Tuesday, February 20, 2007

An Inventory of Polarities: Quentin Metsys's The Money Lender and His Wife

An Inventory of Polarities: Quentin Metsys’s The Money Lender and His Wife

[Quentin Metsys (1466–1530), worked primarily in Antwerp. The Money Lender and his Wife, 1514]

There is much that can be said about this detail-rich painting once owned by the famous painter Peter Paul Rubens, and now owned by the Louvre Museum. It lends itself easily to formal, semiotic, and historiographic analysis. Its composition is structured with a classical symmetry. It was very much of its time for its demonstrated interest in aspects of daily life. It is full of moral messages and symbolic references—particularly of a Christian sort. Metsys painted in such painstaking detail and with such precision that it serves as a visual inventory or an accounting of the scene. However, because of its extreme order and precision the painting takes on a veneer of surrealism—in this case fact-is-stranger-than-fiction, as the saying goes. Spend enough time with the image and what emerges is a complex of polarities, evident and implied.

One simple example of this complexity is found in the curved surface of the oval mirror at the bottom of the painting. On one hand, there is a perfectly rational explanation for the reflection of the window that serves as the source of the painting’s illumination. (This device also allows the conceit of the artist getting himself in the picture.) On the other hand, the window frame itself is a reference to the crucifix.

The positive-negative (the “both and”) of this small element of the painting surfaces on a grander scale and is of more crucial significance in the powerful dynamic playing out between the sacred and profane, between the religious text and objects of material desire, a complementarity reinforced by the color schema. While the woman casually leafs through the illuminated manuscript open to a portrayal of the Madonna and Child, her attention is clearly drawn in the direction of the object the man is holding. This is the essential historical moment and message. To the knowledgeable person located in Antwerp at the time, then a major center of mercantilism, every coin or other acceptable means of exchange had a story to tell about its issuer, provenance, and value system. For the money lender, equivalency and value were a matter of judgment and negotiation. His living depended on these capacities. Devotion, on the other hand, was guided solely by the authority and dominion of the church. It is no small irony that in our current times, this situation has completely reversed. There are many, many religions and sects embracing a diversity of values and practices, but currencies are issued and governed by central authorities. (No wonder that investment bankers are sometimes referred to as the new high priesthood, the bearers of mystical wisdom!)

Clearly this money lender did very well, well enough to have a portrait painted and to have bought the hand-illuminated religious book his wife is perusing. While Gutenberg had developed moveable type sixty three years before this painting was made, it was not yet possible to replicate color images on the order seen in this painting. So, why is it that she holds the precious religious artifact, while he holds the precious metals and gems? Is there a gender polarity here as well? The answer is—of course. It is the same gender story line that has led to modern banks as the central issuing authorities for money, the agreements about its use, and the right to set lending rates to control the markets. And the same story line that in Western cultures withheld credit and financial standing to women until very recent times. Though that shift has changed the economic landscape including the players and how decisions are made, the rules still have not really changed.

So, did Quentin Metsys paint the woman drawn away from the devotional to admiring the coins as a paean to the man, his profession, and his adoring wife, or was the artist a harbinger of a new impulse in the modern world first emerging in the Renaissance? Namely, the notion that desire for wealth and the material world was overshadowing the desire for devotion and the holy. Metsys probably meant the painting as a cautionary tale, a moral teaching to warn of the dangers of such material distractions. The bible says that it is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven, after all. That was then.

Perhaps the most curious detail in the painting is the scene painted behind the couple, apparently out the open door of the residence. Where the mirror in the forefront reflected the space in front of the plane of the painting, the scene out the door takes us into what art historians call deep space. What we see is an interchange between a youth and an older man. While the portrayed are enclosed in their interior space, one of tight definition and order, we see that in the exterior world wisdom and acculturation is continuing to cross generations through the convention of speech and the traditions of social interaction. Metsys has set up yet another polarity, and one quite relevant, for example, to my own practices and integrity around the values that I tell myself I hold, and the way that I navigate the world. An internal dialogue between my spirit-self and money-self is ongoing, as in the interior space of the painting. Further, I strive to bring the intelligence gained there into integrity with my behavior in transacting with the world—which I find generally operating with diverse values and messages. This is no easy work, especially when I look at it on the level of meticulous and excruciating detail that Quentin Metsys shows me. A work of art such as this is an invitation to reflection. What was real to the artist at the time has also tapped into something of an archetypal story—the polarity of spirit and matter—that transcends time.

John Bloom
© 2007