Allegory of Africa, from "The Four Continents"

After Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder Flemish
Publisher Philips Galle Netherlandish

Not on view

Marcus Gheeraerts likely trained with the Brussels painter Bernard van Orley; and, after his death, in Antwerp with the prolific printmaker and publisher Hieronymus Cock. Gheeraerts produced his own etchings as well as hundreds of drawings for engravings, which were executed by some of the most well-known Flemish artists of the time. His connections to these printers and publishing houses—Cock, Sadeler, Galle, de Jode—remained strong even while he was in exile in London between approximately 1567-77.

This Allegory of Africa is part of a series of engravings of the four continents after drawings by Gheeraerts. European artists from the Renaissance onwards represented the known world through allegorical figures derived from antiquity. They often took the form of clothed or naked women and were used in ephemeral works made for triumphal entries and pageants, in maps, coins, prints, and the decorative arts. The representations were eventually standardized in the Iconologia by the Italian Cesare Ripa (1593; illustrated in 1603), and supplemented by contemporary travel accounts. In his representations of the Continents, Gheeraerts surrounded the allegories -- sexualized young women -- with the symbols and attributes that the artists and the viewers associated with each continent—in some cases the commodities to be traded and resources to be exploited. These images, steeped in a white Christian and male Eurocentrism, reinforced ideas of the self and the other that characterized the era.

In this engraving, Africa is shown as a naked woman wearing a feather headdress and carrying a bundle of branches. She is surrounded by horns of plenty and palm trees that together signify the continent’s agrarian riches. The figure of Africa is flanked by a lion and an elephant, while above her sits a chameleon that alludes to the Africa’s tropical climate. This same chameleon is found in Gheeraerts depiction of A Giraffe, Chameleon, Civet and Antelope, from the engraved series Quadrupeds (Animalium Quadrupedum, ca. 1597). In the four corners are male and female warriors shown in feathered attire carrying bows and arrows—deemed less civilized weaponry than Europe’s swords and muskets. For the clothing and accoutrements of these individuals, Gheeraerts likely relied on contemporary costume books such as those by the Fleming Abraham de Bruyn, whose Costumes of the Various Nations of Europe, Asia, Africa and America (1580; acc. no. 21.44) claims to show the dress and customs of the inhabitants of the known world.

Allegory of Africa, from "The Four Continents", After Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder (Flemish, Bruges ca. 1520–ca. 1590 London (?) (active England)), Engraving

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