University Art Gallery


Depictions of Jewish Religion and Life in 17th and 18th Century European Prints

June 10 - September 9, 2004

The earliest print in the exhibition is a woodcut from around 1548 (late Northern Renaissance), but most of the prints are from the 1680's and the 1730's and the majority is by the Dutch Mennonite artist and poet, Jan Luyken. Almost all of the more than eighty prints on view were acquired from a collection in Holland. Additional prints were acquired from collections in England and the US.

Some of the prints were included in bibles, but most come from late 17th century books that explore the history and religion of the Jewish people. Based on a close reading of the Old Testament, these books attempted a scientific and artistic exploration of topics such as the architecture of the Tabernacle and the different temples in Jerusalem, but also of other areas such as the life of Moses, the Jewish alphabets, methods of punishment, adultery, divorce, and the anointing of kings.

Especially important in this endeavor was the Amsterdam publisher, Wilhelmus Goeree, whose books on The Jewish Republic – an example of which is on display – almost all featured prints by Jan Luyken . Although Jan Luyken was a great artist in his own right, his goal was to visualize and dramatize the great events taking place in the desert during the Exodus from Egypt, for example, or other similar events that often feature "a cast of a thousand." In a time period that did not have television and films, Luyken was tremendously important as a popularizer of historical events, serving a role that today is generally met by movies and television.

Also on view are examples of stricter architectural recreations of the Temple, the columns of Jachin and Boaz, the brazen sea, etc., although these renderings are in their own way as "inspired" as the renderings that intentionally are more literary and dramatic.

With the Treaty of Westphalia (Peace of Munster) in 1648, the Netherlands had emerged as a new and very different nation from anything that had existed before. As the first "modern" nation, it established religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. As a result, it drew large numbers of persecuted minorities, including Huguenots, Jews, Anabaptists, Amish and Mennonites. All these religious and ethnic groups contributed greatly to Holland’s Golden Age of commerce, art, literature and science. The prints on view in this exhibition can be seen as a manifestation of this new civic freedom and respect for the individual, the new respect for religions, and the simultaneous respect for the separation of church and state. This is the period that eventually led to the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and Western Society, as we know it today.

Jan Luyken (1649-1712)

Jan Luyken was born in Amsterdam on April 16, 1649, into a family that had become Mennonites shortly before his birth. His father was a schoolteacher and writer. Jan Luyken was nineteen years old when his father died. After his father’s death, he began to study painting at the studio of Martins Saeghmolen. Although Luyken became a fine painter, he eventually concentrated solely on being an engraver. It is estimated that more than 3,500 prints are by his hand.

While studying with Saeghmolen, Jan Luyken began to frequent the tavern, Zaete Rust (Sweet Rest), run by the innkeeper poet, Jan Zoet. At this time Jan Luyken began to write sensual love poetry, which he often recited before an admiring crowd. A female vocal group called the Amstel Nymphets set his poetry to music and performed it. In 1671, a selection of these poems was published under the title of Jan Luyken’s Dutch Harp: Producing the Newest and Happiest of Melodies. The collection became extremely popular and received rave reviews.

By 1673, Jan Luyken was twenty-four years old and a celebrated artist and poet. He had also married and had a two-year old son, named Casper. At this point, though, he turned his back on his former life and became a devout Christian, renewing his ties to the Mennonite church. A few years later the writing of Jacob Bohme further strengthened his desire to withdraw from life and devote his time to his artistic career and to the writing of religious poetry. Over the years he withdrew further and further into a life of solitude and contemplation. Eventually his son convinced him to continue his work as an artist, to which he agreed as long as he would only receive enough money for subsistence living. The son, Casper, was a fine engraver himself, and worked closely with his father.

During his lifetime, Jan Luyken published additional collections of poetry, among them, Treasures of the Soul (1678), Jesus and the Soul (1687), Sparks of Love (1687), and This Unworthy World (1710), all illustrated with his own etchings. A copy of a Dutch 1941 edition of a collection of his poetry is on view.

In 1685 Jan Luyken created 104 plates for a work called, Martyrs Mirror (The Drama of the Martyrs: From the Death of Jesus Christ up to the recent times). It especially focuses on the suffering of the Anabaptists and Mennonites. The book was translated and published by the Mennonites of eastern Pennsylvania in 1751. It was, and remained, the largest book printed in colonial America. Two prints from the original Dutch edition are on view in this case.

Jan Luyken illustrated many historical and religious books, especially books on Jewish religion and life, and the majority of prints in this exhibition are by him, though some were done by his son Casper. Jewish religion and history was of great interest to many within the Protestant movement since it provided access to a possible religious-historical recording of God’s direct contact with humankind.

Contact Info: