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“By way of importance nothing quite surpasses the manner
in which one first makes oneself known to the world.”

Erasmus has a keen sense for public relations. This already starts with the name he has chosen for himself: Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. The iron consequence with which Erasmus presents himself under this name -- analogous to the trinity of classical Roman names like for instance Quintus Horatius Flaccus -- makes it a wonderful distinguishing mark. To promote his own fame he uses all means of communication he finds at his disposal, especially the printing press. Erasmus’s fame would have been inconceivable without this instrument, comparable to the Internet when viewing its impact. Thanks to the printing-press Erasmus will become an expert much in demand, required to give his views on anything under the sun. This brings him fame in even the highest circles.

Erasmus’s love of publicity is not limited to writing alone. He commissioned a great many pictures to be made of him to give to others. In turn, copies are made of these pictures for large-scale distribution by way of the printing-press. Apart from creating himself a scholarly picture, Erasmus also defines his scholarship in this way. The beret he is accustomed to wearing will for instance grow out into the symbol of free thought, thanks to people like Erasmus. The most prominent artists in Erasmus’s days who drew portraits of him are Quinten Metsys, Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer. Most of the later pictures of Erasmus (a great many indeed), are derived from Erasmus interpretations by these artists.

Whereas it is mainly the scholar who is etched into our memories, Erasmus is honoured by posterity in other ways too. How did Erasmus for instance gain his reputation as inventor of peat as a combustible, or of sailing before all winds? Apparently, images of Erasmus exist that were beyond his control. In an English book of prayers published shortly after his death, the names of two saints were replaced by Erasmus’s name. This was exceptional, however. Erasmus was not inserted into the regular calendar of Anglican saints (which he would not have favored himself). Equally curious is the famous cartoon of Erasmus as a pilgrim desperate to leave his town during the 1720 speculation craze.

 

Holbein

 

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Hans Holbein the Younger is considered to be Erasmus’s most outstanding portraitist. His Erasmus interpretations convey character traits like Erasmus’s irony, scepticism and complacency in the best way. Apart from portraying Erasmus, Holbein also illustrated a copy of the Praise of Folly which is now kept at Basel. As Holbein was only eighteen years old at the time these drawings would become his first steps toward fame.

(Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence)

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This 1523 portrait is considered to be the most impressive picture of Erasmus. The image it conveys is idealised and the question remains if especially the tranquillity radiated by this picture equals Erasmus’s actual basic state of mind. Erasmus donated this portrait in September 1524 to his patron William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury. Apart from the smile, also the lettering on the edge of the book is striking: Herakleioi Ponoi Erasmi Roterodami or “Herculaean works by Erasmus of Rotterdam.” This refers to Erasmus’s own experiences in writing and the constant revision of his “Adagia”. In 1531 French theologian Mallarius would name Erasmus the Batavian Hercules, a commendable qualification in his view. Erasmus does not express his aversion of this.

(On loan to the National Gallery of London (Loan 658) Origin: Longford Castle near Salisbury.)

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Holbein’s preliminary studies of Erasmus’s hands of 1523 are highly sensitive drawings, depicting the care applied by Holbein when preparing Erasmus’s painted portraits. These hands are preliminary studies for the 1523 Erasmus painting, showing Erasmus writing at his desk.

(Louvre, Paris)

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Holbein idealised Erasmus in this small in tempera 1523 profile on paper. This stands out when comparing this portrait with the round portrait made on wood that same year. It shows a sturdy, upright Erasmus who looks a great deal younger than he in fact was, namely over fifty years old.

(Museum of Basel)

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Large 1523 profile in tempera on wood. Here Holbein gives a realistic portrait of Erasmus, looking rather old and tired.

(Louvre, Paris)

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“Erasmus im rund” (1532). This is assumed to be the last painted portrait of Erasmus made during his life. It is presumed to have been commissioned by Hieronymus Froben. The portrait is not idealised and any reference to wisdom, knowledge and character has been left out. This is Erasmus “true to life,” just like he was.

(Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel)

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1533 medallion portraits of Erasmus and Luther. It is presumed that the medallion of Erasmus was made by Holbein as a pendant to the similar medallion he made of Luther. These two medallions may have been produced in concurrence with the publication of Erasmus’s “Liber de sarcienda Ecclesiae concordia”, in which Erasmus unfolds his ideas concerning concord within the church.

(Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam)

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“Erasmus in eim Ghüs”, a 1535 woodcut. Erasmus is portrayed within a cadre of Renaissance architecture, his right hand resting on the head of Terminus, the deity adopted by Erasmus as a personal symbol. Terminus was an idol revered by the Romans as reigning over borders and partitions. His presence in various portraits of Erasmus refers to death. According to Erasmus himself, wearing the Terminus symbol reminded him that his life’s end was not remote. This led him to conclude that in his life nothing quite surpassed meditation on death. The bottom of this portrait shows a four-line Latin poem, translated as follows: “Filled with admiration of this picture which equals Apelles’s work, Pallas ordains it to be eternally kept in the library. Holbein shows his skilful art to the Muses and the force of his all-exceeding gift to Erasmus the Grand.”

(Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam)

 

Dürer

 

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This is a 1498 self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer (etching). When in 1525 Erasmus expresses his desire to be portrayed by Dürer, Erasmus has already become famous and Dürer is a renowned and esteemed artist. It would seem that as such both men admired each other, yet without any form of true friendship resulting. Dürer is a follower of Luther and made a number of attempts to win Erasmus over to his cause. In later years Dürer will come to reprove Erasmus for his stance versus the Reformation. When Erasmus first and foremost appears to cherish the notion of an undivided church and even takes to writing against Luther from 1524 onwards, Dürer experiences this as a big disappointment.

(Erasmushuis, Brussels)

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1520 Portrait of Erasmus. This black-crayon drawing was the basis for Dürer’s famous 1526 copperplate. Dürer made this drawing during his first tour of the Netherlands, during which he met Erasmus four times. In a letter to Pirckheimer five years later Erasmus writes: “I should like to be painted by Dürer, for he is such a splendid artist. But is it possible? He made a start at Brussels with a charcoal sketch, but, I imagine, he has forgotten me long since. If he can manage anything with the help of the medaillon [made by Metsys] and his own recollections of me, I hope he will do for me what he did for you; that is, he gave you a little extra weight.” Obviously this was meant ironically, as Erasmus himself had become very lean, especially in those years.

(Louvre, Paris)

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Stylized copperplate, 1526. The Latin inscription signifies “Picture of Erasmus of Rotterdam by Albrecht Dürer, drawn after a living likeness.” The Greek signifies: “His works shall convey a better picture.” Dürer made this engraving at the insistence of Erasmus’s Neurenberg friend Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530) without having met Erasmus recently and without a recent portrait at his disposal. Despite his great admiration for Dürer’s skill this picture failed to charm Erasmus. In March 1528 he wrote to a friend: “Dürer has portrayed me, but it is no likeness at all.” Erasmus himself was to blame for this as well. After all, he had been the one that had given Dürer the poor advice to base his likeness on a combination of a five-year-old drawing and the Metsys medallion. The last-named however had been made from a completely different vision on Erasmus than Dürer’s drawing, probably already dooming the project at its outset.

(Rijksprentenkabinet, Amsterdam)

 

Metsys

 

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Self-portrait by Quinten Metsys, 1495. Metsys works in Louvain from 1517 to 1521. It is here that he is introduced to Erasmus, probably through Antwerp town clerk Pieter Gilles (Peter Giles, Petrus Aegidius), who befriended both Metsys and Erasmus. Metsys depicts Erasmus a few times, portraying him as a scholar, or in a writing, thinking or reading posture. This mode of portraying knows a long tradition, way back to early-christian manuscript illustrations. Erasmus alternately refers to Metsys in either boorish or respectful terms. One letter names him as “a slightly vulgar performer”, the other as “a remarkable artist”. One should bear in mind here that to Erasmus the picture, artistic as it could be at times, after all was always inferior to the written word. Nowadays Metsys is generally recognised as a great artist. His conception of Erasmus’s personality namely set the tone for all artists that were to portray Erasmus in later years. Even until now our mental picture of Erasmus has been fixed to a great extent by Metsys.

(Cabinet des Médailles, Paris)

 

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In all likeliness a diptych, this dual portrait of himself and Gilles in 1517 was commissioned by Erasmus together with his friend Gilles. It is a gift to their mutual friend, English author Thomas More. In this relation we discover Gilles in the centre, laying the connection between More and Erasmus. This fact has been awarded its place in the painting. Gilles is holding a letter by More, pointing his other hand to Erasmus’s book “Antibarbari”. Behind both of them there is a bookcase containing other books by Erasmus. Thomas More was greatly pleased with the painting, elaborately thanking his friends in a letter and dedicating two Latin poems to it. It clearly shows the great amount of admiration More had for both Metsys and the persons portrayed. The two components of the painting have been separated by now. The Erasmus portrait is in the Galleria Nazionale in Rome; the portrait of Gilles is in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts at Antwerp.

 

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The face of this 1519 Erasmus medallion by Quinten Metsys shows Erasmus’s profile. The back contains a picture of Terminus and the adage “Concedo Nulli.” Thomas More’s only comment on the double portrait of Gilles and Erasmus had been that the material it had been painted on (wood) was so unsteady. Apparently Erasmus took this criticism seriously, for two years later he commissioned Metsys to produce a medallion with his portrait on the face and the god Terminus at the back. Here we also find his above-named motto “Concedo Nulli” (I yield to no-one). His enemies interpreted this as arrogance, attributing the statement to Erasmus himself. Erasmus defended himself, putting forward that the saying had a bearing on death and should be attributed to Terminus. The edges of the medallion face show Latin and Greek texts, signifying: “His writings will convey him better: portrait true to life”, the year 1519 and on either side of the head “.er.. rot.” or ”Erasmus Roterodamus”. Erasmus distributes this medallion among his friends, although he often indicates his dissatisfaction with its quality. Another striking fact is that Erasmus rarely mentions the name of the artist. Is this perhaps a sign of the low esteem Erasmus generally had of the visual arts and artists?

(Historic Museum, Basel)

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