● Jordaens – et mesterværk bliver til [15:00]

A commisioned work for Statens Museum for Kunst about restoration of Jordaens’ painting ‘The Tribute Money’ from the 17th century. This video was meant to be seen along with the exhibition but I hope you will enjoy it anyway. Notice the soundwork which I’m particular satisfied with.

Niels Plenge 2008, DVcam, 15 min

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the making of a masterpiece

● Jordaens – The Making of a Masterpiece

The exhibition in this room completes an extensive restoration of Jacob Jordaens’ chef d’oeuvre, The Tribute Money. The Apostle Peter Finding the Silver Coin in the Mouth of the Fish. Also known as The Ferry Boat to Antwerp.

The restoration has taken almost a year, and the process has created new art historical insight into Jordaens and his working methods. Here are some of our findings…

The Tribute Money

Immediately the motif of the painting seems to be a genre motif, dramatically depicting an everyday scene from the 17th century. But in reality a biblical story is hidden within it:


The incident is set in Capernaum, where collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Jesus and his disciples, and asked Peter, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?”. Peter said, “yes”. And when they came into the house, Jesus spoke to him. “What do you think? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their own sons or from others?” And when Peter said, “From others”, Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offence to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.”

In fact we are witnessing the very moment in the biblical scene when Peter has found the coin in the mouth of the fish, exactly as predicted by Jesus. The central focus of the story is the paying of tax.

What the X-radiograph reveals

In preparation for the restoration of the Ferry Boat, an X-radiograph of the painting was made. The X-radiograph reveals

that the painting contains several versions of the motif. It records layers invisible to the naked eye. We are now able to reconstruct the phases in the genesis of the painting.

The X-radiograph shows that the canvas consists of several pieces of linen. Differences in quality also indicate that the artist has added to the canvas over a number of years. The final pieces of canvas, at the top and bottom, were probably added several years after the central parts had been painted.

The X-radiograph reveals that the biblical scene in many ways was more prominent in the first version of The Ferryboat: For one thing, it covered a greater part of the canvas, In addition, the colour of Peter’s skin and hair was lighter, and he was illuminated by a stronger light. In the painting as we see it today Peter is placed in semi-darkness, whereas the hand with the coin is highlighted by the cloth behind it. The biblical story has become isolated from the overall subject of the picture.

In the Amsterdam version of The Ferry Boat, also displayed in this exhibition, we see how Jordaens has integrated the biblical story in the composition to a greater degree. The Amsterdam version was very likely based on the earlier version of The Ferry Boat, as revealed by the similar composition in the X-radiograph.

Why did Jordaens choose to give more space to the genre scene with the boat, and at the same time play down the biblical scene?

Through the repeated extensions of the canvas of The Ferry Boat and the accompanying changes in the composition

the painting ends up with a much longer boat and twice as many passengers. The sail, the wind and the water now make the composition light and airy.

The several repaints and changes in the composition show us Jordaens as an artist with a very experimental working method.

The theatrical

The multitude of people, animals and objects crowd the picture. Jordaens has very carefully chosen to show great variation in the representation of his characters: We see young and old, women and men, people from foreign parts,

different trades… There are lots of movement, bodies twist and turn in all directions. The faces show a wide spectrum of different moods. The effect is theatrical.

In creating the painting, Jordaens has used his archive of drawn and painted sketches of faces and figures. The sketches have been used directly, or changed as the need dictated. This way of working was common among the painters of the Baroque, who were not above using each others’ sketches as well. The method was convenient for the division of work

in a large studio like Jordaens’, where several assistants generally took part in the production. The same sketch could also be used as the basis of several people in a painting.

The same face could be used in several different paintings. Sometimes copied precisely, sometimes with considerable changes.

The ship as a metaphor

The ship as an element in a biblical story has a long tradition which Jordaens very likely was familiar with. He may have found inspiration in images like this, in which the ship is used as a metaphor for the Christian church. This type of motif has been known since the third century. Christ, evangelists, the apostles and men of the church are captains and crew,

and together they lead the Christian congregation safely through rough waters.

In many ways The Ferry Boat is related to this kind of motif. However, in one important respect it is also very different. On Jordaens’ ferry we find no men of the church, or even particularly elevated persons.

This may be due to Jordaens’ Protestant background, with Martin Luther as its theoretical foundation. Luther regarded all baptized men as ministers of the church.

The ship of fools

Another source of inspiration might be the scenes of daily life from the German Middle Ages and Renaissance: Here we find the ship of fools. The genre is satirical, moralizing. In Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts the persons in the boat are dressed in fool’s costumes and the ship has reached Narragonia, the land of fools, the country where the false prophet Antichrist rules. He who does not know his God and his Bible is a lost fool!

In Jordaens nobody wears motley. But yet the passengers of the ship have something in common with the fools of Dürer:

They do not seem interested in the words and stories of the Bible. They are intent only on the present and the mundane.

The Tribute Money

The biblical story of the tribute money is an uncommon subject in the history of art. One of the rare earlier examples is Rubens’ altarpiece in Mechelen from 1619. It is highly probable that Jordaens knew this work, or had come across prints of the image.

With few changes Jordaens has made Rubens’ Peter his own. This connection is seen most clearly in a comparison between the first version of the X-radiograph and the figure in Rubens’ painting. In Jordaens Peter is seated, but the positions are very similar. By juxtaposing the relatively unknown biblical motif with the scene of daily life on the boat, Jordaens creates an entirely new way of composing a picture.

What motivated Jordaens to arrive at precisely this content  and subject? Perhaps the painting was a commission,

and perhaps the commissioner had some influence on the final result?

The owner of the painting

We do know that Jordaens’ painting at a very early stage hung in the so-called ‘House with the Heads’  in Amsterdam.

Probably the painting was commissioned by the merchant Louis de Geer,

who lived from 1587 to 1652. In the Dutch Republic the towns were in charge of the social services. They were therefore dependent on voluntary taxes paid by the rich, and on their foundation of schools, poorhouses and hospitals. Louis de Geer was very aware of the social and ethical duties that rested on the enterprising and wealthy merchants

of the new republic. Hence the motif, and the way Jordaens represents it are in accord with de Geer’s attitude to life.

The miracle

A gust of wind. A strong jerk of the boat. That is the very moment Jordaens has caught in his painting. Many minor tableaux are enacted around this moment when the world is shaken. As a contrast to this turbulence, this fatal vulnerability of man, Jordaens sets the divine miracle. The finding of the coin in the mouth of the fish.

The human insignificance  is contrasted with the miracle. Here enacted in smouldering  darkness. Silent and contemplative…

Text by Troels Filtenborg and Eva de la Fuente Pedersen