Sunday, May 13, 2007

Meet Cornelius

If you're reading this post directly on the blog site, you'll see a new addition to the top of the sidebar; if you're reading through Google Reader or another feed aggregator you might want to click through just so the rest of this post makes some semblance of sense.

Cornelius (aka "An Owl with Books") was created c. 1625 by members of the Bloemaert family, a well-established Dutch artist clan. The engraving is inscribed "H. Bloemaert pinx: C. Bloemaert sculp: et excud:", meaning that it is taken from a painting (pinx.) done by Hendrick Bloemaert (c. 1601-1672) and was engraved (sculp.) by Hendrick's younger brother Cornelius (c. 1603-1692).

The caption reads, in Dutch, "Wat baet keers off bril, als den Wl niet sienen wil" ("What good could a candle or spectacles do, if the owl doesn't want to see"). The open book to the owl's right is the Bible; the visible text is "Ghij en sult niet dootslaen, Ghij en sult niet stelen" ("Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal"), and the sheet protruding from the closed book which the owl clutches reads "T' is omt profyt" ("It is about profit").*

As noted in the exhaustive monograph Abraham Bloemaert and his Sonds: Paintings and Prints by Marcel Roethlisberger and Marten Jan Bok (Davaco, 1993), pg. 444, the proverb in the caption is traditional: "Preferring night to day, the owl cannot see in daylight, hence its popular reputation for stupidity and blindness towards faith. ... Here, it ignores the lesson of the open Bible and blindly clings to the closed book which is about greed. Spectacles stand for foolishness." The owl here is symbolic of stupidity, the precise reverse of its general use as a symbol of wisdom in our own time.

I like the image, although I must admit that once I understood the caption I gained a totally different perspective on the engraving than I had initially. I briefly considered lopping off the proverb, but decided it was better left on as an important statement about how symbols evolve and change their meanings over time.

*Translations also from Roethlisberger and Bok, p. 444.

6 comments:

jgodsey said...

NOW you need to got to cafepress and make yourself a t-shirt!

ortelius said...

There exist another version of the theme with a different text “Was helfen Fackeln, Licht oder Briln so die leut nicht sehen wollen” (What good can torches or light or spectacles do, if the people don’t want to see). It´s a kind of signet on the last side in Khunrats Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae, Solius Verae, Christiano-Kabalisticum, Divino-Magicum, […] Hanoviae : Antonius, 1602 [erschienen] 1609
You can find a picture (in a bad quality) here: http://septentrio.blogspot.com/2007/10/ganz-schnell.html

JBD said...

Thank you ortelius, I'm glad to know of it!

peacay said...

Just to add to what Ortelius said...

There is an earlier occurrence of the version he has on his blog that was published in Khunrath's 'Magnesia catholica philosophorum...' in 1599 in Madgeburg. The wonderful SCETI site at the University of Pennsylvania has very large images available.

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Apropos nothing much at all, how come you don't have the full date with the timestamp for comments? (actually, I notice lots of bloggers do this so I presume it's the default) I'm just wondering how far my tiny voice is echoing back into the past.

Daniel said...

As a collector of old master prints and a onetime dealer I can tell you that had you cut off the text below this print you would also have drastically reduced its value. But then you probably knew that. . .

JBD said...

Well yes, obviously I wouldn't have cropped an original print; I was referring to the image on the blog :-)