An Advent Calendar – 17

…and his servants‘ –

Every good king should have his retinue, but how many followers do you need? ‘What need you five and twenty, ten, or five?’ argues Goneril in Act 2, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Her sister Regan goes further, ‘What need one?’, to which Lear’s response is straightforward: ‘O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars/ Are in the poorest thing superfluous.’ By Lear’s standards, Balthazar might appear an entirely modest king, as his retinue could be as little as two, but it is hard to tell. Is the turbaned figure hugging the column part of his train? The turban certainly conveys the idea of ‘come from afar’. There are also any number of people gathered on the other side of the painting, and it is not easy to tell which king they follow, nor, besides those who are closest to Balthazar, who from the gathered assembly might owe him fealty.

The two closest men do, I’m sure. The one on the left holds his cloak, and adjusts the scarf with which he holds his gift. He is, in some way, a servant – his presence telling us that the man he serves is important – and I have always loved the fact that the black king has a white servant, and one with the blondest of curly hair. This servant is also one of the best dressed men in the painting – another sign of Balthazar’s wealth and status. Very often servants would be dressed in their master’s colours – making Balthazar’s blue and green. While we can’t confirm this, there is certainly a clear harmony with the green swag which serves as a tie for the king’s red cloak.

Unlike the shepherds we have seen before, who tend to wear one plain colour, the servant is dressed in a variety of rich colours – and not only are the colours rich, but the fabrics are patterned, which adds to the impression of wealth. The servants also have accessories – in this case, an elaborately fashioned bag, made of embroidered yellow fabric, with pink piping, a pink tassel on either side and black laces with silver tips in the centre. It has its own belt to attach it around his waist. On the flap is a small blue panel which harmonises with the blue of his skirted doublet, decorated with a pale, geometric logo. The pinks and yellows of the bag echo the red and gold brocade which trim the cuffs at his elbows, and the burgundy colour of his sleeves. It is all remarkable tasteful. The blue panels of the doublet are brocaded with a large repeat of stylised flowers and leaves, while the green panels have thick stitches of gold running horizontally. For a servant, this is an impressive get up.

In between the servant and Balthazar we see a second man of colour. He could be another servant, although he may equally be a higher ranking courtier. He wears a full and elaborate – if somewhat fanciful – turban, and a silver necklet with golden filigree work, from which hangs a small pendant. Apart from this, we can’t see much of him. His face is not as detailed as that of the king, but then, he is not as close. It is, however, the filigree work which is most interesting.

It forms letters which spell out ‘IENNIN GOSS…’ – before becoming illegible as they go around his neck. This is the second signature that Jean Gossart/Jan Gossaert included in the painting: he must have been inordinately proud of it. Not every artist signs their work, but every so often one will get carried away and put their name on more than once, for reasons that vary from vanity to carelessness. What is intriguing about the two signatures on this painting is that each is associated with one of the two black men in the painting. Leslie Primo has suggested that that courtier’s necklet might effectively be a slave collar – a sign of ownership – and that Gossaert put his name on these men because he owned them. You can hear more about this idea on the BP2 podcast, to which I also contributed. And if you’re shocked at the idea of an artist owning slaves, it was not unknown: among other artists, Velázquez also owned a slave (see Day 88 – Juan de Pareja), who worked as his assistant, whom he freed, and who became an artist in his own right (see Day 85 – The Flight into Egypt). If Leslie is right, then it could explain the remarkable detail we see on Balthazar’s face: he had all the time in the world to sit for his portrait.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “An Advent Calendar – 17

  1. Fascinating to read this discussion. I’m struck by the contrast between the servant’s snobby facial expression and bombastically bulging stomach and the more dignified look of the king’s face. Knowing that the king could have been a slave makes that contrast all the more poignant. I wonder how people contemporaneous to the painting would have seen this, and how they might have interpreted these facial expressions.


      1. Ah, now that I think of it, I have seen armor with bulging stomachs…how convenient to take flab and turn it into a fashion! It does offer an opportunity for the painter to add more curving lines and dimensionality to the figure.


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