Pieter Claeissens the Elder’s Moses Breaking Pharaoh’s Crown is part of the Art Gallery of Ontario’s European Collection, c. 1530-1572. Oil on panel, gift of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum, 1995. © Art Gallery of Ontario 95/138

AGO exhibit marks our mortality

  • March 16, 2022

When Pieter Claeissens the Elder was painting Moses Breaking Pharaoh’s Crown, Europe was entering a complex and confusing period of continual warfare. The crude version of this history blames it all either on Catholics trying to wipe out Protestants or Protestants trying to eliminate Catholics. Actually, it had more to do with money, geo-politics, empire, trade and a ruling class that was deeply incompetent.

It all resulted in the 80 Years War (aka the Dutch Revolt), the Thirty Years War, the Franco-Spanish War, the War of Devolution, the Franco-Dutch War, the Anglo-Dutch War and the Nine Years War.

In the midst of all this bloodshed, Pieter Claeissens the Elder was painting. He produced a beautiful, colourful, glowing canvas that depicted slavery, revolt, refugees, an unhinged narccisist in control of a country, the threat of violence and the danger of random events. In the painting, Moses has accidentally broken Pharaoh’s crown. If not for the intervention of Pharaoh’s daughter, who has been raising the boy as her own, the child Moses would be immediately killed. In the background, the painter shows the future consequence of sparing young Moses when the Hebrew slaves leave Egypt.

The picture from the Art Gallery of Ontario’s permanent collection is now on display in the newly rehung European Collection at the Toronto gallery, which opened to the public March 12. Like all major galleries, the AGO only has enough wall space to display about 25 per cent of its collection. The long dark days of COVID have given the AGO’s curators time to rethink what should be hung and how gallery goers might relate to these pieces of history — from a larger-than-life Bernini crucifix to still-life paintings of skulls and rotting food.

The question for curators and audience alike is, “How we can imagine these works,” assistant curator of European art Adam Levine told The Catholic Register. “Very rich people commissioning paintings of peasants farming, very rich people commissioning paintings of peasants dancing. These things kind of look to create a sense of calm.”

But behind these calm, exquisite paintings and sculptures stands the spectre of violence. Pieter Claeissens the Elder, painting in Flanders, was part of the Spanish empire at a time when Spain had colonized half of the Americas and the Philippines, enslaving Indigenous people to feed the hacienda system and to work gold and silver mines that together produced fantastic wealth — wealth that paid for giant altar pieces, marble statues and portraits of silk-bedecked nobles.

A lot of the art in the European Collection “seeks to insulate you in some ways from violence,” Levine points out.

But it keeps creeping in. When Luca Giordano paints The Toilet of Bathsheba, the artist introduces an element not found in the biblical story of King David’s lust for his general Uriah’s wife. Where the story in 2 Samuel 11 says merely that the king sent messengers to Bathsheba, Giordano introduces a Black slave girl.

“There’s no good reason, no biblical source for her being Black, or being a different race from the other people in the painting,” said Levine. “At this time Black womanhood is being constructed as lascivious, as deceitful. He sends her to move this story.”

Suddenly, a 17th-century painting is about our contemporary struggles with race and racism, while also being an example of what extreme wealth could buy in a society where the vast majority eked out life on the remainders of a harvest that mostly fed distant landowners in the cities. Levine hopes people see the humanity in the art.

“My job is to be an archeologist, an anthropologist, a historian. I spend a lot of time thinking about people — real human people, living and dead,” he said. “So I’m really interested when a sculpture or a painting has some sort of indent of someone’s hand. That’s really important to me, to feel the connection.”

Levine knows that people come across works such as the Bernini corpus of Christ crucified and are moved to prayer. “That’s fine. We don’t have rules against it,” he said. “It’s not lost on me that these paintings are not just 500-year-old things, but are devotional images that continue to have great power.”

The insights of painters who spent years producing a single image from a story in the Bible are still relevant. Giordano’s depiction of Jesus curing the paralytic at the pool of Bethzatha in the temple precinct portrays the mercy Christ brings into the temple against a backdrop of decades the man has spent hoping for a cure while no one would help him into the curative waters of the pool.

“I find this story to be particularly heartbreaking,” Levine said. “My mother died after being disabled for many years. So whenever I’m with this painting I think very personally about disability. This is about the failure of the State to look after disabled people.
That’s what this painting is really about — social infrastructure failing.”

Levine has a Lenten tip for gallery goers wandering among the masterworks hung on dramatically coloured blue and coral walls. Look for ropes and candles. They are symbols of our mortality. Every candle burns out. Every rope reaches its end.

“It’s really present in all of this,” he said. “I’m keenly aware of my own mortality. I think about it all the time.”

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