MASSYS, Quentin
(b. 1465/66, Leuven, d. 1530, Antwerpen)

Portrait of Erasmus of Rotterdam

Oil on panel, transferred to canvas, 59 x 47 cm
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

This painting is testimony to the high cultural climate of the time, and evidence of the links between two great humanist thinkers; Erasmus of Rotterdam and Sir Thomas More, both of whom contributed to the publication of Utopia. The portrait is one of two panels of a diptych that Massys painted in 1517, while Erasmus was in Antwerp as the guest of his friend Pierre Gillis. In a letter to More written on the thirtieth of May, 1517, Erasmus affirmed that "They are painting both me and Pierre Gillis on the same panel". The portrait was completed on the ninth of September of that same year, and the diptych was sent as a gift to Thomas More. More expressed his thanks for the gift enthusiastically in his letter of October 6, 1517, writing; "I am marvelously affected by the portraits of the men that you sent me: even if they had been only simple sketches of charcoal or on gessetto, they would enchant any person except one completely insensitive to literature or to virtuosity; and they touch me more than I am possibly able to explain as they are mementos - now tangible - of such good friends".

Erasmus is shown, intently at work, translating the epistle of St Paul to the Romans. The second half of the diptych, with the portrait of Pierre Gillis, is now in the collection of Lord Radnor at Longford Castle (Salisbury). Replicas of the portrait of Erasmus can be found at the Rijskmuseum in Amsterdam and at Hampton Court (England), while the Royal Museum in Antwerp possesses a replica of the portrait of Pierre Gillis.

In the Web Gallery of Art you can view several portraits of Erasmus by Renaissance painters, such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Dürer and Quentin Massys.