Colnaghi Foundation Journal 04 - Page 23

A curious truncation of Aegidius Sadeler’s
Wisdom Conquers Ignorance
About seventy years after the imperial engraver
Aegidius Sadeler (1570-1629) published Wisdom
Conquers Ignorance (fig. 1) the Spanish painter Antonio
de Pereda (1611-1678) made unusual use of this
virtuoso engraving. Pereda is best known today for
his still lifes, and of these the most evocative are
three vanitas paintings that feature an angelic being
overseeing the still life components: a vanitas in the
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna;1 the famous
Dream of the Knight2 in the Real Academia de Bellas
Artes de San Fernando, Madrid; and a canvas in
the Uffizi dated about 1670.3 Sharing the mimetic
brilliance and symbolic complexity of the two other
paintings, the Uffizi’s Allegory of Vanity (fig. 2) includes
a trompe l’oeil depiction of a truncated version of
Sadeler’s engraving that is portrayed with full margins
as if it is whole. Appearing in a painting otherwise
notable for its verisimilitude, this unprecedented
pictorial treatment of a famous print deserves further
Fig. 1 / Aegidius
Sadeler II, after
Spranger, Wisdom
Conquers Ignorance,
ca. 1600, engraving,
47.6 x 35.2 cm,
Kirk Edward Long
The notion that earthly things are ephemeral and vain
has its locus classicus in the Old Testament lament,
“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
This theme was developed with great earnestness by
Christian writers such as Thomas à Kempis. One of
many who offer specifics, he declared in The Imitation
of Christ (1418-1427) that, “It is vanity…to seek and
trust in riches…It is vanity also to court honour.…
It is vanity to love what passes quickly.”4 The belief
that transient worldly things lack true value underlies
vanitas paintings generally and Pereda’s Allegory of Vanity
is replete with attributes common to the genre. Its
contents allude to the certainty of death, the fleeting
nature of earthly pleasures and possessions, and the
inevitability of final judgment. Gazing at viewers with
a pitying expression, the angel draws attention to the
meticulously depicted items arrayed on the table that
separates him from the viewer.
Symbolizing the worldly things that seduce and bind
the soul to mundane pursuits, each object reinforces the
painting’s cautionary message. The angel stands beside
a globe that represents the site of mankind’s travails. It
is surmounted by a miniature portrait of the Hapsburg
emperor Charles V, whose empire once spanned the
world but who nonetheless shared mankind’s common
fate by dying in 1558.5 To the angel’s right, a curtain
has been raised to reveal a portion of a painted Last
Judgment dominated by Christ with his triumphant
banner. A favoured device within Spanish Baroque
painting, this picture-within-a-picture complements the
composition’s grim message by recalling the preordained
event in relation to which all earthly actions must be
gauged.6 On the left, three skulls rest on tattered books.
Linking such obvious emblems of mortality with these
objects suggests the dangers posed by pride in worldly
wisdom. Beside them, another skull rests between
an empty crown and a mariner’s astrolabe, a device
to measure latitude.7 In this context, the device may
represent “scientific” achievement and the accumulation
of wealth through trade, both of little actual value in the
face of death and judgment. In addition, its wheel-like
appearance may allude to the Wheel of Fortune.8


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