Monk With A Nun - Cornelis van Haarlem
(1591, Frans Hals Museum, The Netherlands)

A monk squeezes a nun's breast. The explanation of this picture most often given is that it is a 16th-century satire on the dissolute lives of those living in cloisters: monks and nuns were frequently accused of drunkenness, gluttony, avarice and licentious behavior. The wine and the fruit would therefore allude to an immoral life.

However, the painting was originally titled " The Miracle at Haarlem " but changed in the 20th century to " The Monk and the Nun ". It was originally associated with the story of a nun from Haarlem who was accused of having secretly given birth. Her detractors wanted to prove her immorality and motherhood by squeezing her breasts. If she had given birth, milk would be secreted. The painting depicts the moment when a monk 'experienced in the medical sciences' squeezes the nun's breast. He is not looking at her nor is he indicating any form of lust in his composure or facial expressions. He is looking away in preservation of her modesty. A monk or priest was often chosen in this time for these tasks because they were men of science and learning as well as being the agents of God (reference "witch" testing of the period). If you look at the painting you will notice that no milk came out but that she has expressed wine into the glass below. Wine would be associated with the Eucharist, and the blood of Jesus, therefore proving her piety, purity and innocence. In this case the wine and fruit symbolize a virginal life.

Which explanation is the correct one remains the question.

Many of these motifs were much less unusual for the Renaissance man than they appear to us today. In those times, people perceived the world in quite a different way than we do; in fact this was a short period of freedom when mind and body were equal and curiosity overpowered fear.

The holy and the profane, or the spiritual and the corporeal, begun to intermingle in Renaissance life and art. Towards the end of the Renaissance, the erotic content became more and more evident. Mannerism produced images where a mythological or allegorical motif appears only as a disguise for erotic contents. Quasi sacred motifs such as this Cornelisz's painting ' The Monk with a Nun ' were also barely veiled representations of erotica, as dictated by the social norms of the times.

The painting was meant for the Prinsenhof (the Princes' Court), which had been set up at the precious Friars Preachers' Monastery, the monastery of the Dominicans. The Prinsenhof was situated close behind the town hall and was used as guest residence for the stadtholders. The town council of Haarlem commissioned Cornelis van Haarlem to paint this work together with The Massacre of the Innocents, The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, and The Fall (now in the Rijksmuseum).

~*~ ~*~ ~*~