Art and the Bible: Baptism of the Chamberlain

Herman van Swanevelt Landscape with the Baptism of the Chamberlain 1630 –1639 Collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
Herman van Swanevelt Landscape with the Baptism of the Chamberlain 1630 –1639 Collection Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Chamberlain of the Kandake

The Lord, who had chosen him from the start,   /   Has so graciously blessed his ways  /   That he is come onto life’s straight path   /  The first reaped fruit of the converted moors. /   He read the old scripture the which he did not comprehend  /  He heard Christ’s doctrine from Philip’s mouth,  /  And, letting in haste his wheels fall still,  /  Received from him the baptism with a believing heart,   /   His outer skin may have remained right black  /  But whiter than the snow became he in his soul                                                                                      

 Translation Over-Ysselsche sangen en dichten, tweede boeck, Jacob Revius 1630

Van Swanevelt’s painting shows the last scene from the Revius poem quoted above.

The Apostle Philip is baptizing the Chamberlain in the water of a river. To the left are a carriage and the Chamberlain’s watching attendants. The Chamberlain is nude, with only a white cloth around his hips and a white earring, a pearl, in his ear. He holds his hands folded on his chest.

The three African and two European figures observing his baptism direct the viewer’s gaze towards the action.

The interaction between the characters resembles that in Pieter Lastman’s Baptism of the Chamberlain (1608) in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. Even the clothing is similar, for in Lastman’s work the Chamberlain also has a white cloth draped around him and a pearl in his ear. The Bible so evident in the painting by Lastman (c. 1583 –1633) is a typically Protestant addition to the scene which is intended to emphasise the role played by the Bible in the Chamberlain’s baptism. Rembrandt 1606 –1669 and Albert Cuyp 1620 –1691 copied Lastman in this regard, for they included prominently displayed Bibles in their works.

Albert Cuyp Baptism of the Chamberlain

Protestant Van Swanevelt probably produced his painting for the Catholic market in Rome where he lived and worked, which may explain why there is no Bible in his picture. Herman van Swanevelt acquired the soubriquets Armand d’Italie and Herman d’Italie. An Italianate artist, he derived his inspiration from the Italian light, landscape and people. Magnificent imaginary landscapes staffed with carefully executed biblical, peasant or travelling scenes formed his main subjects.

From 1629 to 1641 Van Swanevelt lived in Rome, where he also painted this picture. He worked for the most prestigious collectors in the city and was succeeded there by Dutch painters such as Jan Both (c. 1618 –1652) and Nicolaes Berchem 1621 –1683 and the Frenchman Claude Lorrain 1600 –1682. In 1639 –1641 Jan Both painted a Baptism of the Chamberlain which is closely related to Swanevelt’s.

Esther Schreuder from the Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas exhibition catalogue

See  for a Catholic version of the Baptism by Bloemaert >Black in the collection of the Centraal museum< 

About me:

In 2008 I was the guest-curator of the exhibition Black is beautiful. Rubens to Dumas. Important advisors Elizabeth McGrath (Rubens and colleagues/ The Image of the Black coll. in the Warburg Institute), Carl Haarnack (slavery in books), Elmer Kolfin (slavery in prints and paintings) en Adi Martis (contemporary art). Gary Schwartz made his research for The Image of the Black in Western Art available to me.

Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover
Black beautiful Rubens to Dumas cover exhibition catalogue

In 2014 my essay ‘Painted Blacks and Radical Imagery in the Netherlands (1900-1940)’ was published in The Image of the Black in Western Art Volume V (I). (ed. David Bindman, Henry Louis Gates jr.)

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In 2017 I published a book about the black servants at the Court of the Royal Van Oranje family. More than a thousand documents have been found about their lives. (only in Dutch)

Cupido en Sideron Cover 30-8-2017

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