Pieter Aertsen as a Describer of Sin


The painting The Greengrocer by the Dutch genre painter Pieter Aertsen (1508–1575) describes two market vendors displaying their abundant supply. Market views were often used as pictorial motifs in Dutch art. However, this innocent description of a market reveals itself, when you scrutinize it a bit more closely, as something completely different.

Let us look for the key to understanding the riddle in another painting by Aertsen, one that is a bit similar to the one in the collections of the Serlachius Museums: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (ca. 1562, oil on canvas), belonging to the collection of the National Museum in Stockholm. The motif of this painting, Jesus and the adulteress who has been brought before him to be judged, remains in the background. Market vendors with their plates of fruit and vegetables are depicted in the foreground.

See the image here.

The painting has been interpreted as describing earthly and heavenly values. Dutch painting of this period is full of symbolic significations, and careful consideration was given to which animals and vegetables were chosen for the images. For example, as for the painting owned by the National Museum, a certain importance has been given to the black rooster dangling out from the hand of the man sitting on the right side. In Dutch and German the verb vogelen derived from the word bird, vogel, has the additional meaning of mating. The painting has been considered as commenting on the sin of adultery that the man and the woman in the foreground have committed.

At the left margin, a man with a beard is holding a big bundle of onions in his hands.  This has been interpreted as referring to the regret and sorrow caused by adultery – as well known, onions cause tears. The motif of the work supports this interpretation. In a scene in the Gospel according to Saint John, the scribes and Pharisees have brought before Jesus a woman taken in adultery, who by the Law of Moses should be punished by stoning. Jesus’s answer: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”, lays the moral question entirely on the viewer’s shoulders.

The painting by Pieter Aertsen in the collection of the Serlachius Museums is more explicitly allusive than the work in Stockholm. The open-collared woman in the painting is leaning against the man, who for his part is loos at us with a serious look on his face, as if he is feeling sad because of the consequences of his act. In this picture there is also a man grabbing a bird, this time by its beak, as though he wants to silence it. With his other hand, the man is opening the lid of a basket displaying a sleepy-looking rooster and hen crouching side by side in the narrow space. A well-known symbol of adultery in this epoch, a large-scaled pumpkin has been placed in front of the basket. This painting does not have a biblical scene in the background, but you find the same simile of good and bad, heavenly and earthly as in the other one, for in the background behind the couple you see people leading a good life in the vicinity of the Church.

Aertsen’s painting on show in the exhibition Pleasure at the Serlachius Museum Gösta.

Laura Kuurne
Head Curator

Pieter Aertsen, The Greengrocer
Pieter Aertsen, The Greengrocer, 16th century, oil on panel, Gösta Serlachius Fine Arts Foundation. Photo: Yehia Eweis.