Tag Archives: myth

The Night Watch by Rembrandt (03/10)

AKA: The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenhurch

AKA: The Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenhurch

I was reading an article in Film Comment about Peter Greenaway’s film Rembrandt’s J’accuse,  an essayistic documentary in which Greenaway’s fierce criticism of today’s visual illiteracy is argued by means of a forensic search of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch.

I learned a few things about Peter Greenaway in reading the article, but what I also interested in this painting. I have taken a few Art History course and I was surprised when the article listed Nightwatch as the fourth most famous painting (after the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and the Sistine Chaple, of course).

So I did some digging, first in my Gardner’s Art through the Ages (10th edition), and to my surpise it was not mentioned. Naturally, my next step was th internet where I found a site called Remrandtpainting.net from which the following bits are from.

The Night Watch was commissioned by Captain Barining Cocq and 17 members of his civic guards; that this was the total of Rembrandt’s clients for the work is assumed from the fact that 18 names, added by an unknown hand after the painting was completed, appear on a shield on the background wall.

The Night Watch is colossal. In its original dimensions it measured approximately 13 by 16 feet.

The Night Watch lies at the center of the most persistent and annoying of all Rembrandt myths. As recently as the tourist season of 1967, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines featured the painting by their illustrious countryman in an advertisement inviting travelers to visit Holland. “See Night Watch,” said the advertisement, “Rembrandt’s spectacular ‘failure’ (that caused him to be) hooted …down the road to bankruptcy.”

The painting was not poorly received; no critic during Rembrandt’s lifetime wrote a word in dispraise of it. Captain Banning Cocq himself had a watercolor made of it for his personal album, and a contemporary oil copy of it by Gerrit Lundens, now owned by the National Gallery in London, offers further proof of the picture’ s popularity.

The fable of the Night Watch may owe its stubborn survival to the fact that it is a simple and convenient means of disposing of a complex matter. In 1642 Rembrandt was at the height of his popularity, and thereafter he slowly fell out of public favor, though never to the extent that romantic biographers suggest. What were the reasons for his “decline”? One of them, certainly, was a change in Dutch tastes in art.

Well, I know this – if you asked Peter Greenaway about the “fable of the Night Watch“, he would certainly tell you that Rembrandt’s fall out of public favor had nothing to do with “a change in tastes in art”.

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Fire Salamander (02/06)

Friday night I was browsing at a used book store and came across David Attenborough’s book The First Eden. As I was flipping through I landed on a page that contained illustrations of mythical creatures of the midieval world, such as this:


...and the salamander passed unscathed through fire

While I am familiar with the myths of the Phoenix, Griffon, and Mandrake root – I knew nothing of the mythology of the fire salamander and naturally I wanted to learn.

I now share with you the mythology of this little guy:

Fire Salamander
The salamander, an innocuous amphibian like a big newt, was also regarded with a mixture of horror and awe. It is certainly one of the most dramatically colored animals in the European countryside, being black blotched with a brilliant golden yellow. As it is an amphibian, its skin must remain wet if it is not to die, so it spends most of its time concealed beneath stones or under leaves and moss, and normally merges at night. Only after a heavy storm is it likely to appear during daylight and seen by casual observers. For this reason, it seems to have become associated with wetness and cold, and thus came to be credited with the ability to quench fire. This reputation certainly goes back to ancient times. Pliny , the Roman naturalist in the first century AD, heard of it and in the down-to-earth, practical manner typical of the romans, tested the proposition experimentally. He took a salamander and put the unfortunate creature into a fire. It was, of course, burnt to a cinder, and Pliny duly recorded the fact in his great natural history.
(from The First Eden by David Attenborough)
Of course, a finding as logical as Pliny’s, did not stick. People believed that the fire salamander possessed a venom of stupendous power. In fact…
A thirteenth-century manuscript stated as sober historical fact that four thousand horse of the army of Alexander the great were all killed because they drank from a stream through which a salamander had recently passed.
(still from The First Eden by David Attenborough)
To those ideas of yore, I use the words of the great Balki Bartokomous, “Don’t be ridiculous.”
(and yes, I did buy the book)

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