Reuniting 54 Illustrations from an Unpublished Manuscript

An Illustrated Dutch Translation of Virgil’s Aeneid  by Sebastiaen Vrancx

A drawing of a landscape featuring a river god appearing before a reclining man dressed in armor.The Frick Photoarchive’s inaugural online exhibition reunites all of the known drawings Sebastiaen Vrancx created to illustrate his own Dutch translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. In 1990, the journal Master Drawings first published and attributed the series to Vrancx, but because of space limitations, only ten of the drawings were illustrated. A more recent addendum to that article in the same journal appeared in 2013, with just five illustrations. This online exhibition shows all fifty-four images to the public for the first time.

Sebastiaen Vrancx (1573–1647) was a Flemish artist known as an innovative painter of battle scenes and village plunderings. Born in Antwerp, he made a formative trip to Italy at the end of the sixteenth century, where his intellect and artistic talent were stimulated by his exposure to the treasures of Rome. Upon his return to his hometown, Vrancx became an active member and eventually the dean of the “Romanists,” a religious Brotherhood whose prerequisites for membership included visits to the relics of St. Peter and St. Paul. Not surprisingly, given his interest in battle scenes, Vrancx was also a member of Antwerp’s citizens’ guard and fencers’ guild.

Vrancx's interest in the Aeneid must have stemmed not only from his love of Rome but also from his knowledge and love of literature.A drawing of a forge set in a cave or underground grotto with several men at work. In addition to the societies mentioned above, Vrancx played a leading role in De Violieren, one of Antwerp's Chambers of Rhetoric, and apparently wrote many poems and at least fourteen plays. With his fellow Rhetoricians, he would have been aware of the latest Netherlandish illustrations and translations of importance, including Karel Van Mander's Eclogues and Georgics (1597) and his Iliad  (1611), and Crispin van de Passe's Aeneid edition, the Speculorum Aeneidis Virgilianae (1612). It is possible that these translations inspired Vrancx and the Antwerp Chamber to attempt their own version of the Aeneid.

Although it appears that Vrancx’s Aeneid was intended for publication, no prints or illustrated books of the series have been found. What do remain are at least sixty-seven of the original illustrations, seven of which are accompanied by a rhymed paraphrasing of the pertinent lines from the Aeneid. A drawing of a battle with handwritten text included beneath the image.Several factors suggest that each illustration was originally joined with text, and that the series was meant to be printed as a book. First, the surviving examples of text are specific to their respective illustrations. Second, a number of the excerpts end with commas, indicating that the text continued onto a subsequent page. Further, all of the figures holding swords carry them in their left hands, with their shields and scabbards depicted on their right sides. Since this is the reverse of what one would expect (and a military aficionado such as Vrancx would never have made such an error), the implication is that prints were planned in reverse of the images. The alternative — tapestries — seems most unlikely because of the sheer number of illustrations (there were possibly as many as ninety-six originally) and the inclusion of the text. The lack of text on the other sheets could be attributed to the skillful manipulation of a pair of scissors.

What remains of the text does not correspond to any known published Dutch translation of the Aeneid from the early seventeenth century. Cornelis van de Ghistele's edition (published in 1556, 1583, 1596, and 1609) and Joost van den Vondel's edition (1646) are line-by-line translations of the epic, not the rhymed paraphrases that appear here.

A drawing of a standing man addressing a seated woman within a classical loggia. Neither were the paraphrases adapted from numerous contemporary French or Italian versions of the text consulted. The extant text appears instead to be a new attempt at a Dutch translation of the epic, most likely by Vrancx himself. The ink of the text matches the ink of the drawings. Had the series been published, it would have been the most extensive and innovative pictorial cycle of the epic since Sebastian Brant's 1502 edition, which had 137 images and was highly popular, influencing virtually every published or painted illustration of Virgil's works for the next half century. Vrancx’s attempt at a new series, apparently uninfluenced by Brant’s, was therefore a bold proposition, and would have made a unique pictorial contribution.

Thanks are due Stijn Alsteens and Esmée Quodbach for their help transliterating and translating the original text. Most thanks, however, are due to Professor Egbert Haverkamp-Begemann, who suggested the project originally and collected the majority of the images.

Louisa Wood Ruby
Head, Photoarchive Research


Top left:
Sebastiaen Vrancx (1573–1647)
The River God Tiber Appears to Aeneas (Book VIII, lines 26ff.), ca. 1615
Pen and brown ink, heightened with white (partially oxidized), 121 x 158 mm
Amsterdam, private collection

Top right:
Sebastiaen Vrancx (1573–1647)
Vulcan Forging Aeneas's Arms (Book VIII, lines 416ff.), ca. 1615
Pen and brown ink, 115 x 158 mm
Formerly Adolphe Stein, dealer, Paris

Bottom left:
Sebastiaen Vrancx (1573–1647)
Euryalus's Mother Consoled (Book IX, lines 473ff.), ca. 1615
Pen and brown ink, with brown wash over graphite, heightened with white (partially oxidized), 197 x 158 mm
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library (inv. no. 1973.22)

Bottom right:
Sebastiaen Vrancx (1573–1647)
Aeneas Bids Farewell to Dido (Book IV, lines 305ff.), ca. 1615
Pen and brown ink, 115 x 158 mm
Antwerp, Tyr Baudouin-Lowert de Wotrenge, dealer


Link to library catalog record: The Aeneid (Books I-XII)