Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle.

The title of this painting should rather be: “Emblematic and mysterious (but now totally still) life of Johannes Torrentius”. Let me explain you why. First, though, I would like you to pay closer

attention to the inscription painted over sheet music at the bottom of this picture. It reads:

ER + Wat buten maat bestaat, int onmaats qaat verghaat.

Translation (one of the versions at least, the second one will be presented later): ‘That which exists out of measure perishes in evil immeasurably’.
ER + means most probably: Eques Rosae Crucis, Knight of the Rose Cross.

The only known Torrentius painting with the seal of King Charles I on it – the one presented above – was discovered by J.J. van Deinse in a grocery store in the eastern Dutch town of Enschede; it had served as the lid on a barrel with raisins. This fact and an essay I’ve read long ago made me incredibly curious about the life of its author; searching here and there I found ton of surprises and some secrets as well.

Let me present our hero.  He was originally called Johannes Simonsz (so the son of Simon) van de Beeck (literally: of the brook). His Latin pseudonym, Torrentius, is derived from the word torrens; as an adjective is means rushing, seething, burning, parched but as a noun “a rapid brook”, a torrent”  – two opposite elements, fire and water, in one name. After reading biographies of this Dutch painter I had to admit he chose his nom-de guerre with simply prophetic intuition.

He was born in Amsterdam in 1589. Nothing is known of his childhood or the apprenticeship years, who taught him and how long. We know, however, that at the beginning of his independent artistic career Torrentius was not only popular but also rich – no mean feat in a country famous of such great painters as Rembrandt and Frans Hals. Constantijn Huygens, the secretary to Frederik Hendrik, Prince of Orange, rated Torrentius even higher than Rembrandt, imagine that. He claimed that the painter was a real miracle-worker in the depiction of lifeless objects, so fashionable and prized by the connoisseurs. It wasn’t Torrentius’s only specialty, though. The second one was far more scandalous – obscene genre scenes, sometimes presented in mythological settings, a kind of smut for the rich. As you see he was a very different character from the usual workmanlike Dutch painter of the 17th century – perhaps he was a knight but not in the true sense of the word. Huyghens was well aware of that. He added: ”When it comes to the life and mores of that man I will not like Cato judge him”. These were kind words indeed as Huygens also mentions Torrentius’s atheism and how he ridiculed the Bible. What’s more, Johannes was a libertine, blasphemer and womanizer. It seems that in his heydays the painter behaved much like a modern-day pop star or any other naughty celebrity, causing havoc wherever he decided to show up with his own retinue of men and women. He used to wander from an inn to a pub, from a pub to a public house and his feasts were long, loud and shockingly lewd, allegedly including drinking a toast to the devil and group sex with prostitutes. Some people called him just an epicurean, others used more harsh words: “in summa seductor civium, impostor populi, corruptor iuventutis, stupator feminarum” (my own not very good translation:  ” in short a man who beguiled citizens, duped people, corrupted youth, broke faith with women”).

Torrentius was supposedly a handsome guy (but IMHO not in the only portrait of him I managed to find, well, see it yourself on the right); he dressed according to the latest fashion and his style was elegant and refined. He led a life of rich and famous, he had a lackey and a horse. Torrentius married in 1612 but soon enough the relations between him and his wife, Neeltgen van Camp, soured and ended in a divorce. Well, he had it coming for sure. He was even briefly thrown into jail for failing to pay his former wife her alimony in 1621. Perhaps he forgot or maybe he was too busy to remember. That short stint was just a thin end of the wedge, a harbinger of darker times ahead. Six years afterwards, in 1627, Torrentius was accused of being a Rosicrucian, adherent of atheistic and Satanic beliefs.

Rosicrucianism was a secret society of mystics, said to have been founded in late medieval Germany by Christian Rosenkreuz. It holds a doctrine or theology “built on esoteric truths of the ancient past”, which, “concealed from the average man, provide insight into nature, the physical universe and the spiritual realm”. It was associated with Protestantism and in particular Lutheranism.
The Rosicrucians initially enjoyed a great degree of hospitality in Netherlands but it did not last long. Protestant orthodoxy simply didn’t tolerate the freedom of investigation of the Rosicrucians, nor did they accept their philosophical theories alien to the Bible.

18° Knight of the Rose Croix jewel (from the M...Image via Wikipedia

In 1623 an investigation was made against the Fraternity of the Rose-Croix by the assembled Councils of Holland, Zealand and Friesland and the Faculty of Theology of Leyden was asked for their opinion. This opinion stated that certain persons calling themselves Brothers of the Rose-Croix, who have had their residence in the City of Paris, had now come to the United Provinces and that they were occupied in matters very detrimental to the interests of the State, and that their sect was very unorthodox. Their decision was communicated to Magistrates of Haarlem with a request that a certain Torrentius, as one of the principal adherents of the sect, be particularly watched. The Rosicrucians of Holland held their meetings in Prince of Orange’s own Palace at the Noordeinde Street in The Hague but apparently his protectorate meant little.

Torrentius as a defendant behaved with intelligence and dignity; he didn’t plead guilty so he was tortured. Soon it was obvious the verdict had been passed even before the process started – no attention was given to witnesses for the defense, no possibility for an appeal was offered. On January 25, 1628 a judgment from five noted advocates of The Hague pronounced him guilty of “blasphemy against God and avowed atheism, at the same time as leading a frightful and pernicious lifestyle”. His works were ordered to be burned; their author – sentenced to be burned alive as well, but the sentence was commuted to one of 20 years’ imprisonment in the Tuchthuis (the Haarlem house of detention) – a slow and cruel death of a long-forgotten prisoner. Imagine the situation: a highly successful and very popular painter with friends in very high places, some of them being members of the same fraternity, is all of a sudden sentenced in an almost inquisitorial and definitely unjust process. The verdict was excessive, even by 17th century standards – in order to see how excessive, let’s compare it with two other cases.

In 1596 an ambitious shoemaker was accused of blasphemy. The man had taught himself Latin and Hebrew so he could study the Bible in original languages. During these studies he reached a conclusion that Christ was only a human being. He decided to share this knowledge with his family and friends. He could have been burned at the stake but one of the Amsterdam’s mayors decided that the Church had already punished the shoemaker, expelling him from the fold; he was set free. In 1642 a Francis van den Meurs was imprisoned in Amsterdam. He didn’t believe in the Divine nature of Christ and the immortality of human soul and dared to announce it to all and sundry. After seven months of confinement he was set free too. No tortures, no disgrace, no long-term sentences.

The difference in treatment and punishment of Torrentius was indeed huge. Of course the painter loved scandal more than his own job and yes, he led a dissolute life and crowed about it in a society proud of its prudishness. These accusations would hardly qualify as good reasons to sentence anybody to be burnt alive or to 20 years in prison, though. There must have been something more serious, a political reason no doubt. Small wonder Torrentius’s friends in high places decided to intervene as soon as the dust settled a bit.

After having been notified by Sir Dudley Carleton, the British ambassador in The Hague, Charles I of England brought about Torrentius’s release in 1629 with the strong support of the Prince of Orange. The painter had to pay huge court costs and solemnly swear that he would go to England immediately and never return to Holland again. Of course Torrentius did what he was told, keeping  in mind the alternative – he went into exile. In England he was hired by the king as Court Painter. Charles I got a genius artist in return and rather cheaply so the deal seemed to be sweet for both sides. Nobody knows what Torrentius was really doing in England and how he perceived the new situation. He allegedly resumed his former profession though without his former success, according to Walpole in his “Painters in the Reign of Charles I”: “giving more scandal than satisfaction”. Well, scandal was also one of his specialties after all; if the king didn’t know it he must have been deaf and blind.

The Jolly DrinkerImage via Wikipedia

Torrentius stayed in England for 12 years, and then, around 1642, decided to return to Amsterdam . I really can’t guess or understand why he did that for. It is true this date coincides with a major unrest on the British Isles, namely the First Civil War (with two others on the horizon) as a result of which the king literally lost his head, but really nobody in their right mind would return to a homeland where a long prison sentence awaited them at best. I suppose Torrentius could have chosen another court and another country even if he had to leave England causing one scandal too many. He returned home. Perhaps he was dead tired of unstable life at a court and/or of having a king as a sponsor; maybe the painter wanted to live again on his own. Perhaps he was homesick and he thought that his compatriots had forgotten about him and would let him be. If the latter was true he couldn’t have been more wrong. The move was simply suicidal. The second process ensued almost immediately (after all he did break his word ) but we know close to nothing about the charges. We only know Torrentius was tortured again. He died a broken man two years after returning, in 1644, most likely as a result of the rough treatment. I wasn’t able to find whether he died in prison or at home. His paintings died with him, apart from this one; ironically it was saved for a very mundane reason – just because a shopkeeper needed a lid for his barrel. The ghosts of other pictures exist only as very short descriptions scattered here and there.

In the inventory of the collection of Charles Ist we find a rather concise but meaningful note about three unknown paintings of Torrentius: „One is an Adam and Eve, his flesshe uery ruddy, theye show there syde face. The other is a woman pissing in a mans eare. The last of those 3 is a young woman sitting somwhat odly with her hand under her legg”.Definitely scandalous stuff. Kramm, writing in the first middle of 17th century describes a painting entitled “The Portrait of a Theologian”. The painting consisted of two pannels, one covering the other, not unlike La Maya Desnuda and La Maya Vestida painted by Francisco Goya century or so later; in the first, you could see the said theologian, no problem. What do you think would be in the other? A biblical scene? A landscape? A metaphor of diligence or piety? No it was a scene from a whorehouse, rendered in a very artistic way but definitely shocking in comparison.

Johannes van der Beeck, Emblematic still life ...Image via Wikipedia

At the end, let’s return to the painting, presented above. The bridle is a warning to keep your desire in check. The page of music contains the text which other version of  translation I would like to quote now. It says: ‘If you ignore the tempo, you will succumb to untempered evil.’ It is a warning that one should maintain a sense of right proportion in life, just as in music. Overindulgence in drinking or smoking tobacco should be curbed for your own good. That’s why the water flagon and wine jug flank the roemer (the big translucent wine glass in the middle was called roemer), for if wine is diluted with water its intoxicating effect is tempered. Nice and very virtuous but…the text itself contains a mistake (one word – ‘qaat’ – lacks a letter; it should be written ‘quaat’ meaning ‘bad’) and that mistake is repeated in the score (‘h’ note instead of ‘b’ note) – an example of ‘diabolus in musica’, the intentional breach of harmony. Two mistakes in the same place…done on purpose or just a coincidence? Was it a meaningful wink at a more incisive viewer?  Did it mean the painter himself didn’t intend to agree with the message of his painting?  Torrentius at his best – I can almost hear his laughter.

My sources:


Uit het Land van Katoen en Heide, part I (1925) by J.J. van Deinse, article “Een merkwaardige vondst”, page 466 – 477

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11 Responses to Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle.

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    Good article 🙂 You do pick interesting suobjects.Hm, fancy doing something about Finland 😉 I do like reading about my own country

  2. anachronist says:

    Thanks Blodeuedd give me and idea and I will write about Finland. I admit I know little about your country. Do you know of any interesting event or people I could write about?

  3. Tracy says:

    Fascinating post! And it certainly explains why Torrentius is not exactly a household name. And yes, I agree with your assessment of his portrait.

  4. anachronist says:

    Thanks Tracy; I wonder whether he really was handsome or just fascinating – you know these guys, nothing to look at but it's enough they open their mouth or do something and women are attracted to them like moths to fire.

  5. Blodeuedd says:

    Hm..been thinking about it but kind of hoped you would think of something first ;)Not much has happened really in the end. We did nothing, got some castles, a king found a new wife here, that did not end well, we were sent to the continent to fight, part of Russia, independence, war..nah, not much really.As for famous Finns, Mannerheim, Jean Sibelius, always did like Akseli Gallen-Kallela's and Edelfelt's paintings.Eh, continue with what you are doing already :)oh oh, we did have a Finn who killed the guy who came over on crusade, and then he became our patron saint. But doesn't everyone have one of those

  6. anachronist says:

    But doesn't everyone have one of those Lol more or less!I'll try to sniff out and we'll see – thanks for the pointers anyway. To tell you the truth I hoped you might be my first guest blogger! ;)))).

  7. Blodeuedd says:

    What me…would I have to be smart 😉 You always write such researched posts, while I, oh I just wing stuff

  8. anachronist says:

    I am pretty sure you are smart enough Blodeuedd! 😉 Perhaps a tiny wee bit lazy, though…:D

  9. Blodeuedd says:

    AnaHey….ok ok I confess you hit the spot there, I am actually freakishly lazy in a strange way. once rather then to go after the key to lock up my bike I carried it to the bike shed…;)

  10. anachronist says:

    LOL your comment proves that one lazybones will recognize the other instantly.

  11. Pingback: Emblematic still life with flagon, glass, jug and bridle | Passion for Art and Beauty

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