RUYSCH, Rachel

Dutch painter (b. 1664, Amsterdam, d. 1750, Amsterdam)

Flowers on a Tree Trunk

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Oil on canvas, 93 x 74 cm

Staatliche Museen, Kassel

Rachel Ruysch, closely following Otto Marseus van Schrieck, also painted forest still-lifes. This painting is a particularly good example. As in van Schrieck’s still-lifes, we look at dark undergrowth, dried stump with knotholes surrounded by toadstools and moss underneath stones. Winding around the dead tree trunks are brightly coloured flowers of all kinds, including roses, lilies and bindweed. They have a luminous quality which seems to come from within them. Insects, reptiles, and amphibians such as snakes, toads and small lizards, are partly fighting one another and partly destroying the plants together. On the left a toad and a small snake are attacking one another, on the right a fire-breathing (!) toad with red flames darting from its mouth is trying to hold a small lizard in check.

Opposing the world of half-dead, flowerless plants and minerals, the glowing colours of the flowers add an element of vitality. These must be understood with a view to the Christian doctrine of salvation, symbolizing the purity of the Virgin Mary as well as Christian virtues or fruit of the Holy Spirit. This is also the context for the butterflies settling on the unopened blossom of a lily - undoubtedly an allusion to the mystical (‘immaculate’) conception of the Virgin Mary, as the lily had been a fixed attribute of the Mother of God since the late Middle Ages. Other insects, by contrast, are interpreted in a negative way. The locust climbing from the dead tree trunk to the red rose in order to destroy it, together with the stag beetle on the branch above it, just below the upper frame must be seen as an allusion to biblical text: ‘He spoke and the locusts came, locusts and beetles without number…’.