In one of the most remarkable self-portraits ever created, Pieter van Laer reacts with horror to the frightening claws of the devil that have suddenly come to claim him. Dressed in the black cloak and cap of a magician, the artist, with bulging eyes and open mouth, has witnessed this apparition while standing behind a table filled with books, some with alchemical notations, a variety of vessels, a snuffed-out candle, and a skull resting on hot coals. To emphasize the very personal character of this dramatic image, Van Laer prominently signed this work on the musical score lying in the foreground, its lyrics warning that “the devil doesn’t jest.” Clearly, in his conjuring up a world of occult forces the magician has unleashed realms far beyond his control, and he is about to suffer the consequences of his audacity.
The identity of the magician as Van Laer is without question. His appearance is best known from a moody self-portrait in the Uffizi, Florence (fig 1). 1 That work, which probably dates about 1632–33, records a number of distinctive features similar to those in the present picture: a broad, brushy, upturned mustache, a short beard, a slim nose with a rounded tip, widely arching eyebrows, and a shaggy haircut flaring sideways at the ears.
The darkness of the scene, which is partially lit by a metal oil lamp hanging in the upper left, and the strange array of objects on the magician’s table denotes Van Laer’s macabre fascination with the underworld. The extinguished candle in the center of the picture has burned halfway down, perhaps suggesting the arrival of death midway through the course of one’s life. A thin trail of smoke rising from the upside-down skull, which sits on glowing embers, probably indicates that some unsavory concoction is being heated in this morbid cooking pot. 2 Various vessels contain unidentified liquids—a small mixing bowl filled with a red substance and a square bottle containing a copper-colored fluid—that one can imagine the magician using to create his potions. The eeriest of these vessels is the tapered glass with black creatures crawling on its surface. The spider at bottom center is most likely a deadly scorpion.
The pellets or seeds spilling out of a paper cone at the bottom right could be another ingredient for the magician’s brew, or perhaps an allusion to the Parable of the Tares (or Weeds) in Matthew 13:24–30 and 36–43, according to which the devil sows the seeds of sinful men amongst the seeds of those who will be saved. The parable was frequently employed by preachers of the time and was also treated by artists, for example by Jacques de Gheyn II (1565–1629) in a drawing of 1603, by Domenico Fetti (1588/89–1623) in a painting ca. 1622, and by Abraham Bloemaert (1566–1651) in a painting of 1624. 3
The books on the table are not identified by author’s names or titles, which is to be expected considering their likely content. Publications dealing with occult knowledge were included among the thousands of works listed in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books), which was frequently updated by the Congregation of the Index, the pope, and the Holy Office of the Inquisition; any knowledge of them could have landed Van Laer in difficult circumstances. The handwritten markings on the end of the largest book may be the artist’s approximation of Hebrew letters, suggesting heretical or esoteric ideas. 4 The symbols in the open book appear to be associated with magic and witchcraft, although the exact meanings of most of them are no longer understood. 5 The five-pointed inverted pentagram, however, represents the devil. 6 The pierced heart likely suggests suffering (especially from love), grief, or death. As is common in alchemical scenes of the seventeenth century, the individual motifs and symbols do not add up to a coherent message but rather create an atmosphere of illicit pursuits.
The prominent sheet of music, which contains the artist’s signature, is identified as a “Canon a 3 [voci]” (canon or “round” for three voices), specifically three tenors, according to the key indicated on the staff. Van Laer’s canon appears to be composed either in the Phrygian mode, which descends in a sequence called a “diabolus in musica,” or as the sketch of a “crab canon” (canon cancrizans), in which two musical lines reverse each other. 7 The crab is known for its back and forth movement, just as the devil runs counter to the divine plan. 8 In either case, the lyrics, “il diavolo no burla no il diav . . . a” (the devil doesn’t jest no the devil . . .), leave no doubt as to the warning that the painting conveys.
Although this painting is primarily concerned with the occult and witchcraft, it has certain resonances with alchemy. The alchemist’s labors were intimately bound to the study and early practice of chemistry, and a huge amount of literature evolved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries explaining the types of physical matter and the processes by which one could conduct experiments to transform one element into another. It was, for many, a respectable profession, and its scholarly component is evident in the list of significant scientists who sought to separate the essence of matter from its base components, among them Robert Boyle (1627–91) and Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727). 9 Many alchemists made significant scientific contributions to the development of, among others, medicines and cosmetics, as well as pigments and dyes. Nevertheless, alchemy’s ambiguous status in popular culture derived from its origins in natural philosophy, metaphysics, and religion. Alchemists were secretive about the processes that allowed them to make their transformations, and their texts and treatises utilized a wide range of occult signs and symbols similar to those seen in the open manuscript in Van Laer’s haunting painting.
Too little is known of Van Laer’s life to fully understand the psychological underpinnings that undoubtedly impacted this terrifying vision and drove him to paint it. Perhaps his interest in witchcraft derived from his deformed body—hunchbacked with a lower body three times larger than his torso. In Rome, where he painted this work in the mid-1630s, he was known as “il Bamboccio” (clumsy puppet) because of his stunted torso. In his day exposure to witchcraft was often said (especially by eager Inquisitors) to result in physical deformity.
Van Laer had a successful career in Rome, but he also seems to have lived a raucous life as part of a group of Netherlandish artists, the Schildersbent (painters’ group), who called themselves Bentvueghels (usually translated as “birds of a feather,” but in this case meaning “The Bent Flock”). The fraternity was known for its frolicsome meetings in taverns, especially its bacchic initiation rites and its antagonistic stance toward the high-minded Accademia di San Luca. This community of artists, however, also seems to have shared in Van Laer’s fascination with the occult. This interest is seen in a fascinating painting by Van Laer’s brother, Roeland van Laer (1598–ca. 1635) from around 1626, that depicts the Bentvueghels wildly drinking and performing a tableau vivant in a tavern during some sort of initiation rite. 10 Graffiti covers the back wall of the room, including proverbs, exhortations, a depiction of a flaming heart pierced by an arrow, and the same musical score that Pieter van Laer included in his painting. Interestingly, Roeland signed his painting on that score, just like Pieter would later do in Self-Portrait with Magic Scene. 11
In about 1630 Pieter van Laer made a fascinating drawing of the Bentveughels in a tavern that includes motifs also relevant to the present painting (fig 2). 12 The drawing depicts members of the Bentveughels drinking, smoking, playing backgammon, and vocalizing in a room decorated with numerous line drawings on the back wall. Two figures stand apart from the revelers, one pointing at the word “BAMBOO” (an abbreviation for Bamboccio) and the other leaning against the back wall. Between them two drawings on the back wall depict Van Laer, one a geometric cartoon of his short figure as seen from behind and the other a caricature of his head in profile. Ominously, however, on the right side of the wall is a drawing of a large skeleton (Death) holding up an hourglass, and next to it a large, full-length horned figure with satyr’s legs and wings holding out a claw-like hand not unlike the outstretched claws in the painting. 13 The overall appearance of this creature is in complete accord with contemporary illustrations of the devil, such as those in the 1608 “book of witches,” titled Compendium Maleficarum, by the Italian priest Guaccius (Francesco Maria Guazzo). 14 This macabre juxtaposition of a festive gathering with drawings of Death and the devil suggests that complex feelings and emotions were ingrained in the lives of the Bentvueghels, not just Van Laer.
Van Laer’s self-portrait shares an interest in rendering the passions then current in Italian and Netherlandish studios in Rome. Caravaggio (1571–1610) in particular was fascinated by the challenge of rendering the passions of fear and surprise. 15 Van Laer would have known and admired Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard of about 1593–94 (National Gallery, London); Head of Medusa, of 1596–98 (Uffizi, Florence); the astonished Assyrian in Judith and Holofernes, of about 1598–99 (Palazzo Barberini, Rome); and his later David with the Head of Goliath, of 1605–10 (Galleria Borghese, Rome). 16 The most important antecedent for Van Laer’s screaming self-portrait, however, was probably the famous marble bust by Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), The Damned Soul of 1619 (fig 3), which likewise employed the artist’s own features and represented a mortal on his way to hell. 17
No information is known about the original destination of Van Laer’s remarkable self-portrait, but it seems probable that he created this frightening image from some inner motivation rather than to fulfill a commission. Nevertheless, during the early seventeenth century a painting like this would have appealed to Van Laer’s Roman patrons because of the great artistic interest in intense visual drama and personal expression. In Rome, as well, the theme of magic as a dangerous temptation was particularly apt: in no other city did curiosity about the natural world so often collide with orthodox belief. 18
-Walter A. Liedtke, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.