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Jan Saenredam

(circa 1565 Zaandam – 1607 Assendelft)

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (Antrum Platonicum). Engraving after Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem. 32.6 x 44.8 cm. 1604. B. 39, Hollstein 116 II. Water­mark: Grape with fleurs-de-lis.

Plato’s allegory of the cave comes from the seventh book of his dialogue Politeía (Republic) and is one of the best-known alle­gories in ancient philosophy. It illustrates the absolute need he posited for training in philosophy, which makes man’s ascent possible through four levels of cognition and is thus understood to be a kind of liberation process. The supreme aim of this process is ultimately the ability to illustrate the concept of the good. As a vivid image for his theory of ideas Plato used a thought experiment which is explained in the engraving’s caption: “The vast majority of mankind, afflicted with cognitive blindness, never finds rest and delights in trivial pursuits. Look how their gaze is fixed on the shadows that are cast, how they stare in wonder at all the illusions of the truth, and how the fools are deceived by the empty shadows of things [...A few] are able to see through the fog of their illusions and try to lead the others, who are benighted by ignorance, into the clear light, but none of them has the urge to seek the light, so feeble is their way of thinking.”

This impressive, rare engraving made by Jan Saenredam in 1604 is based on a painting by Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem (ca. 1598) which is now lost. The engraving was commissioned by Hendrik Laurensz. Spiegel, who presented an early modern interpretation of the allegory in his poem Hertspiegel. Saenre­dam has brilliantly transferred Cornelis Cornelisz.’ complex, multi-figure composition to the printmaking medium. The picture bristles with energy. It is almost as if one could hear the babble of voices in the cave. The individual protagonists are vividly observed and the striking chiaroscuro heightens the atmospheric density of the enigmatic scene. The shadows of the statuettes on the cave wall form a bizarre detail.

A very fine, even impression with thread margins around the platemark. An unobtrusive vertical centre fold, minor ageing, otherwise in excellent condition.

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