabaptists as "falsifying apostles like apes and not true imitators." (11) The common Christian denomination of Christ's enemies as "men imitating apes" may explain van Mander's interpretation of Bles's painting:

In Amsterdam, in Waermoestraet, at Marten Papenbroeck's place, one can see a beautiful and grandiose landscape by him in which, lying under a tree, a peddler is sleeping while a multitude of apes rob him of his wares, hang them from the trees and amuse themselves at his expense. According to some, it is a satire of the papacy. The apes are Martins, or Martinists, supporters of Luther, who have discovered the sources of the Pope's revenues, which they refer to as "haberdashery." However, this interpretation is subject to caution, and perhaps Henry intended nothing of the sort, as art should not be an instrument of satire. (12) We should take note of van Mander's anecdote and his skepticism regarding a politicoreligious allusion as determining the meaning of the painting. To this erudite humanist, the landscape with the sleeping peddler was more an evocation of the topos, common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, of the dream vision, and in this it conformed to "the idea of interior choice and at the same time to the assumption at the basis of medieval 'moralizations,' which viewed fables as having a meaning, an exemplary value for Christians." (13)

The first extensive interpretation of the painting was given by Horst W. Janson. In a passage from chapter 7 of Apes and Ape Lore, he compares it to a contemporary poem by the German meistersinger Hans Sachs, "Der Kremer mit der Affen" (1555). (14) Janson recalls the visual rather than literary origin of this episode, the first instances of which were found by Aby Warburg and Fritz Saxl (15) in Gothic marginalia or drolleries. (16) It is worth noting that, contrary to the usual schema, here the text originated in images. Two woodcuts from the end of the fifteenth century, one Florentine and the other Swabian (Fig. 2), precede the engraving by Hans Weiditz that appeared in the German edition of Petrarch's De reemidis (1532) and that was certainly known to the German poet. Nevertheless, as Janson notes, Hans Sachs's poem introduces various new elements: the peddler is described as being old and poor, and the wicked apes flee when he awakens, leaving him to the sight of his scattered and irretrievable merchandise. Everything leads up to the moral exemplum developed in the third and final part of the poem, in which those who, like the apes, rob and take advantage of honest, industrious men are condemned. The spirit of reform of the poem is in keeping with van Mander's allusion to "Martinists," and certain new aspects found in the text are also present in Bles's painting. Janson proceeds to list the matching details in the painting and the poem: the dignified air of the aged peddler, the emphasis on the goods strung high in the branches, and also the addition of a panic-stricken figure who, he believes, personifies the second verse of the poem in which the peddler awakens. However, it is hard to follow Janson in his conclusion that Bles must have been given a translation of Sachs's poem at the time of the commission and infers that the painter relied on a single textual source chosen for him by the commissioner. Our difficulty increases when he adds that while the figures in Bles's painting are certainly based on those of the traditional repertoire of diaboli, the relation is purely formal and that they are entirely bereft of the symbolic density associated with them in Gothic marginalia. One wonders why Janson, after having recognized Bles's use of figures from the diaboli tradition, whose iconographic wealth he has demonstrated and analyzed, goes on to deny the significance of these intentional borrowings. It is even more surprising that having identified the visual origin of the theme, Janson should then revert to a narrow and isolating iconology, which treats the picture in the light of a single textual source, a key text that is supposed to provide an exhaustive explanation. Using this model of a direct correspondence between text and image contributes to a simplified interpretation that reduces the painting to an illustration of the moral of Sachs's text, to the formal repetition of a simplified iconographic repertoire, to a moralizing farce typical of the Flemish repertoire. One could say that the art historian's judgment has been distorted by an isolating interpretation in two ways. First, he fails to consider the painting in relation to the entire corpus of the painter, in which the presence of an exegetical schema becomes evident. Second, he neglects the associations and tensions that structure the painting itself. The model that grants logical supremacy to a single textual source, thereby linking image to text, is, in fact, a hindrance when it comes to the exegetical interpretation of the image. As Paolo Berdini states, "Because the correspondence model derives its coherence from denying to beholding a cognitive or critical role, what it undermines is the notion of understanding as a fundamentally phenomenological act and, with it, the phenomenology of a specific understanding such as beholding." (17) Furthermore, an interpretative model that pretends to attempt a complete understanding through the discovery of correspondences between an image and its textual source not only limits the viewer's experience of the work but also overlooks the humanist predilection for the multiplication of levels of meaning, failing to recognize the painting's "iconic density." (18) Bles's paintings demonstrate a high degree of artistic awareness, interweaving visual, literary, theological, biblical, classical, and vernacular references.


Instead of the textual model predominating over the image, the concept of visual exegesis implies that the painting is not the visualization of a text but of an interpretation, (19) related not only to the fable but also to the Book of Nature. (20) The interpretation can be seen in the painting's details as in it as a whole, in its figures as in its pictorial morphology. We must, therefore, look more carefully at the play of polarity and tension in the painting and consider that this humanist painter's visual exegesis involves subtle operations of revival, displacement, and transformation of the diaboli repertoire and of previous engravings on the theme of the peddler. This will lead us to discern in Bles's painting the linking of the visual tradition of diaboli with the no less fundamental theme of the sleeping figure.

Diaboli and Vanitas

The general structure of...

To continue reading