Friday, October 28, 2022

Zacchaeus, the Little Man in the Tree

The De Roos Factory, Jesus Meets Zacchaeus
Dutch (Delft), c. 1690-1710
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

“At that time, Jesus came to Jericho and intended to pass through the town.
Now a man there named Zacchaeus,
who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man,
was seeking to see who Jesus was;
but he could not see him because of the crowd,
for he was short in stature.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus,
who was about to pass that way.
When he reached the place, Jesus looked up and said,
“Zacchaeus, come down quickly,
for today I must stay at your house.”
And he came down quickly and received him with joy.
When they all saw this, they began to grumble, saying,
“He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
But Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord,
“Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor,
and if I have extorted anything from anyone
I shall repay it four times over.”
And Jesus said to him,
“Today salvation has come to this house
because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.
For the Son of Man has come to seek
and to save what was lost.”
Luke 19:1-10

Gospel for the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, October 30, 2022

This story, found only in the Gospel of Luke, is as full of important meaning as any other portion of the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus between His baptism and His passion.  On one level it is a human, even a humorous story, on the other hand it is profound. 

Pietro Monaco after Bernardo Strozzi, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
Italian (Venice), 1730-1739
London, British Museum

The action of this story takes place in Luke, as Jesus is traveling up to Jerusalem, where He will be put to death.  It is set as He is about to enter the town of Jericho, one of the oldest continuously lived in sites in the world.  A resident of Jericho named Zacchaeus approaches the crowd awaiting the entry of Jesus out of curiosity.  He is short, so he decides to climb a tree to get a better view.  But, instead of him getting a look at Jesus, it is Jesus who sees him and, it seems, sees into him, for He knows him and calls him by name.  More than that, Jesus tells him that He will stay in his house.  Instead of being upset at this unexpected turn of events Zacchaeus welcomes Him, receiving Him “with joy”.  When unspecified people (? residents of Jericho, the apostles, Pharisees?) grumble about Jesus’ dining with a “sinner” Zacchaeus makes a stunning statement “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” (Luke 19:8) Jesus then tells him that “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham.   For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)

Boetius Adamszoon Bolswert, Christ in the House of Zacchaeus
Flemish, 1590-1622
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

It would seem that this small story contains quite a bit of meaning.  For, Zacchaeus is a kind of “everyman” (or perhaps, nowadays, “every person”), a stand in for all of us.  He is curious about this celebrity who is coming to town and struggles to get a better view.  But, what he gets from this particular celebrity is unexpected.  He gets a calling, a personal invitation, to come down and welcome the visitor into his house.  And, instead of shying away, of saying “no thanks, my house isn’t ready” Zacchaeus “receives Him with joy”.  Furthermore, so affected is he by the meeting, he offers to give one half of all he owns to the poor (and we are told he was a wealthy man, so it’s not a small thing).  And, not content with that, he offers to repay anyone he has extorted money from four times over.  Since, the way in which tax collectors went about getting the money they were required to raise was through extortion, this probably represented a substantial amount.  Roman provincial tax collectors were permitted to keep a portion of the money they raised for the Imperial treasury.  This which meant that, in order to make the money they felt they were entitled to, above that required by the Roman government, the sums they extracted from people were pretty large and burdensome, and deeply resented.  By making this offer Zacchaeus is acknowledging his guilt, as well as offering to pay restitution.

The ways in which artists illustrated this story through time is an interesting chronicle, with some divergent branches and shifts of focus. 
Christ Encounters Zacchaeus and Calls Saint Matthew
From Orationes by Gregory Nazianzene
Byzantine (Constantinople), c. 879 - 882
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Grec 510, fol. 87v (detail)
It is interesting to note that this image includes both the encounter with Zacchaeus, which occurred towards the end of Jesus' ministry, and the calling of Saint Matthew, which occurred at its beginning.  The obvious connection between the two 'callings' is that both men were tax collectors.  

To begin with, early illustrations told a fairly simple tale.  Two illuminations in royal books painted in the scriptorium of Reichenau around the beginning of the 11th century provide two different views of the same story, one of which would lead to a branch development a few centuries later.  One shows Jesus, seated on a donkey, entering Jericho.  In the other book, Jesus is on foot, surrounded by His disciples.  The latter image also includes the feast at the house of Zacchaeus. 

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus as He Enters Jericho
From the Gospel Book of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c.1000
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4453, fol. 234v

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus and Dines at His House
From the Gospel Book of Heinrich II
German (Reichenau), ca.1007-1012
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 4452, fol. 200r

A few decades later, the image was incorporated on the bronze column of Bishop Bernward in Hildesheim, one of the great bronze works that Bernward commissioned that revived the art of bronze casting, after its post-Roman decline.

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
Detail of Berward's Column
German (Hildesheim), ca. 1020
Hildesheim, Cathedral

For the next two hundred plus years, illustrations of the text were fairly simple and straightforward.  

Christ Addressing Zacchaeus
From a Book of Homilies
French (Cambrai), c. 1100-1150
Cambrai, Bibliotheque municipale
MS 528

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
From the Book of Pericopes of the Monastery of Saint Erentrud
Austrian (Salzburg), 1140
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Cod. lat.15903, fol. 96v

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
From a Gospel Book
German (Passau), ca. 1170-1180
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
MS Clm 16002, fol. 40r
This image cleverly uses initials to represent the tree and Jesus standing on the ground.

Initial D Containing the Encounter Between Jesus and Zacchaeus
From the Stammheim Missal
German (Hildesheim), c. 1170-1180
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS 64, fol. 164r

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
from a Picture Bible
French (St. Omer, Abbey of St. Bertin), ca.1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 013r

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
From a Picture Bible
Navarrese, c. 1197
Amiens, Bibliotheque municipale
MS 108

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
English (Canterbury), 13th Century
Canterbury, Cathedral

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus and Dines with Him
North German (Monastery of Weinhausen), ca. 1335
Weinhausen, Weinhausen Abbey

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
From a 13th Century Pattern Book
German, 1200-1300
Freiburg im Breisgau, Augustiner Museum

Around the beginning of the 14th century, the image, propagated throughout Europe by such means as pattern books and the interchange of artists, merged into a different part of the Gospel story, the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday.  

Artists began to incorporate one or two or more people in trees in their illustrations of the entry.   And this confusion between the story of Zacchaeus and Jesus’ entry into Jericho and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem lasted for about 100 years.

Giotto, Entry into Jerusalem
Italian, c. 1300-1305
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel

Duccio, Entry into Jerusalem
From the Maestà Altarpiece
Italian, c. 1308-1311
Siena, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Pietro Lorenzetti. Entry into Jerusalem
Italian, c. 1320
Assisi, Church of San Francesco, Lower Church

German Master, Entry into Jerusalem
Detail from the Osnabrück Altarpiece
German, c. 1370s
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum

The Limbourg Brothers (Herman, Jean and Paul), Jesus Enters Jerusalem
From the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry
Dutch, c. 1412-1416
Chantilly, Musée Condé
MS 65, fol. 173v

However, early in the 15th century, the images became unwound once again.  The emphasis again returned to the dramatic moment of the meeting between Jesus and the small man in the tree.  

Attributed to the Master of the Harvard Hannibal, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus as He Enters Jericho
From Meditationes vitae Christi by Pseudo-Bonaventure
French (Paris), c. 1420-1422
London, British Library
MS Royal 20 B IV, fol. 94r

Claes Brouwer, the Alexander Master, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
from Bible historiale
Dutch (Utrecht), ca.1430
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliothek
MS KB 78 D 38-dl2, fol. 173v

Jean Colcombe, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
From Vita Jesu Christi by Ludolf of Saxony
French (Bourges), c. 1475=1500
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 178, fol. 89v

Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
Cutting from a Choir Book
German (Rheinland-Pfalz), c. 1490s
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Anonymous, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
A Cutting from a Gradual Book
Dutch, ea. 16th Century
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

As manuscripts were replaced by printed books, painting of Biblical scenes was no longer practiced in easily transportable miniature form.  Therefore, it is through the medium of prints and other of the “minor” arts that the images were transmitted.  This made them much more available to the ordinary person, since prints are cheaper than precious manuscripts and more mobile than wall paintings. 

Delft Master, Meal at House of Zacchaeus and the Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
Dutch, c. 1480-1500
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Antwerp Master, Meal at the House of Zacchaeus and the Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
Flemish, c. 1485-1491
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Glass Roundel with the Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
Dutch, c. 1500-1510
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cloisters Collection

Glass Roundel, Jesus at Supper in the house of Zacchaeus
German, c.1530
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Adam Petri, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
German, 1514
London, British Museum

Anonymous, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
Dutch, 1536
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

As time passed more figures began to be included.  In addition to all the apostles there were townspeople, including women and children.

Philips Galle after Maerten de Vos, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
Flemish, c. 1547-1612
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Jan Collaert after Maarten de Vos, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
From Thesaurus Novi Testamenti elegantissimis iconibus expressus continens historias
atque miracula do[mi] ni 
nostri Iesu Christi
Flemish, c. 1585
London, British Museum

Illustrated Mystery Play of 1547 on the Life, Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus
French (Valenciennes), 1577
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Rothschild 3070, fol. 206r
Here the scenes of Jesus' encounter with Zacchaeus and visit to his house occupy the far right side of this page, which includes several other stories as well.

Erasmus Quellinus the Younger, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus (and most of Jericho)
Flemish, 1660
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Possibly Jan Luyken, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
Dutch, 1660-1712
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Alexandre Ubelesqui, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus at Jericho
French, c.1700
Paris, Musée du Louvre, Département des arts graphiques

Glazed Tile, Jesus Encounters Zacchaeus
English or Dutch, ca.1718-1725
London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Paintings from the Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo periods are infrequent, as are representations in sculpture.  They do, however, exist. 

Jacopo Palma il Giovane, Christ Calling Zacchaeus
Italian, c. 1575
Cambridge, University of Cambridge Museums, Fitzwilliam Museum

Bernardo Strozzi, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
Italian, c.1640
Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Domenico Tiepolo, Christ in the House of Zacchaeus in Jericho
Italian, ca.1750-1800
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Joseph Anton Feuchtmayer, Encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus
Austrian, 1761-1763
Sankt Gallen, Cathedral

Thomas Schaidhauf, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
German, c. 1780-1807
Furstenfeldbruck, Catholic Parish of St. Bernard

And, finally, late in the 19th century, Zacchaeus was included in the monumental Biblical work of the French painter James Tissot.

James Tissot, Encounter of Jesus and Zacchaeus
French, 1886-1896
New York, Brooklyn Museum

He is also depicted as a saint in the decoration of the church of the Madeleine in Paris.
Charles Lemeire, St. Zacchaeus
French, 1888-1893
Paris, Musée d'Orsay

There was one significant further development on the theme, that of Zacchaeus as a penitent, detached from the meeting with Jesus or His reception in Zacchaeus’ home.  In these Zacchaeus is very clearly offering his ill-gotten gains to Jesus or is repenting in private prayer. 

Boetius Adamszoon Bolswert, Christ in the House of Zacchaeus
Flemish, c. 1590-1622
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

Willem Isaacszoon van Swanenburg after Abraham Bloemaert, Penitent Zacchaeus
From a series of prints of Penitents
Dutch, 1611
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum

A further interesting image of Zacchaeus, showing him climbing the tree, preparatory to the arrival of Jesus, is found in the book Predigen teütsch (German Preaching), by the preacher Johann Geiler von Keysersberg (1445-1510), who was a popular preacher at the end of the 15th century.1 

Hans Burgkmair the Elder, Zacchaeus Climbs the Tree of Faith, Hope and Charity
From Predigen teütsch by Johann Geiler von Keysersberg
German, c. 1508-1510
London, British Museum

It shows the figure of Zacchaeus climbing a tree (incorrectly shown as a palm).  The tree is wrapped in a banderol with the words “Leibe”, “Hoffnung” and “Glaub”(sic), which translate as Love, Hope and Faith.  Someone has handwritten in the Latin translations of these words: “Charitas”, “Spes” and “Fides”.  In other words, Faith, Hope and Charity, the three theological virtues.  Zacchaeus is here shown for what he represents, the person who seeks to find salvation through Christ and the church.

© M. Duffy, 2016, revised and expanded 2022.

1.      Scheid, Nikolaus. "Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 28 Oct. 2016 <>.

Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition © 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Giuseppe Arcimboldo – A Halloween Offering

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter,
Italian, 1564
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

In the years when I was between ages 4 and 6 my mother went through a period of serious illness that required her to make frequent visits to her doctor. As she had no one that she felt she could trust to leave me with during her visits, I went with her.  

While she was with the doctor I was on my own in the waiting room and, while waiting, would peruse the magazines that were available. In those days it was mostly Life, Time and Look, with the occasional Saturday Evening Post (based on my visual memories of their format). There may have been other magazines too but, since I couldn’t read yet, I can’t be sure of their identity.

One day, in one of the magazines, I remember seeing reproductions of some paintings that both fascinated and repelled me. They still do. These are the notorious “composite portrait” paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

Early Work

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was the son of the Lombard (north Italian) Renaissance painter, Biagio Arcimboldo. He was presumably born sometime in 1526 or 1527, probably in Milan. In his youth he worked with his father, most notably on designs for stained glass windows in the cathedral of Milan.

Biagio and Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Detail from Old Testament Scenes Window
Italian, 1549
Milan, Cathedral

He also seems to have worked in collaboration with other artists on various decorative projects in and around Milan during the 1540s and 1550s. 1

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Zacharias Naming His Son
From Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist
Italian, 1545
Milan, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist
From Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist
Italian, 1545
Milan, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Death of the Virgin Tapestry
Italian, 1558
Como, Cathedral

In Milan, Arcimboldo could have become familiar with some of the works of Leonardo da Vinci, who had worked in the area at the beginning of the century. Leonardo’s famous Last Supper is in Milan and some of his other work, such as drawings, including his studies of grotesque heads, was also there at the time. Milan was also the home of some of Leonardo’s pupils and assistants, notably Francesco Melzi, Bernardino Luini and Giovanni Ambrogio Figino. 2

Leonardo da Vinci, Grotesque Heads
Italian, c. 1494
Windsor, Royal Collection Trust

The mood of painting in these middle decades of the sixteenth century was what is now called Mannerism3 The art of the Mannerist period delighted in various kinds of visual extravagances, such as distortions of proportion, complex compositions (with figures often irrelevant to the supposed subject matter being given prominent place), grotesques and visual jokes. It was a sophisticated and deliberately “in” style of art, highly suited for an aristocratic and learned audience, but not well suited for straightforward didactic purposes. One could say, in fact, that in Mannerist art the complexity of the composition and elegance of execution took precedence over content and meaning.

Move to the North

In 1562 Giuseppe moved north of the Alps to offer his services to the King of the Romans (eventually also Holy Roman Emperor), Maximilian II. His move from Milan may have been precipitated by the episcopate of Cardinal (later Saint) Charles Borromeo. Cardinal Borromeo preferred artists who were able to focus their production on a more straightforward and serious presentation of the truths of the faith. In this way he anticipated the aims of what became known as Counter-Reformation art or Tridentine art (named after the reforming Council of Trent, which met in northern Italy from 1545 - 1563). At the imperial court Arcimboldo could hope to obtain work from the kind of sophisticated audience that had supported the Mannerist style in mid-century Italy.

Initially, he painted portraits of the imperial family and court. He also worked as a designer for the kinds of courtly activities that were common in late 16th-century Europe: pageants, tournaments, etc.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Archduchess Anna, Daughter of Emperor Maximilian II
Italian, c. 1563
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Archduchess Magdalena, Daughter of Emperor Maximilian II
Italian, c. 1563
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Maximilian II, His Wife Maria of Spain and Three of Their Eight Children
Italian, 1563
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Costume Drawing 
of a Knight
Italian, c. 1585
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Costume Drawing 
of a Woman Bearing a Torch
Italian, c. 1585
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Sketch for a Sleigh
Italian, 1585
Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Self-Portrait
Italian, c. 1571-1578
Prague, National Gallery

Composite Heads

Beginning in the 1560s he also began the series of composite heads that fascinated me as a child and continue to fascinate me as an adult.

The composite heads are human forms that are composed of flowers, fruits and vegetables or sometimes of other items.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fruit Basket
Italian, c. 1590
Private Collection

The Four Seasons

The best known is the series of The Four Seasons, of which several partial sets exist. 

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer
Italian, c. 1560
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter
Italian, c. 1560
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, Spring
Italian, 1563
Madrid, Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer
Italian, c. 1563
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn
Italian, 1572
Denver, Art Museum

There is, however, one complete set, which is at the Louvre.

In the Louvre Four SeasonsSpring is made up of flowers and spring plants; Summer is composed of grains, fruits and vegetables (among them grapes, melons and eggplant).  Autumn is made from fruits and grains, while Winter shows bare branches, ivy and those stored up sources of vitamin C, lemons.

In Spring teeth are actually lilies of the valley, while peas represent them in Summer. In Autumn a pear becomes a nose, while in Winter mushrooms become lips.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Spring
Italian, c. 1573
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer
Italian, c. 1573
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Autumn
Italian, c. 1573
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Winter
Italian, ca. 1573
Paris, Musée du Louvre

The Elements

 He also did a series of heads of the classical four elements: earth, air, fire, water.  Two of the Elements are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Fire is a head composed of flames, flammable items and items associated with different forms of fire, such as candles, lamps, flint and parts of guns and cannons. Burning coals form the hair.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fire
Italian, 1566
Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum

Water, who appears, from the pearl earring and necklace, to be a female, is composed of aquatic elements: fish, crustaceans, amphibians, coral, even a tiny seal. 4

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Water
Italian, 1566
Viena Kunsthistorisiches Museum

Two other paintings from this Elements series are currently held in private collections.

The first of these is Earth.  This head is made up of various animals, both predator and prey, all positioned to create the features of a head, including half of the head of an elephant, which creates the ear and side of the cheek, while a fox creates the cheek, even as it snarls at the hare, which substitutes for the nose.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Earth
Italian, 1566
Private Collection

Air is a bearded character, composed of the bodies of birds and birds nests.  The goatee beard is formed by the tail of a pheasant, whose head is being inspected by a rooster with a plumy blackish tail.  The nose is the head of a turkey and the brow is formed by the body of a duck.  The hair is made up of the heads and beaks of multiple small birds.  A fanning peacock creates a kind of ruff where the neck should be. 

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Air
Italian, 1566
Private Collection

The great detail in these works reflects the detailed studies of animals and birds which Arcimboldo made during his years in Prague.  Some of these works can be seen in a manuscript dating from 1575 which is held in the Austrian National Library in Vienna.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Study of a Lesser Kestrel and Flowers
Italian, c. 1575
Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Study of a Stag and Violets
Italian, c. 1575
Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

Composite "Portraits"

The composite heads are sometimes “portraits” of actual individuals. For example, the well-known Vertumnus is a portrait of the Emperor Rudolf II (son of Maximilian II).

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus
Italian, c. 1590
Skokloster (Sweden), Skokloster Castle

Other portraits are visual jokes, based on the profession of the “sitter”. The painting called The Librarian, made up of books, is presumed to be a portrait of the court historian, Wolfgang Lazius.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Librarian
Italian, c. 1566
Skokloster (Sweden), Skokloster Castle

Similarly, the painting known as The Waiter is made up of barrels, jugs, serving implements (primarily ones for serving drink) and the keys to the wine cellar.  

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Waiter
Italian, 1574
Private Collection

And some are both visual jokes and optical illusions, as for instance the painting titled, The Cook. In that painting we see a platter of roasted meats in the process of being uncovered. But, when it is turned upside down, it becomes a face and the platter becomes a hat.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Cook
Italian, 1570
Stockholm, National Museum

Similarly with the painting known as the Vegetable Gardener.  When the painting is turned upside down, the gardener's "hat" becomes a bowl full of vegetables.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Vegetable Gardener
Italian, c. 1587-1590
Cremona, Museo Civico 'Ala Ponzone'

Final Years
In his final years Arcimboldo painted a head called The Four Seasons in One Head, which may be a self-portrait. In it the flowers of spring, the grains and fruits of summer and autumn and the dead branches of winter all combine.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Four Seasons in One Head
Italian, c. 1590
Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Self-Portrait
Italian, 1587
Genoa, Palazzo Russo
Compare this self-portrait to the earlier one above.  Notice that in this image Arcimboldo treats his hair, beard and ruff as if they were made of paper or wood shavings.  It is as if he is treating his own self-portrait details as in a composite head.

These heads combine a keen, almost scientific, observation of natural elements, vegetable and animal, and of man-made items such as cannons, candles and books, with a playful and ingenious sense of design. Some have seen them as the result of mental illness, but they are more probably expressions of the taste for oddity and the grotesque that can be seen in much of late 16th-century art, especially of the Mannerist art that was associated with the secular courts of the time (as opposed to art intended for the decoration of churches).

Bernard Palissy, Platter
French, c. 1580
Paris, Musée du Louvre

One need only look at the “rustic” pottery of Bernard Palissy in Paris, with its casts of creepy crawlies, and at the grotesque doorways of the house built by the brothers Taddeo and Federico Zuccaro on Via Gregoriana in Rome to see this mood expressed in the minor arts and in architecture.

Palazzo Zuccari, Doorway
Italian, 1592
Rome, Via Gregoriana 28

Much of this work was regarded by patrons as clever and interesting. Emperor Rudolf II clearly felt this way about Arcimboldo’s paintings because he placed them in his Kunstkammer in Prague. A Kunstkammer (literally “art room”) was a kind of private museum of odd and curious items and included not only paintings but scientific instruments, natural specimens, clever toys, small statuary, in short, whatever unusual object appealed to the owner. 5  Emperor Rudolf’s Kunstkammer was famous throughout Europe. To be placed there was a great honor for Arcimboldo.

However, tastes in art change and the collection was broken up. It was also the victim of looting over the years and was, therefore, widely dispersed. Arcimboldo’s work virtually disappeared until it was “discovered” early in the 20th century by the Surrealists. They obviously felt an affinity with the precise detailing and odd combinations of the composite heads. Since then Arcimboldo has remained a kind of art historical curiosity.

I think of his work as a fitting subject for Halloween, as it seems to fit easily into the atmosphere of disguise and pranks that prevails in relation to this very old festival, which heralds the approach of winter.

© M. Duffy, 2011, updated 2022

1. For information on what is known about Arcimboldo’s early life see:

  •  Kaufmann, Thomas Da’Costa. Arcimboldo: visual jokes, natural history, and still-life painting, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Arcimboldo : 1526-1593, edited by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden. Milano and New York, Skira, 2007. Catalog of the exhibition held at Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, Sept. 15, 2007-Jan. 13, 2008; and at Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Feb. 12-June 1, 2008.
  • Kriegeskorte, Werner. Arcimboldo, Cologne, Taschen, 1987.

2. See #1 above.

3.  Shearman, John K. G., Mannerism, New York, Penguin, 1967 is a well-known study of the period.

4. Arcimboldo 1526 – 1593, Nature and Fantasy, text by Silvia Ferino-Pagden. Exhibition brochure National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., September 19, 2010 – January 9 , 2011.   It is available online at

5. For informaiton on the Kunstkammer or Studiolo see:

© M. Duffy, 2011