FLEMISH SCHOOL, CA. 1600
AFTER MAARTEN DE VOS
The Fifth Day of Creation
(God Creating the Birds and the Fishes)
Oil on canvas
50 x 81 ⅞ in. (127 x 208 cm.)
Private Collection; sale, Sotheby’s, July 5, 2007, lot 107
Private Collection, New York, 2007-2018
This spectacular painting depicts the standing figure of God along an ocean shore, gesturing with his right hand toward the sky, and with his left toward the sea. The biblical source of the painting’s subject is from the first chapter of Genesis:
And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.
And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.
And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.
And the evening and the morning were the fifth day. (Genesis: I:20-23)
What the artist has joyfully presented here is the moment of God’s blessing: “Be fruitful and multiply.” And the audience for these words is an amalgam of both known and fanciful birds and fishes, illustrating the limits of sixteenth-century zoology. Among the familiar species are a crane, heron, owl, bird of paradise, ostrich, toucan, duck, turkey, eagle, bat, dragnonfly, spoonbill, blowfish, sawfish, flying fish, turtle, walrus, and beaver. Less frequently encountered in the natural world are the griffin and phoenix.
The identity of the painter of this canvas remains unidentified, but the source of the composition is a celebrated engraving by Joachim Sadeler I, based on a design by the Flemish painter Maarten de Vos. The engraving was part of a celebrated graphic series, Imago Bonitatis (Image of Goodness), published at the court of Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria in Munich around 1590.
The series has recently been studied in depth by Amanda Herrin.[i] She has written of the De Vos’s composition of the Fifth Day:
In The Fifth Day, God stands in an expansive coastal landscape amidst a melee of marine and avian creatures, swimming, jumping and flying in every direction. The animal life includes a comingling of the recognizable and the unfamiliar, including aquatic monstrosities and terrestrial fantasies. De Vos portrayed a number of European species mixed in with birds that were less well known at the time. Some of these seem to be designs born from the artist’s imagination; others, though readily identifiable to the modern viewer, would have appeared as strange curiosities from distant lands—namely Africa and the New World—to the eyes of contemporary beholders. De Vos combines such elements of fiction and scientific study into a credible landscape, one that reads much like a sixteenth-century naturalist’s catalogue of species. The Fifth Day displays several types of birds that demonstrate that De Vos was aware of the very latest ornithological knowledge and that he was negotiating different scientific and artistic sources of information. For instance, his articulation of a crane includes traits characteristic of the grey crowned crane (Balearica regulorum) and its close relative, the black crowned crane (Balearica pavonina), both native to most of Africa south of the Sahara. These cranes typically exhibit a crown of crest feathers, a bare cheek patch, dark primary feathers, white wing coverts and a black tail.
Herrin notes the scientific accuracy of some representations --for example, the toucan, which had only recently been discovered and described—as well as the phenomenon of DeVos’s combining features from known animals to represent less familiar and imaginary creatures. She speculates that the inclusion of both could suggest a universality by including both known species and “the many still-undiscovered species of God’s Creation.”
A few painted derivations from the De Vos-Sadeler print are known, but none on the majestic and heroic scale of the present painting. As Herrin has stated, “At the turn of the seventeenth century, to know nature was to know God. Printmakers and painters alike began to identify an artistic knowledge of nature with the naturalist’s view of the world. The collaborative work of De Vos and Sadeler on the Imago Bonitatis series redefined the Paradise Landscape as a synthesis of scientific inquiry and religious signification.”
[i] Amanda Herrin, “Pioneers of the Printed Paradise: Maarten de Vos, Jan Sadeler I & Emblematic Natural History in the Late Sixteenth Century,” in Zoology in Early Modern Culture, eds. Karl A.E. Enenkel and Paul J. Smith, (Intersections: Interdisciplinary Studies in Early Modern Culture) 32 (2014): 329-400.