The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Cast bronze medal of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Quentin Metsys (about 1462-1530)
Antwerp, AD 1519
Portrait of a scholar and reformer
The Latin and Greek inscriptions around Metsys' portrait of the great humanist scholar Erasmus (1469-1536) tell us that the portrait was executed from life but that 'his writings will present a better image'. Such an inscription shows Erasmus and his medallist to be repeating a classical formula on the limitations of portraiture.
Erasmus, who took Augustinian orders, was greatly influenced by the humanist scholars of the previous century who had worked in Italy. His historical studies focussed particularly on the Greek New Testament and the Church Fathers. By emphasizing the better practices of religion in the past, he highlighted current church abuses, and urged reform. His many widely-read books included the Praise of Folly, Education of a Christian Prince and the Colloquia.
The Netherlandish painter Quentin Metsys (about 1462-1530) was particularly in tune with Italian trends and a natural choice to make Erasmus' medal. He had painted him in 1517 and already executed a medallic self-portrait and a medal of his sister-in-law. Erasmus is known to have been highly pleased by the likeness on the medal, comparing it favourably to Albrecht Dürer's widely circulated portrait print.
Erasmus sent examples of his medal to many of his network of humanist scholars in Europe. In 1528 he explained the significance of the reverse (back) to Alfonso Valdes, secretary to Emperor Charles V. The smiling bust of the god Terminus apparently utters the words 'I yield to no-one', an image which receives an additional gloss in the second inscription: 'Consider the end of a long life - death is the ultimate end of things'. Erasmus wrote that 'out of a profane god [Terminus] I have made myself a symbol exhorting decency in life. For death is the real terminus that yields to no one.'
L. Smolderen, The currency of fame: portra-6 (New York, 1994)