Sunday, May 13, 2007

Meet Cornelius

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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 Sons: 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.