22. Jacques de Gheyn II

Antwerp 1565 – 1629 The Hague

The Prayer before the Meal, c. 1595

Here Jacques de Gheyn II shows the moment when grace is being said before a meal.1 A family has gathered around the table to eat. Before they may begin, they show their gratitude for the food; their hands are folded in prayer and the father and the eldest son gaze upward. It was common for the children to stand for this moment, and for them to remain standing while eating. The rationale for this was educational.2 The prayer before the meal must be seen in the light of the spiritual education of the children.3

In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century the theme was used first and foremost to spread the prevailing ideal of a devout, harmonious and fruitful family. Protestant families – and Catholic families too – often had themselves portrayed thus to show that they possessed and promoted these values.4 The vegetation which often surrounded the sitters – or the fictional characters in prints – can be traced back to Psalm 128 (127 in the Catholic Bible), in which the woman is compared to a fruitful grapevine and the children to olive plants. De Gheyn also visualised this symbolism here: a vine grows against the wall alongside the mother and there is a sapling behind each child. The tree by the stream, visible on the left, is another fixed element in this iconography and symbolizes the father of the house, according to Psalm 1. The Latin poem in four quatrains in the bottom margin of the print, an interpretation of Psalm 128 by the Scottish humanist George Buchanan (1506-1582), forms the textual accompaniment to the scene.5

Several other artists depicted the subject of The Prayer before the Meal, sometimes accompanied by the pendant Poor Parents, Rich Children, which showed how destitute parents were being neglected by their well-off children.6 Both prints would certainly have been hung on the walls in many a seventeenth-century interior as examples of good and bad behaviour.7


1The preliminary study of this print is in the Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig, inv. no. Z 229.

2Wayne Franits, ‘The Family Saying Grace: A Theme in Dutch Art of the Seventeenth Century’, Simiolus 16 (1986), pp. 36-49.

3Eddy de Jongh and Ger Luijten, Spiegel van Alledag. Nederlandse genreprenten 1550-1700, exh. cat. Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum) 1997, p. 127.

4For example: Gortzius Geldorp, Prayer before the Meal (1602), Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn.

5Paraphrasis Psalmorum Davidis poetica (Antwerp, Plantijn).

6Pieter van Thiel, ‘”Poor Parents, Rich Children“and”Family Saying Grace": Two Related Aspects of the Iconography of Late Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Dutch Domestic Morality’, Simiolus 17 (1987) pp. 90-149.

7Eddy de Jongh and Ger Luijten, Spiegel van Alledag. Nederlandse genreprenten 1550-1700, exh. cat. Amsterdam (Rijksmuseum) 1997, p. 128.