An old hermit dressed in a Franciscan habit kneels before a crucifix, his clasped hands resting on a well-thumbed page of the open Bible. He is situated in an outdoor setting before a grottolike edifice consisting of large brick arches. The book and crucifix lie on a large rock that is covered by a frayed cloth woven from brightly colored threads. At the base of the crucifix is a human skull and beside it an hourglass. The crucifix itself leans against a large wicker basket, which in turn rests against an old moss-covered tree stump that arches over the scene. The stump appears dead, although sprigs with green leaves emerge from its withered form. Hanging from the stump, above the crucifix, is a lantern, its door opened and the candle within extinguished. In the foreground right a large thistle grows from the marshy soil. Lying on the ground is a water pouch, an overturned earthenware jug, and the remains of a horse’s skull.
The intensely spiritual gaze on the hermit’s face and the fervor with which he clasps his hands as he stares toward the crucifix indicate that he is contemplating the mysteries of Christ’s death and resurrection. Dou has reinforced his message with reminders of the brevity of human life: the skull, hourglass, and extinguished light of the lantern. He has alluded to the hermit’s constancy in his devotions with the thistle, a common symbol in Dutch painting for this virtue.
The tree has complex symbolic associations. As Susan Kuretsky has argued, the dead tree in conjunction with the Crucifixion implies life through death. Traditionally the cross was believed to have been constructed of wood from either the Tree of Knowledge or the tree that grew from the seeds of the forbidden apple that sprouted from the skull of Adam. Only through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was it possible for man, through death, to gain everlasting life. The symbolism of life through death is reinforced by the living branches that sprout from the dead tree stump.
The basket against which the crucifix leans contains references to the life of Christ that can be understood through its appearance in another painting from Dou’s workshop. In An Artist in His Studio, formerly attributed to Dou and dated 1635, the same basket, with its lid askew, appears in a scene of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt that is shown on the aged artist’s easel [fig. 1]. Although the basket undoubtedly served as the baby’s bed in this scene, it has been argued that, placed as it is in front of a low archway before a dark recess, the empty basket also prefigured Christ’s empty tomb. Such religious symbolism for the basket is also appropriate in this painting, for it reinforces the central theme: the hermit’s contemplation of the death and resurrection of Christ.
Dou painted this scene near the end of his life, but the subject had occupied him throughout most of his career. Indeed, Martin lists eleven hermit scenes that Dou painted between 1635 and 1670. Examination using Dendrochronology has revealed that Dou used a panel from a tree that had been felled in the early 1630s, a fact that may suggest he kept a supply of panels in his workshop. Since The Hermit contains various Pentimenti, it is also possible that Dou began this painting in the 1630s and reworked it in 1670. Too little information, however, is available about his working methods to be certain about the reason for the chronological gap between the felling date and the final year of the painting’s execution. Many of the objects found in this painting appear in different combinations in other works, indicating that Dou must have owned them and painted them from life. The horse’s skull, for example, also appears in An Artist in His Studio. The skull, as well as the water pouch and overturned jug, presumably had specific allegorical meanings in his hermit scenes beyond their obvious generic ones, but they are presently unknown.
Dou’s inspiration for his hermit scenes was probably a painting by Rembrandt van Rijn (Dutch, 1606 - 1669) of St. Jerome in Prayer that is known today only through an etching from 1631 by Johannes van Vliet (Dutch, born c. 1610). Although Dou’s hermit scenes contain many of the same objects found in this etching, he rarely painted attributes that could identify the figure as a specific saint. His intent was not to represent an actual moment from church history, but to suggest the virtue of the vita contemplativa, the contemplative life. This subject is frequently alluded to in Dutch seventeenth-century portraits, still lifes, and genre scenes. In numerous paintings Dutch artists called the viewer’s attention to the brevity of life and the importance of preparing oneself for the eventual Last Judgment. Although Dou’s focus on the spiritual bond between a Franciscan hermit and the crucified Christ would seem to have Catholic overtones, he emphasized the importance of the written word in his scene, a significant component of Protestant belief, and it is unlikely the subject was viewed in specific denominational terms. That the Bible was of considerable importance to him is evident from the x-radiographs [see X-radiography]. Originally the book was turned in a different position, as though supported in the hermit’s arms. The initial shape of the Bible is vaguely visible under his arm and can be further distinguished by a change in the Craquelure pattern on the present Bible.
The moralizing function of such a painting in Dutch society can be deduced from a work traditionally attributed to Dou in the Brooklyn Museum, Burgomaster Hasselaar and His Wife [fig. 2]. On the back wall of their home hangs a painting of a hermit that is similar in conception to The Hermit. The burgomaster, quill in hand, is seated before a table on which lie an open book and a globe. The woman rests her hand on an overturned lute. The objects on the table refer to the arts and letters, humanistic endeavors. The suspended glass sphere was metaphorically meant to represent heaven. The Brooklyn painting, therefore, can be interpreted to mean that humility and prayer, exemplified by the hermit, combined with intellectual endeavor are the means to transcend mortality. Only by balancing humanism with piety can one lead a full and truly virtuous Christian life.
Much of Dou’s fame as an artist derives from the exquisite refinement of his painting technique. This work is no exception. The care with which he has painted the hermit’s features, hair, and beard as well as the various colored threads of the woven cloth covering the rock is remarkable. Dou’s delicate yet spirited touch lends great visual interest to this scene of intense spiritual contemplation.
Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
April 24, 2014