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Old Masters, Allegory, Weight of the Bible, Protestant Reformation, Antique Print, French, c. 1562


P. Magiter (etcher)
[The Weight of the Bible]
French: c. 1562 or later
Signed in matrix: P. Magiter EXCUD and dated in lower right margin beneath verse
16 x 19.75 inches, image (40 x 49 cm)
17.75 x 21.75 inches, overall

An early allegorical and satirical engraving about the response of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation in the mid 16th century. The image is divided between representations of the two opposing groups with a huge scale suspended from the ceiling in the middle. On the left side are prominent leaders, members and proponents of the Catholic Church who are aided in weighting their side of the scale by a little devil. On the right side are their counterparts of the Reformation who have tipped the scale decidedly in their favor with nothing but a huge bible. The engraving is dated 1562 in the lower right, with a poem in French in the lower margin explaining the image; thus it is known as the French edition.

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The 1562 French edition is one of several similar prints with this image and theme. Three other significant versions (and then some variations thereof) were executed in the Netherlands in the mid 17th century. Two scholarly articles have tackled the iconography and dating of these various prints, but have some significant disagreements. The first was written by Dutch scholar N. Wijngaards in 1966, the other by Didier Travier in 2018. Wijngaards takes the position that the French edition is the earliest version, indeed produced in 1562. Travier contends that the original issue was in the Netherlands in the 17th century (with other variant editions) and that the  French etching by Magiter was done later than those, and only dated 1562 to coincide with the commencement of the last Council of Trent. Neither scholar was able to find any additional information about the engraver Magiter. An example the Magiter print is frequently posted on the internet as being in the collection of the “Musée Calvin” and incorrectly attributed to Hugo Allard the Elder (Dutch, 1627-1684) rather than Magiter; Allard instead engraved one of three major Dutch editions of the work as discussed by Travier. Travies sometimes refers to the French edition as the Geneva edition apparently as a suggestion it might have been published there.

The unresolved issues regarding this print that are discussed at length by Wijngaards and Travier are beyond the scope of our offering and description. Both articles are online and can be accessed at the URLs in the References below for further consultation and review. We offer this French version as an early old master engraving around 1562, as Wijngaards concluded — or, as Travier maintains, possibly issued after the 17th-century Dutch versions. The French edition is rare. In a footnote, Travier appears cite three examples: one in the Library of Geneva, another in the Rochelais Museum of Protestant History, La Rochelle, France, and the last in the Calvin Museum, Noyon, France.

An extensive and detailed explanation by Wijngaards of the French engraving, including its symbolism, point of view, iconography and persons shown, is as follows (adapted from an automated online translation of the Dutch text):

In my opinion there are clear indications that the French imprint is the oldest. The figures on that French print are divided into two groups, which represent the two camps. The Reformed people, on the right, are dressed in moody black; on the floor we read the names of [Clément] Marot, [John] Calvin, [Martin] Luther and [Theodore] Beza (from right to left). The Catholics — in the absence of colors —are portrayed in various shades of gray; there are no names on these figures, but the text of the poem under the plate provides information about this. The most important character is Alphonsus de Castro, standing on the scales. This minor brother and theologian — born 1495 in Zamora (Leon, Spain) and died in Brussels in 1558 — was confessor and advisor to Charles V [Holy Roman Emperor] and Philip II [of Spain] and court preacher for 43 years. As a peritus he attended the fourth session of the Council of Trent. His works characterize him as a particularly strong and irreconcilable opponent of the Reformed: Adversus omnes haereses (Cologne, 1539) and De justa haereticorum punitione (Salamanca, 1547). Also mentioned are Clète, probably Pope Cletus or Anacletus II (Pierloni), who in 1130 was chosen by 14 cardinals as their counterpart to avoid Cardinal Gregory, later Pope Innocent II. This Cletus was known for his worldliness and ambition. Then come in the order “Pie” and “Alexander.” The first is without doubt meant Pope Pius IV (Giovanni Angelo Medici), the son of a physician, who reigned from 1559-1565. He vigorously embarked on the implementation of the Council of Trent and was therefore the major opponent in 1562, the year of production of the print. With Alexander there can be no other person than the infamous pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Lenzuoli Borgia; 1492-1503), who caused so much annoyance because of his shameful behavior. It is also possible that the cousin of Pope Pius IV, Cardinal Carolus Borromaeus, is depicted on the throne next to the Pope, although his name is not mentioned.

Remarkable is the stately tranquility of the Protestants, expressed by the many vertical and horizontal lines and the almost geometric structure of the group. The somewhat bent arm of Marot, the protesting gesture of Calvin and the glowing fur collars break through this interplay of lines. However, it is strongly supported by the speaking standing lines of the book — the Bible! — on the scales and the heavy, closing dark line above the sitting figures against the right wall. This creates a balanced rhythm in the group on that side, which is sustained down to the lower folds of robes, even into the shoes, and in the window in the background, which gives the whole an extra accent of dimension, of subsidence and convincing tranquility. The scene in this section is like a paraphrase of the motto: Here we are — we can’t help it!

On the other hand, the group of papists: a block with a completely different structure, dynamic, restless, even disorderly. Dominant are the moving lines of the figure in the middle — Saint Francis of Assisi — and those of the black devil at the bottom of the scale. But the altar boy with his bell in the foreground, the kneeling penitent next to him — Alexander VI1 — the gesturing and almost handwringing clergymen with their variety of robes and headwear, their shaved crowns, their cords, tresses, crosses and above it the figure of the pope — Pius IV — between two cardinals, everything supports the dynamic rhythm that suggests unrest and uncertainty, in front of the certainty and calm on the other side. The papists are in a panic, unable to find the correct answer to the “resounding” argument of the Protestants; on their side it is a “capharnaum”, a mess!

The contrast has been maintained so strongly that the space is divided into two halves. The attempt to create a bond in the middle, on the floor, has only partially succeeded. The draftsman thereby sacrificed something: the natural light through the window.

The satirical text under the print is not much more than a description; the main idea is expressed pretty straightforwardly.

The poem in the lower margin of engraving, roughly translated from the French, is as follows:

[Alphonsus de] Castro sees the great difficulty
That Satan has trying going after the cord
To get on the chain
But it’s nothing but beating water [i.e. a useless and exhausting effort]

The Antichrist wants to depend on
Using all his weight
Bèze [Theodore Beza] resolves to defend
The Gospel with great zeal

The keys, the crown, or papal tiara
The efforts of each
Caphars, the breviary & the fanfare
Everything is lightweight in this respect

In short the papists do their best
They even hold up crosses
But Calvin needs nothing but the Bible
It alone carries the weight

[Pope] Cletus laments & sighs
That he sees himself defeated altogether
St. Francis is just cursing
Under the tip of his hat

[Pope] Pius like a true audacious man
Infallibly promises itself
That Castro would make a big fuss
But he is completely mistaken

[Pope] Alexander comes to their aid
Resolved to relieve them
Kneeling down but his aid
Like everything else is lightweight

We can therefore say with justification
That all the dogmas of humans
The stratagems & artifice
Against the Gospel are in vain.

Condition: Generally very good, a rich impression, recently professionally cleaned and restored, including laying on a supporting sheet of similar laid paper to enlarge margins, torepair a few short marginal tears, and to fill a small chip in the upper right margin and complete in manuscript; now with only minor remaining toning and wear.


“A new relationship to God.” Musée Protestant. (23 December 2019).

Travier, Didier. “Protestantismes et Images. Un Exemple: Le Motif Polémique de la Balance.” Mémoires de l’Académie de Nîmes, 2017. 9th Series, Vol. 90. Nîmes, France: Académie de Nîmes, 2018. pp. 284-291. (23 December 2019).

Wijngaards, N.C.H. “Vondels, ‘Hollantsche Transformatie.'” De Nieuwe Taalgids. No. 59, 1966, pp. 305-312. Online at DBNL – Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren, Leiden. 25 January 2018. (23 December 2019).

Additional information


18th Century