|Manuel Santos Redondo says this about|
Quentin Massys'[i]The Moneychanger and his Wife, dated 1514. On the table are placed coins, a set of scales, and various other tools of their trade. ("various other tokens of their wealth", says the art historian Jean-Claude Frère, 1997, p. 186. This is our first difference in interpretation). The man is weighing gold coins with great care. At that time, coins with the same face value varied in the amount of gold they contained (and therefore in their real exchange value), because it was a normal practice to file them down, clip them, or to shake them together in a bag in order to collect the gold dust they produced. So, the moneychanger is simply going about his business, not counting his money as a miser would do. And, if you look at his face, it is not the face of a miser, but the face of a concentrating working man, carefully carrying out his job. His wife is looking at the coins and scales too; but she has a book in her hands. The book is a religious one, an illustrated "book of hours". Marjorie Grice-Hutchinson, the historian of economic thought who first brought economists attention to the Spanish Scholastics of the "School of Salamanca", considers Massys painting an illustration of the intention of the Scholastics to make compatible the commercial practices of their time with the Church's doctrine on usury. According to her interpretation, Massys painting portrays the money lender at work and, at the same time, discussing with his wife the fairness of a particular commercial deal, helped by consulting the religious book his wife is reading.[ii]
Many other interpretations of Massys’s work consider this picture as to be a moralizing one, in a much stronger sense than that of Grice-Hutchinson's view. The Encarta Encyclopedia says: "In The Moneychanger and his Wife, the subtly hinted conflict between avarice and prayer represented in the couple illustrates a new satirical quality in his paintings."[iii] (It is curious that the "Web Gallery of Art", together with the Encarta article, provides this contradictory explanation:"The painting remains in the Flemish tradition of van Eyck, with the addition of a profane sense of beauty, sign of a new world").[iv) Another scholar says this about Massys: "Painters also began to treat new subjects. Men like Quentin Massys, for example, played an active role in the intellectual life of their cities and began to mirror the ethical concerns expressed by humanist thinkers with new paintings that used secular scenes to impart moralizing messages. Vivid tableaux warned against gambling, lust, and other vices."[v]
At the bottom of the painting there is a circular mirror; we can see the tiny figure of a man wearing a turban. For some reason, the following is the explanation of the art historian Jean-Claude Frère: "a side window, under which we can just make out the tiny figure of a thief. He would seem to be spying on the couple as they count their gold, while they would seem to be oblivious to his presence, blinded by their greed".[vi] Let us leave aside the greed and concentrate on the tiny man. Is he a thief? I don't know. But I'm sure he is not "spying on the couple as they count their gold": I am not an art historian, but it seems clear to me that the man is inside the room, he is reading a book and looking out of the window to the street. In think that this is not a casual mistake: it is consistent with art historians’ interpretation.Symbolism, a source of moralistic interpretation My view is that art historians explanation of The Moneychanger and his Wife as a satirical work containing symbolic allusions hidden from contemporary observers, is merely a reflection of their own prejudices concerning certain economic activities. Let us consider the serious arguments supporting the symbolic explanations of paintings of the Flemish Renaissance, in order to be able to judge when a painting has this meaning and when has not. The famous art historian Erwin Panofsky held that the Early Flemish painters had to reconcile the "new naturalism" with a thousand years of Christian tradition. Based on St. Tomas Aquinas, who thought that physical objects were "corporeal metaphors for spiritual things", Panofsky (Early Netherlandish Painting, 1953) maintains that "in early Flemish painting the method of disguised symbolism was applied to each and every object, man made or natural".
The moneychanger and his wife: from scholastics to accounting,
by Manuel Santos Redondo
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