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Amoris Monumentum Matri Chariss(imae). Watercolour and gouache on parchment, with a gilt framing line and a later borderline in pen and black ink, on an 18th century blue paper mount. 11.7 x 9.3 cm. Signed and dated: Georgius Hoefnaglius. D. Ao. 89.
In a recent essay in Master Drawings Thea Vignau-Wilberg has offered an enlightening explanation of the historical significance of this intimate and very personal artistic testimonial from Joris Hoefnagel (see „Flowers for His Mother: An Unknown Cabinet Miniature by Joris Hoefnagel", Master Drawings vol. 45, no. 4, 2007, p. 522–525). The translation of the touching inscription: "Dedicated to my dearest mother as a token of my love" says everything about the status of this precious and unique work of art. In view of Hoefnagel’s attachment to his family, especially his close relationship with his mother, Elisabeth Veselaers, the artist must have proceeded with the greatest concentration and ambition when creating this miniature in 1589.
Hoefnagel, whose eventful biography casts a fascinating light on the history of European art and culture in the second half of the 16th century, was employed at the time as a miniature painter at the court of Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria, where he was held in high esteem. The recipient of this little still life, his mother Elisabeth, had earlier emigrated to Germany, where she lived with her daughter Susanna (born 1561), first in Hamburg and later in the North German town of Stade. Joris Hoefnagel must have been a cosmopolitan and widely educated person. He came from a prosperous Antwerp family and in the decades before his arrival in Munich had undertaken trips to France, Spain and, probably, England as well. The drawings and sketches accumulated during his travels were later to form the basis of the urban chronicle Civitates orbis terrarum published by Braun and Hogenberg in Cologne between 1572 and 1618. Following the sack of Antwerp by the Spaniards in 1576 Hoefnagel, who had embraced Calvinism, was forced to leave the town penniless. After a stay in Augsburg, where he worked for the Fugger family, and a trip to Italy he finally arrived in Munich in 1578. His fame spread quickly, for Hoefnagel not only worked for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria and his successor Wilhelm V, but also created one of his main works, the sumptuous and lavishly illustrated Missale Romanum (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek), as a commission for Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol between 1581 and 1590. This artistic feat led to his appointment to the Imperial Court in Vienna and Prague, where in the 1590s he produced further masterpieces for Rudolph II such as the Schriftmusterbuch von Georg Bocskay (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Schatzkammer) and a four-part scientific miniature work containing animal portrayals (The Four Elements), which is now to be found in Washington D.C. (National Gallery of Art, Department of Prints and Drawings).
Hoefnagel’s bunch of flowers for his mother is extraordinary in every respect. Unlike many other miniatures by the artist, the piece has been perfectly preserved with its colours fresh and intact. The format is smaller than that of other works of this kind, so it may be the artist’s earliest cabinet miniature, as Vignau-Wilberg asserts. The very personal dedication stresses the strictly private character of the work. The iconography of the image is correspondingly subtle. A small vessel with costly gold handles serves as a container for a wonderfully soft and delicately rendered rose, rosebuds, some forget-me-nots and a globe flower, a local plant that flourishes on alpine meadows. A butterfly or corn moth has alighted on the side of the vase and is touching the soft leaves of the rose with its feelers. Other insects, including two small butterflies, a dragonfly, two caterpillars and a snail, enliven the portrayal and provide a deeper symbolism. The symmetrical structure of the picture and comparable compositional elements recur in later miniatures produced by the artist between 1592 and 1594 (see Vignau-Wilberg, p. 524–525). Hoefnagel was famous for the subtly coded symbolism of his miniatures, thus proving to be a legitimate successor of the 15th century Flemish tradition. In a profane context the flowers serve as symbols of love and spring, while at the same time being closely related to the traditional iconography of Mary, the Mother of God. The butterflies symbolize the redemption of the faithful, whereas the caterpillars that are destined to crawl on the ground symbolize sinful humanity. Finally, the snail, as a pest, embodies the vice of vanity and is a warning indication that all earthly things are subject to decay. This makes Hoefnagel’s miniature – probably the first to bear his personal dedication – not only the homage of a master at the height of his fame to his aged mother, but also a deeply religious devotional work, whose real leitmotiv is the finiteness of earthly existence and the hope of redemption.
No less remarkable is the later career of this little masterpiece of the Rudolphine epoch. The exact date of Elisabeth Hoefnagel’s death is not known. She died some time in the 1590s at The Hague in Holland, whither she had followed her daughter Susanna from her German exile. The latter married the Dutch statesman Christiaan Huyghens in 1592 and it is more than likely that after the death of the mother the miniature passed into the possession of the daughter and hence into the famous art collection of the Huyghens family. The Dutch poet, diplomat, scholar and patron of the arts, Constantijn Huyghens, the universal genius of the Dutch "Golden Age", was the second son of this marriage. Hoefnagel’s bunch of flowers survived the centuries unharmed and came through inheritance into the possession of a noble Dutch family, where it was recently discovered.