Shakespeare’s World in 100 Objects: Number 36, a family portrait

Antoon Claeissins, 'A Family Saying Grace', c.1585, Oil on wood (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collection)

This post was written by Victoria Jackson, Doctoral Researcher in the history department at the University of Birmingham.

In this painting, a family is shown gathered around a table laid for a meal.  Judging by their individualized faces, the group probably represents a specific family, though they are yet to be identified.  The father and mother are given primary importance, seated in the middle of the table with their children flanking them on both sides.  On the right a maidservant arrives with a platter of meat.  While the father and mother appear to be seated next to their eldest son and daughter, the youngest children sit opposite their parents and crane their necks to look towards the viewer.  Their table is draped with a damask tablecloth, clearly depicting its recent unfolding, and laden with what appears to be pewter plates, a single cup and tazza (the saucer-like standing cup in front of the youngest daughter), and a pair of silver salts.

However, the question arises: why has this family chosen to portray themselves at the dining table in the act of prayer?  It may seem an odd choice for a family portrait, but during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the portrayal of families saying grace at the table was a popular theme, especially among Dutch artists.  These paintings reflected the importance assigned to family life as well as the critically significant role that marriage played within a society.  Families were often called ‘little churches’, characterized by their service to one another and to God.  Within these ‘little churches’ the responsibilities of individual members, especially those of the husband and wife, were often carefully outlined.  We can see a visual example of this in this painting: through the open window behind the family, a single tree stands by a river and a vine grows against a wall.  A connection between a tree planted beside a river and the father’s responsibility to serve as a good, and Godly, family man is referred to in Psalm 1: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.”  Similarly, a connection between vines and female fertility is made in Psalm 128, a much-quoted psalm during the seventeenth century because of its use of figurative imagery to portray domestic life: “Thou wife shall be as a fruitful vine by the sides of thine house: thy children like olive plants about thy table.”

Far from being unique, this motif appears in countless Dutch family portraits, such as this early seventeenth-century engraving where the vine actually begins to grow into the room where the family is at prayer:  http://alma.boijmans.nl/en/object/BdH%2010101%20(PK)/

Domestic scenes like this find literary parallels in conduct manuals and treatises for household government where a set of domestic and moral conventions, largely based on Scripture, was outlined with the intention of promoting harmony and Godliness within the family.  Even Shakespeare uses a similar theme in The Comedy of Errors when Adriana addresses a man she thinks is her husband:

Thou art an elm, my husband, I a vine,
Whose weakness, married to thy stronger state,
Makes me with thy strength to communicate…

The Comedy of Errors, 2.2

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