A healthy diplomatic gift
Sara van Dijk
In 1604 the Haarlem based linen damask weaver Passchier Lammertijn (c. 1563-1621) delivered a set of tablecloths and napkins to the States General of the Dutch Republic to serve as a diplomatic gift to the Queen of France. The Rijksmuseum preserves one of these tablecloths, signed ‘PL’ and dated ‘1604’, with a woven design featuring in contemporary sources named ‘banquet op tafel’ (‘banquet on a table’).
A laid table is the central motif of the tablecloth. Incorporated into the design are plates for each guest. The table is strewn with rosemary sprigs and flowers, and a vast array of dishes is served, including fish, fruit and a peacock pie. The running borders show scenes of falcon hunting, agriculture and men of war at sea. On the head ends are the coat of arms of Henry IV of France. Putti in the corners symbolize the Four Elements.
So far, art historians have considered the motif of the banquet as nothing more than a playful trompe l’oeil. However, the border decoration and the four elements in particular certainly hint at early modern ideas on health and good food. From antiquity onwards the Four Elements were connected to the Four Temperaments; the choleric, the melancholic, the phlegmatic and the sanguine. Every human being had a tendency towards one of these temperaments, but the choice of food stuffs could help striking a healthy balance. This notion was at the heart of ideas on how to eat well throughout the early modern period and authors of cookery books were often physicians.
Although the Four Elements echo these ideas on wholesome food, the banquet on this tablecloth is not an exact illustration of a healthy diet. Pies, fruit, large fishes, hares and poultry were above all luxury foods and suited to the royal table. Generally, authors disapproved of them from a medical point of view and they considered lavish banquets wasteful. At the same time clear distinctions were made between classes. Foods could be unhealthy for commoners, but serve a prince perfectly well.
Passchier Lammertijn and his workshop executed several variants of the tablecloth, two of which served as a gift of Christian IV of Denmark to the Russian tsar. In this paper I will argue that early modern dietetics are key to understanding both the decoration programme of Passchier Lammertijn’s tablecloth and its function as a diplomatic gift.