Hansken

Here are the first parents in the paradise. Just the way the God created them – chubby, disheveled, with a emotional grim on their faces. And totally unaware of their nakedness. They froze in the debate over the need of the consumption of the fruit of knowledge. Within a moment, their world will collapse, the body will cease to be an ally, they will start to be ashamed of it, they will recognize its flaws and start the never-ending battle with it. In this crucial moment they are accompanied by two creatures – crouched on the trunk winged vermin, inspirer of all this confusion, and she – elephant Hansken.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Adam and Eve, 1638 ©

Hansken observes the scene from afar, holding her trunk raised in front of her, maybe in search of goodies for afternoon meal. She froze too, but she is joyful, totally unaware of the change, which is about to happen. The artist chose her for the only representative of the rest of the creation, that had not contradicted God’s law. And by that this creation will remain in its original state of innocence. Why he had chosen the elephant, not a dog or a horse, after all, much closer to the European household?

Born in Ceylon Hansken first appeared in Amsterdam in 1633 as a difficult gift for the governor of the Netherlands Frederick Henry of Orange. By giving her the ruler of Ceylon sought Dutch alliance in the planned fights with the Portuguese. But before the war started for good, the elephant changed twice her “owner”. For the next 22 years she crossed the far and wide of Europe, showing off her intelligence and skills. She visited, among others Gdansk and Trzebiatowo, before she died in Florence.

Elephants in modern Europe aroused curiosity. Although they were known through the ancient descriptions and occasionally appearing in person at the European courts since the Middle Ages, they were still considered a curiosity. They were widely admired and gladly hosted, living the life of a celebrity. Fame, however, had a dark side – this family oriented creatures suffered from loneliness, constant stress and prosaic constipation (caregivers often did not know the rules of their proper diet). Therefore, this long-living by nature creatures died only after a few years of captivity in Europe. But it was not the case of Hansken.  

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Elephant, 1637, Albertina, Vienna©

Her fame spread widely. And as celebrity she was portrayed by such great artists of the time as  Rembrandt, Stefano della Bella and Herman Saftleven. In the drawing from Vienna, we see a young, only seven-year Hansken, sketched by Rembrandt during her visit to Amsterdam. Once more we experience contact with the vivid personality, invoking warm feelings both in the viewer and in the artist himself. Everything in her is lively – on the head fine nap ruffles, always occupied trunk does not fit on the sheet, and the rear leg is moving slightly.

We judge about Rembrandt’s favor not only from other images of the elephant that he made, but also  from the fact that he decided to show her in the scene in paradise. No other creature does appear with her in the background. She is shown there in all her glory, cheerfulness, with a raised trunk, which curiously examines the world around her. Totally unaware of the significance of what is happening in the foreground. In the year the engraving was made Hansken was already on tour in Europe. Rembrandt could not be sure whether he would ever see her again. Maybe it was his way to say goodbye? He kept Hansken in a state of eternal happiness and innocence. Literally a short moment before she and the whole of the creature is to lose their freedom forever.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *