Jacques Callot's religious prints have aroused the interest of scholars only in the last three decades, although they constitute a very large portion of his production; he produced 600 of them between 1631 and 1635 and several of his series were left unfinished. To understand Callot's religious prints, one has to locate them within the religious movements to which the artist adhered. Callot lived in the three areas -- the Papal States, Tuscany and Lorraine -- that were most influenced by the Counter-Reformation movement advanced by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to fight Protestantism.
The dukes of Lorraine believed that it was their duty as rulers to vigorously combat the heretics and in 1572 Duke Charles III summoned the Jesuits to Lorraine for this purpose. Two years later, the Jesuits established a university at Pont-à-Mousson which produced generations of clerics trained in the spirit of the Council of Trent. A second religious order active in Lorraine during this period was the Mendicant Order, whose Franciscan branches had about ninety communities in the duchy by the mid-1630s.
The presence of a strong religious spirituality in Lorraine in the first decades of the seventeenth century can be exemplified on a more personal level by the fact that five out of Callot's nine siblings entered religious orders, a typical number at the time. Thus, the large outpouring of religious subjects during the last years of Callot's career can be seen perhaps as an expression of personal faith, but almost certainly, at the same time, as a reflection of a strong market for spiritual imagery.
Callot's unfinished series of The Penitent Saints, composed of five plates, is one of his lesser known works. Abraham Bosse was responsible for the frontispiece which was added to the series when it was published by Israël Henriet in 1632. This series, of all the religious series in Callot's oeuvre, is probably the one most imbued with the teaching of the Counter-Reformation. The theme of saints leaving the world and retiring to deserted places was very popular, and representations of the visions or ecstasies of saints in the wilderness, like those of Mary Magdalen and St. Francis, were encouraged by the Counter-Reformation.
Caption: The Death of Mary Magdalen Caption: St. Francis
Callot's technical mastery is demonstrated in these tiny prints by the balance between the single figure and the landscape. The strong play of light and shadow perfectly renders the symbolic and metaphysical experiences of the saints. In The Death of Mary Magdalen, the cave, a symbol of the saint's reclusion, is illuminated by a divine light.
The art of the Counter-Reformation is filled with images of the martyrdoms, tortures and temptations of saints and with glorifications of the Apostles as founders of the Church. Published by Henriet in 1632, The Martyrdoms of the Apostles, a series of sixteen etchings sometimes called The Small Apostles, dates from Callot's last years.
Caption: The Martyrdom of St. Thomas Caption: The Martyrdom of St. Philip
In these two etchings, Callot used a three-register format to represent the scenes of martyrdom. In The Martyrdom of St. Thomas, for instance, the foreground is occupied by the saint, the middle ground juxtaposes the king ordering the execution and the idol, to which he is pointing, while the background is reserved for the saint in heaven.
The same format is used for The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomeo, but the ascension of the saint is suggested by the spiral movement of the composition and complemented by the play of light and dark on the architecture.
Callot's The Martyrs of Japan also reflects the interest in missionary expeditions to remote lands such as Africa and Asia that was one of the major interests of the Counter-Reformation. In 1596, P. Pedro-Bautista Blazquez, the director of the Franciscan mission in Japan, was arrested during the persecution ordered by the Emperor Toicosama, who had at first tolerated his apostolate. In February 1597, Blazquez, along with five other European Franciscans, seventeen Japanese Franciscans and three Japanese Jesuits, was put to death on a cross at Nagasaki and finished off by a lance thrust. Callot's print depicts only the twenty-three Franciscans, omitting the three Jesuits. Thus, it is likely that this image was commissioned by Franciscans shortly after Pope Urban VIII beatified the twenty-six men in 1627.
Callot's composition is remarkable for the uniformity and immobility of the crucified men, in contrast with the tumultuous activity seen on earth and in the heavens. The depiction of the costumes and arms of the Japanese army seems to have created problems for Callot, who surely did not have adequate information about such details in Nancy.
In addition to creating works reflecting the themes of the Counter-Reformation, Callot dealt with more traditional subject matter in his Large Passion series. This set was conceived in Florence but apparently executed in Nancy. The first print, Christ Washing the Apostles' Feet, bears Callot's Italian signature, which he used for about two years after his return to Nancy in 1621.
According to the twelve extant preparatory drawings in Chatsworth, this unfinished series of seven plates should have included twelve prints. Why the series was left unfinished remains unclear, but Félibien, one of Callot's earliest biographers, suggested that Callot became frustrated because he could not transfer the washes and the light and dark effects of his drawing into the medium of etching. Although it is difficult to illustrate clearly, one print, The Crowning with Thorns, was damaged when Callot worked on the bright halo of Christ.
Callot made important changes between his preparatory drawing (Chatsworth) for The Condemnation to Death and the print itself. In the drawing, the enthroned figure is Caiphas; in the print, Caiphas was replaced by Pontius Pilate, who is seen washing his hands after condemning Christ to death.
As the last of his major religious works, Callot produced his second version of the legend of St. Antony, one of the first Christian hermits. St. Antony, who lived in the Egyptian desert, was first tempted by earthly pleasures, then attacked by a horde of demons who symbolically flayed him. With divine help and his own strength, St. Antony finally triumphed over these demons. Callot's two versions of The Temptation of St. Antony draw on both the Counter-Reformation movement and on more traditional medieval representations.
Callot's earlier version of The Temptation of St. Antony, dated 1617, is an extremely rare work. While Callot was experimenting with the soft-ground etching technique he accidentally destroyed the background and ruined the plate after only a limited number of impressions had been made. To my knowledge, the Art Museum of Princeton University is the only American collection to own such an impression. Reproduced below is Anton Meitingh's 1637 copy after Callot's print.
Caption: Anton Meitingh's 1637 copy after Callot's 1617 Temptation of St. Antony
Meitingh's four-part etching, technically inferior to the original, is a very faithful copy. The theatrical, if not carnavalesque, composition includes medieval renditions of flying demons and strange beasts drinking, vomiting and defecating. Barely visible inside the arch on the left, the saint does not dominate the composition. This role is given to the centralized wagon drawn by four grotesque beasts around which a medieval danse macabre is being performed. Belonging to the artistic tradition of The Memento Mori (literally, `Be mindful of the Dead'), the dance points to the vanity and ephemerality of earthly pleasures. This image, then, is a warning against worldly indulgence similar to the prohibitions put forward by Counter-Reformation writings, especially those of Saint Francis of Sales.
Toward the end of his life, Callot created another version of The Temptation of St. Antony. The 1635 composition shares several similar features with the 1617 version, especially the theatrical space framed by rocks on both sides and the devil on the top. The fantastic landscape, however, has been replaced with military and religious architecture and the figure of St. Antony, on the right, has been moved closer to the foreground. The criticism of worldly indulgence which characterized the first version is replaced in the second by a horrifying depiction of hell.
Some scholars, such as Maxime Préaud [see his essay in Choné (1992)], see the evolution of these two versions of the theme as symptomatic of Callot's own changing perception of the world. In the 1617 version, Préaud sees Callot as an amused observer of a grotesque but non-threatening vision, while in the 1635 version, Préaud perceives the artist as a disillusioned observer of a tragic world which is characterized by physical and psychological suffering. Préaud's approach provides a neat contrast between a younger and an older Callot that is founded on the perceived social and political context of the time and his hypothesis may in fact be true. Yet, it is a hypothesis which imposes a certain frame of mind on Callot and ignores the parallels for both versions of Callot's St. Antony in early seventeenth-century theatrical sets depicting hell, especially representations of rain, fire and smoke, elements which become popular as technical enhancements of Baroque theatrical performances. When all is said and done, it seems better to leave this question open.
From here you may go to any of the following screens: