Salvation Through Religion. The Rebirth Of The Classics In Arent Passer’s Oeuvre.


  • Juhan Maiste



Arent Passer, Tomb Sculpture, Nordic Mannerism, Visual Beauty Versus Verbal Text


Arent Passer is an artist who was discovered for art history by Sten Karling in 1938, and who since that time has merited ever greater attention. Both Helmi Üprus and Krista Kodres have written about Passer. The author has also touched on the subject of Passer in his previous writings, this primarily in connection with the House of the Black Heads in Tallinn, Passer’s  position as a stonemason and town architect, and his workshop located in Tallinn’s Kalamaja suburb. In this article, a closer examination is made of Tallinn’s opus magnum of the Renaissance era – the sepulchral monument of Pontus de la Gardie – several aspects of which still provoke questions, despite the repeated attention it has already received. First of all, the article focuses on the topic of death and its various interpretations during the spiritual and cultural period of transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era, in the course of which various religious and cultural impulses did not succeed each other, but existed simultaneously. This provides an opportunity to read the monument by using the death cult and its  Augustinian tradition as a point of departure along with the reform-minded changes of the modern era, thereby linking the verbal and pictorial programmes with two different representations of death – in the eternal and temporal field of vision. The primary carrier of the monument’s  ideological message is the spirit of the Renaissance, which invests in the role of the individual and his genius, with the focus of attention in this case being one of the greatest heroes of the era – Pontus de la Gardie and his famous victories on the battlefield. Along with an emphasis on the denial of the body, deformation and decomposition typical of the Late Middle Ages, as well as the freeing and salvation of the soul, the visual rhetoric of the monument addresses the humanist era man and his humane nature, which is displayed on the monument by a dominant imagery based on the classics of Antiquity. A sign of the latter is the composition based on  architectural order and the allegories Spes and Fides, which is utilised in the cenotaph designed to be an altar-like triptych. Similarly the dominant emblems of victory on the sarcophagus originate from a widespread and updated field of art, the geography of which stretches from Italy to  Burgundy, Flanders, Antwerp and finally Tallinn. Arent Passer was the first emissary in the Baltics of the Mannerism that developed as a late phase of
the Renaissance, and the origins, and most probably also early years, of which are associated with the style and workshop of Cornelis Floris and the masters that grew out of it – from Willem Boy to Philip Brandin, who fulfilled large-scale commissions in various royal courts. The patron of both the Gustav Vasa and Pontus de la Gardie monuments was Johann III , King of Sweden, which provides an opportunity to seek and discover connections in the developed circle related to the artist’s style, choice of motifs and approach to ornamentation. At his most outstanding, Passer attains the level of his distinguished compatriots. Whereas the Passer name alludes most probably to the Passchen family that set out from Antwerp, the most distinguished member of which was Henri de Paschen, the builder of the Royal Exchange in London. After arriving in Tallinn, Arent Passer spent more than forty industrious years there. During his time in the former Hanseatic town imbued with the traditions of the past, his work loses its initial brilliance, the three-dimensional plastic approach in sculpture is taken over by bas-reliefs and flat surfaces, and one can increasingly speak of Passer as being tied to the town through his responsibilities as the builder of the town’s fortifications and the head of his workshop. While living in Tallinn, Passer was indisputably not only an authority figure, but also the sole executor of the most important commissions. Conserving his Netherlandish roots, Passer’s workshop repeats the same models through the years, which, in the case of the numerous architectural details that decorate the town (for example, the biforate windows at Rüütli 14), allow us to speak more about a so-called “Passer style” than of the style of an individual artist. His comfortable position as an entrepreneur and elder of the Canute Guild was the reason that Passer rejected an attractive offer to move to Stockholm and return to the paths of his youth, where the design and execution of sepulchral monuments had become one of the main themes of religious devotion in the new age. Where, as we know, there was no lack of highly qualified masters. It is not impossible that, like the Gustav Vasa monument in Uppsala, the Pontus de la Gardie monument in Tallinn was also completed in the Netherlands. The precondition for the next study of Passer is a comparison of the monument’s style and technique with that of an artistically ambitious circle of stonemasons, whose workshops were located somewhere between Antwerp, Maline, Hague and Danzig, where talent and experience abounded. Rising above the slavish imitation of architectural graphics that was widespread at the time, Passer is an artist whose genius deserves not only to be recorded, but to be studied further.


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Author Biography

Juhan Maiste

Juhan Maiste is a professor and Head of the Department of Art History at the University of Tartu. As a prolific writer he has authored a large number of monographs and articles on architecture, classicism, cultural heritage, the philosophy and poetics of art history. His scholarly interests include Estonian and Livonian manor architecture, the phenomenon of
park landscapes as well as the work of Johann Wilhelm Krause. In addition to teaching and research, Professor Maiste is the editor-in-chief of the Baltic Journal of Art History.




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