A Portrait of a Unknown Gentleman by Adrian Thomas Key

Agecroft’s halls are filled with portraits, and they are some of the objects that prompt the most questions from visitors. This blog offers a wonderful opportunity to highlight a portrait this is not currently on view. The details in the painting offer great insights into the mindset of 16th century Europeans.

This darkly painted, 3/4 length portrait of an unknown gentleman was painted in 1575, and is attributed to the Flemish artist Adrian Thomasz Key, a portraitist known for well-drawn figures and a strong use of color. Here he uses black and white to create a dramatic effect. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to the subject’s face, surrounded by a white ruff, setting it off from the black background. The unknown man is facing the right side of the painting, but looking off over the viewer’s left shoulder. His left-hand rests on his hip and his right-hand rests on a human skull situated on a small tabletop that also holds a scrap of parchment with a Latin verse, and an armillary sphere.

At first glance, the subject appears as just a floating head and hands, with a tablescape anchoring the portrait. Up close, using indirect light, the subject’s clothing comes to life. He’s wearing a suit of black velvet clothes, pulled in tightly to create a trim waist. His outfit was typical for a stylish gentleman of the period. There are decorative elements on the sleeves of his coat, ending in small ruffs at his wrists.

The gentleman is standing with his hand resting on a skull, which can be seen as a mark of the subject’s piety. The skull also denotes the mortality of man. The armillary sphere, an early astronomical instrument composed of rings showing the rotation of the Earth and Sun, represents the immortality of the universe. The Latin verse, “O mortalis bomo quid quo antantum superbis,/ Sic fare te ne pu…s pos i tristia fata beatim/ Nil tibi dinifia…ofint nil regia forma/ Sola vebit a…rtus ad magni feefa Tonantis,” is grandly signed “E.D.B.” The Latin translates to: “Oh mortal man, why do you pay so much attention to arrogant people?/ Being pious is the way to make sure you will be pleased after death./ Riches and beauty are no advantage./ Only virtue can take you to the house of the Great Thunderer. EDB.” Who E.D.B is remains a mystery—hopefully it’s the initials of the sitter, but without any other information, E.D.B could be a lot of people! This verse, together with the symbols of life and death, create a Memento Mori portrait—a painting meant to remind the viewer of the inevitability of death as well as the virtue and mortality of the subject. The painting simultaneously celebrates the sitter and reminds the viewer of the importance of living a pious and virtuous life here on earth.

But there is more to this portrait than what you can easily see with the naked eye. Below the surface lurk secrets that were revealed through conservation work done on the oil on panel painting in 1996. While the subject of the portrait still remains a mystery, the conservator discovered previous conservation work on the portrait, probably done in the 19th century. While the earlier work was well intentioned, it actually created more problems for the painting. There was overpainting in areas and conversely in other areas, sanding down cracks in the painting had removed critical layers of paint. In addition, strong cleaning solutions were used to remove paint, permanently damaging the piece. However, the most intriguing discovery during the conservation was that the armillary sphere was added sometime after the painting was completed—originally the artist had painted a quill pen, an ink well, a stand and another, unidentifiable, object. Whether the change was driven by artistic concerns or at the direction of the sitter, we will never know. We can only ponder whether those objects change the painting’s messages in any meaningful way.

While this wonderful portrait is currently not on display, a self-guided tour at Agecroft Hall will lead you past a variety of wonderful Tudor and Stuart era portraits. Check our website for hours, and come by for a visit!

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