A Family Saying Grace Before A Meal

Today’s guest blog is by Roz Smith, Museum Collections Officer for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.  Roz began working at the Trust at the beginning of July.  One of her first jobs was to do an inventory of the objects and furniture at Hall’s Croft.  This was the home of Susanna Shakespeare (Shakespeare’s daughter) and her husband John Hall. 


The painting A Family Saying Grace Before A Meal hangs in the parlour at Hall’s Croft and caught my attention because of it’s striking content.  It was painted by Anthonius Claeissins around 1585 in the Low Countries, probably in Bruges.  It is an early example of a Christian family portrait which was a very frequent theme in the painting of the Low Countries in this period.  As with many paintings of this style and subject, there are many stories in the imagery.

We can tell, for example, that the family are probably Catholic.  The Imperial Habsburg emblem – an eagle with outstretched wings – is embroidered on the tablecloth.  The Habsburgs were a powerful ruling family in central and northern Europe at the time and were staunch Catholics.

The rich Biblical symbolism in the painting is derived from Psalms 1 and 128.  In the background to the left the view through the open window shows a tree by a river.  This is symbolic of a good family man.  The third verse of Psalm 1 reads:

He is like a tree planted by streams of water, 
which yields its fruit in season 
and whose leaf does not wither.
Whatever he does prospers.

 In the same place, the vine growing against a wall is symbolic of a fertile housewife.  The second verse of Psalm 128 reads:

Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the Lord.

We can tell from this painting that the family who commissioned the portrait wanted to show that they were loyal to their ruler, that they were conscientious Catholics, and that they upheld the family values of the Bible. 

They are also showing that they are very wealthy.  They are all dressed in black which was a very expensive colour at the time because of the number of times cloth had to be dipped into the dye.  They are also wearing a lot of lace which would have been handmade and very expensive.  On the table the pewter ware, the choice cuts of meat and bowls of salt are all expensive items, as is the large stoneware bartmannkrug jug in the foreground. 




All in all it is a fascinating snapshot of a 16th Century family and certainly worth a look if you are visiting Stratford.

  • melissaleon

    I am loving all the guest posts here. It is very interesting to see different things and perspectives from you all.

  • Carolyn Porter

    To see more of Antoon Claessins work and that of his family including his father Pieter and his brother Pieter the Younger, I suggest you visit the Groeningemuseum in Brugge (Bruges), Belgium. Their works from part of the permanent exhibition in the museum but from 29.10.10-30.01.11, they will be inaccessible during the new exhibition 'From Van Eyck to Durer'. Even if you don't like the art, I can recommend the beers and chocolate, not to mention some fantastic architecture. If anyone has seen the film 'In Bruges', I'm sure they will agree? Mind you, I don't think there's much violence there usually…

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