March 21, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

Betty Sanderson discovered 18th-century prints on a Prodigal Son theme in Calvin's permanent collection.

It’s been a year and a half since the Center Art Gallery found its new home in the Covenant Fine Arts Center. Since that time, art department assistant Betty Sanderson has set aside a couple of hours a week to picking through—re-assessing and re-inventorying—the 1,500 items from the college’s permanent collection stored at the new gallery. Recently, she was working with a file of six 18th-century Italian prints when she noticed some familiar-looking pigs. They looked like the pigs in a print from one of the college’s major collections.

Sanderson did a computer search on the registration number of the print series. “What came up was the title in Latin, which was meaningless to me,” she said. Then Sanderson spotted the handwritten Dutch on the top of the first print, which she could read: “De verloren zoon met zijn vader zyn goederen verdeelende.” In English it reads: “The prodigal son with his father and his property income distribution.” Sanderson called Calvin director of exhibitions Joel Zwart: “I think I found something pretty exciting over here,” she said.

Well-traveled prints

Zwart, Sanderson and art history professor Craig Hanson did some research on the prints, and they discovered that the set of six was produced around 1790 by Remondini, an Italian firm located in Bassano del Grappa. They are reverse copies of a Prodigal Son series printed in Augsberg, Germany for viewing in a “vue d'optique"—or “perspective view” or “peep box”— an 18th-century device through which viewers could enjoy a three-dimensional view of a print. Printers typically created series of city views or biblical scenes for viewing in the vue d'optique.”

The prints Sanderson found trace the entire biblical story of the Prodigal Son: The son demanding his inheritance, his farewell from the father’s house (an ominous painting on the ceiling in the second print forecasts his fate), his life of dissipation, his life among the swine, the prodigal’s return and his father’s celebration. The captions on the prints are translated into Latin, Spanish and Dutch, and they give varying translations of the action. The print that says in Spanish, “The prodigal son lives luxuriously” proclaims in Dutch: “The prodigal son in a temple of lust.”

Sanderson and Zwart are amused by various captions, especially the Dutch: “The only reason to have Dutch put on the top of it was it was sold to Dutch clients, and they wanted to know what it said,” Zwart said. The Prodigal Son prints were the gift to Calvin of an anonymous donor in 1998 and have been in storage ever since. They have never been exhibited. “They’re actually in good shape for 220-year-old prints,” Zwart said. “It’s a complete set, where it tells the whole story.”

Both he and Sanderson are excited to bring a part of Calvin’s permanent collection to light. They are especially excited that the Prodigal Son prints can be added to one of the college’s showcase collections: The Prodigal Son Collection, a group of 37 works—paintings, linoleum cuts, ceramics, serigraphs (silk screens), ink drawings and other pieces on a Prodigal Son theme —donated to Calvin in 2008 by Larry and Mary Gerbens. It was the 18th-century pigs’ resemblance to the circa-1500 pigs in a Hans Sebald Beham print from that collection that originally triggered Sanderson’s interest. "Probably the oldest piece we have in the college's collection and a fine piggy image," Zwart described the Beham.

Completing the collection

The latest Prodigal Son prints fill a gap in that collection, said Zwart: “Most of the prodigal son artwork we have is contemporary. We have work from the 20th century, and we have some from the 19th century, and there’s a few pieces that are much older, like the Rembrandt, but we didn’t have anything from the 18th century.” He hopes to feature the new prints in future exhibitions and package them with future loans of the Prodigal Son collection.

“An exhibition of vue d'optique work generally would be lots of fun,” Hanson said, “especially if it included prints of people looking into these boxes in addition to the prints that were used in this way.”

The Prodigal Son one of the most depicted biblical themes in art history, Zwart said.

“People can relate to it,” said Sanderson.

“The appeal to it is that it’s a moral story…,” said Zwart, “There’s a long history of teaching in prints.”

“For me, it’s all about the pigs,” Sanderson said.

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