“The Money Changer and His Wife” by Quentin Matsys
“The Money Changer and His Wife” by Quentin Matsys depicts a man, who is weighing the jewels and pieces of gold at a table as he sits next to his wife who is reading a book. The couple is not dressed as members of the nobility, but rather as well-to-do citizens of Antwerp, where the painting was made. At the time, Antwerp had grown in population with the influx of many southern immigrants fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Among this international community, there was a demand for money-changers and money-lenders, as international commerce was increasing in the port city. The wife is turning a page in the religious devotion book showing an illustration of the Virgin and Child.
Quentin Matsys has incorporated many details in the background reflecting the life of a prosperous burgher of Antwerp. The shelf includes a fruit, books and manuscripts, a decorated puter plate and tools of the trade. At the top right through the open door, we can see two neighbours gossiping. In the foreground are the standard weights and their specially made container. On the bottom left is a decorated glass carafe with lid and metal trimmings. In the centre is a mirror reflecting the window and the screen outside in fascinating detail plus a reflection of the artist. By painting his image reflected in the mirror, Massys echos the use of this device by Jan van Eyck in The Arnolfini Marriage of 1434.
Matsys displays his considerable skill as a portrait painter in this 1514 oil on panel painting. He has skillfully exhibited his ability to capture the highly personal and individual characteristics that reflect his realism technique. While this painting can be enjoyed as a masterpiece of art, depicting an emerging respectable occupation, most art historians see moral and satirical meanings. If this painting is a moral work, it is condemning avarice and exalting honesty, as is shown by the Christian symbols such as the book with Virgin and Child and the scales representative of the Last Judgment. The snuffed-out candle and the fruit on the shelf, are an allusion to original sin and symbols of death. The carafe of water and the rosary hanging from the shelf symbolise faith and purity. The shiny gold, pearls are a symbol of lust and the jewellery has distracted the wife from her spiritual reading. Have the objects in the background been carefully chosen to strengthen the work’s moral message?
The city of Antwerp, at the time of this painting, was growing in importance, after the silting-up of the Zwin, a tidal inlet, which caused the decline of Bruges as it lost access to the North Sea. At the end of the 15th century, most of the foreign trading houses were transferred from Bruges to Antwerp. Antwerp became the sugar capital of Europe, importing the raw commodity from Portuguese and Spanish plantations. The city attracted Italian and German sugar refiners by 1550, and shipped their refined product to Germany, especially Cologne. Moneylenders and financiers developed a significant new business lending money all over Europe, including the English government in 1544–1574. London bankers were too small to operate on that scale, and Antwerp had a highly efficient bourse that itself attracted wealthy bankers from around Europe. After the 1570s, the city’s banking business declined, and England ended its borrowing in Antwerp in 1574.
A money changer was a person whose business is the exchange of coins or currency of one country, for that of another. This trade was a predecessor of modern banking. During the Middle Ages in Europe, many cities and towns issued their own coins, often carrying the face of a ruler, such as the regional baron or bishop. When outsiders, especially travelling merchants, visited towns for a market fair, it became necessary to exchange foreign coins to local ones at local money changers. Money changers would assess a foreign coin for its type, wear and tear, and validity, then accept it as deposit, recording its value in local currency. The merchant could then withdraw the money in local currency to conduct a trade.
Quentin Massys (1466–1530) was a Flemish painter in the Early Netherlandish tradition and a founder of the Antwerp school. Matsys was active in Antwerp for over 20 years, creating numerous works with religious roots and satirical tendencies. “The Moneylender and his Wife” is one of his most famous works and an early example of the genre painting which would flourish in Flanders and the northern Netherlands over the 16th century.
- “Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied..” – Marcel Proust
- Why was this painting from the early 16th century, widely used to illustrate economic activity in many textbooks?
- Have the objects in this work been carefully chosen to strengthen the work’s moral message?
The Money Changer and His Wife
- Title: The Money Changer and His Wife
- Artist: Quentin Matsys
- Year: 1514
- Material: Oil on panel
- Dimensions: Height: 70.5 cm (27.7 ″); Width: 67 cm (26.3 ″)
- Museum: Louvre
- Artist: Quentin Matsys
- Dutch: Quinten Matsijs
- Born: 1466, Leuven, Belgium
- Died: 1530 (aged 64), Antwerp
- Nationality: Flemish (Belgian)
- Movement Antwerp School
- Notable works:
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“Thanks to art, instead of seeing one world, our own, we see it multiplied and as many original artists as there are, so many worlds are at our disposal, differing more widely from each other than those who roll round the infinite and which, whether their name be Rembrandt or Vermeer, send us their unique rays many centuries after the hearth from which they emanate is extinguished.”
– Marcel Proust
Photo Credit: Quentin Matsys [Public domain]