Erasmus, The Godly Feast (1522)
Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536), known as simply Erasmus, was a Dutch Renaissance humanist, Catholic priest, social critic, teacher, & theologian. In this colloquy, friends meet in a garden for a banquet; their talk passes easily and happily from witty classical allusion to devout examination of Scriptural texts.
Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) Portrait of Erasmus
Erasmus, The Godly Feast (1522)
Eusebius. Now that the whole countryside is fresh and smiling, I marvel at people who take pleasure in smoky cities.
Timothy. Some people don’t enjoy the sight of flowers or verdant meadows or fountains or streams; or if they do, something else pleases them more. Thus pleasure succeeds pleasure, as nail drives out nail.
Euseb. Maybe you refer to moneylenders or to greedy merchants, who are just like them.
Tim. Those, yes, but not those alone, my good friend. No, countless others besides them, including the very priests and monks themselves, who for the sake of gain usually prefer to live in cities - the most populous cities. They follow not Pythagorean or Platonic doctrine but that of a certain blind beggar who rejoiced in the jostling of a crowd because, he would say, where there were people there was profit.
Euseb. Away with the blind and their profit! We’re philosophers.
Tim. Also, the philosopher Socrates preferred cities to fields, because he was eager to learn and cities afforded him means of learning. In the fields, to be sure, were trees and gardens, fountains and streams, to please the eye; but they had nothing to say and therefore taught nothing.
Euseb. Socrates was not altogether wrong if you mean roaming in the fields by yourself. In my opinion, however, Nature is not silent but speaks to us everywhere and teaches the observant man many things if she finds him attentive and receptive. What else does the charming countenance of blooming Nature proclaim than that God the Creator’s wisdom is equal to his goodness? But how many things Socrates teaches his Phaedrus in that retreat, and how many does he learn from him in turn!
Tim. If people of that sort were present, nothing could be more enjoyable than country life.
Euseb. Then would you care to try it? I’ve a little country place near town, a modest but well-cultivated place, to which I invite you for lunch tomorrow.
Tim. There are a good many of us. We’d eat you out of house and home.
Euseb. Oh, no, you’ll have a wholly green feast made, as Horace says, ’from food not bought.’ The place itself supplies the wine; the very trees all but drop melons large and small, figs, pears, apples, and nuts into your lap, as happens (if we believe Lucian) in the Fortunate Isles. Perhaps we can have a hen from the coop.
Tim. Well, we won’t decline.
Euseb. But let each one bring his shadow along if he likes. Thus, since there are four of you, we’ll equal the number of the Muses.
Tim. We’ll do it.
Euseb. One thing I want to warn you of: everybody should bring his own seasoning with him. I’ll furnish only the food.
Tim. What seasoning do you mean, pepper or sugar?
Euseb. No, something more common but more agreeable.
Euseb. An appetite. A light supper today will supply that. Tomorrow a walk will sharpen it; and my little country place will furnish the walk, too. What hour do you like for lunch?
Tim. About ten, before the heat’s too great.
Euseb. I’ll arrange it...
Euseb. The charm of this garden entices many guests, but so strong is the force of custom that hardly any of them passes Jesus without greeting him. I’ve placed him here, instead of the filthy Priapus as protector not only of my garden but of everything I own; in short, of body and soul alike. Here, as you see, is a little fountain bubbling merrily with excellent water. It symbolizes in a manner that unique fountain which refreshes with its heavenly stream all those who labor and are heavy laden, and for which the soul, wearied by the evils of this world, pants as, according to the Psalmist, does the thirsty hart after tasting the flesh of serpents. Whoever thirsts is welcome to drink of it. And some for religion’s sake sprinkle themselves with the water. Some even drink, not because of thirst, but of religion.
I see you don’t like to be torn away from this spot, but meantime the hour warns us to visit the more cultivated garden that the walls of my domain enclose in a square. If there’s anything to be seen in the house, you’ll view it after lunch, when the sun’s heat will keep us indoors like snails for hours.
Tim. Oh! These must be Epicurean gardens, I see.
Euseb. This entire place is intended for pleasure - honest pleasure, that is: to feast the eyes, refresh the nostrils, restore the soul. Here nothing grows buy fragrant herbs, and those not just any herbs but only choice ones. Each kind has its own beds.
Tim. Your herbs here aren’t speechless, either, so far as I can see.
Euseb. Quite right. Other men have luxurious homes; I have one where there’s plenty of talk, in order that I may never seem lonely. You’ll say so even more emphatically when you’ve seen the whole thing. As the herbs are gathered into companies, so to speak, so each company has its banner, with an inscription. For instance, the marjoram here says ’Keep off, sow; I don’t smell for you,’ because swine positively hate this odor, though it is the sweetest of scents. Each kind likewise has its own label indicating the special virtue of that herb.
Tim. Thus far I’ve seen nothing more agreeable than this little fountain. Here in their midst it seems to smile on all the herbs and promises to keep them cool in the heat. But this narrow channel, which shows all the water so gracefully to men’s eyes, dividing the garden on either side in equal distances, and in which all its herbs are reflected as though in a mirror — is it made of marble?
Euseb. Marble, forsooth! Where would marble come from? It’s imitation marble made of cement, with a coating of white paint added.
Tim. Where does such a pretty stream finally bury itself?
Euseb. See how crude we are: after it has delighted our eyes here sufficiently, it drains the kitchen and carries that waste along to the sewer.
Tim. Tha’s callous, so help me!
Euseb. Callous, unless God’s goodness had made it for this use. We’re callous too when we pollute with our sins and wicked lusts the fountain of Sacred Scripture - a far more pleasing fountain than this, given to refresh as well as cleanse our souls - and misuse so unspeakable a gift of God. We do not misuse this water if we employ it for the various purposes for which it was given by him who provides abundantly for human needs.
Tim. What you say is altogether true. But why are even your garden’s artificial hedges green?
Euseb. To avoid having anything here that isn’t green. Some people prefer red because the addition of that color enhances green. I prefer this. Every man to his taste, even in gardens.
Tim. The garden by itself is charming, but its beauty is almost overshadowed by the three galleries.
Euseb. In these I study or stroll, conversing with myself or some close friend. Or, if the fancy strikes me, I have a meal here.
Tim. Those evenly space pillars that support the building, so fascinating by their marvelous variety of colors - are they marble?
Euseb. The same marble this channel is made of.
Tim. An artistic deception indeed! I’d have sworn they were marble.
Euseb. Let that be a warning to you not to believe or swear to anything rashly: appearances often deceive. We make up for lack of wealth by ingenuity.
[They turn now to the frescoes on the walls of the galleries.]
Tim. Wasn’t so neat and trim a garden good enough for you unless you painted other ones besides?
Euseb. One garden wasn’t enough to hold all kinds of plants. Moreover, we are twice pleased when we see a painted flower competing with a real one. In one we admire the cleverness of Nature, in the other the inventiveness of the painter; in each the goodness of God, who gives all these things for our use and is equally wonderful and kind in everything. Finally, a garden isn’t always green nor flowers always blooming. This garden grows and pleases even in midwinter.
Tim. Yet it isn’t fragrant.
Euseb. But on the other hand it needs no attention.
Tim. It pleases only the eyes.
Euseb. True, but it does this forever.
Tim. A picture, too, grows old.
Euseb. Yes, but it’s longer-lived than we are, and age commonly adds to it a grace we lose.
Tim. I wish you were wrong about that!
Euseb. In this gallery, which faces west, I enjoy the morning sun; in that one, which looks to the east, I sun myself sometimes; in the one looking south but open to the north I take refuge from the heat. Let’s walk around, if you like, to get a better view. See, the very ground is green, for the paving stones are beautifully colored and gladden one with painted flowers. This painted grove you observe, covering the entire wall, presents a varied spectacle. In the first place, you see as many varieties of trees as you do trees, each one represented with no little accuracy. You see as many species of birds as you do birds, especially those fairly rare and renowned for one reason or another. (What use to paint geese, hens and ducks?) Underneath are species of quadrupeds or of those birds that live on the ground like quadrupeds...
Euseb. You’ll now see what the back door has to show us. Here you see an ample garden, divided into two parts. In one are herbs for the table; my wife and maidservant rule here. In the other are all sorts of medicinal herbs, especially the rare ones. To the left is an open meadow with nothing but green grass, enclosed by a quickset hedge. There I stroll sometimes or entertain myself with company. To the right is an orchard in which, at your leisure, you’ll see many exotic trees. These I’m gradually training to accustom themselves to our climate.
Tim. Well! You outdo Alcinous himself.
Euseb. Here at the end, joining the upper gallery which you’ll see after lunch, is an aviary. You’ll see different shapes and hear different tongues. Equally diverse are the birds’ natures: among some, kinship and mutual affection; among others, irreconcilable enmity. Yet they’re all so tame that when the window there is opened at dinner, they fly down to the table and take food from your hands. Whenever I approach on the little arched bridge you see, talking with a friend, they sit nearby and listen, perching on my arms or shoulders, so fearless are they, because they know nobody harms them. At the far end of the orchard is the kingdom of the bees; no unattractive sight, either. I won’t let you look any more just now; I want you to have something to bring you back, as though to a new spectacle. After lunch I’ll show you the rest...
Euseb. Here you see the main part of my wealth. On the table you saw nothing but glass and pewter. There isn’t a silver vessel in the entire house; just one gilded cup, which I treasure out of affection for the person who gave it to me. This hanging globe puts the whole world before your eyes. Here on the walls every region is painted in a larger space. On the other walls you see pictures of famous teachers. To paint them all would have been an endless task. Christ, seated on the mountain with his hand outstretched, has the foremost place. The Father appears above his head, saying ’Hear ye him.’ With spreading wings the Holy Spirit enfolds him in dazzling light.
Tim. A work worthy of Apelles, so help me!
Euseb. Adjoining the library is a study, narrow but neat. When the board’s removed you see a small hearth to use if you’re cold. In summer it seems a solid wall.
Tim. To me everything here seems precious. And there’s a delightful scent.
Euseb. I try very hard to keep the house shining and fragrant. To do both is not expensive. The library has its own balcony, overlooking the garden; connected with it is a chapel.
Tim. A place fit for a deity.
Euseb. Now let’s go on to those three galleries above the ones you saw, the ones looking out on the kitchen garden. These upper ones have a view on each side, but through windows that can be closed - especially in these walls that do not face the inner garden - to make the house safer. Here on the left, because there is more light and the wall has fewer windows, is painted in order the entire life of Jesus as related by the four evangelists, up to the sending forth of the Holy Spirit and the first preaching of the apostles from Acts. Place names are added, too, to enable the spectator to learn by which water or on which mountain the event took place; also captions summarizing the whole story, for example, Jesus’ words, ’I will: be thou clean.’ Opposite are corresponding figures and prophecies of the Old Testament, particularly from the prophets and Psalms — which contain nothing other than the life of Christ and the apostles, told in a different manner. Here I stroll sometimes, conversing with myself and meditating upon that inexpressible purpose of God by which he willed to restore the human race through his son. Sometimes my wife, or a friend pleased by sacred subjects, keeps me company.
Tim. Who could be bored in this house?
Euseb. No one who has learned to live with himself. Along the top of the painting are added, as though supernumeraries, portraits of the popes with their names; opposite, portraits of the Caesars, to help one remember history. In each corner of the wings is a small bedchamber, where one can rest; from it one can see the orchard and my little birds. Here in the farthest corner of the meadow you see another small building, where we sometimes dine in summer and where anyone of the household who is stricken with a contagious disease is cared for.
Erasmus, Desiderius. The Colloquies of Erasmus. Transl. Craig R. Thompson. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965.