In 1517 the humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus and the town clerk of Antwerp, Pieter Gillis, decided to send portraits of themselves to Sir Thomas More, the lawyer, author and statesman who until his arrest and execution in 1535 had a prominent place at the court of Henry VIII. From the distance of Antwerp, Erasmus and Gillis wanted their likenesses, by the greatest artist living in Antwerp at that time, to serve as a virtual visit to their ‘friend in London’. Surviving letters indicate the progress of the paintings. Erasmus’s portrait was completed first because Gillis fell ill during his sittings. The men had informed More of their proposed gift, and More wrote impatiently to both of them questioning when he could see the result. Eventually the ‘friendship diptych’ was ready when the Englishman was visiting Calais and was sent directly to him there.
For many years this portrait was not recognised as Massys’s original because its dimensions are different from those of its pair, the portrait of Pieter Gillis. However, the Royal Collection picture has been cut and the version at Longford Castle extended; the original dimensions must have matched perfectly. Both panels have the brand of Charles I on the reverse and the fact that they were together in the seventeenth century seems to confirm that they constitute the original pairing.
The Royal Collection panel shows Erasmus working in a study. This was a popular way of depicting St Jerome, and so the setting alludes to the fact that Erasmus had recently published a new edition of the writings of St Jerome. The books on the shelf behind the scholar have inscriptions relating to his recently published works: Novum Testament[um] and Hieronymus refer to Erasmus’s editions of the New Testament and St Jerome; Lovkianos refers to Erasmus’s and More’s collaboration in translating Lucian’s Dialogues; and Hor, which originally read Mor and must have been altered during an early restoration, spells the first letters of the Englishman’s name and refers to the ‘Praise of Folly’ (Encomium Moriae), a satirical essay written whilst Erasmus stayed with More in Bucklersbury in London in 1509. The words on the paper are a paraphrase of St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the handwriting is a close imitation of Erasmus’s own hand, and the reed pen was Erasmus’s favourite writing tool.
The purse on Erasmus’s lap may be included in order to illustrate his generosity. Erasmus and Gillis made a point of informing More that they had split the cost of this gift because they wanted it to be a present from them both. Massys cleverly continued the bookcase behind both sitters, giving the impression that the men depicted in the two panels occupy the same room. Despite the fact that the humanist is depicted seated at his desk, his face is given an air of gentle openness and the direction of his gaze appears as though he has paused for a moment to think of More. The artist’s highly sophisticated technique, coupled with a concentration on the contours of the face, render this an exceptionally accessible insight into Erasmus’s character - the perfect gift for a respected and dear friend.
Catalogue entry adapted from The Northern Renaissance. Dürer to Holbein, London 2011
Recorded in the Collection of Charles I, recovered by Charles II at the Restoration
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