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August Treasure of the Month

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August Treasure of the Month

Pieter Pourbus, An Allegory of True Love, c. 1547

The Treasure of the Month series offers the opportunity to highlight less well-known works from the collection as well as to look with fresh eyes on beloved masterpieces. This month’s pick is Pieter Pourbus’s An Allegory of True Love, which depicts a group of mythological and allegorical characters. Viewers can find this work on display in the Sixteenth Century Gallery.

Pieter Pourbus, An Allegory of True Love, c. 1547
P531: Pieter Pourbus, An Allegory of True Love, c. 1547

In the 15th century Bruges was a major mercantile centre, but by the time Pieter Pourbus arrived in the city c. 1543 it was in steep decline. Pourbus was born in Gouda and possibly studied in Leiden before settling in Bruges. Despite the poor economy, Bruges still had a thriving humanist and academic scene. Pourbus found his patrons among this cultural elite. The Allegory of True Love is the artist’s masterpiece and a great testament to the intellectual environment of Bruges in the mid-16th century.

The key message to this beautiful and complex allegory is the idea of Spiritual Love triumphing over Carnal Desire. In the centre the old man Wisdom (Sapiens) embraces Fidelity (Fidutia). Modestly dressed with a crucifix and bouquet, she is the embodiment of spiritual love through Christian matrimony. In contrast the other characters, arranged in groups of three, demonstrate the folly of carnal love. At the centre of each group is a lover from classical mythology (Adonis, Acontius and Daphnis). Each is accompanied by one of the three Graces and an allegorical female figure embodying an aspect of inconstant love. In the lower corners are Cupid and the Fool or Jester, who both warn of the folly of carnal love. The allegory itself is closely connected to a poem published in 1561 by the Bruges based scholar Edouard de Dene. The painting, made over a decade before the poem’s publication would indicate that de Dene and Pourbus discussed the subject – and it may be that the two figures on horseback on the right side of the picture are the painter and poet.

The vivid naturalism of the Flemish landscape in the background is juxtaposed with the Italianate, classical figures in the foreground. While Pourbus never visited Italy he undoubtedly studied the works of Raphael, Michelangelo and others through black and white prints. This may be why Pourbus continues to use the vivid colours associated with earlier Flemish art, while the forms are Italian.

An Allegory of True Love is a testament to Pourbus’ interest in the new. On the table he includes two glasses with white lines set in parallel lines. This glass making technique, known as ventro a filigrana, was first recorded in Venice in 1540, and this painting is the earliest representation of the technique. The fact that Pourbus in Bruges had an interest in this new Venetian invention is astounding. Similarly the sheet music is the tenor part for an amorous chanson by Thomas Crequillon published in Antwerp just five years earlier.

Sir Richard Wallace bought the painting in 1872. It is considered to be Pourbus’ masterpiece and is unparalleled in any other British collection.

- Isabelle Kent, the Enriqueta Harris Frankfort Curatorial Assistant of Paintings