Allegory, Ship of state – Frans Francken the Elder

We all know the story of the tortoise and the hare, it’s a great example of an allegory demonstrating those with natural talents could have the tendency to become lazy and complacent, where as the hard working ‘plodders’ may come up trumps against those who are more talented simply because they will put the extra effort in. Allegories in art and literature can serve many purposes from teaching people able the things they may go wrong as in Aesop’s fables, or being put to slightly more manipulative purposes, much like this painting by Frans Francken.

Francken was a Flemish painter and part of the Francken dynasty of painters who were influential in the Antwerp art scene in the 17th century. Francken was principally known for his large alter pieces and allegorical paintings. He was a pupil of Frans Floris who taught in the style of mannerism, a style known for its intellectual sophistication as well as its artificial rather than naturalistic qualities. You can see why this style suited the mind of someone who liked to paint allegories as the less realistic approach lends itself so well to presenting a picture with hidden meanings.

In this painting we see a ship with billowing sails, navigating through a rocky passage. Although the ship is at full sail, it is also equipped with oars. In the foreground, two mermaids, to the left in the background three giants, two with clubs, and to the right in the background a cave with a pack of wolves. On the ship we can see men of the clothe such as the pope and his cardinals along with figures representing the Spanish monarchy.

The allegory in this painting, is potentially a piece of catholic propaganda alluding to the long revolt of the Protestant Netherlands against the Spanish catholic rule.

The ship carrying its catholic passengers, looks like its is subject to attack and coercion on all fronts, yet they sail strongly through the perils around them, ready to Man the oars should the winds behind them change.

The revolt itself was eventually successful to the Protestant seven provinces, against the rule of the Roman Catholic King Phillip II of Spain. The religious clash of cultures built up slowly over time, but was given to outbursts of violence against the perceived repression of the crown. These tensions led to the formation of the independent Dutch republic and the revolt is know as one of the first successful secessions in Europe.

The giants in the back right corner, represent the Dutch republic, they rapidly grew during the revolt to become one of the world powers due to their merchant shipping and they underwent a period of economic, scientific and cultural growth. Despite their growth they are still shown in this picture as still looking fairly uncouth, with material barely covering their bodies and using the basic weapon of a club.

The wolves in the cave, represent the financial and cultural elite, which fled from the southern provinces and away from the heavy handed rule of King Phillip II, which ultimately assisted the success of the Dutch republic.

The mermaids in the foreground most likely represent the attempts of negotiation between the battling countries, being show as sirens trying to sway the religious passengers from their ultimate goal.

To fully understand the allegory presented by Francken, I think you need a much better understanding of the Dutch revolt than I have, but I can certainly appreciate the themes that are presented within this cleverly created piece.

Francken’s son would follow his fathers footsteps of creating allegorical paintings and continue this genres tradition.

What do you see in the painting? Why not let me know in the comments…


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