‘From my fate all can see
That a beggar a king can be
How long does it keep?
Until it’s time to sleep’.
(verse on a king letter, 17th century)
Epiphany, or Twelfth Night was one of many festivals that used to brighten the dark winter months. Christian holidays and the veneration of saints were opportunities in bygone generations for raucous get-togethers, accompanied by an overindulgence in food and drink. Despite the objections of the Protestant clergy, the originally Catholic festivals of St Martin, St Nicolas, Christmas, Epiphany and Carnival continued to be celebrated after the Reformation.
Traditionally, Epiphany is celebrated on 6 January, the thirteenth day after Christmas, or on the preceding evening. Which is why the festival is also referred to as Dertiendagh (Thirteenth Day) and Twelfth Night. The festival’s origin is the adoration of the infant Christ by the Magi from the East, known also as the Three Kings. In fact the festivities also contain elements of new year’s celebrations and Innocents Day (28 December). Christian mystery plays and rhetorical pieces were also influenced by Twelfth Night festivities.
After returning from church, the company would gather round the table for a large meal. At the start of the evening, one of those present would be chosen as king by casting lots or by serving bean cakes which included a king bean. The king would then be given a paper crown and would organise the members of the court. Others would be appointed queen, jester, cook, musician, master of ceremonies, taster and porter. While the king wore a crown, the others would pin a label to their hat or clothes. The highlight of the evening was the moment the king lifted the glass to take the first sip. The company would shout as loudly as possible, “The king drinks!” Then the meal would begin. Often this would end in a wild free-for-all.
While the king was originally chosen at random, it later became customary to give the role to the person least suited to the role: a child or a fool. This was a reference to the foolish King Herod who had ordered the massacre of the innocent children of Bethlehem. Eventually, this reversal of roles became the central theme of Twelfth Night.
While the meal was the highlight of the evening, other activities were also associated with the festival. Groups of children and adults would go from house to house holding an illuminated star singing carols and collecting money and food. The star referred to the heavenly light that the Magi followed to find the infant Christ. Candle jumping, which involved leaping over three candles representing the Three Kings without catching alight, provided lively entertainment. Religious and secular elements merged in this festival to create an party atmosphere. In the eighteenth century, however, the celebration of Epiphany gradually declined.
Jordaens, Molenaer and Steen
From 1635 Jan Miense Molenaer produced several paintings depicting Twelfth Night scenes. The work shown here dates from late in Molenaer’s career and may have been painted around 1660-1665. It is one of the last known works by the artist and his last painting of this theme. This is the first publication of the work.
Molenaer painted his Twelfth Night in Heemstede, where since 1648 he had owned an estate. Other artists had also settled in this rural area around Haarlem. Among them, Jan Steen was undoubtedly the most prominent. Molenaer is often considered a significant forerunner of Steen. So it is hardly a coincidence that after around 1660 the latter featured Twelfth Night in several of his paintings. The theme offered plenty of opportunity to portray his famous Jan Steen households.
Molenaer’s depictions of Twelfth Night followed the traditional pattern. He placed the festive evening in a tavern. The company clearly represents the middle-class of urban citizens or prosperous country folk. Jan Steen moved the celebrations from a public venue in the form of a tavern to the privacy of the home. His party scenes are set in the elegant interiors of newly-rich merchant houses. He often combined all the elements of the celebration in his paintings: carol singers are visible at the open door, while youngsters jump over the three burning candles holding up their skirts. For Steen, the reversal of roles was central. His paintings always show a child or a fool playing the part of king.
A Jan Miense Molenaer household
Here Molenaer focused on the highlight of the evening. The king is about to drink a glass of red wine. From his ruddy face and sleepy eyes it is clear that this is not the first glass of the evening. Accompanied by the loud drone of the bagpipes, the jubilant carousing company applaud as the king’s toast is drunk. But one group is oblivious to the noise: a couple enveloped in an intimate embrace. They, and the voluptuous woman in the foreground, emphasise the liberal nature of the proceedings. The young woman looks back laughing over her shoulder, as if to invite us to join in the festivities.
The party is taking place in a tavern. Beside the chimney hangs a slate on which the innkeeper marks up what the customers have spent. The expression ‘to chalk it up’ comes from this practice. Molenaer’s figures are depicted enjoying the hearty meal: ham, brown bread and mustard. A woman at the hearth is placing a pan with more food over the fire. Here this depiction differs from other portrayals of Twelfth Night in which it is traditional sweetmeats, such as bean cakes and waffles, that are consumed. In other ways too, Molenaer’s painting veers away from the usual approach to the theme: here no one is wearing a label stating their roll for the evening. Only the person playing the king is wearing a paper crown decorated with the figures of a Madonna and Child and the Three Kings. These crowns were actually cut out from specially printed sheets.
As a result, this depiction of Twelfth Night resembles the tavern scenes and peasant weddings that Molenaer often portrayed in his paintings towards the close of his career. This Twelfth Night contains numerous elements – the large jug with the bright copper bands, the pots and pans, the cat on the stove and the mournful dog – that recur in the artist’s tavern scenes of this period. Yet the painting is exceptionally fresh and inspired. The shouts and cries of the guests are almost audible. This is truly a Jan Miense Molenaer household.
Jan Miense Molenaer
Jan Miense Molenaer was born around 1610 in Haarlem. He may have been apprenticed either to Frans Hals or his brother Dirck. Their influence is certainly evident. In June 1636 Molenaer married the painter Judith Leyster (1609-1660) in Heemstede. Shortly after, the couple moved to Amsterdam, where Molenaer soon began receiving major commissions, including from the wealthy merchant family of Van Loon. From 1648 the couple lived variously in Heemstede, Haarlem and Amsterdam. It was in Heemstede that Molenaer enjoyed a closer acquaintance with some renowned fellow artists, such as Bartholomeus van der Helst and Jan Steen. In 1668 Molenaer died in Haarlem.
Jan Miense Molenaer was one of the leading Dutch genre painters of the seventeenth century. In addition to interiors, he also painted religious scenes, allegories and portraits. In several works he portrayed scenes from contemporary theatre plays. Twelfth Night is a recurring theme in his oeuvre. In this he was an important forerunner of Jan Steen.
Drawn around 1640
Watercolour and bodycolour, 37 x 54 cm
Antwerp, Koninklijke Musea voor Schone Kunsten
Jan Miense Molenaer
Haarlem c. 1610 - 1668 Haarlem
Painted around 1660/1665
Canvas, 74.5 x 92.5 cm
Signed : Molenaer (centre left, on edge of bench)
Hoogsteder & Hoogsteder, The Hague