Early Modern Exchanges


Iconic Figures, Influential Translations

New ideas circulated in the early modern period partly through the dissemination of images of significant leaders and thinkers. The portraits displayed here of Philipp Melanchthon, the German humanist, theologian, and follower of Luther, serve to personify his ideas as well as his character. Possession of such an image would have been a statement of allegiance to the Protestant Reformation. It is ironic, given the emphasis of reformers upon words over images, that they should partly have achieved their widespread impact by means of visual images such as these. Van Dyck developed the concept of portraits of famous men as a kind of secular icon in his Iconography.

New ideas also circulated, importantly, by means of translation, conveying key texts from one language and culture into another. Early modern English literature and art progressed through dialogue with the classical past, as in George Sandys’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They were also invigorated by dialogue with the recent literature of other nations, such as Sir John Harington’s translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.

Michel de Montaigne’s Essays were an important influence not only on the English essays of Sir Francis Bacon, but also on Shakespeare, especially Hamlet and The Tempest. Montaigne’s essay ‘Of the Cannibals’ compares so-called ‘civilised’ nations unfavourably with those thought of as ‘savage’. In The Tempest, Gonzalo closely echoes Montaigne to imagine an ideal commonwealth on Prospero’s island, a golden world, where ‘Treason, felony, / Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine / Would I not have, but nature should bring forth / Of its own kind all foison, all abundance / To feed my innocent people’. As a writer on different cultures, an influence on literatures outside his own language, and an object of translation, Montaigne exemplifies many aspects of early modern intercultural exchange.

Robert van Voerst (1596-before 1636), Portrait of Inigo Jones, 1645 etching and engraving


UCL Art Museum EPC 564

Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Jacob Neeffs (1610-c.1660) Portrait of Anthony van Dyck, 1645 etching and engraving


This portrait of Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), one of the most distinguished painters of the 17th century, who worked for courts across Europe, served as the frontispiece to a group of portrait prints representing important men of the period under the title of Iconography (or Iconnes Principium Virorum). Originally designed by Van Dyck, the complete set was published posthumously by Gillis Hendricx in 1645, and included monarchs, princes, military commanders, art collectors and artists. Portrait sets of this kind were becoming increasingly popular, and collectors pasted them into albums as a form of visual reference material. By including so many portraits of artists in the Iconography, Van Dyck’s intention must have been to raise the status of artists and to position them as worthy company for their elite patrons.

UCL Art Museum possesses a large number of impressions from the Iconography series, including the above portrait of Inigo Jones (1573-1652), the first significant British architect of the modern period, usually credited with bringing Italianate Renaissance architecture to England.

UCL Art Museum EPC 488

Lucas Cranach the Younger (German, 1515 – 86), Portrait of Philipp Melanchthon, 1561 woodcut


Cranach’s woodcut commemorates the recently deceased Philipp Melanchthon. The full-size depiction of Melanchthon dressed in a fur-trimmed robe creates a ‘princely’ monumentality, which was intended to promote his general importance as one of the leading humanists, theologians and Reformers who, according to his crest, lived under the true faith. This print was used in several editions of Johannes Carion’s World Chronicle.

UCL Art Museum EPC381

Albrecht Dürer (German, 1471 – 1528), Portrait of Philipp Melanchthon, 1526 engraving on paper


Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) was appointed Professor at the University of Wittenberg in 1518, at the age of twenty one. His humanistic teaching of Greek, rhetoric and theology was of great importance for the German Reformation. He drew up most of the public documents of the Reformers and ranks among the most prolific authors of the evangelicals, promoting Luther’s first principle of the supreme authority of the Scripture.

At the time Dürer made his portrait, Melanchthon had been asked by the city council of Nuremberg to reorganise the school curriculum, to institute the main principles of Luther’s reforms. The half-length portrait shows him in three-quarter profile, with lights from a nearby window reflected in his eye. Underneath is a tablet with a Latin inscription which reads ‘Dürer can picture the features of the living Philipp but lacks the skill to depict his mind’. The portrait was celebrated nonetheless as a successful attempt by the artist to convey a spiritual rather than a physical likeness of the great man.

UCL Art Collections EPC468

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