Saturday in the Museum with Jan

Image: Jan Steen, Feast of St. Nicholas (1665-1668).

For our last art post before we take a break for Christmas travel, we stay in the low countries.  This year we have focused on the art of feasts and communal dining, and this week’s piece fits that pattern.

The legend of St. Nicholas, a Greek bishop known for his kindness to children, largely was lost after the Reformation, but one of the places where it was kept alive was the Netherlands, where St. Nicholas went by the name Sinterklaas.  From old Amsterdam it spread to New Amsterdam.  Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.  The gift giving associated with the feast day of December 5th or 6th (December 19 on the old calendar) moved to Christmas day, with gifts in stockings instead of shoes set out for the night.

This painting is by the great Dutch Baroque painter Jan Steen and is on display at the Rijksmuseum.  It captures the moment of truth for the children.  The girl at center holds tight to her doll – John the Baptist, not Cabbage Patch.  The crying boy (mocked by another boy) clearly has struck out getting only a switch of twigs (barely visible in the shoe held by the older girl).

A couple other details from Wikipedia.  The breads at the forefront are an embedded still life:

“A basket of assorted traditional Christmas sweetmeats like honey cake, gingerbread, waffles, nuts, and apples is actually a miniature still life within the greater painting. Even more examples of the specially celebratory feasts of Christmastime appear on the left side of the foreground. The apple and the coin are references to the old tradition of giving hidden apples and coins to friends as presents. A special diamond shaped caked called a duivekater, leans up against the table and marks the special occasion. In another painting by Steen, the Leiden baker, this same pastry also appears.”

One of the children near the chimney is holding a gingerbread man, indicating a Catholic family.  Protestants, not supportive of the worship of saints, went so far as to forbid the baking of something in the likeness of a person.


However you celebrate this time of year, we hope that your travels are safe, your gatherings are joyous, and you face the new year healthy.

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