17th Century European Visual Art

In this section I present a receptive history of the Parable of the Talents as portrayed by 17th century European visual artists. These works encompass a multitude of artistic styles, backgrounds, portrayals, and mediums. These artists employ  these different artistic styles in order to portray their interpretation of the parable, interpretations that often have deviations from the text itself.

The Parable of the Talents was told by Jesus in Matthew 25: 14-30. In this parable, the owner of a large estate divides his wealth, in the form of Talents, between his three slaves according to their ability. To one he gives five talents, to another he gives two, and for the final slave he gives one talent. The first two slaves, endowed five and two Talents respectively, double their talents but  the final slave buries his talent in the ground and does nothing with it while his master is away. When the master returns the two slaves that doubled their endowments present their talents to their master. He lauded them and said that because they were trustworthy with little, they will be entrusted with much in the future. The final slave however just presents the single talent his master presented him before his departure. When he presents his talent he calls the master a harsh man and accuses him of “reaping where he does not sow”. He says that because of his masters harsh personality he simply hid the talent in the ground to be returned upon his arrival. When the master hears of this he scorns the slave for his laziness and inability to invest properly, he calls him “wicked”, and casts him out of his estate into the place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This parable is the sixth of seven parables about the end of times and judgement in Matthew. The judgement narrative is present throughout the parable as the master takes stock of the worthiness of each slave and then grants two of them more blessings in the form of talents while he casts the third out of his kingdom altogether. The seventh and final parable regarding the end of times and judgement is the judging of the sheep and the goats. The parable of the sheep and goats sees Jesus fulfill his place at the right hand of God to judge those attempting to enter His kingdom. He then outlines what must be done in order to get into heaven; feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty, caring for strangers, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick and imprisoned. While the third slave did not explicitly break one of these requirements, the parable of the talents goes to show that God’s slaves much also be diligently preparing for his return in his absence.

Artists leave their own personal interpretations in their renderings of this elusive parable. Willem de Poorter, who created a painting entitled “The Parable of The Talents”, remains a somewhat enigmatic figure in Dutch Golden Age art. His mentor Rembrandt often overshadows him in terms of historical research and recognition but Poorter is generally credited as a master of still-lifes and dramatic scenes such as this one. It is believed that he was born in 1608 in the town of Harlaam where he worked most of his professional life. Although his last recorded work of art was published in 1648, he lived until 1660. His artistic styles drew heavily from those of Rembrandt and his other contemporaries but he earned personal renown for his paintings of historical scenes. (The National Gallery), (Houbraken, 1976).

This scene depicts the climactic scene of the master confronting the wicked slave. The master is shown with his palm up obviously inquiring as to why the slave did not prudently invest his finances. Also shown in the scene are the two loyal slaves who properly invested their talents, as well as the bookkeeper who is seated next to the master and witnessing the confrontation. A bookkeeper is never mentioned in Matthew’s version of the parable but he is almost always added into renderings of it. His presence as indicative of the interpretation that the master is God and the loyalty of men will be tallied and judged upon his return. Also shown are two obscured and dark figures in the background of the room. It was common practice in art at this time to add the artist’s patron or the artist himself into the background of the painting but an exact figure in the background of this piece cannot be definitively concluded. In the corner of the hall is a pile of suitcases and bags that are either indicative of the master’s recent arrival from his journey or, more likely, show that the slave foresaw his fate and was already prepared to leave. This can be deduced by the overall shabbiness of the belongings and the scarcity of them. If the items belonged to the rich master of the house they would be more lavish looking and abundant. The dark background that consumes a large part of the piece draws heavily from Baroque style artists. In accordance to his Baroque influences, de Poorter uses the dark background to both set a somber mood but mainly to ensure that the viewer’s focus is automatically drawn to the exchange between the master and the slave; the focal part of the painting and the narrative. Also to ensure that the viewer’s eye moves correctly through the painting, Poorter seems to be employing the rule of thirds. In the rules of thirds a piece of visual art is divided into three main parts either vertically or horizontally with each piece being distinct. In this piece the right third is the most important and visually enticing with all of the master’s fine robes and cloth, his thrown, and the large green veil behind him. Poorter then transitions the viewer’s eye into the middle third of the painting. The middle third is notably less aesthetically pleasing, the slaves are in shabby and less colorful robes and they are standing one level down from their master. The final third of the painting is on the far left side and is shrouded in darkness. It is reminiscent of the impending land of gnashing of teeth that the slave will be cast out into. The body language of the slave in this portrayal is very different from other pieces on this parable. Instead of being prostrate and begging, the slave is standing and addressing his master eye to eye. This does not mean however that the two men are equals. Because the master is seated and his palm is outstretched in a position of inquiry, it is still very clear that the master is in the position of complete power over the slave. The dress of the master and the slave serve to reinforce this relationship as well. The slave is dressed shabbily in rags and sandals while the master sits on a thrown in an exquisite robe, more fine robes surrounding him, and a dignified looking turban. Although Poorter emphasizes the fact that the slave spoke up for himself against the harsh and unfair practices of his master, he makes sure to make important distinctions to keep the relationship and imbalance of power in accordance with the parable. (Sumowski, 1989)

Little is known about Dutch 17th century artist Jan Luyken (Low-kin). Although he was Poorter’s contemporary, he worked mainly in prints and was born, worked, and died in Amsterdam. His work ‘The Parable of the Talents” is done in the medium of print and also depicts the climactic scene of the master scolding the wicked slave. Because he cannot use color in prints and is forced to express dynamics by other means, the image is rich with movement and life and has many different observers and actors to depict the story and mood. The master is once again the unequivocal focal point of the piece. He sits on his thrown in a regal looking robe and crown with his finger outstretched in an accusatory manner. In this piece the master is in a much more open position to the audience and evokes a more regal or even divine position. His left hand is pointed upwards across his body in a manner that is reminiscent of the pontificate. The master takes less of an accusatory stance and more one of divine judgement which is consistent with the fact that the Parable of the Talents is in the seven parables about end judgements. This parable tells of the “master’s” impending return and the judgement that he will cast on men like the judgement the master casts on this slave. The slave is on his knees before the throne with his bag open and the talents spilling onto the floor. The slave is motioning towards the talents most likely saying “here have what is yours” like he does in the parable. In this depiction, the master’s hall is crowded with multiple men witnessing the exchange. There is once again the bookkeeper but there are also several men in the background. Assumedly two of them are the loyal slaves who are watching their colleague being cast out while others are members of the master’s court. It is also important to note that the man standing next to the master has his back turned to the viewer so the sword on his belt is in full display. This represents to impending judgement of the slave. Although the master does not explicitly kill him in the parable, casting him into hell is a fate worse than death. Similarly to Poorter, Luyken uses the rule of thirds to move the viewer’s attention from the master to the servant and then finally to the background and setting. There is also a large amount of dynamic movement in the background of the piece. There are two groups of people making some sort of dealing or transaction. It is possible that Luyken is employing the two groups to show the previous scenes from the parable when the loyal slaves were investing and spending their money prudently while the lazy slave was nowhere to be found. These transactions are happening next to a large building that is distinctly not Mediterranean and instead is reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. It was common practice at the time to put the setting of the piece in more modern places, regardless of the setting in which it was actually told.

While there are multiple stylistic similarities between the two works of art, this print by Luyken shows a vastly different context of the parable than that of Willem de Poorter. In Luyken’s scene, there is a vast and open background with both architectural and natural qualities while Poorter’s piece in very narrow and set completely in one room. Another contrast is the position of the slave relative to the master. While de Poorter showed the standing before the master, the slave in Luyken’s piece is on bended knee and is obviously begging for forgiveness and mercy. Such a depiction of the slave is common although it is not directly stated in the original text in Matthew. In the original text, Jesus portrays the slave as going so far as to note that the master is a harsh man and accuses him of “reaping where [he] did not sow”. This would indicate that the slave was not on his knees begging but instead addressing the master in a less deferential manner. Artists in this time period had the freedom to interpret the parables in their work, especially given the non specificity in the original text, and many chose to change the relationship between the master and the slave. Instead of just being a small, closed scene containing just a few actors, there is a large crowd both surrounding the main scene and also interacting in the background. Two members of this crowd can be inferred to be the other two servants and the rest are likely courtiers and guards. The background characters are not static either like they are in the Poorter piece. They are obviously making transactions and doing business while the observers in Poorter’s piece are purely watching the interaction of master and servant. The medium of a print versus a painting led to many stylistic differences between Poorter and Luyken. Because he could not use contrasting colors to lead the audience through his work, he relied on multiple characters and a scene rich in life and dynamics to entice the observer into the focal point of every work I am citing about this parable, the interaction between master and slave.

One would be remiss to study the Dutch Golden Age of art and not mention the work of Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn. Many believe he was the most famous and prodigious artistic talent of the Netherlands in the 17th century and it is indisputable influenced many of his contemporaries and predecessors. As a talented youth he moved to Amsterdam and began studying under various artists and eventually took on numerous pupils of his own. Even his simple sketch, “The Parable of the Talents” reveals many dynamics and relationships. In this piece the only figures present are the master, slave, and once again the bookkeeper. Rembrandt took a particular interest in the slave’s portrayal of his master as a “harsh man”. In his depiction the slave is looking down towards the floor while his master is observing him with a piercing gaze. Instead of even alluding to a retort from the slave, Rembrandt only shows the incongruent power dynamic by not even allowing the slave to meet the master’s eyes. In accordance to other renderings, the master is once again seated to reinforce the already established power dynamic. By being seated he is clearly the master of the house and commands both the attention and respect of those in the room while the slave is standing sheepishly by himself with his hand in his pocket, obviously dejected. Rembrandt intentionally shrouds the master’s face with a light stencil brush which could lead to a few interesting implications. In biblical scripture, for example in Exodus when Moses is allowed to see God’s face, the almighty’s face is generally referred to as shrouded to conceal his full glory. By also shrouding the master’s face Rembrandt could be reinforcing the interpretation of the parable that the master is God. In more modern drawing technique, a shaded face can be used to portray anger so Rembrandt could also simply just be reenforcing the master’s displeasure at his slave. It also appears that the slave has his other hand on his stomach, representing hunger, poverty, and further establishing him as his master’s inferior. Rembrandt also included the bookkeeper who is busily tending to his records and also does not look directly at the master, instead focusing solely on his work. Even a simple piece such as this one, likely hastily done as many of his sketches were, shows a dynamic scene ripe with emotion. The relationship between the master and the slave is clearly established in the piece simply by placing the master’s gaze directly upon the slave and the slave’s directly upon the floor. While Rembrandt was also celebrated for his incredibly intricate works of art, his ability to portray complex emotions and dynamics with limited visual information is also a laudable artistic ability. (Britannica, 2015).

These three previously mentioned artists found themselves in an historically unique circumstance. The Netherlands  originally began as a relatively small and weak nation established officially in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and quickly rose to international predominance economically and militarily. This unprecedented rise of the Dutch spanned the majority of the 17th century and is often referred to by historians as “The Golden Age” or “A Miracle Mirrored”. This meteoric rise is thought of as a miracle because by all indicators it was completely unpredictable and changed the course of European history. The 17th century historian William Aglionby cited multiple causal mechanisms for the Netherland’s rise to international power, one of which is particularly applicable to the Parable of the Talents. Aglionby believed that the Dutch on an individual level had a laudable zeal for work which lifted them above peoples of other European nations economically. The unprecedented power of the Dutch led to a swell of artists and artisans swarming to their cities, which turned the Dutch economic Golden Age into a Golden age of art and thought as well. Such historically significant artists such as Rembrandt were fostered by the atmosphere of artistic and expressive freedom and made The Netherlands the epicenter of European art during the 17th century. An interesting dynamic between urbanites and rural farmers also developed in the Netherlands during this period. Contrary to the rest of Europe there were more city dwellers than rural dwellers in the Netherlands at this time which led to a more supply and demand based economy that would later develop into capitalism. Prudent investment and business dealings is a recurring motif in these renderings and these artists’ beliefs were influenced by the new and exciting economic climate they were working in. A byproduct of this more capitalist system was a rift between the rich and poor, more specifically the landed and the workers, that would have been a relationship reminiscent of Jesus’ time. As much as this parable is one about work and preparation, it is also one of friction between classes and this friction was very much present also in the Dutch Golden Age. (Freist, 2012), (Wilson, 1968), (Macrohistory), (History, 2009), (Britannica, 2014).

It is important to note that not all noteworthy renderings of the Parable of the Talents from this period came out of the Netherlands. A native of Swittzerland, Matthaus Merian the Elder also created a print piece on the parable. Although originally born in Switzerland in 1593, Merian traveled throughout Southern and Western Europe studying and perfecting his craft before eventually settling in Frankfurt in 1624. Similarly to Luyken, Merian was an artist that dealt mostly in prints but there are many important distinctions to be made between his depiction of the Parable of the Talents and those of the three Dutch artists. Merian shows not just the climactic scene between the master and slave, but also shows the preceding actions of the three slaves upon receiving their Talents like Luyken does in his rendition. One is bartering with an artisan while the other is already bringing multiple large sacks of gold towards the master who is seated at what intentionally resembles an alter. In the background the wicked slave can be seen burying his one bestowed Talent in the ground instead of investing it or spending it wisely as the other two slaves can be seen doing. Unlike the other versions, Merian actually shows the servant burying his talents instead of just alluding to it when he must plead before his master. This is directly consistent with the parable which says that the slave hid away his talent, although in other parts of the piece Matthaus does not adhere so strictly to the text. In the foreground of the painting the slave is on his knees begging for forgiveness, an action that is not explicitly described in the parable, with his single small sack of talents next to him. The most significant distinction between this depiction and the text of the parable is that there is another slave with sacks of talents behind the begging slave. This slave appears to also be coming to present his talents to the master. This is incongruent to the text which says that both other slave turned in their talents and were rewarded before the third slave came forward. It can be assumed however that one slave already turned in his talents because the table next to the master is full of gold that the bookkeeper is counting. This does not however account for the remaining slave seen behind the begging slave. This can most likely be attributed to a misrepresentation of the parable on behalf of Merian because switching the order of the slaves does not present any immediate theological implications. The master is seated on a throne with fine robes around him and an expensive looking turban on top of his head. This, along with his imposing looking court, full of important looking men and armed guards, shows the power dynamic is completely in favor of the master. Looking on at the scene are other robed men, once again the bookkeeper, and a handful of guards. Merian intentionally gave the guards and the surrounding architecture a distinct European feel by arming the guards with weapons indicative of the Swiss Guard as well as buildings with battlements and arches while simultaneously dressing the main actors in dress more typically thought of as Italian or European. Merian could have been depicting Renaissance Italy as many of his contemporaries did or simply have been putting the parable into the context of his native Switzerland. While many artists take pains to recreate scenes that would have been contemporary to Jesus, Merian intentionally puts the parable into his modern context. It could be further postulated that Merian chose to juxtapose the historically accurate setting with features more contemporary to his time in order to make a statement that although Jesus may have taught this parable almost two thousand years prior, it was just as applicable in Merian’s time as it was in Matthew’s. (Gallery of Art)

Four artists, Willem de Poorter, Jan Luyken, Rembrandt, and Matthaus Merian all created visual renderings of the Parable of the Talents as told by Matthew. Poorter chose the medium of a painting and used a strong contrast of light and dark to create both a somber ambience as well as to draw the viewers attention to the climactic interaction between the master and the slave. Both Luyken and Merian depicted the parable in print. This medium negated the artists’ abilities to use color and instead they relied on images heavy in motion,characters, and dynamics to captivate the audience. Both artists also chose to depict earlier scenes from the parable in the background of the piece while the climax remains in the foreground as well as put the piece into their own contemporary context. Rembrandt’s piece serves as a reinforcing agent for the incongruent power dynamic established between the master and the slave in the other three pieces. The slave is looking solemnly at the floor while the master casts a piercing gaze upon him. These four men, although contemporaries, all chose to depict the Parable of the Talents with very important distinctions and often substantial deviations from the actual text of the Gospel.





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Werner Sumowski, Gemälde der Rembrandt-Schüler IV, Landau/Pfalz, 1989, nr. 1607

Wilson, Charles. “The Dutch Republic and the Civilization of the 17th Century”. McGraw Hill. 1968