In Bodies of Knowledge: the Presentation of Personified Figures in Engraved Allegorical Series Produced in the Netherlands, 1548-1600, Shamos summarizes his general thesis in the Abstract:
During the second half of the sixteenth century, engraved series of allegorical subjects featuring personified figures flourished for several decades in the Low Countries before falling into disfavor. Designed by the Netherlands’ leading artists and cut by professional engravers, such series were collected primarily by the urban intelligentsia, who appreciated the use of personification for the representation of immaterial concepts and for the transmission of knowledge, both in prints and in public spectacles. The pairing of embodied forms and serial format was particularly well suited to the portrayal of abstract themes with multiple components, such as the Four Elements, Four Seasons, Seven Planets, Five Senses, or Seven Virtues and Seven Vices. While many of the themes had existed prior to their adoption in Netherlandish graphics, their pictorial rendering had rarely been so pervasive or systematic. … As a form of visual rhetoric linked to other cultural practices, engraved allegorical series played a pivotal role in mediating and schematizing immaterial ideas for an educated elite in the Low Countries.
Shamos classifies the offered set as among a group of Netherlandish prints characterized by “The Use of Clouds as Presentational Devices for Cosmological Allegory.” He explains their use in the offered set, which illustrate a female virtue deity in the clouds above a scene of the virtue exemplified in Roman history:
The placement of allegorical virtues above historical narratives – rather than contemporary scenes – alters the relationship between registers, creating a greater equivalence between the figures in the two zones. The personified figures above the clouds are timeless and transcendent, while the exemplary figures in the lower registers have been immortalized as a result of their deeds. The two sets of figures double the allegorical representation of each virtue, providing alternative models for appropriate behavior.
Shamos first describes the title page that precedes the seven numbered prints, which is not present in the above offered set:
The suite includes seven prints as well as a title page, which shows personifications of the seven canonical virtues on clouds arrayed in a U-shape around the outside of the page. The three Theological Virtues – Hope, Faith, and Charity – appear across top, and the four Cardinal Virtues – Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance – occupy the sides.
Shamos notes, however, that the virtues in the suite of seven numbered prints following the title page “portray other qualities” than the seven Canonical virtues on the title page. Indeed, it is unclear to us as a matter of logic whether this so-called title page was always specifically issued to precede the seven prints offered here. Regardless, Shamos describes the iconography of the personified virtues and the historical illustrations for the seven numbered plates (offered here) as follows:
The first [Innocentia, Plate 1] shows Innocence with a lamb and child standing nearby. Shown with her hands clasped to her breast, the virtue resembles the personification of Faith, often shown in a similar manner. Below, the scene of children at play recalls de Vos’s design for the depiction of Luna-Infancy-Nature from the series of the Seven Planets and the Seven Ages of Man. In the following print, [Pietas, Plate 2], Piety presides over Aeneas’s flight from the destruction of Troy with his father, Anchises, on his shoulders and his son, Ascanius, following close behind as the city burns in the background. The image serves as the exemplum for duty, respect, and obedience toward one’s parents. To the right appears another example of filial piety, as Pero secretly nurses her incarcerated father, Cimon, in a selfless act that impresses her father’s jailers and wins his release.
In the following print, [Liberalitis, Plate 3], Liberality disperses coins from a purse, while her earthly representatives, Nerva and Cimon, distribute alms to the poor and destitute. As Roman emperor, (96 –98 AD), Nerva frequently distributed charity and provided grain to the poor. In his eulogy for Cimon, an Athenian statesman of the fifth century BCE, Plutarch noted his exemplary generosity and hospitality.
In another image from the series, [Constantia, Plate 4], Mucius Scaevola places his hand on the burning altar. The billowing smoke that rises from the flame seems to constitute the cloud on which Constancy sits. Mucius Scaevola appeared frequently in Renaissance compilations of exemplary figures, including Goltzius’s series of eight heroes of ancient Rome (1586). Following his capture by the Etruscans in 508 BC, Mucius demonstrated his bravery and steadfast allegiance to Rome by placing his hand in a fire, a gesture that impressed his captors and secured his freedom.
With doves resting on her fingers, [in Concordia, Plate 5], Concord appears above the twins Castor and Pollux. The Dioscuri appear in the moments following Castor’s fatal wounding at the hands of Idas, when Pollux decides to share his brother’s fate so that they can remain together. The stars on their brows indicate their celestial transformation into Gemini following their deaths.
[In Victoria, Plate 6] Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great appear beneath winged Victory, with a warship and soldiers behind. The two great leaders represent martial triumph, while [in Pax, Plate 7] Numa and Solomon serve as exemplars of Peace, personified above as a female figure with a laurel branch in her hand. Through his wisdom Solomon obtained decades of peace for the kingdom of Israel, while Numa, the legendary second king of Rome, secured peace with Rome’s enemies. Behind the two kings stands the Temple of Janus with closed doors, an indication of a time of peace.
Condition: Each generally fine, having with the usual overall light toning, wear, handling, soft creases. Printed with plate marks variously askew as typical for prints of this era; nonetheless with good margins for framing evenly.
“Constantia.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2000-2020. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/383753 (2 July 2020).
Shamos, Geoffrey, “Bodies of Knowledge: The Presentation of Personified Figures in Engraved Allegorical Series Produced in the Netherlands, 1548-1600” (2015). Publicly Accessible Penn Dissertations. 1128. http://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations/1128 (2 July 2020).