Antwerp School, c. 1635

A Gilt-Metal-Mounted Ebony, Ebonized, Rosewood, Tortoiseshell and Ivory Cabinet on a Stand, Decorated with Scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses


the architectural facade with thirteen drawers around a central cupboard with a stage-set interior, the drawers decorated with painted panels, partially remounted, the stand later
cabinet: 84.5 x 121 x 46 cm (33¼ x 47⅝ x 18⅛ in)
cabinet on a stand: 179.5 x 123.8 x 48.9 cm (70⅝ x 48¾ x 19¼ in)



This cabinet is a fine example of the type of work that helped make Antwerp the leading international centre for the manufacture of these objects during the first half of the seventeenth century. The cabinet represents the collaboration between artist and craftsman, recalling the famous collaborative paintings for which Antwerp was famed. As such the piece can be considered through its individual components, and as a stunning whole.

The cabinet is decorated with fourteen painted panels which depict various episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the narratives of which are worth briefly outlining. The upper left-hand panel shows The Rape of Europa. This is the story of how Jupiter, enamoured by the Phoenician princess Europa, transformed himself into a bull and mingled with her father’s herd. When the princess saw him she started to stroke him until she ‘even ventured to sit with her legs astride on the back of the bull’,¹ at which point Jupiter galloped away into the sea, Europa on his back.

In the next panel down we see the Venus with her lover, the beautiful Adonis. Adonis was killed by a wild boar, an accident Venus had always dreaded, and in this scene we the goddess trying to convince the young hunter not to leave her.

The story of Narcissus is a famous warning against pride and vanity. The nymph Echo fell in love with the handsome youth but she was spurned, a gesture which left her heartbroken. Having heard of Narcissus’ vanity, the god Nemesis cursed him and made him fall in love with his own reflection. Here we see Narcissus transfixed by his own image, unable to tear himself away from the fountain, whilst Echo lurks ghostlike in the background. The composition for this panel may derive from Hendrick van Balen I’s (1575-1632) rendering of the same theme.

The story of Mercury and Argus revolves around another of Jupiter’s many loves. In this case the object of his affection was the princess Io, but Juno thwarted his affections by turning Io into a white heifer and handing the animal over to the giant Argus to guard. Mercury was sent by Jupiter to kill the giant, and this he was accomplished by first lulling Argus to sleep with music. In this depiction we see Argus trying to keep his grip on Io, but he appears helpless as sleep overwhelms him.

The story of Pan and Syrinx was another oft repeated theme in Flemish painting of the period. The nymph Syrinx was being pursued by the lustful god Pan, when she came to a river. Since the waters were barring her way she prayed to be transformed in order to escape the god’s clutches, and ‘So just at the moment when Pan believed that his Syrinx was caught, instead of a fair nymph’s body, he found himself clutching some marsh reeds’.²

The story of Pyramus and Thisbe is analogous to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The lovers, forbidden by their parents to marry, planned a midnight tryst by a rural spring. Thisbe arrived at the meeting place first, but fled when a lion, blood dripping from its mouth from a recent kill, came to the water to quench her thirst. In her haste Thisbe dropped her cloak, which the beast tore to shreds. When Pyramus arrived and discovered the bloody garment he feared the worst and stabbed himself with his sword. When Thisbe returned to the scene to discover her lover dying, she threw herself upon the same sword, the scene depicted here.

Latona was the mother of Apollo and Diana. When she was travelling with her infant twins, she stopped at a lake in Lycia to quench her thirst. However, the peasants working there refused to allow her to drink, abusing and threatening her despite Latona’s humble pleading. Eventually Latona became angry and, in the scene depicted here, ‘raised her hands to the heavens and cried, “May you live in your filthy pool for ever!”’³ Her prayer was answered and the peasants were transformed into frogs.

The story of Cephalus and Procris is another tragedy brought about by jealously. Cephalus loved to hunt and possessed a spear, given to him by his wife Procris, which would always find its mark. Procris mistakenly believed her husband to have a secret lover, and so one day followed him out hunting. When Cephalus heard a rustling in the leaves, he threw his spear, believing the noise to come from an animal. Inevitably the spear hit Procris, and she died in her anguished husband’s arms.

In the centre of the cabinet are four panels illustrating two stories from the Metamorphoses. In the arched pair we see the figures of Daedalus and Icarus, the father and son who famously escaped from their Cretan prison by flying away with wings which Daedalus had constructed. Icarus ignored his father’s warning about flying too close to the sun, and here we see Daedalus watching on helplessly, as his son plummets into the sea, melting wax dripping from his arms.

In the two panels below we see the beautiful youth Hermaphoditus, who was bathing in the lake when Salmacis, one of Diana’s nymphs, dwelt. Salmacis fell in love with him instantly and clung to him with such passion that ‘The bodies of boy and girl merged and melded into one’.⁴

The two large side panels illustrate two stories concerning the daughters of the Athenian king Cecrops. In the left-hand panel the sisters return from the festival at the temple of Minerva in the background. Whilst they were journeying they were espied by Mercury, who instantly fell in love with Herse. Their love was to provoke extreme envy in Herse’s sister Aglauros, who would later be turned to stone, as a punishment for her jealously.

The right-hand side panel depicts these sisters discovering the infant Erichthonius. Minerva entrusted the daughters with a basket, with the strict instruction that it should not be opened. The basket contained the new-born Erichthonius, a boy who had snakes for legs. Minerva had undertaken to bring the child up, but wished to keep his existence secret from the gods, hence the insistence on secrecy. The moment depicted here is when Agalauros, clad in yellow, is overcome by curiosity and opens the lid of the basket to discover Erichthonius. Reclining with her back to the viewer is Pandrosos, and standing is Herse⁵ The fourth figure is a nurse whose presence accentuates the youth and beauty of the young women, a common Rubensian device. This last panel is a particularly important one. It derives from a painting by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), which today is only a fragment. Rubens’ version has been dated to 1632-33,⁶ and thus this date must be a terminus post quem for the cabinet. When considered together with the Narcissus panel, it is also evidence that the artist who painted the cabinet had intimate knowledge of work of the leading artists in Antwerp of that period.

The cabinet does not only feature excellent examples of Flemish painting, but also contains exquisite craftsmanship. The use of materials such as ebony, rosewood, tortoiseshell, ivory, and gilt-metal, alongside the painted panels, would have made the cabinet a highly sought-after luxury object. The judicious use of these materials, with their deep, rich colouring,enhances and complements the paintings of the present cabinet, and a similar effect is achieved in a comparable cabinet the Rijksmuseum. The use and combinations of these materials vary greatly from work to work. In addition to ebony, some are embellished with only a little ivory, whereas the famed Sudbury Cabinet, has extensive gilding but no tortoiseshell. The presence of a rich and varied abundance of these materials, in comparison to other cabinets, together with the high quality of the painted panels, help make the present work an especially fine example.

Cabinets of this type trace their origins to Augsburg, and in fact the first ebony workers to take up their trade in Antwerp were German.⁷ However, ‘By the 1630s Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands had begun to rival Augsburg as the main centre for the production of luxury cabinets.⁸ Antwerp cabinets were unique in their makeup, as ebony veneered cabinets embellished with painted scenes, exploited the city’s fame as the foremost centre for artistic excellence. Another characteristic aspect of Antwerp’s cabinets were the perspectiefje, or perspective, contained behind the central doors. Within these mirrored chambers collectors would display small objects, to be admired for their value, craftsmanship or exoticism, such as ‘small statues and crucifixes, shells and other naturalia, clocks and astrolabes.’⁹ The mirrored glass used in the perspectiefje is Italian, and thus cabinets of this type combined a luxury material of Italian origin, the German expertise in ebony cabinets, and the pre-eminence of Antwerp’s painters to create a new type of luxury object.

The painter of the panels in the present work has yet to be identified, which is the case for most Antwerp cabinets, with an occasional exception such as the Sudbury Cabinet, whose panels were painted by Frans Franken II (1581-1642). What is clear is that the artist was intimately aware of the work of the leading Antwerp artists of the period, such as van Balen and Rubens. Stylistically the artist is likely to have been part of Rubens’ circle, as the rounded, plump figures, particularly on the two side panels, echo the master’s work. In any case the quality of the works is unusually high and this quality, combined with the excellence of the craftsmanship and the lavish use of luxurious materials, make this cabinet an especially fine example of its type.

¹ Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2:868.
² Ibid., 1: 705-706.
³ Ibid., 6:369-370.
⁴ Ibid. 4:374.
⁵ The figures are identified in Held, J. S., ‘The Daughters of Cecrops’ in by Julius S. Held, ed. Lowenthal, A. H., Rosand, D., & Walsh, J. (Princeton, 1982), p. 163.
⁶ Burchard, L., ‘Rubens’ Daughters of Cecrops’, in Allen Memorial Art Bulletin vol. XI, no. 1 (Fall 1953), p. 8.
⁷ De Munck, B., ‘Construction and Reproduction: The Training and Skills of Antwerp Cabinetmakers in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries’, in Learning on the Shop Floor: Historical Perspectives on Apprenticeship, ed. De Munck, B., Kaplan, S. L., & Soly, H. (International Studies in Social History, 2007), pp. 94-95.
⁸ Winterbottom, M., Secret Splendour: The Hidden World of Baroque Cabinets, exh. cat. (The Holburne Museum, Bath, 2012-2013), p. 8.
⁹ Dupré, S., ‘Trading Luxury Glass, Picturing Collections and Consuming Objects of Knowledge in Early Seventeenth-Century Antwerp’ in Silent Messengers: The Circulation of Material Objects of Knowledge in the Early Modern Low Countries, ed. Dupré, S., & Lüthy, C. (Münster, 2011) p.283.