The Table of Plenty
by Sarah Kate Jorgensen
The National Gallery of Art’s masterpiece by Willem Claesz Heda , Banquet Piece with Mince Pie (1635), builds on the extraordinary delight the Dutch and Flemish took in the richness of the visual world. The Netherlands was one of the most commercially advanced and prosperous countries at the time. The Dutch were justifiably proud of their accomplishments and the depictions of accumulated goods reflected this pride. Still life paintings, like Vermeer’s interior scenes, are beautifully crafted images that are both scientific in their optical accuracy and poetic in their beauty and lyricism. While Roman Catholics in the south painted devotional images of the Gospels, Calvinists in the north found other means of depicting moral and religious topics. The ever-present morality and humility central to the Calvinist faith tempered Dutch pride in worldly goods. This painting by Heda provides a stark contrast in gluttony and religious piety.
The unusually large (42 x43) still life painting depicts the remains of a sumptuously laden table. Care is given to the rendering of items that would have been consumed by only the wealthy: olives from Italy, a lemon brought from Spain, half a glass of beer, vinegar in a Venetian style glass cruet, expensive pewter plates and a gilded Italian goblet. The focus of the meal is the mince pie that was created from currants, raisins, and spices from the Middle East and served at special banquets and holidays. It is evident that the precious vessels were thoughtfully arranged prior to the meal despite the disarray of the tablecloth, the snuffed out candle, the tipped over silver tazza and broken glass roemer lying on the pewter dish.
The painting places the viewer as a guest who has been seated but has been pushed back from the table. The composition is triangularly organized. The bronze goblet, surmounted by the figure of Triton, is placed at its apex. The knife handle, lemon peel and pewter plates project over the edge of the table and create visual and spatial pathways to the objects on the table.
Unlike the Zurbaran at the Norton Simon that underwent a remarkable cleaning three years ago, Heda’s impastos of lemon peel hanging over the table’s edge, sheen of his glass, and gilt of his bronze have kept their character over time. The soft and reflective white linen tablecloth creates harmony.
The palette is restricted to brown and gray hues. The only really jarring notes in the composition are the extinguished candle and broken wine glass. They are reminders of the transience and fragility of life’s pleasures and are the first clues to what the artist was after.
A closer look at Heda’s careful selection of objects shows that he is conveying a message somewhat prevalent to still life paintings at the time. The peeled lemon and the pepper contained in a rolled up scrap of an almanac page suggest the passage of time. The broken glass and the sheet of the almanac used to hold the pepper also convey the message of time. The snuffed out candle indicates not only the end of the meal but also the transience of life itself. The dents of the pitcher take the shape of a skull or vanitas, furthermore enhancing the theme of the temporal nature of life. Oysters were considered an aphrodisiac and an emblem of sensual delight. The empty shells suggest that a number were consumed.
Underlying these warnings were theological issues current in both Catholic and Protestant thought: sensual pleasures threatened to distract man from the message of Christ’s sacrifice and from the overriding significance of God’s word. Some contemporaneous still life painters put crucifixes next to flower arrangements while others such as De Heem included text in their painting lamenting that men did not observe the most beautiful flower of them all. Here, Heda conveys the theme in a more subtle way. In the foreground, the most overlooked and fundamental nourishment of all, the Eucharistic roll of bread, goes all but untouched.