Kwab: The Auricular in Amsterdam

Maarten van ‘t Klooster  reviews an exhibition on one of the strangest and most fascinating of decorative styles – the Auricular.

It is not often that an exhibition is based around an ornamental style – or, more correctly, around a certain type of ornament – but at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam that’s exactly what’s been done… with class. The Auricular in its context.  The exhibition title is KWAB – Dutch Design in the age of Rembrandt. ‘Kwab’, the Dutch for ‘lobe’, is better translated in this case as ‘Auricular’, the idiomatic name for a type of ornament and the associated style which developed during the late 16th-early 17th century, primarily in The Netherlands. Describing this style is no easy feat without becoming very metaphorical. Art journalist Stefan Kuiper of the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant describes it like this:

‘Its characteristics are instantly recognizable, consisting of everything that is squashy and organic: folds of skin, strands of muscle, ear lobes, bones, spiral shells and slugs. What typifies it is its defiance of any logic. The Auricular has no up or down, no inside or out, there are just free flowing forms, intangible, like cigarette smoke.’[1]

His is a more charming summary, compared with the Van Dale dictionary of the Dutch language on ‘kwab’ – ‘a soft lump of fat or meat’.[2] It is a style which came – amongst other sources – out of the grotesque motifs which, shortly before, had been all the rage in Italy [3]. The Dutch version of the Auricular gained much of its impetus through the work of three silversmiths – the brothers Paulus and Adam van Vianen, and Johannes Lutma.

Adam van Vianen, ewer with lid, Utrecht, 1614, silver gilt (gilded later), 25 x 14 x 9 cm., Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The starting point, as well as the highlight, of the exhibition is the ewer which Adam van Vianen produced in 1614. It was commissioned by the Amsterdam guild of silversmiths, in remembrance of Adam’s brother Paulus, who had died shortly before in Prague. This in itself was unusual, since Adam worked in Utrecht, and most guilds were not too keen to promote work by craftsmen from outside their own city. The ewer was owned by the guild until the latter was abolished at some point after 1794, and in 1821 it was sold for a meagre 166 guilders – in today’s money around €1,600, or £1,400 [4]. Despite the relatively small worth put on it, it was not melted down for its value in silver, but passed into a Scottish collection. Over 150 years later, in 1976, the ewer was offered at auction. The Rijksmuseum was able to purchase it for their collection, for 700,000 guilders (nowadays, around €840,000, or £740,000).[5]  It is somewhat surprising that not one of the major British museums managed to or seemed to want to retain it.

The Rijksmuseum acquired the ewer some time ago, but has only now decided to organise an exhibition around the Auricular ornament which defines it – or, it could be said, around the ewer itself, which helped to catalyze in Amsterdam a flowering of the style which had evolved partly around the figure of Paulus van Vianen at the court of Prague.

As seems to be a lasting trend in exhibitions, KWAB opens with a video screening [click image to view]. The film that is shown is not a documentary of the style: it is restricted to showing Adam van Vianen’s ewer in close-up and loving detail.

Adam van Vianen, ewer with lid, 1614, silver gilt,  detail of lizards inside the bowl; detail of handle

It is now possible to look at the inside, which is normally hidden – at the lizards nuzzling each other, and the swirling shapes of water snakes and ripples around them. On the outside, meanwhile, a monkey sits at the bottom, carrying a clam shell on its back from which the cup of the ewer pours upwards; whilst on the brim of the cup a female body leans over, and from her shoulders the handle of the ewer flows down the side of the cup, spiralling into the crinkled edge of the clam shell, towards the base. The whole ewer was made out of a single sheet of silver, apart from the lid and inner cup in the bowl. Looking at all these magnified images on the video underlines the importance of this object. The small room which follows the screening of the film offers a sequel to it: several carefully selected objects, prints and drawings outline the birth of Dutch Auricular ornament.

Hendrick Goltzius, Bacchus with a drinking vessel, Haarlem, c. 1596, engraving, 25 x 18.3 cm., & detail, Rijksmuseum

An engraved print by Hendrick Goltzius – whose work the Van Vianen brothers must have known – shows some of the first steps into the world of the Auricular. It is one of his best-known, perhaps: an engraving of Bacchus holding an Auricular bowl (for more on Goltzius’s part in forming the style, see ‘Auricular ornament in Dutch Architecture (1610-1675)’ by Dr Pieter Vlaardingerbroek).

Paulus van Vianen, basin with scenes from the story of Diana & Actaeon (one of a set with a ewer), Prague, 1613, silver, 40 x 50 cm., Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Such images were almost certainly present in Paulus van Vianen’s mind when he travelled to Prague. There, in the service of the Bohemian Emperor Rudolph II, and amongst other sympathetic artists, he further developed the Auricular style, and, during his visit to his brother Adam in 1610, probably passed on his enthusiasm for this relatively new genre of ornament. Besides items by Paulus such as the Diana & Actaeon basin, above, the museum is also showing some of Adam van Vianen’s early Auricular work.

This powerful opening is immediately followed by the central object of the exhibition. In the first large room, the ewer Adam made in honour of his brother stands sovereign, on a pedestal. The room is otherwise filled with drawings, prints, furniture, embossed leather and paintings, offering a wide array of work in the early Auricular style. In this room it is apparent how the design of the exhibition enhances both the artefacts and their placing in the room. If the reflection of the light on the lid of the ewer does not attract your attention, the halo on the floor probably will.

Barend Graat (1628-1709), Pandora, 1676, o/c, 113 x 102 cm., Rijksmuseum

It is evident that the ewer received wide acclaim immediately after it was made. The Rijksmuseum has assembled three paintings depicting the very same ewer in various sizes. In fact, an entire room could have been filled just with paintings depicting this object (in the Auricular conference, held at the Wallace Collection, London, in 2016, the ewer was the single object to be mentioned in almost every paper).

Adam van Vianen (attrib.), design for a basin, Utrecht, c. 1610-27, black chalk, pen & brown ink on grey paper, 23.4 x 28.9 cm., Nationalmuseum Stockholm

There are some stunning and evocative designs for metalwork by Adam van Vianen on display, which are almost drawings for sculptures; this particular room reveals more of the ripples caused by the Auricular style in the art historical pond. The design, above, like the related border of the Diana & Actaeon basin, also reveals the accuracy of the 19th century name for the style in its use of cartilaginous and sinewy ornament.

 Dutch school, gilt leather wall hanging, c.1650–60, Skokloster Castle, Sweden. Photo: courtesy of the Rijksmuseum

Leather wall hangings covered with Auricular ornaments and a table cloth made with embossed leather from Sweden show that the style was appreciated abroad from an early stage in its development (in this context, see too the abstract, ‘Gilt leather: a creative industry avant la lettre’, by Dr Eloy Koldeweij).

The engraved ornament by Theodorus van Kessel in his Constighe Modellen (or ‘artful examples’),  made after designs by Adam or his son Christiaen van Vianen between c.1646-52, probably never assisted greatly in spreading the fame of this new ornament, but did help to spread Adam’s reputation. The Auricular style was also taken up by furniture makers, and several tables in the exhibition show, in their carved wooden bases, how the intrinsic properties of the medium influenced the visual effect of the ornaments.

Johannes Lutma (1584-1669), drinking cup, Amsterdam, 1641, silver, 7.8 x 15 x 20.3 cm., Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

The silversmiths of Amsterdam (members of the same guild which had ordered the Van Vianen ewer in 1614) also influenced the later development of the style. One of the most important artists in this guild was Johannes Lutma, who came from North-West Germany and had worked in Paris before settling in Amsterdam in 1621. He arrived there too late to have been involved in the commissioning of the ewer[6], but he had been a colleague of Paulus van Vianen, and quickly rivalled the quality of the latter’s work and that of his brother. Like them, he began to sign and date his work. Once more, the work of a silversmith was the subject of famous painters like Jacob Backer and Rembrandt, and Lutma himself was also the subject on several occasions.

Publicity photo from the exhibition showing, centre left, one of the gates from the choir screen of the Nieuwe Kerk, Amsterdam, by Johannes Lutma, c. 1650, brass

The magnificently elaborate and intertwined brass choir screen which he designed for the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam is one of his best-known works, massive in scale and conception, with a long crest of pierced, spiky waves of Auricular ornament.

The exhibition widens its focus at this point, and looks at the work of the braziers – the brass-workers –  who used Auricular decoration for the furnishing of church interiors. Through this means the Auricular style could spread easily between  large cities; and, from the middle of the seventeenth century, objects in this style progressively entered the houses of the middle class. Picture frames and furniture were the first objects available for purchase by a larger group of collectors.

Rembrandt (1606-69), The Holy Family, 1646, oil/ wood, 46.8 x 68.4 cm., Museumslandschaft Hessen, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Kassel 

Rembrandt himself employed Auricular ornament at times, and was also in possession of plaster casts of works by Adam van Vianen, according to the inventory made when he went bankrupt – although Reinier Baarsen states in the exhibition catalogue that the mythological subject matter of these particular objects is more reminiscent of Paulus than of Adam van Vianen. Next to the drinking cup by Lutma hangs a painting of the Holy family by Rembrandt.  Within the image he painted a frame-like border and a curtain on a rail; the curving top of the painted border clearly shows Auricular motifs, combined with classically-inclined sides and Baroque ornaments along the base.

Nicolaes Maes, (attrib.; 1634-93), The Holy Family (after Rembrandt), c.1646-50, red chalk, blue chalk, brown & red wash on vellum, 22.8 x 27.9 cm., Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A drawing attributed to Nicolaes Maes, also in the exhibition, gives a  better impression of what the original work by Rembrandt might have looked like, with a fully-developed Mannerist arched top decorated with skeletal and cartilaginous forms.

Unknown framemaker, Auricular frame, Netherlands, c. 1650-60, gilded limewood, 55 x 47 cm., Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Framemakers themselves had a wide array of materials to choose from at this point, since ebony workers like Herman Doomer were changing the variety of woods in vogue for both frames and furniture.  For Auricular designs, however, a much softer type of wood than ebony or oak was necessary: something relatively easy to carve and which could imitate the melting forms of Auricular silverwork. For these the framemakers usually preferred to work in limewood, which is quite soft, with a short grain that is excellent for carving the soft and bulbous shapes required. The exhibition shows one especially fine example of an empty Auricular frame from the Rijksmuseum’s own collection. All the motifs in this frame are evocative of marine shapes and sea creatures, with fish- and frog- like masks at top and bottom – although the top corners are carved into elephants’ heads, the trunks transmuting into scrolling spiral shells.

Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen I, Portrait of Jasper Schade, Utrecht, 1654, o/c, 113.5 x 91 cm., unknown framemaker, Auricular giltwood frame, 1654; Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede

Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen I, Portrait of Cornelia Strick van Linschoten, pendant to Jasper Schade, above; Utrecht, 1654, o/c, 113 x 90 cm., unknown framemaker, Auricular giltwood frame, 1654, & detail; Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede

This pair of Dutch Auricular frames is far more refined than the  empty Rijksmuseum frame; they may have been made in Utrecht, as both sitters and painter lived there, in the city of the Van Vianens [7]. In comparison, the empty frame may possibly have a provincial origin.  The Van Ceulen frames epitomize the Auricular style as it was adapted to picture frames, the carving appearing effortlessly adapted to mimic the dissolving forms of silverware.

Unknown painter, Portrait of Nicolaes van der Merct, 1662, oil on copper, 11.5 x 8.7 cm.; unknown framemaker, oval Auricular frame, 1662, gilded limewood; private collection, Germany

Another possibly provincial example of a made-to-measure Auricular frame is found around the anonymous portrait of Middelburg merchant Nicolaes van der Merct. The framemaker may have been inspired by a source similar to the engraved cartouches published by Lutma and other artists; although again his work is less fluid and well-integrated than theirs.

Jacob Lutma, after Johannes Lutma, ‘Hans von Aachen painting Paulus van Vianen in a decorative cartouche, Amsterdam, 1653, etching/engraving, 22.4 x 18.4 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In the case of the Van der Merct portrait, the frame surpasses the quality of the painting, making it a very interesting object. As the catalogue points out, the Auricular ornaments are combined with classical laurel festoons; this is characteristic of 17th century Netherlandish giltwood frames, which might mingle classical, Auricular and Baroque elements with inventive ease [8].

Anonymous Amsterdam craftsman, dolls’ house made for Petronella de la Court, 1670-90, the Picture Gallery; Centraalmuseum, Utrecht

Gerard Hoet, Sleeping nymph in a cave, lying on the left, Amsterdam, c.1674, oil/panel, 13.2 x 16.5 cm.; unknown framemaker, Auricular frame, Amsterdam, 1674, gilded limewood; & above, hanging in Petronella de la Court’s dolls’ house; Centraalmuseum, Utrecht

Gerard Hoet, Sleeping nymph in a cave, lying on the right, Amsterdam, 1674, oil/panel, 13.2 x 16.6 cm.; unknown framemaker, Auricular frame, Amsterdam, 1674, gilded limewood; & above, hanging in Petronella de la Court’s dolls’ house; Centraalmuseum, Utrecht

Perhaps even more impressive are the two tiny frames which come from a 17th century doll’s house, owned and furnished by Petronella de la Court between 1670 and 1690.  Most of the frames in this particular doll’s house – still completely intact with all its furnishings – are Auricular; two landscapes by Johan van Huchtenburg have very similar frames to Hoet’s, and are of probably similar date [9].  Only the scale of the ornaments relative to the paintings indicates that these frames are not on the large format works we might think that we are looking at in a photo…

Gabriel Metsu (1629-67), Man and woman at a virginal, Amsterdam, c.1665, oil/panel, 38.4 x 32.2 cm., National Gallery, London

Auricular frames remained fashionable well into the 17th century, regularly showing up on paintings of interiors, as in excellent examples by Gabriel Metsu and Emanuel de Witte. It is ironic that neither painting is today in an Auricular frame, but on the other hand such paintings usually show rectangular ebony frames hanging alongside elaborately carved gilded settings, which might form a centrepiece, or frame a particularly precious painting. Both styles co-exist happily in interiors where stark black-&-white floor tiles and white walls are offset by opulent textiles and silverware.

John Norris (attrib., ?1642-1707), ‘Sunderland’ frame, c.1672-75, giltwood, on Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), Portrait of the Duke of Lauderdale, c.1672-75, o/c, 128.4 x 100.4 cm, Ham House, National Trust

Christiaen van Vianen, Adam’s son, continued his workshop after the death of his father in 1627, moving several years later to London, where he became one of the foremost silversmiths in the fashionable style of the Auricular. This had begun to establish itself in Britain at around the same time, or slightly earlier – at the end of the reign of James I and the beginning of Charles I’s, when the court was open to various influences from the Netherlands and Italy. Inigo Jones and Van Dyck  were of major importance in this respect [10] . Auricular ornaments were actually applied to picture frames in Britain before anywhere else, and became fashionable as early as the 1630s.  By the 1660s a new version of the style had appeared; these are now referred to as ‘Sunderland’ frames, from the collection of the Earl of Sunderland at Althorp [11].  The major differences between the Dutch and British Auricular style are that the latter is carved in a more shallow relief, and the sight edge is not linear but flows irregularly over the outer edge of the canvas[12].

Hans Gudewerth the younger, Epitaph for Heinrich Ripenauw, Eckernförde, c. 1650-1651, oak, painted brown around 1880, with paintings, painted with oil on panel, 340 x 175 cm., Evangelisch-utherische St. Nikolaikirche, Eckernförde

The last two rooms demonstrate how the Auricular style was expressed elsewhere in Europe. In countries surrounding the Netherlands, the idiosyncratically lobe-like quality of the Dutch Auricular style was not replicated [13]. In the North-German town of Eckernförde, the most important woodworker in the Auricular style was Hans Gudewerth the Younger. As in Britain, he had a different approach to the style, but his was to treat it more in terms of free-standing ornamental elements, rather than as an integrated flow of motifs around the frame – this may seem almost like an anticipation of the Rococo.

Unknown cabinetmaker, cabinet, Paris, c.1640, façades: pine, poplar & pearwood, ebony veneer; interior: ebony, pear wood, ivory, bone, purpleheart, iroko, palisander, pewter, mirrored glass, drawers of padauk, 216 x 190 x 64 cm., & detail; Nationalmuseum Stockholm; detail, courtesy of Nationalmuseum, Stockholm; photo Hans Thorwid/ Nationalmuseum

The last room is reserved for one of the very rare pieces of French Auricular furniture. As a style it seems to have been a bit too much for the French taste, and it never achieved quite the popularity it did in The Netherlands, Britain, Germany or Sweden: see Marika Takanishi Knowles, ‘Who’s afraid of the French Auricular?’.  However, this Parisian cabinet, on loan from Stockholm, is decorated in full Auricular style. It is displayed in a room with four columns, each carrying a screen depicting detailed images of the cabinet; the video can also be seen here. The columns are decorated with black and white stripes, reminiscent of the columns of Daniel Buren in the Cour d’Honneur in Paris…

…and from these columns it’s a small step to the exhibition designer, Keso Dekker, who deserves an honourable mention. He is widely acclaimed as a designer for ballet and dance theatre productions, and has come up with a setting for this exhibition which cannot be overlooked; the graphic quality of his work offers a striking contrast to the 17th century Auricular.

The Rijksmuseum has published a well-composed book to accompany the exhibition, written by Reinier Baarsen, the senior curator, with Ine Castelijns van Beek. Since no definitive work on the Auricular has appeared in some time, it was decided not to publish a regular catalogue, but rather a comprehensive book, containing a section of catalogue entries.  There is a Dutch and an English edition.

KWAB is a very successful example of how a subject with a fairly narrow focus can be the basis for an ambitious and thorough presentation. Based on extensive research, a convincing picture is painted of the rise, blossoming and dissemination of the Auricular style. The exhibition is starred  with objects which represent the peaks of their respective genres, and which ride on the expertise of the various disciplines involved. It is definitely worth visiting, and the catalogue is also a valuable addition to any art historical library.  One mild criticism: the subtitle for the exhibition, ‘Dutch design in the age of Rembrandt’, following the strong ‘KWAB’, is unnecessary; this show does not need a link to the popular ‘Dutch design’ of recent decades, nor to ride on the shoulders of the giant Rembrandt – ‘Auricular style’ is enough in itself.

The exhibition runs from 30 June – 16 September 2018 at the Rijksmuseum.


Maarten van ‘t Klooster studied art history at VU University in Amsterdam and graduated the Master of Curatorial Studies at VU University and University of Amsterdam. He has a particular interest in nineteenth century art and picture frames. He is a regular guest speaker on picture frames on the Master’s course Art, Market and Connoisseurship at VU University.

Limewood table base, c.1635-45


A note on some Auricular frames: The Frame Blog

The frames in the Rijksmuseum exhibition form a small but highly important part of the whole display; and those that have been included provide a good summary of the versions of the Auricular fashionable at various periods and in different countries.

 Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen I, Portrait of Cornelia Strick van Linschoten, pendant to Jasper Schade, above; Utrecht, 1654, o/c, 113 x 90 cm., unknown framemaker, Auricular giltwood frame, 1654, &detail of fish/dolphin head at lateral centre of frame; Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede

The Van Ceulen frames are some of the most beautiful of all Auricular designs, imitating in wood the melting and morphing shapes of the Van Vianens’ silverwork; they are also remarkable for the consistency of their ornament, which is almost entirely marine, including spiral and knobbed shells, ripples and curling waves, fish or dolphin heads, fins and gills and folded fishy mouths. These motifs derive originally from the popularity of marine ornament in Italy in the 16th century, and the decoration of grottoes, fountains and Mannerist sea creatures designed by artists like Buontalenti.

Christiaen van Vianen (fl. 1600-67), The Dolphin Basin, 1635, silver, V&A

They also suggest something of the importance of the sea to the Dutch, who were economically partly dependent on the fishing industry –

‘The herring fishery reached its zenith in the first half of the seventeenth century. Estimates put the size of the herring fleet at roughly 500 busses and the catch at about 20,000 to 25,000 lasts (roughly 33,000 metric tons) on average each year in the first decades of the seventeenth century.’ [14]

– but were even more deeply engaged in sea-borne commerce. By the second half of the 16th century, Baltic trade was controlled by the Dutch, who then expanded into the Mediterranean, and in the early 17th century into the Atlantic, to capture trade with the Americas [15]. Marine decoration was therefore symbolic and patriotic, as well as an expression of the intense contemporary curiosity about the physical world.

The empty frame displayed in the exhibition is also notable, and especially intriguing for the elephants’ heads which are one of its most distinctive features.

 Unknown framemaker, Auricular frame, Netherlands, c. 1650-60, gilded limewood, 55 x 47 cm., Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Cornelis Bisschop, Young woman and a cavalier, early 1660s, o/c, 38 ½ x 34 ¾ ins (97.8 x 88.3 cm.), Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [not in exhibition]

In his weighty two-volume catalogue of the Netherlandish paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Walter Liedtke mentions – unusually – the frame on the work above, by Cornelis Bisschop:

‘The painting’s carved and gilded frame is remarkable, and possibly original to the picture.  The canvas is unusually close to square in format, and neither it nor the frame has been cut down, suggesting that Bisschop himself may have put them together… C.J. de Bruyn Kops considers the frames likely to have been made in the Netherlands during the 1660s.  A pair of frames in very similar Auricular style, but without the elephant heads and lion’s muzzle at the top, are original to portraits of Jasper Schade and his wife, dated 1654, by Cornelis Jonson van Ceulen the Elder…’ [16]

These frames are indeed slightly related, in the similar flow of undulating spiral shells around the frieze; however, the Van Ceulen pair is composed almost completely of marine motifs, with dolphins’ heads at the lateral centres, whilst the Bisschop frame flows less smoothly, and has, as well as the elephants’ heads at the top corners  and the lion’s muzzle at the top centre, noted by Liedtke, an ambivalent but earthy animal mask at the bottom.

Left: Auricular frame, c. 1650-60, 55 x 47 cm., Rijksmuseum; & right: Cornelis Bisschop, Young woman and a cavalier, early 1660s, Metropolitan Museum of Art; elephant’s head corner motif on both details

The empty frame displayed in the Kwab exhibition is another step on again from the Bisschop frame; it is proportionately heavier and deeper, the Auricular motifs piling up against each other with less control over the morphing of one form into another, while the froglike mouth at the bottom is almost comic in its effect [17].  However, the elephant heads at the top corners are, paradoxically, beautifully integrated into the flow of ornament at that point – the trunks scrolling into the tops of the spiral shells and the ears echoing the lobes of various kinds which fold around it.

These elephants are striking in their size, and in the way in which they dominate the frame, stretching over almost two-thirds of the top rail and reaching well down the sides. In contrast, the elephant heads on the Bisschop frame are tiny, hardly integrated, and need to be searched for to be seen. They are also more naturalistic, standing out from their Auricular setting, whereas the elephants on the empty frame have been translated entirely into an Auricular idiom.

The significance of elephants is intriguing; why have they been adopted into the generally marine genre of animals associated with the Auricular (saving the odd lion, leopard, and eagle)? Well, although Amsterdam imported large amounts of ivory by the seventeenth century[18], the whole live elephant was a still a rarity in Europe, known through descriptions such as Pliny’s:

‘…the Elephant… commeth neerest in wit and capacitie, to men: for they understand the language of that country wherein they are bred, they do whatsoever they are commanded… and withall take a pleasure and delight both in love and also in glorie… they embrace goodnesse, honestie, prudence, and equitie…’ [19]

Hendrick Gerritsz Pot, The glorification of Prince Willem I, o/c, 1620,  Frans Hals Museum

Karel van Mander, writing two years after that translation of Pliny, in 1603-4, states that: ‘The Elephant means the king, and the Egyptians used it to mean that’[20], and Laura Orsi, in an essay which quotes Mander, produces in evidence of this a Dutch echo of Mantegna’s Triumphs of CaesarThe glorification of William I, by Hendrick Pot, where three hefty elephants carry Faith, Hope and Charity along, in front of William of Orange [21]. (This frame is pre-Auricular, with scrolling Sansovinesque cartouches supporting the base). The elephant was therefore just the right material for use in an impresa as a symbol of kingship, good governance, intelligence, and general goodness.

Rembrandt (1606-69), An elephant, 1637, black chalk on paper, Albertina, Vienna

Rembrandt’s famous elephant, captured in several drawings, is probably a portrait of Hansken, who travelled through Europe from about 1630 to the 1650s and was in Amsterdam in 1637, the date of the drawings. Rembrandt used these observational sketches in two Biblical works – according to Leonard Slatkes, for the animal’s symbolic properties[22]; however, the nature of the drawings is accurate and scientific, in a similar way to Leonardo’s work.

The Golden Age in the Netherlands appreciated accuracy and scientific observation; it did not only inherit a system of symbols based on the natural world – it investigated that world with more rigour and curiosity than ever before. Anatomical dissection was a part of this; according to Rina Knoeff,

‘In the early modern Republic, the rise of commerce brought with it an advancement and social upgrading of artisanal skills and knowledge. With regard to the investigation of nature, this particularly resulted in the collection and skilful preservation of natural objects and in the development and perfection of techniques of dissection, vivisection and injection.’ [23]

Dissection, however, was not purely dispassionate, it was an investigation of ‘God’s divine handiwork’:

‘…an anatomical dissection had the same function as reading the Bible – it was considered an important means to know God, through the works of His creation.’ [24]

The symbolic and the scientific might thus go happily hand-in-hand.

Dr Allison Stielau discounts a direct interaction of this contemporary fascination with dissection with the cartilaginous and lobe-like nature of the Auricular, but admits that there are links:

‘One thread running through discussion of Auricular ornament has been the desire to link it causally to 17th century anatomical research, particularly dissection. While there is little evidence to support this claim, it is undeniable that Auricular frames share with contemporary anatomical illustration an aesthetic of rippling fleshiness.’[25]

Paulus van Vianen, basin with scenes from the story of Diana & Actaeon (one of a set with a ewer), Prague, 1613, silver, 40 x 50 cm., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The work of the Van Vianens can also hardly be described other than by using words such as cartilaginous, sinewy or vertebrate, whilst the very term ‘Auricular’, even though coined in the late 19th century, pertains to the folds and curves of the ear. However, apart from actual dissections, there was an associated medically-related fashion, as it were, and this was a sort of extension of the kunstkammer, where the collection of objects of beauty, natural interest and exoticism was extended (particularly by doctors) to the collection of rather more macabre items – ‘skeletons from executed criminals and the stuffed skin of a woman… the bladder of a man… a human skin in a frame…a shirt made from human intestines’[26]. The curiosity and freedom from moral constraint which led to these collections was mirrored in the thirst to examine, dissect and display specimens from every available source.  The elephants who appeared in Europe seldom did so for long, dying in fires, drowning in ditches, or simply succumbing to the fatigue of being walked across the Continent; and their corpses were always pounced upon by local doctors, and also needed to be preserved from souvenir-hunting collectors.

All these various concerns and interests could be said to be represented in the form of the Auricular frame.  In Britain, the later wave of designs, from the 1650s and 1660s, had a particular name:

‘Leather work’ is how such frames were known in the trade to artists and craftsmen, at least from the 1670s. The name occurs as a ‘leatherwork gilt frame’ in Mary Beale’s accounts in 1677 and 1681, and as a ‘guilt leatherworke frame’ in the records for Peter Lely’s estate in about 1680.  The term appears as ‘leatherwork’ in the accounts of Grinling Gibbons for architectural woodwork at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1697 and at Hampton Court Palace in 1701…’ [27]

Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), Elizabeth Murray, Lady Tollemach, later Countess of Dysart & Duchess of Lauderdale with a black servant, c.1651, Ham House, Richmond, National Trust

This relates, of course, to the broken and irregular contour of such frames, and their shallow profile with rolled and concave edges, all of which mimicked (it is supposed) the outline and behaviour of an animal hide, scraped and stretched out to be used for vellum, as a written or pictorial surface, or left in a coarser form, to function as a shield or cartouche. These hide-like shapes were also open to symbolic interpretation, so that they might become the Nemean lionskin which Hercules wore, with paws and lion’s mask carved at the corners and top centre of the frame (above, on the frame of Lely’s Elizabeth Murray), conveying strength and semi-divinity (so useful as a shorthand for monarchy or nobility). The same is true of the eagles devouring serpents which sometimes crop up in the corners of frames.

Thus it could be said that the Auricular frame was, in some ways, a collection of ornaments, motifs and symbols which encapsulated many aspects of life in the 17th century. There were marine elements, looking back to fashionable Italian sources – aesthetically unusual and striking, scientifically interesting, but also expressive of a patriotic pride in such things as Dutch domination of the sea (or its British competition). There were features recalling animal skins – sometimes lions’ or eagles’ skins, endowed with their properties of kingship, divinity, courage, etc.; there were sudden topical eruptions, such as the elephants’ heads, with their own symbolism and their own connection with collectors’  passions and anatomical curiosity; there were associated animals, mascarons of Green Men to bring luck, stave off evil spirits or just invoke the beauty of the botanical world. There were more stylized tokens of anatomical knowledge: bones, cartilage, loops and folds of flesh, which represented both the mystery of God’s creation and the pragmatic investigation of its mechanics. Sometimes elements from other frames and styles crept in; floral pendants and swags, bay leaves, architectural mouldings or scrolls, lending a classical cast, a feminine floweriness or Apollo’s gifts of music, art and poetry. All life, so to speak, is there in the Auricular frame.

Unknown painter, Portrait of Nicolaes van der Merct, 1662, oil on copper, 11.5 x 8.7 cm.; unknown framemaker, oval Auricular frame, 1662, gilded limewood; private collection, Germany


[1]  Stefan Kuiper, ‘Bij kwab zijn er slechts vrijelijk vervloeiende vormen, ongrijpbaar als sigarettenrook’, Volkskrant, 24 June, 2018  – translation by the author.

[2]  Van Dale dictionary of the Dutch language, ‘kwab

[3]  See, too, Adriana Turpin, ‘The development of an Auricular style in Florence, c.1600-40’, an abstract, on Auricular Style: Frames, as an indication of Buontalenti’s part in shaping the Auricular, and that of Italians generally

[4] For calculating the historical to present-day value of the guilder; for details of the purchase, see Vereniging Rembrandt

[5] Ibid.

[6]  For a rapid overview of Lutma’s output, search the Rijksmuseum’s collection under his name.  He designed a great number of Auricular cartouches, works in silver and silver gilt, and medals.

[7]  See P.J.J. van Thiel & C.J. de Bruyn Kops, Framing in the Golden Age, transl. Andrew McCormick, 1995, of Prijst de Lijst, 1984; p. 212

[8] Miniature frames, of similar size to that on the portrait of Van der Merct and as creatively eclectic in style, can be found on Caspar Netscher’s portraits of Johann Christian von Kretschmar and Susanna Vernatti, Stichting Teding van Berkhout, Haarlem (ibid., no 81, pp. 324-25), and Gerard Hoet’s Willem Hadriaan van Nassau with his wife and children, Rijksmuseum

[9]  Ibid., no. 74, p.310

[10]  See Jacob Simon, ‘Documenting developments in the taste for Auricular framing in Britain, 1620-80’ on Auricular Style: Frames

[11]  Ibid.

[12] For the framemaker John Norris, see the National Portrait Gallery website, ‘Directory of British framemakers

[13] The German versions of the Auricular were not necessarily all learnt from the Netherlands, however; Johan Matthias Kager (1575-1634), who decorated the Golden Hall of the Augsburg Town Hall from 1620-24, produced a series of Auricular cartouches ornamented with grotesques; these are linked to the work of other Augsburg artists, such as Lucas Kilian, and to British and Flemish printmakers in the 1620s. See Daniela Roberts, ‘German “Knorpelwerk”: Auricular dissemination in prints, woodcarving, and painted wall decorations, 1620-70’, Auricular Style: Frames

[14] Donald J. Harreld, ‘The Dutch economy in the Golden Age (16th-17th centuries)’, (Economic History Association)

[15]  Ibid.

[16]  Walter Liedtke, Dutch paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, vol. 1, p. 38. C.J. de Bruyn Kops is one of the two authors of the seminal Prijst de lijst, 1984, translated as Framing in the Golden Age: Picture & frame in 17th century Holland, 1995.

[17] The empty Rijksmuseum frame is just over half the size of the Bisschop frame, on both axes

[18]  See Marloes Rijkelijkhuizen, ‘Whales, Walruses, and Elephants: Artisans in Ivory, Baleen, and Other Skeletal Materials in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam, International Journal of Historical Archaeology, December 2009

[19] Pliny, The Historie of the World, transl. Philemon Holland, 1601, Book VIII, p.192

[20]  Karel van Mander, ‘Of the elephant and its meaning’, Van de Wtbeeldinghe der Figueren, 1618, folio 114, quoted by Laura Orsi, ‘The emblematic elephant: a preliminary approach to the elephant in Renaissance thought and art’, p. 70

[21] Ibid., p.72

[22]  Leonard Slatkes’s ‘Rembrandt’s elephant’, Simiolus: Netherlands Qurtarely for the History of Art, 1980, vol.11, no 1, pp. 7-13

[23]  Rina Knoeff, ‘Dutch anatomy and clinical medicine in 17th century Europe’, EGO: European history online, 2012

[24] Ibid.

[25]  Dr Allison Stielau, ‘On the Inception of Auricular Ornament: Metamorphic Bodies and the Fleshy Frame’, an abstract, Auricular Style: Frames

[26]  Sebastian Pranghofer, Visual representation and the body in early modern anatomy’, Ph D thesis, Durham University, 2011, p. 51-51

[27]  Jacob Simon, ‘Documenting developments in the taste for Auricular framing in Britain, 1620-80’, Auricular Style: Frames