Money Lender & His Mirrors

This painting, The Moneylender and His Wife, by Quinten Messijs (1514) is a beautiful, interesting artwork, full of details and enigmas. It’s very famous, too, and as a result, it’s a relatively well described. And it does have an interesting mirror in it, so the story for this blog should have been easy to produce.

Or so I thought. In relativity I’ve spent quite a lot of time, and a lot of efforts (mostly combating my internal hesitations) before I gave birth, so to speak, to this posting. Why so?

Maybe because I’ve always considered this work as a secondary, non-original one, a kind of multi-layered simulacrum? Which requires, prior to the story itself, to tell a preface, and then a story prior to this preface, and then add few more pieces to place it in a right context, and so on, and so force? So much preparation that you start forgetting what this story is actually about.

This is how my early draft of this posting looked like, for example (and this is not not the only one, I made few of those in the last month or two):

But anyway, hesitations are gone, and the posting is ready; before starting to read it, I’d recommend to refresh some context and read the same-name poem by Susan Wheeler (and my visual comments to it) – The Debtor in the Convex Mirror.

By the way, even if not to delve too much in various other interpretations, the above poem alone mentions at least seven (!) other famous paintings; pretty indicative.

But one of them is really difficult to bypass:

In terms of its composition the Moneylender with his Wife by Quinten Messijs (1514) is  almost exact remake of the Goldsmiths (aka St. Eligius) by Petrus Christus (1449) (see also See the Falcon?)

Of course, the picky critics would say that these two works are miles apare – the people portrayed here are different, both in number and in their poses, and the settings are not not very similar, and so forth. However, from the ‘mirror’ point of view, from its position in the paintings, and the ‘work’ it does it’ difficult to get rid of the idea that this is basically one and the same thing. But let’s start with some factual information.

Today the painting is the Louvre, in Paris, and generally looks like that:

Unfortunately, many reproductions (like the ones above) cut the bottom part of the painting, with the front side of the table and the leather trim over its green cloth) – they seemingly consider these elements ‘unimportant’.

It’s a fairly large work, about 70 by 70 cm, but (unlike the Arnolfini Portrait) it does not create a feeling of vast spatial depth. Even its back scene still looks pretty two-dimensional (or may be I just didn’t find a good position for my eye to lok at it).

The mirror is different: it is indeed an opening into whole new world, deep and interesting!

I didn’t write yet about Quinten Messijs, although I mention his name once – he was a father of another artist, Jan Matsys who painted Bathsheba and the Gadget Mirror (I also tell few more facts about him in my commentary to the poem).

What is important to realize that Quinten Matsys was born in 1466, 15 years after the creation of Goldsmith by Petrus Christus in Ghent. Quentin was born in Leuven, where he also got his training as an artist, but by the time of creation of this particular work he most likely moved to Antwerp. It’s very likely that he could see the work by Christus, either original or one of its copies, all these cities are in close proximity to each other.

As often happens, we don’t know much about the origin of this work: it is not clear who was the customer, and what were the artistic ‘goals and objectives’ (and KPIs). It is known, however, that the painting belonged to Peter-Paul Rubens for some time.

Now in the Louvre it is called Le Prêteur et sa Femme, The Money Lender and his Wife. I do not know its original name of the Dutch (not the one that is not describes it on the Dutch version of the Louvre catalog, but its “real” name when it was created. It’s possible that the diaries of Rubens could be of help). Currently there are also other version of the name, such as “The Banker and his Wife,” “Moneychanger and His Wife,” and even sometimes “The Tax Collector and His Wife.”

That the picture is about money, is very clear from the first look:

In a nutshell, the story of (or behind) this painting is usually described in the following way:

“Once, a poor man (= is seen in a mirror) came to the shop of pawnbroker (not sure if they used this word yet back then); he gives the last jewel of his family and wait for a few coppers that the avaricious lender will squeeze out of its fat purse”, or something of that sort.”

Interestingly, but in spite all the sophistication and intricate word games of the poem by Susan Wheeler, its basic morale is not very far from such a simplistic interpretation of the scene; there, too, we soon see the shadows of ‘greed bankers from the Wall Street’ (who are the cause of all our problems, of course).

Such a simple and coherent interpretation is somewhat shattered by the wife (woman tend to confuse things, I would say). What is she doing there? And why with the Bible (or the Book of Hours)? Why the book is opened on the page with St.Mary and Child Christ?)

Again, a typical moralistic reading of the image usually goes in the following direction: “She would better read some soul-saving texts rather than staring at the pearls (= the symbol of lust, by the way) and beware the ultimate judgement that will happen soon (the scale are often the symbol of the Last Judgement), when it will be too later to regret about your meaningless life – see, the candle behind your back is already  gone, reminding us of the Death”).

The description in the Louvre interpretes other items and features in a similar spirit: the pitcher with water and beads are the symbols of purity and innocence of St.Mary, but the path to them is blocked by the apple, the symbol of sin. Behind the apple stand the tray (a medallion) where, if desired, can see the same scenes with the passions of Christ as in the mirror of the Arnolfini Portrait.

On the other hand, the Apple could well be the Mandarin (and then the symbol of wealth). The meaning of a black box to me is not very clear, it’s described as a “small wooden box representing a place where faith has retired” (??).

With such interpretations the paintings becomes a satirical pamphlet about the financiers, and must decorate the banners of the #OccupyWallStreet movement.

This interpretation has been seemingly confirmed by many subsequent works, if not by Quentin Massijs, then by his workshop.

For example, the painting of the Tax Collectors (I usually do not place here the copies with the stamps of photo banks, but in case of the financial wheelers and dealers I decided to let it). Here we see the satire of the satire, with a clear distention who’s good and who’s bad here.

If we look at the examples of the visual arts in the years that followed the Money Lender and His Wife, we a large number of moralizing interpretations and critical paintings (not even mentioning the long tradition of depicting the scenes of Christ expelling moneylenders from the temple). 

There are some signals on the painting that cast doubts on this simple, one-dimensional  interpretation. The faces of the two heroes seem to be too kind and tranquil to represent greedy evil meanies. Of course, we can always suggest that they play  “honest citizens”, being nasty in reality “mafia” in the same-name party game.

Among other predecessors of this painting by Quentin Metsys some researchers also mention the famous Banker and his Wife (better known as the Arnolfini Double Portrait), by Jan van Eyck. So far, no one ascribed any satirical intent to this work. Some suggest that van Eyck created another portrait of the couple, after their marriage; the traces of this work once had been spotted in Italy, but now it’s  considered to be lost. However, some historians argue that the following portrait is a close copy of the van Eyck’s follow-up of the Arnolfini.

Here his wife doesn’t read the Bible, but works with the ledger, and the whole scene resembles a routine working moment, like in the novels by Arthur Hailey. This very painting is, of course, not of van Eyck, but attributed to Marinus van Reymerswaele (c.1490–c.1546); this painting was created in 1544, almost 30 years later than  Meysys’ work, and more than a hundred later of any work of van Eyck.

Marinus van Reymerswaele was a pupil of Metsys, and is known as the author of several “financial paintings”. The problem here is that this theme became very popular at that time, and there is a large number of copies and versions, that are often attributed to him, but their real authorship is not easy to establish.

I found a few of such works, see them below (none of them has mirrors, though).


Marinus van Reynerswaele – Moneylender and his Wife (1539)

Marinus van Reymerswaele – Tax Collectors (Misers) (1542)


Marinus van Reymerswaele – Two Misers with Scissors (1540s)


Marinus van Reymerswaele – Two Misers (1540s)


Marinus van Reymerswaele – Two moneylenders with a parrot (1540s)


Marinus van Reymerswaele – The Tax Collectors (1542)

Marinus van Reymerswaele – Zwei Steuereinnehmer (Two Tax Collectors) (1544)

To say that all these works do not portray various financial professionals in a very positive light is to call Captain Obvious; in our days it would cause a class lawsuit from the top managers for public humiliation.

This all create a strange cognitive dissonance: a lot of highly satirical works vis a vis very calm and sober portrait by Metsys. This work, for example, can be found on the cover of the Games of Exchange, by Fernand Braudel (Russian edition):

as well as on his later book, The Dynamics of Capitalism (also in Russian)

Ok, these editions can not be a serious argument, of course, modern illustrators are know for their mess with historical data. But both van Reymerswaele and many other artist created numerous very positive representations of the financiers back then, too.


Hans Holbein the Younger – Portrait of Georg Gisze, Merchant (1532)

Jan Gossaert – Portrait of a Merchant (1530)

The latter portrait is not of a financier, but of a lawyer, by Metsys himself.

All these are the commissioned, well paid paintings. To suggest that Matsys created a simple anti-prop agains bankers (or money lenders) seems to be too simple a proposition. I would really like to find more complex, multi-dimensional explanation (by the way, if you have special glasses, you can see a 3D image of this scene in the picture below):

I wrote this long text, and brought many (mostly irrelevant) examples, but the key  question remained unanswered. In fact, it was not even asked yet – why is the mirror doing here? What’s its role in all this scene?

In case of Christus the mirror was a part of the goldsmith’s craft (although even in that case it apparently had also some symbolic/moralistic meaning). Here, with the banker/money lender, I have no clue about the direct, functional value of the mirror in his office. Do you?

I wrote already about the mirror per se, and the scene, reflected in in (although I didn’t elaborate on the Semitic/anti-Semitic overtones of all this financial theme; this would require further investigation).

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