‘Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools’ Showcases Three Hundred Years of Flemish Feeling

The Flemish painters looked to evoke intense emotion in the viewer, and this show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts delivers on that promise.

A museum room full of Flemish art with walls painted blue
Visitors to “Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools: Three Hundred Years of Flemish Masterworks” should expect the unexpected. Photo MMFA, Denis Farley

Sometimes while viewing an exhibition for the first time, one is fortunate enough to experience an unexpected shift of attitude. Such was my experience viewing the new show of Flemish Art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Expecting dark, heavy paintings of baby Jesus and his doting mother, along with processions of nuns and devotees, I wasn’t prepared for the sheer beauty of the entire exhibition.

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At the top of a long, broad staircase flanked by tall columns stretches a massive lilac-painted wall. In the center, a color-drenched, huge still-life of draping food: wild boar, hanging rabbits, a basket of heaping ripe fruit, dead and live birds, artichokes, asparagus and cauliflowers. Here is A Pantry with Game (1640) by Frans Snyders. Crowning the painting is the title of the exhibit in French and English: “Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools.” In that first look, I was caught, and for the rest of the exhibit, held.

A colorful painting of a pantry full of vegetables, fruit and undressed game
Frans Snyders (1579-1657), A Pantry with Game, about 1640. © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp, Belgium

Rounding the corner into the first room, titled God is in the Details, you are confronted by a deep Venetian red room with religious paintings in heavy gold frames depicting varying scenes of the Christ child and the Madonna. This is to be expected in a world that had just come through the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War looking to Christianity for succor and guidance. Witness an intricate carving in the alabaster of the Pieta (1550). The delicate hands, Mary’s pained face and Christ’s dead body lying stretched in her arms is the work of a master (artist unknown).

There are paintings by the familiar—Rubens, van Dyck and Bruegel—all richly detailed and deftly painted, but surprises abound in each room. In the second ‘chapter’ of the show are portraits depicting the nobility and aristocrats, along with townspeople who were fast getting rich through their trades. These first Flemish entrepreneurs created a thriving art market that generated portraits of tradespeople in costumes, like A Sailor and a Woman Embracing (1614-15) by Peter Paul Rubens. Her rosy voluptuous naked shoulder and the sailors’ lusty fixation are in motion. In the next instant, you can see him lunging at her plump neck and she responding dutifully, well aware of how much money she can garner from his haste.

A painting of a man embracing a woman who is turning back to look at the painter
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), A Sailor and a Woman Embracing, about 1614-1615. © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp, Belgium

Such is the case throughout the exhibition. It is the story in each room, so deliciously named and painted, that offers us doors to open not only with history in the making but mirrors of humans throughout time. Bruges, Antwerp and Brussels were at the center of this burgeoning art world that has given us these extraordinary paintings. Between 1454 and 1475, there were 177 new masters and 215 apprentices enrolled in the Bruges ‘image-makers’ guild. Between 1499 and 1525, 148 new painters were registered as members of the Guild of Saint Luke. In 1567, there were twice as many painters as bakers in Antwerp. In 1550, one-third of the Brussels population was involved in the art trade.

These facts are recorded by Katharina Van Cauteren, Chief of Staff of the Phoebus Foundation and the mastermind behind the exhibition, in the monumental, 432 page-book accompanying the show. She has written the book in a conversational tone, bringing the reader close into the shifting tides of the art world in Southern Netherlands (now Flanders) from 1400 to 1700. “These works are a gateway into the past when new genres were invented. Bakers, shoemakers and peasants became painters. If you had a shop, you could sell art.” In 1585, Antwerp fell into the hands of the Spanish Catholics so the Protestants moved north to Amsterdam and mingled with the likes of Rembrandt.

A painting of a busy and crowded outdoor scene featuring many people in old Flemish dress
Frans Verbeeck (active in Mechelen, 1531–1570), The Mocking of Human Follies, about 1550, oil on canvas. © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp, Belgium

The third chapter of the exhibition is titled Faith and Folly, and here the paintings swing wildly into the absurd. Pranks, jokes, double entendres, drinking and dancing exude with frivolous mayhem. Jan Massys’ Riddle: The World Feeds Many Fools (1530) and many others in this room might cause you to laugh out loud. In one large painting, The Making of Human Follies (1550) by Frans Verbeeck, the people are spanking, sexing, trading, gamboling and dallying with tiny people in sacks. Everyone is oblivious to the house burning close by.

The next room, Mythology and Nature, features an exciting hunt scene powerfully painted on a 6’ x 12.6’ canvas. Diana Hunting with her Nymphs (1637-37), painted by Rubens and others in his workshop, again shows the voluptuous pink flesh of the women in a heated chase, with their hounds gouged by the large stag about to be pierced by Diana’s lance. In the background is a lovely serene pastoral-scape. The women hunt in flowing, colorful drapery (someone close by remarked, ‘How could they possibly hunt wearing that?’). The composition is thrilling and harrowing.

A painting of Diana hunting with two of her hunters and several hounds
Peter Paul Rubens and Workshop (1577-1640), Diana Hunting with Her Nymphs, about 1636–1637. © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp, Belgium

With 137 works in the exhibition, covering 1450 to 1750, the installation was a daunting undertaking. Chloé M. Pelletier, the curator along with Van Cauteren and the Phoebus Foundation, has done a remarkable job in making the exhibit sing with drama and clarity. The gorgeous wall colors are thanks to stenographer, Josiane Mercier Auger.

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Pelletier said, “As a specialist in Italian Renaissance painting, I had always been intrigued by Northern European art so it was a pleasure to shift gears and spend two years diving deep into this new, yet familiar world, looking closely at every little detail, every brushstroke, every story. I’ve enjoyed watching people in the galleries because I see them smiling, talking and laughing, which is not always the case in installations of historical European art. But that is how these works would have been experienced in their time. They weren’t just looked at, they had important functions–to aid in devotion, to construct a sense of self, to entertain, to build legacy and to help people understand their place in a rapidly changing world.”

There are more rooms with maps, a painted globe of the Zodiac, engravings and illuminated manuscripts. Artistically inclined women were usually too busy to paint because of domestic duties and children, but there are two in the exhibition. One is Michaelina Wautier, whose Everyone to His Taste (1650) is a picture of tenderness: two beautiful boys, one holding an egg that the other boy gently wants.

A painting of two boys; one is holding an egg that the other wants
Michaelina Wautier (1604-1689), Everyone to His Taste, about 1650. © The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp, Belgium

Van Cauteren notes that the Flemish painters looked to evoke intense feeling in the viewer, whereas the Italian painters “sought ideal beauty and perfect harmony.” In one of the final galleries is another Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi (1606), painted at the beginning of his career, and which “served as the basis for all his later representations.” The majestic scene is caught in an emotional moment when the surrounding figures realize that the baby held by the mother is indeed the son of God. Some drop to their knees in adoration, the sky roils deep cerulean and the baby looks wise. It is a chilling moment even if you are not a believer.

Upon moving to a new room, the whole expanse feels as if you have entered some rarified realm. I recommend standing in each doorway and taking in the beauty of the room before moving forward to examine the individual works. This exhibition takes time to absorb, as do all great shows.

Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools” is at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts through October 20.

‘Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools’ Showcases Three Hundred Years of Flemish Feeling