Today is the birthday (1502) of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, a Flemish painter, sculptor, architect, author and designer of woodcuts, goldsmith’s work, stained glass and tapestries who was influential in his day, but is largely forgotten nowadays. He worked in Antwerp and Brussels and was appointed court painter to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. He was also a polyglot, and published translations of ancient Roman and modern Italian architectural treatises into Dutch, French and German. These publications played a pivotal role in the dissemination of Renaissance ideas in Northern Europe, and contributed to the transition in Northern Europe from the late Gothic style, then prevalent, towards a modern Classical architecture.
Coecke van Aelst was the son of the Deputy Mayor of Aalst. Most of his biography is filled with “probablies” because there is little hard documentation. He probably first studied art under Bernard van Orley, a leading Renaissance painter based in Brussels. There are no documents that prove this apprenticeship but there are strong stylistic similarities between the styles of the two artists. He may have later studied in Italy where he would have made drawings of classical sculpture and architecture. His Italian influence could, however, also be attributed to the fact that Raphael’s tapestry cartoons were available in Brussels, where they were used for the manufacture of tapestries around 1516. However, as Coecke van Aelst clearly was familiar with Raphael’s fresco of the Triumph of Galatea located in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, it seems likely he did in fact travel to Italy.
Coecke van Aelst married twice. He married his first wife Anna van Dornicke in 1525 shortly after his move to Antwerp. Anna was the daughter of Jan Mertens van Dornicke, one of the most successful painters working in Antwerp. His father in law was possibly his teacher. Coecke van Aelst took over his father-in-law’s workshop after the latter’s death in 1527. There were two children from this first marriage, Michiel and Pieter (the Younger). The latter was also a painter. After the death of his first wife (before 1529), Coecke van Aelst had an affair with Anthonette van der Sandt (also known as Antonia van der Sant). The pair never married but had a daughter, Antonette, and at least one son, Pauwel who also became a painter.
Coecke van Aelst is recorded joining the local Guild of Saint Luke of Antwerp in 1527. In 1533, he traveled to Constantinople where he stayed for one year during which he tried to convince the Turkish sultan to give him commissions for tapestries, but failed. He made numerous drawings during his stay in Turkey including of the buildings, people and the indigenous flora. He seems to have retained from this trip an abiding interest in the accurate rendering of nature that gave his tapestries an added dimension. The drawings which he made during his stay in Turkey were posthumously published by his widow under the title Ces moeurs et fachons de faire de Turcz avecq les regions y appertenantes ont este au vif contrefaictez (Antwerp,1553).
Upon his return to Antwerp in 1534, Coecke van Aelst produced designs for a large-scale figure, called ‘Druon Antigoon’ or the ‘Giant of Antwerp’ of which the head in papier-maché possibly still survives (Museum aan de Stroom, Antwerp). The giant made its premiere many years later in 1549 at the occasion of the Joyous entry into Antwerp of Prince Philip (the future Philip II). The giant became a regular fixture in public processions in Antwerp until the 20th century. In the year 1537 Coecke van Aelst was elected a dean of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke. He also received a stipend from the Antwerp city government. Around this time he received major commissions for the design of stained-glass windows including for the Antwerp Cathedral.
Around 1538–1539 Coecke van Aelst married for the second time. His second wife Mayken Verhulst was originally from Mechelen and a painter of miniatures. The couple had three children, two daughters called Katelijne and Maria and a son named Pauwel (even though he had another son with this name). Pieter Brueghel the Elder married Coecke van Aelst’s daughter Maria (called ‘Mayken’). It is possible that Coecke van Aelst’s second wife was the first teacher of her grandchildren, Pieter Brueghel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder.
Coecke van Aelst was appointed court painter to Charles V only a few months prior to his death. He was in Brussels in 1550 where he died in December. As his two youngest children died at the same time, it is possible that all three family members were victims of a contagious epidemic.
Pieter Coecke van Aelst was a versatile artist and a master designer who devised projects across a wide range of different media, including panel paintings, sculptures, prints, tapestries, stained glass and goldsmith’s work. No signed, and few reliably documented, paintings by Coecke van Aelst have survived. His drawings are an important witness to his skills as they are the only body of works by the artist, which are signed. Approximately 40 drawings are regarded as autographs, in addition to cartoons and cartoon fragments on which he likely worked with assistants. The majority of his drawings are related to his tapestry designs.
Coecke van Aelst’s composition of the Last Supper became extremely popular in the 16th century and many versions were produced. The version dated 1527 in the collection of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland in Belvoir Castle in Grantham, is believed to be the original from which all the other ones were derived. The composition was popularized via a print of it made by Hendrik Goltzius. His painting of the subject was freely inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1498, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan) and Marcantonio Raimondi’s engraving of about 1515–1516 based on a lost drawing by Raphael. The gestures of the apostles are derived from Dürer’s print of the Last Supper dated 1523. There exist about 45 versions of this composition, which were executed with the assistance of workshop assistants. A great number of the versions are dated, and of these 6 or 7 are dated 1528. Van Aelst likely produced the original drawing for the Last Supper, which was subsequently copied on to a panel by means of intermediary cartoons. The composition could be ordered in two formats: 50 x 60 cm and 60 x 80 cm. The large version was more popular than the smaller one.
Small Biblical scenes in the background of the composition place the Last Supper in its theological context. Through the window it is possible to discern a scene depicting the Entry into Jerusalem, the principal event preceding the Last Supper according to Christian literature. Scenes of the Fall and the Expulsion from Paradise can be discerned in the ornaments of the upper panes of the window. The medals on the wall depict the biblical stories of the Slaying of Cain and David and Goliath. The scene representing the slaying of Cain is based on a print by the prominent Romanist artist Jan Gossaert. The whole iconography accentuates the Christian preoccupation with original sin and the belief that mankind’s salvation solely relies on Christ’s sacrifice. The original version of 1527 expresses in some of its details an iconography, which shows a close link to the Protestant Reformation. In the other versions this meaning is less pronounced.
Another popular and widely distributed work was the composition St. Jerome in his Study of which Coecke van Aelst and his workshop produced multiple versions. Saint Jerome is noted for his translation into Latin of the Bible, https://www.bookofdaystales.com/international-translation-dayst-jerome/ which he produced whilst living in a monastery in Palestine. In the version of the subject in the Walters Museum, Coecke van Aelst suggests the Oriental setting by the view visible through the window which shows a landscape with camels. To the wall is affixed an admonition, “Cogita Mori” (Think upon death), a vanitas motif that is reiterated by the skull (which Jerome supposedly always had with him as he wrote). Further reminders of the motifs of the passage of time and the imminence of death are the image of the Last Judgment visible in the saint’s Bible, the candle and the hourglass. Another version of this subject was sold at Christie’s (28 January 2015, New York, lot 104). This version reprises similar iconographic elements, which stress Christian beliefs regarding the transience of human life and the importance of the sacrifice of Christ for people to find salvation at the time of the Last Judgement.
Coecke van Aelst was renowned for his tapestry designs which were executed by the Brussels tapestry workshops. These designs were typically small-scale drawings in black-and-white. His cartoon for the Martyrdom of St. Peter (Brussels Town Hall) is in grisaille with touches of green and red while the names of the other colors, such as gold or blue, are written in. The patrons for the tapestries included Emperor Charles V, Francis I of France, Henry VIII of England, and Cosimo de’ Medici. His reputation as a tapestry designer was established through his popular series of the Story of Saint Paul, the Seven Deadly Sins, the Story of Abraham, the Story of Vertumnus and Pomona, the Story of Joshua, the Creation, Poesia, the Conquest of Tunis and Julius Caesar.
Coecke van Aelst is noted for his translation of Vitruvius’ De architectura into Flemish (Dutch). He, and after his death his widow, Mayken Verhulst, published the five books of Sebastiano Serlio’s architectural treatise Architettura in Flemish, French and High German (the German translation was done by another translator). Coecke van Aelst’s translation of Vitruvius was hailed by the humanist Dominicus Lampsonius as the only Dutch-language book to discuss the building styles of other countries. In line with Italian translations of Vitruvius published earlier in the 16th century, his translation gave prominence to woodcut illustrations of the text and used columns to indicate the difference between three kinds of architectural representation: plan, elevation, and view. This was a clear break with the few treatises on architecture published earlier in the Low Countries which generally did not provide any visual exegesis. Coecke van Aelst’s 1539 Flemish translation of Serlio provided to the Low Countries a relatively affordable translation of one of the first illustrated architectural treatises in Europe.
For today’s recipe I have chosen potjevleesch, a traditional Flemish dish, which was certainly well known in Coecke van Aelst’s time. The recipe below is translated from a 1302 version by William Tirel. It is still a popular dish in Belgium. The name can be translated into English as “potted meat,” although in appearance it is more like a terrine. It is traditionally made in a ceramic dish—such as a marmite—from three or four different types of meat and held together either with gelatin or natural fats coming from the meats used. The meat (along with sliced onions, salt, pepper, thyme and bay leaves) is covered in water or water and vinegar and then cooked either on a low heat in the oven or on a low flame on top of the stove for 3 hours. After cooking the dish is chilled in the refrigerator and served cold. Nowadays the Flemish serve the dish – as they do everything – with fried potatoes (which they do not call French fries). It is customary to serve the dish with Dutch gin.
Here is my edited version of the original 14th century recipe in translation:
Make a jelly by boiling calves’ feet in 1 liter of white wine, with 20 fresh juniper berries. Simmer until the liquid is reduced by half. Desalt a pork shoulder. Debone a chicken and rabbit. Cut the pork, chicken, rabbit, veal, and calf’s foot into pieces about the size of half a quail. Place them in a pot with juniper berries and grated ginger, a little must and an abundance of saffron. Salt. Pour over the broth, a cup of gin and sour grapes. Cover with a lid sealed with a flour and egg white paste. Simmer slowly for 3 to 4 hours without boiling. Then lift the lid and bring to a rolling boil. Store in the cellar.
Here is a modernized version of the recipe. Note that Tirel does not mention onions, but they are usual nowadays. You can vary the proportions of meats as you wish. I have included gelatin here, because it is more practical than boiling bones and feet.
300 gm deboned chicken, cut in chunks
300 gm deboned rabbit, cut in chunks
300 gm flank of veal, cut in chunks
300 gm pork belly, cut in chunks
2 onions, peeled and sliced
salt and pepper,
20 juniper berries
1 sachet powdered saffron
white wine or wine vinegar
2 sachets gelatin
Arrange in the bottom of the pot a layer of sliced onions. Add a sprinkling of salt, pepper, juniper berries and saffron. Then make layers with chicken, rabbit, veal and pork, alternating with onions and aromatics. Pour white wine (or wine vinegar) mixed with water evenly over the meat so that it is completely covered. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a slow simmer, add the gelatin mixed with ½ cup of boiling water, and cook, tightly covered, over low heat for 3 to 4 hours. Allow to cool slowly and then refrigerate for at least 12 hours, preferably overnight, so that the gelatin sets up. Serve with fried or boiled potatoes, and a green salad.