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The Monkey in Art

Part 3

While the overall subject of Crispijn van der Passe I's Allegory remains obscure, it is possible to draw some conclusions about individual motifs in the image. One of the most striking of these is the monkey who sits calmly in the centre of the foreground, gazing at the viewer. Behind him a man and a woman kiss and embrace - clearly part of the bacchanal taking place in the background. On the right side of the drawing, are two putti playing on a swing. Below them sits a rabbit which, in medieval natural history books, was thought to be capable of reproducing without the need for sexual intercourse. It therefore forms a virtuous contrast to the sinful monkey who embodies surrender to animal appetites.

In the sky of the left is the figure of Time (or Death) holding his scythe - an allegory on the fleeting nature of love and earthly pleasure. The centre of the painting is dominated by a tree that reminds the viewer of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden; one consequence of which was that Adam and Eve became aware of their nakedness, and here the nudity of the lovers in the background is emphasised by the clothed lovers in the foreground. A woman climbing the tree is wrapped serpent-like around the branch handing fruit to the man below. By eating of the tree of knowledge both sin and death became part of man's existence.

A vine heavily laden with grapes winds around the tree. Apart from the Bacchic significance of grapes (Bacchus is the God of wine) the fruitful vine also carries a reference to the Book of Psalms 128.3 "may your wife be like a fruitful vine by the sides of thy house". The image therefore seems to be a collection of allegorical motifs referring to both positive and negative aspects of love. How then might the monkey figure in this allegory? In addition to the general association of monkeys with sinfulness and sensuality, it has been argued that they also represent female sexuality - often featuring in images of prostitutes and women using their sexual allure to distract men while they empty his purse. In this image, the woman embracing the man in the foreground is certainly the more active party. Her more passive partner holds in his hand what appears to be a watch, which would underline the Vanitas theme introduced by the figure of Time or Death in the clouds above them to the left, and echoed by the references to original sin.

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