The money changers

Seen this one before? Two men are seen counting money, but who are they and why do they look strangely familiar?

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Painting of the money changers
The money changers
after Marinus van Reymerswaele
17th century

On one level this is another negative depiction of spectacle wearers, as already discussed with relation to our painting of The Misers. Indeed, other copies of this picture have that very title, leading to much confusion.

One man is wearing nose spectacles, which are probably of leather. Such glasses often appear in paintings of money-changers, as well as in some scenes of the Calling of Saint Matthew. The glasses may symbolise short-sightedness, being blinded by money and self-deceit, or existing in spiritual darkness. The men in all these paintings are wearing fanciful, archaising, costume. It has been suggested that the head-dresses are ‘pharisaic bonnets’ such as were worn by the Netherlandish rhetoricians, and signify hypocrisy. A satirical intention, varying in intensity, obviously lies behind all the pictures - which were clearly extremely popular, even though their exact significance seems impossible to determine.

You may click on the image of this picture to enlarge it.

But this picture is not merely one of a type. There are several other versions clearly based upon a common original...but not all include the spectacles.

Our picture is one of at least sixty paintings of similar scenes, some of which are of very poor quality. There are so many that they have been classified into 'types'. All may have been influenced by a lost picture by Jan van Eyck, which Marcantonio Michiel saw in the collection of Camillo and Nicolo Lampognano at Milan in c.1520 and which he described as ‘El quadretto a meze figure, del patron che fa conto cun el fattor fo de man de Zuan Heic, credo Memelino, Ponentino, fatto nel 1440’. All relate to The Banker and his Wife by Quinten Metsys, dated 1514 (Paris, Louvre); but they have closer affinities with the Two Tax Gatherers (London, National Gallery), attributed to Marinus, which is probably the source from which they all derive.

Four artists have been mentioned as possible or probable painters of some of these pictures: Quinten Metsys, Marinus van Reymerswaele, Jan Massys and Corneille de Lyon. Our painting is closest in style to those by Marinus van Reymerswaele though it is of a later date. In form it can be considered a late version of 'type a' resembling particularly the painting entitled The Misers in the Royal Collection (inv. no. 72) and other versions in East Berlin and Detroit. The inscription in the ledger is in French, and is the record of an exchange transaction. In other types the man on the left is writing, in Dutch, an account of municipal revenues from various imposts let out to farm. Whoever the original sitters were they have certainly figured prominently in Western art! Look out for the other versions in public hands in Paris, Antwerp, Munich, Florence, Warsaw, Moscow, Geneva, Nancy and Providence.