Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Jan Luyken, the Martyrs Mirror, and the Iconography of Suffering

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Jan Luyken, the Martyrs Mirror, and the Iconography of Suffering

Article excerpt

Abstract: Jan Luyken's illustrations in the Martyrs Mirror were a singular contribution to Mennonite history and identity, but they also belonged to a larger context of early modern printed images that portrayed martyrdom in distinctly symbolic and naturalistic terms. This article will explore Luyken's engravings in relation to the visual contributions of preceding martyrologies, including John Foxe's English Book of Martyrs, Richard Verstegan's Catholic Theatrum Crudelitatum Haereticorum, and, most importantly, the seventeenth-century editions of Adriaen van Haemstede's Calvinist Historie der Martelaren. In addition, the formal and thematic impact on Luyken of the Dutch golden age of art will also be examined, revealing the artist to be as much influenced by the world around him as he was a pious renderer of uniquely Mennonite images.

It is ironic that a tradition noted for spurning the culture of worldly materialism would be responsible for one of the greatest and most assertively material artifacts of early modern print culture. With its encyclopedic scale (more than 1,300 folio pages), its elaborate prefaces, marginalia, indices, subheadings, and even its market-driven Calvinist publishers, the 1660 publication of Thieleman van Braght's Bloody Theater (Het Bloedigh Tooneel) (1) -- better known as the Martyrs Mirror, based on the title of the second edition in 1685--represents one of the supreme products of Dutch Golden Age prosperity, even if van Braght himself was reacting in part against what he considered to be the corrupting influence of that prosperity on the Anabaptist community of faith that he described. (2) But the work was much more than that too. Not only did it represent the culmination of almost one hundred years of Anabaptist martyrologies, (3) but it also created a richer framework of meaning that connected the longer narrative of Christian suffering, beginning with Jesus and the apostles (the first section), to contemporary Anabaptists (in the second section). In doing so, the Martyrs Mirror thus legitimized the church by connecting it back in time, reminding the community that its origins began with a group of men and women whose faith and sufferings were directly shared by Christ and his apostles. (4)

If the first edition of the Bloody Theater was significant in its own right, the second edition of 1685, retitled the Martyrs Mirror, and published after van Braght's death, would drive the work forward in a new direction, rendering it truly iconic. The difference was Jan Luyken, an already popular and prolific illustrator of engravings, etchings, and emblems, as well as a metaphysical poet of some repute, a previously wayward individual who joined the Doopsgezinde Lamb and Tower church, and finally, a Boehmian mystic who ended his life in pious and impoverished withdrawal from the world. (5) In a nearly forty-year career, Luyken, based in Amsterdam, would produce over 3,200 engravings and etchings in the period after Rembrandt, with his subjects encompassing historical events, travelogues, morals illustrated through emblems, the various occupations (in the famous Het Menselyk Bedryf), (6) and depictions of Jewish religion and history. In his last years, Luyken was supported by his son Casper, whom he trained as an engraver and who was a successful artist in his own right. Luyken outlived his son, and eventually died in 1712. For all this, however, Luyken -- considered one of the great illustrators of his age--has not been subject to any serious art historical study in English, even in monographs that purport to examine the culture of print and engraving in the Dutch golden age.

The nature of the visual material in the Martyrs Mirror, including the sometimes unsettling violence of those images, might account for this relative neglect, even if the illustrations of the 1685 edition reflected all facets of a major and prolific talent in its representation of history and religious experience, persecution and martyrdom, individuals and crowds, landscapes and architecture, human suffering and the body in pain. …

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