Art Rules: XV-XVII Century Masterpieces from Private Collections

Exhibition at Tallinn Town Hall

  • Pieter Brueghel
  • Frans Snyders
  • Albrecht Durer
  • Peter P. Rubens
  • Lucas Cranach
  • David Teniers
June 5October 5 2015

Discover the Art


The exhibition presents original artworks from the great European masters of  the 15th-17th centuries. Works come from private collections all over the world. The extensive exhibition involves the entire Town Hall.

 The exhibition “Art Rules” refers to the points of contact between power and creation. Tallinn Town Hall, as the symbol of medieval town authorities and the medieval spirit, is a meaningful location in which to display the works of old masters. The historical status of the Town Hall and the artistic values that have remained here reflect old ideals and beliefs, which are also carried by the works of the coming exhibition.

By giving more power to art that carries eternal ideals, we create a better balance in ourselves and society.

Marten van Valckenborch

1535, Leuven – 1612, Frankfurt am Main

“The Tower of Babel”

Oil on panel, 84 x 116 cm

The power of heavens

The allegory hidden in the picture refers to human arrogance that drew forth the wrath of God. The subject is taken of the Book of Genesis (11.1 - 9). It can be said that through history, literature and art, where this subject has been widely treated and elaborated on, the story of the  Tower of Babel is one of the most chrestomatic ones, calling people to modesty and dignity in order to preserve to ability to communicate in understanding of each other.

Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Brussels c. 1564 – 1638 Antwerp

“Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap”

Oil on panel, 37.5 by 56.2 cm

Life through the bird trap


With an amazingly beautiful landscape of a village in Brabant as a backdrop, the scene of the joyous winter pleasures on the ice is a philosophically symbolic one, the leitmotif of which is the transience of life. According to the scholars, the bird trap symbolises the capture and death of birds, while the skaters on the fragile ice and the ice-hole refer to thoughtless imprudence; it is stressed that the two black crows in the sky could also be predicting death that lurks after the reckless skaters like a trap captures careless birds.

Paulus Bor

Amersfoort ca. 1601 – 1669 Amersfoort

“A Horn Player”

Oil on panel, 55 x 47.5 cm

Human as a challenge


The painting of a horn player, who is suggestively and compellingly looking at the viewer, seems realistic yet fairy-tale-like at the same time, raising questions both about his person and his story. Whatever the horn player’s secret that artist has so mysteriously captured, his puffed cheeks and assessing glance make the image lively and appealing, and highly memorable. It seems like the character in the picture wants to manifest independence that would exceed the earthly social standings and be favoured by heavenly beings.

Lucas Cranach the Elder

Germany, Kronach 1472 – Weimar 1553

“Bacchus’ Mysteria”

Oil on panel 59 X 39.4 cm

The mystery of temptation


The scene represents a wine orgy provoked by Bacchus, where mischievous Putti have gathered around the wine barrel and given themselves over to the pleasures of wine. Depiction of the provocative God of Wine known from mythology and the exaggerated scene with the Putti created in the artist’s fantasy serves the purpose of delivering the moral precepts regarding the harmfulness of alcohol, indecent behaviour and moral degradation.


Jacob van Hulsdonck

1582-1647, Antwerp

“Table laid with cheese, ham and herring”

oil, canvas, 52.1 x 71 cm

The Genius of mortality

Grapes, plums, apricots, cherries, lemons - the mastery what has only rarely been surpassed by other artists. Still lifes of the 17th-century contain symbols rendering a certain message. Despite the abundance of the “tables” the iconography of Van Hulsdonck’s does not originate from the brighter side of life. The presence of insects where something is rotting, blemishes on fruit and holes gnawed in leaves remind us of decay and thus of temporalness in general. With such details the artist expressed a vanitas notion, the inevitability of changes around us.

Jan Brueghel the Elder

Brussels 1568 – Antwerp 1625

“Still life with tulips, roses and irises in a clay vase”

Oil on panel, 66.2 x 51 cm

The Pleasures of the Imagination

In Northern painting flower pieces were seen as allegories of the transience of life and were filled with hidden meanings. However, they were also regarded as joyous depictions of the natural world without being mere copies of nature but carefully selected and arranged compositions of elements respected by the artist. Brueghel’s still lifes are like a testament to the wonders of nature, evidence of Brueghel’s astonishing skill of expressing the divine presence in the earthly realm.

Jan Massys

Antwerp ca 1509 – 1575

“Allegory of Charity”

Oil on panel, 140.5 x 111.5 cm

The Most Excellent of The Virtues

Charity is a part of Christian iconography, at least since the Renaissance.  At the roof of this allegory are the contrasting aspects of human love versus divine love, the former intended to illustrate human love's fragility and the latter immortal love of the human soul. During the Counter Reformation the theme of a beautiful woman nursing her child was undoubtedly considered to be an allegory of Charity of Love. However, a woman could also represent a personification of the Roman Catholic Church, her children representing the human soul hungry for spiritual nourishment provided only by the Church's sacraments.

Boets J.

Active in Flanders up to 1635 - after 1660

“Allegory of the Senses of Sight and smell”

Oil on canvas, 135 x 200 cm

De Sensu et Sensato. Sensation as a guide

The cabinet in the painting transforms into an impressive theatre, an immense gallery where Allegories are depicted as two female figures sitting at the table surrounded by items identifying them: the fragrant flowers as the sense of Smell, and a mirror and magnifying glass as the sense of Sight. The large gallery is full of works by the greatest masters from Antwerp, antique sculptures, rare valuables, books and astrological instruments.

Albrecht Dürer

Nuremberg 1471 – 1528

“Knight, Death and the Devil”

Engraving, 25 x 19 cm

The conviction of convey


Christian Knight in armour as he rides through a narrow gorge flanked by a pigsnouted Devil and the figure of Death riding a pale horse. Death is depicted as a corpse – without nose and mouth – holding an hourglass to remind the Knight of the brevity of his life and futility of his efforts. The Devil follows the Knight, ready to exploit each mistake. As the noble rider moves through the scene, he ignores the creatures lurking around him and appears to be almost contemptuous of the threats. He becomes an embodiment of the symbol in art representing honour and courage.

Marten de Vos the Elder

Antwerp 1532 – 1603

“The last judgment”

Oil on panel, 75 x 84 cm

The Court of justice


Powerful episode depicted with great fantasy, focusing on the pushing crowds, masterfully conveying the rhythm of movement of the figures. The artist skilfully contrasts the colouring of “the righteous” and “the condemned” to bring out the difference of characters. The intensely dynamic composition and perspectives painted from various viewing angles create an illusion of the worlds blending into each other upon the opening of the heavenly skies at the Judgement Day, from which no one can escape. The painting persuades the viewer to pay attention to his actions and their virtuousness.

Jan Brueghel the Younger

Antwerp 1601 – 1678

“The entry of the animals into Noah’s Ark”

Oil on copper, 69,5 × 87 cm

The salvation as a hope


The story of Noah's Ark provided a subject well suited to Jan Brueghel the Elder's descriptive abilities. Overcome by the wickedness of the human race, God resolved to cleanse the earth with a great flood. He spared only the lives of the family of Noah, the sole just man. God instructed Noah to build an ark and to take on board a male and a female of every species of bird and beast.

Monogrammist AG – Master of the Upper Rhine

Active in the Upper Rhine region in the late 15th century

“The Annunciation. Hortus Conclusus”

Oil, tempera on panel 124 x 84

Fairy tail of  reality

The painting is an excellent example of narrative Christian art depicting religious and mythological themes. By preserving the archaic features to the fullest, the painter provides a new lyrical and intimate interpretation to the religious subject. The main focus is put on expressing real human feelings. The figures of saints possess the features of people of those times, possibly, common people. Thus Mary and Archangel Gabriel are not idealised in the painting; to the contrary, their outward commonness is underlined, spirited by inner beauty and holiness.

Frans Snyders

Antwerp 1579 – 1657

“Still life with birds and fruit, and a cat”

Oil on copper 37.2 x 55 cm

The game of attractions


This seemingly random combination of flora and fauna, bound only by emotion, still carries a deeper hidden meaning. Birds are picking wild strawberries from a bowl, oblivious of a cat that has its own agenda with the birds. The painting is open to the viewer; a tense story reminding of the sinful nature of all living creatures with virtue as a seeming attribute next to the beautiful and delicious fruit that are still destined to decay.

Adriaen van Stalbemt/Jan Brueghel the Elder

Antwerp 1580 – 1662/Brussels 1568 – Antwerp 1625

“The Interior of a Picture Gallery (Allegory of Painting)”

oil, canvas 73.5 x 105.5

Art as the World

Although Adriaen van Stalbemt has been identified as the primary author of this work, it was common in those days that artists worked together at creating a painting. So, according to experts, a significant part of this composition has been painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder who is the author of the flowers and fruit – which is why it is justified to name two authors to this painting. The two characters in the foreground are allegories – the Art of Painting represented by the winged figure holding a paintbrush and a maulstick, fallen asleep on the lap of an old man with flaming crown who symbolizes Knowledge and Intelligence. One detail worth special attention is the basket of fruit that has been upset and where a monkey is feasting. In antique literature a monkey was the symbol of earthly vices experienced by man in his everyday life. Respectively, the demonstrative gesture captured in the painting where the tempting fruit are pushed away and left to the monkey, refers to renouncement of these vices.

Pieter Paul Rubens

Siegen, Westphalia 1577 – Antwerp 1640

“Portrait of a woman, possibly Marie de’ Medici (1575 – 1642)”

Oil on canvas 62 х 48 cm

The Magics of personality


This striking, psychologically appealing and inviting portrait of a woman is possibly Marie de’ Medici, who was the second wife to King Henry IV of France and one of the most significant historical female figures.  The composition is influenced by the conservative style of the period, where the models were presented in their correct static splendour as if both the model and the author were following a prescribed accepted etiquette. Rubens's manner, however, was more picturesque and liberal; although he seemed to follow the approved canons, the artist appeared to be less restrained and more daring, which demonstrates his powerful artistic nature.