BRUEGHEL, Jan the Elder
(b. ca. 1568, Bruxelles, d. 1625, Antwerpen)

The Sense of Hearing

1618
Oil on panel, 65 x 107 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

This piece, a characteristic product of the Rubens workshop, is one of the paintings in the series depicting the five senses. The allegorical content of these works was always obvious, and the pieces of the series did not become separated. The still-life details enumerating many traditional symbols were painted by Jan Brueghel.

The amazing increase in the commercial and agricultural product range caused a complete restructuring of people's perception - a change which can be seen very clearly in the numerous paintings and series of paintings on the subject of the Five Senses. Jan Brueghel the Elder's famous variations on this motif - now in the Prado, Madrid - show a number of settings, each of which is associated with the five senses. The dramatic 'unity of character' has been divided into components of the senses, thus reflecting an increasing compartmentalization of the world into functional spheres - a world which is defined in terms of luxury goods.

In Jan Brueghel's paintings, the part of purely passive reception or physical consumption is played by an allegorical female figure. Interestingly, by depicting her naked or semi-naked breasts and sometimes her entire body, the painter emphasizes an element of eroticism. In this way the consumption of luxury goods and an emotional state of ecstasy are recognized as a syndrome.

In the still-life of Hearing we can examine nearly all the instruments of the period. Near the Flemish harpsichord we can see a drum, a trumpet, a trombone, a cornetto, a lysard, several flutes, various sizes of violas and gambas, a lute, and a shawm. On a table to the right are a small horn, a trumpet, a bell and a reed pipe. The title of the musical score reveals that it is a six-part madrigal dedicated to Prince Pietro Philippi Albert and to Princess Isabella. The rifle, leaned against the chair, is rendered as a sound-producing implement, along with the other musical instruments used during a hunt; it does not unequivocally refer to Mars, as it has been proposed. In this painting the clock is not the symbol of transitoriness, rather it is a musical clock, several versions of which are visible in the right background. The talking and singing birds were also included on account of their voices. In the hall opening from the left rear, members of a musical group are entertaining themselves. The pictures on the wall of the room also refer to music: they depict the concert of the gods and Orpheus taming the wild animals with his music. The triptych showing the Annunciation and the announcement to the shepherds depicted on the inside cover of the harpsichord are also episodes which can be associated with sound.

The nude female figure is, according to some opinions, Euterpe, the Muse of music, while others see her as Venus. The goddess of love may indeed be looked for in a painting associated with the human senses. Such supposition is supported by the presence of a little cherub (Amor?) in four of the five pictures, although he is only depicted as a winged Amor in the allegories of Touch and Sight.

As an animal famous for its keen hearing, the stag became the symbol for this sense. In his Iconologia, Ripa prescribes the inclusion of a stag at the side of a woman playing the lute.