Faust at the University: The Image of the Scholar in 17th-Century Dutch Art

By Manuth, Volker | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Faust at the University: The Image of the Scholar in 17th-Century Dutch Art


Manuth, Volker, Queen's Quarterly


VOLKER MANUTH holds the Alfred Bader Chair of Northern Baroque Art at Queen's University and specializes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Dutch, Flemish, and German art. He is also the only non-Dutch member of the amsterdam-based Rembrandt Research Project. He is the curator of the Wisdom, Knowledge, and Magic exhibit on display at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre until 13 April 1997.

Rembrandt's image of a committed scholar witnessing a ghostly apparition in the secluded atmosphere of his study epitomizes the timeless struggle of human beings to find "whatever holds the world together in its inmost folds," as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe put it in his famous tragedy of Faust. Unlike Faust, we definitely do not agree any longer that there is only one right way to find the truth. Nonetheless, trying and failing to attain the unattainable, Faust -- before turning to alchemy -- made a remarkable claim for the idea of the "universitas" as the essence of knowledge. As a place where collegiality between all artistic enterprises was expected and nurtured, the university flourished in places like Leiden, Franeker, and Utrecht. It contributed to what has become known as the Golden Age of the Republic of the Netherlands.

Portrait of Rene Descartes (1647)

Pieter Nason (1612--1688/91)

Collection of Drs Alfred and Isabel Bader

The french scientist-philosopher Rene Descartes (1596--1650) spent most of his adult life in the Northern Netherlands and wrote all of his books there. His first book, the Discours de la Methode, presented a radically new scientific-philosophical system whereby an understanding of the laws of nature could be obtained through reason allied with observation and experiment. Descartes' mechanistic world-view provoked heated controversies in the United Provinces. Orthodox Calvinist academics objected to his eschewal of traditional -- i.e. Aristotelian -- science and philosophy, including established proofs of God's existence, and accused Descartes of atheism. Despite being officially banned by all five of the country's universities, Cartesianism flourished in the Northern Netherlands.

Quill Cutter (n.d.)

Leiden School

Collection of Drs Alfred and Isabel Bader

Quill Cutter (n.d.)

Paulus de Lesire (1611 -- after 1656)

Collection of Drs Alfred and Isabel Bader

The subject of both paintings is a bearded old man, shown half-length, sharpening his quill while seated behind a table. Both men appear in Japanese gowns, garments often worn in the home in the seventeenth-century Northern Netherlands.

Aristotle emphasized the virtue of daily practice in education, a precept related to the well-known emblem of a hand holding a quill. Thus the quill-cutting man may be understood as an allegory of diligent study. Both paintings are consistent with this interpretation, because on the table both artists have included various objects referring to scholarly pursuits: two open books, ink wells, and wax, an hour glass, and a globe.

St Jerome (n.d.)

Leiden School

Collection of Drs Alfred and Isabel Bader

Jerome (c. AD 345--420) was the quintessential scholarly saint. Born to Christian parents in Dalmatia, he was sent to Rome at the age of twelve to receive an education in the liberal arts. While studying the classical writers he also developed a keen interest in religion. During a pilgrimage to Jerusalem around 374, Jerome underwent a spiritual crisis. Christ, as Supreme Judge, appeared to him in a dream and condemned his love of pagan literature. In response, Jerome swore an oath to do penance and retreated into the Syrian desert where he lived as an ascetic hermit for two years (374--376). …

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