HEEM, Jan Davidsz. de
(b. 1606, Utrecht, d. 1684, Antwerpen)

Eucharist in Fruit Wreath

Oil on canvas, 138 x 125,5 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Religious flower still-lifes are a special category, first developed by the Fleming Daniel Seghers, a pupil of Jan Brueghel the Elder. While Dutch paintings of flowers, particularly tulips, clearly showed a tendency towards secularization (with noticeable emphasis on the economic and aesthetic value of flowers rather than their religious significance, Seghers tried to recover their spiritual symbolism, in accordance with the counter-reformational aims the Jesuit order.

Apart from the Virgin Mary, Seghers and his pupils had a preference for Eucharistic motifs. They particularly enjoyed painting arrangements of garlands around a niche in a wall in brown hues, showing a communion chalice with a host suspended above it. The host has a mysterious luminescent quality which emphasized the process of transubtantiation (the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus). This subject was painted especially frequently by Jan Davidsz. de Heem, who was born in Utrecht but spent a considerable amount of time in Antwerp.

Like Seghers, de Heem succeeded in adding a phosphorescent luminosity to his garlands, which also have an enamel-like clarity about them and richly colourful nuances. In his Eucharistic motifs they consist of fruit - particularly grapes - and bundles of grain, as well as apples, pears, figs and maize. The human eye can hardly appreciate the infinitely delicate precision of the tender, thread-like stems and little twigs winding around the jumble of the painstakingly detailed fruits. The Eucharist had a particularly prominent place in the Catholic Counter-Reformation, as a response to the Protestant doctrine that bread and wine merely had a symbolic value during communion.