Agecroft Hall: Discover 17th Century England in Richmond
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"The Philosopher"

 

 
AH1967.0126
c.1575
Attributed to Adrian Thomas Key (Adriaen Thomasz Key)

This 16th century portrait of an unknown gentleman, dubbed “The Philosopher,” is attributed to a 16th centuryFlemish painter, Adrian Thomas Key. Key painted both religious subjects and portraits and was a member of the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp; very little else is known about this artist.

 

In this portrait, a gentleman stands with his hand resting on a skull; this prop helps mark the man’s piety as well as denote the mortality of the man. In contrast, on the same table as the skull, sits an armillary sphere, an astronomical instrument which models the universe with rings and hoops that revolve on an axis and represent celestial circles, such as the equator. Whereas the skull reminds the viewer of the mortality of man, the armillary expresses the immortality of the universe.

 

  

 

On the same table sits a piece of parchment on which a Latin verse has been written, which roughly translates to:

         "O mortal man, why do you pay so much attention to arrogant people?
       Being pious is the way to make sure that you will be blessed after death.
       Riches and beauty are no advantage
       Only virtue can take you to the house of the Great Thunderer.”

 

The verse further reinforces the idea that man is a mere mortal and needs to think how he is living this life and its effects on the next life.

 

 


We can presume the portrait’s subject is a gentleman based on his dress alone. His large ruff and black clothing, probably made of velvet, are luxurious and expensive. His accouterments and clothing can symbolize not only his wealth but also his profession as a philosopher. Philosophers were learned men who had extensive training in the classics from Greece and Rome. They oftentimes wrote their own works in Latin and their individual philosophies could incorporate Christian teachings, secular teachings, and scientific theory. They often approached the world with a healthy dose of skepticism.

This painting has been in the Agecroft collection since we became a museum. At some point, its frame was switched from an elaborate gilt piece to the plain black frame in which it is currently housed. The painting has also had extensive conservation work throughout the centuries, uncovered during its last conservation treatment in 1996—cracks and prior repairs that affected the overall appearance of the painting were addressed during conservation.

While this painting is not currently on display at Agecroft Hall, it is scheduled to be hung in early 2016.

 

Sources:

 

  • Thomas, Sir Keith, ed. Renaissance Thinkers. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1993.

 

Libby Howlett, Manager of Collections, lhowlett@agecrofthall.com