The stucco ceilings of Jan Christian Hansche, part 10: biography, the ones you can’t see in Gent, and the Kasteel van Horst

My quest to find all of the surviving stucco ceilings by Jan Christian Hansche has come to an end, I think. Today I visited the last of his surviving work that is on display; but before I get to that, a couple of related points. (Previous entries in this series:  Park Abbey in Leuventhe Chateau de Modave near Namurthe ones that have been destroyed in Germanythe Church of St Nicholas at Perk near Brusselsthe Church of St Remigius at Franc-Waret also near Namurthe Church of St Charles Borromeo in Antwerptwo ceilings in Gentthe Sablon in Brussels and Beaulieu Castle in Machelen; Schoonhoven Castle in Aarschot.)

First off, I came across this Facebook post by Jan Caluwaerts on the documentary records of Hansche’s life – and I actually went and had a good long conversation with Jan Caluwaerts about it yesterday, for which many thanks. It turns out that Hansche was from the town of Olfen in Germany, not so far from Kleve and Wesel where we know he worked. His three children were baptised in Brussels in 1651, 1653 and 1654. In 1661 he applied for (and got) citizenship in Brussels, along with his assistant Hendrick Daelemans.

In his citizenship application, he claims that he has lived in Brussels for ten years, and has worked inside and outside of the city, in churches, monasteries, and the homes of prelates, princes and lords, and that his fame has spread to Italy, Austria and Germany. Given that only the Antwerp, Horst and Machelen ceilings survive from before 1661, and the only surviving Brussels work is from 1684, there must have been a lot of Hansche’s work in Brussels which was destroyed by the French bombardment in 1695.

Brussels, then as now, was the regional capital and the ideal place to pick up commissions. But it was necessary for Hansche to join the Guild of Plasterers and Stuccadors, who did their best to regulate him to do things their way – in particular, they tried to force him to accept a Brussels-born apprentice (and eventually succeeded), and made him pay fines for non-compliance with the regulations; when he paid the fines out of the massive fees he had got for his ceilings, they tried to raise the fines. Eventually in 1666 he just left Brussels; whether he established a permanent base elsewhere is not recorded, but the big later projects in Leuven, Modave and Gent must have required him to be on-site most of the time.

Speaking of Gent: five panels by Hansche survive from the house of the Canfyn family, which was demolished in 1902. I have spoken to two people who have seen them, but they are in storage in a workshop near Gent, waiting for the right moment to put them on display. The panels represent Time and the Four Seasons, and fortunately photographs of all five are in the online Gent city archive.

Here is Time (not sure about the iconography here – could it actually be the Assumption?):

A slightly blurry Spring, but helpfully the date is clear:

A more blurry Summer, though you can see that the figure at bottom right leans out of the panel:

A clearer Autumn, with fauns and humans making wine, several of them instruding into our space:

And a much clearer Winter. Look at the firewood protruding to the right.

I don’t see an actual signature by Hansche here, but maybe it’s in a part of the artwork that was not photographed (or has been lost).

Today I completed my tour of the surviving Hansche ceilings with a visit to the Castle of Horst, between Leuven and Aarschot. It’s usually closed, but they are having a Heritage Day today, and I was greeted at the gates by a piper.

The castle itself is rather gorgeous, and is the base for the Red Knight in the well-known Flemish series of comics.

Sadly the castle is in very poor shape, though repairs are scheduled to start Real Soon Now. There are three rooms with Hansche ceilings – not quite as elaborate as some (he seems to have really got into his groove after 1655, when these are dated) but interesting enough. Here’s the ceiling of the antechamber, two panorama shots taken from opposite sides of the room so that the middle panel is there twice from different angles.

The badly damaged cartouche on the right has the date 1655.

The ceilings were commissioned by the owner of the castle, Maria-Anna van den Tympel after her husband, Albert Mulert, had died in 1644. She herself died in 1658, so had only three years to enjoy Hansche’s stuccos, which have lasted more than three and a half centuries since.

Upstairs are two rooms with much more impressive stuff from Hansche. The biggest room shows stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The first panel shows the story of Battus being turned into a stone for being indiscreet. Apollo, on the left, has got too distracted playing his pipes to look after his cattle; Mercury, on the right, steals the cattle and realises that Battus, in the middle, is likely to snitch on him, and transforms him to stone; you can see his legs becoming rock. (What secret was the baroness worrying about?)

The next two show the much better known story of Jason and Medea. Jason and the Argonauts had come from afar to Colchis (now Georgia, of course) in search of the Golden Fleece, guarded by a dragon. Medea, the daughter of the king, falls in love with Jason and in the first panel he meets her at the temple of Hecate, where she provides him with herbs to drug the dragon. In the second panel he pours the drugs onto the dragon, to make it fall asleep so that he can grab the Golden Fleece off the tree behind it. It’s a story that fascinates me for other reasons.

The next two panels show the story of Cephalus and Procris, a king and queen who had a rather on-again, off-again relationship. In the first frame, they are getting back together again after one of their arguments, and Procris presents Cephalus with a hunting dog and a spear that never misses. Alas, she became suspicious of him and followed him while he was hunting; he threw the inerrant spear at the suspicious rustle where she was hiding in the bushes, and killed her. (I would add that poor dying Procris has the most realistic female torso of any of Hansche’s figures that I have seen anywhere.)

Finally, we have Narcissus, falling in love with his own reflection and about to be transformed into a daffodil, to the dismay of his dog (or dogs).

The final room has just four allegorical panels, three of which do not seem linked to any particular myth. It also has badly decayed biblical scenes pained on the walls.

The fabric of the building is generally in poor shape.

Anyway, here is a woodcutter, having a go at the tree and realising that NON VNO STERNITUR ICTV (it is not felled with one blow), a standard saying about the virtues of perseverance.

Here’s King David, playing the harp to the motto MVSICA SERVA DEI (music is the handmaid of God). Note the Tetragrammaton יהוה‎ in wobbly Hebrew script crammed into the upper right corner.

By the fireplace is a more enigmatic piece, Mars and Minerva holding cornucopias, and the slogan IN NOCTE CONSILIVM (council by night).

And finally, at the other end of the room, it’s Mars again but this time with Venus and the slogan ARTE ET MARTE (by skill and valour). It also has Hansche’s own signoff – the date ANNO 1655 and his initials I C H (for Ian Christian Hansche).

These are not as daring as Hansche’s later work – perhaps he was still struggling to find a way for limbs, weapons and monsters to emerge from the ceiling. But they somehow feel more personal. I am struck that in the Ovid room the first panel (Battus) is about betrayal of a confidence about a sin and the other three feature doomed love (Jason and Medea, Cephalus and Procris, and Narcissus with himself). It’s also interesting that the well-educated woman who commissioned the work has the goddesses of wisdom and of love separately consorting with Mars in the last room.

Unfortunately we know little more of her except the dates of her birth (1606), marriage (1636), widowhood (1644), inheritance of the castle from a cousin (1650) and her own death (1658). She had no surviving children, and after her death the castle went to her nephew, who was married to a niece of her husband’s. We can make some guesses, I think.

So, that’s the end for now of my search for Hansche’s work. There are precisely ten places where it can still be seen in situ, chronologically as follows:

1653 sacristy ceiling in Charles Borromeus church, Antwerpen
1655 Horst
castle, Sint-Pieters-Rode; see above
1659 Beaulieu Castle, Machelen
(1660: I have reluctantly struck the library ceiling at the University of Gent from my list; it just doesn’t look like Hansche’s work at all.)
1666-1672 Modave castle
1668-70 St Nicholas church, Perk
1669 St Remigius church, Franc-Waret
1671 chapel ceiling at Schoonhoven castle, Aarschot
1672/1679 Park Abbey, Leuven
(1672 – lost ceilings depicting St Martin and St Augustine in St Martin’s Priory, Leuven, demolished in 19th century)
(also around 1672 – lost ceilings in Wesel, Germany, destroyed in WW2)
(1673 Canfyn House, Gent – see above; house demolished in 1902 but ceilings are in storage)
1673 Brouwershuis, Gent
(1677 – lost ceilings in Kleve, Germany, destroyed in WW2)
1684 Our Lady of the Victories chuch, Grand Sablon, Brussels

There are a lot of gaps in the above. We only know of three that have been destroyed in the last century or so; there must have been a lot more once, especially before 1695 in Brussels.

I am thinking of putting all of this together into a small but lavishly illustrated ebook, and there are one or two other research ends that I still want to pursue. But the main chunk of this project is over, for now.