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The Monkey in Art

Part 1

In Frans Franken and David Tenier's collaborative painting a chained monkey sits in the right foreground holding up an apple. Monkeys are ubiquitous figures in Flemish paintings of this period, and it is possible to trace some of their multiple significances through this work. A copy from Franken's studio survives in Switzerland and shows how the painting may have appeared before David Teniers made his own additions which included: the two men and a dog standing to the right of the painting, the chair with three paintings leaning on or against it and the little monkey in the foreground. Franken's original also included a monkey, but it was obscured by Tenier's later addition of a chair. The fact that he re-painted it, adding the motifs of the ball and chain and the apple, underlines its significance.

Our first assumption on seeing this work is that a monkey has no place in an art gallery - its presence adds a note of improbability. In fact the entire painting is a symbolic fantasy about the nature of collecting art. The wall on the left is dominated by either a huge painting or an enormous archway (a deliberate ambiguity) that provides us with a view of men with donkey's heads smashing and trampling books, precious objects and works of art. Above this image is a painting of a city engulfed by flames. Franken's painting was made in the early seventeenth century in the Roman Catholic city of Antwerp, at a time when the iconoclastic riots of 1566 were still in living memory. Thus the destroyers of art are depicted as donkey headed; half man, half beast, while the right wall of the gallery is pulled aside like a curtain to reveal a group of 16th century scholars in Renaissance costume seated at a table discussing books, art and a globe. In between these two images of learning and ignorance lies the gallery filled with paintings, many of them religious, symbolizing the rescue of art and learning from the evils of Protestant wreckers. In this space of admirable art-loving activity, the monkey strikes a discordant note.

Fettered monkeys, like this one, are traditionally used to symbolize man entrapped by earthly and sensual desires. However this monkey holds an apple; a common motif in Medieval and Renaissance images of the fall of man. Tempted by the fruit of knowledge, and enslaved by his earthly desires he becomes the focus of anxieties about the less admirable qualities of collecting art. Religious debates about the value or danger of images continued to rage throughout the Netherlands during this century, and Roman Catholic collectors of art were forced to confront concerns about greed, avarice, and the dangers of idolatry. This monkey therefore sits in the foreground of the painting to remind us of the new and difficult ambiguities surrounding art in this period.

There is a second reason why this monkey's presence in the gallery is entirely appropriate. Collections in the early seventeenth century were commonly designed to demonstrate enquiry into the wonder of the known universe. They were not restricted simply to paintings and sculpture, but included natural history specimens such as shells, representations of plants and animals, geological specimens, skeletons and, in the case of the very wealthiest collectors, real animals. The monkey shown here is a capuchin monkey from the Amazon basin, and would have been an object of curiosity and wonder in his own right. He is thus as "collectable" as the little Van Eyck portrait of Cardinal Albergati that stands nearby.

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