Continuing the trend of focusing on obscure works of art instead of actually masterpieces…(I promise I’ll get to Titian eventually)…this week I’ll be looking at Heemskerck’s Course de taureaux a l'antique, which I stumbled upon in the art museum at Lille, and which I've had a bit of trouble hunting down a picture of since. Click on the image for a larger version of the painting.
Heemskerck was an early Dutch Renaissance artist who helped introduce Italian art to the Netherlands. Like many Renaissance painters, he seems to have been rather fond of Roman ruins, which were rediscovered during the Renaissance. They served as inspiration for the artists and writers who looked back on antiquity and strove to emulate it in their art; Heemskerck in particular is known for his series of paintings of the seven wonders of the ancient world, several of which are classical edifices.
This particular painting falls into a tradition stretching back from the Renaissance through many centuries of painting Roman ruins; it’s a tradition of depicting a great civilization in ruin, paintings of people dwarfed by the broken remains of grandiose columns and dilapidated arches. Yet Heemskerck plays with that format. He creates a tension between past, ruin, destruction and the present, memory, the cycle of life.
The Coliseum-esque arena in his painting is a grandiose ruin that represents the ruin of a grandiose civilization. It towers above the people, but it’s falling apart, cracked and forgotten. The people in the arena are but ghosts, memories of a society long gone. They aren’t really there. Their presence is overshadowed by the medieval looking figures towards the front, who are certainly present and who recall a later age. Some are reminiscent of medieval courtly scenes. They suggest a new age that’s come. The cycle of history will continue as the sands of time obscure what’s past.
And yet…the painting itself is a record, a memory. The ghosts, even if they’re ghosts, are present to us, the viewers. The ruin is still there – it has not been completely effaced from the face of the earth. Greenery, representing life, grows from the very stones, suggesting that even from ruin comes life. The cycle continues, and human life is preserved by memory. Human life will not be effaced.