The Four Elements and Temperaments from an Album of Prints after Maerten de Vos (ca. 1583)

In the collection of the Rijksmuseum is an early-modern album of prints from the library of (and likely compiled by) a man named Jean de Poligny, whose stony-faced portrait is pasted toward the end of the volume, but about whom nothing else appears to be known. Among the highlights of the album — a mixed bag of Ortelius maps, an infographic-esque history of the world, and various allegorical and biblical scenes — is a pair of beautiful sets engraved by the Flemish artists Adriaen Collaert (1560–1619) and Raphaël Sadeler (1560–1632), both modeled on paintings by their fellow Fleming Maerten de Vos (1532–1603).

The Collaert series depicts personifications of the four classical elements — Earth, Water, Air, and Fire — which since Empeclodes and Aristotle had been key to how Western traditions, prior to modern atomic theory, conceptualised the material make up of our world. Earth is personified by the goddess Cybele, holding flowers in one hand and a city in the other; a skeleton and a newborn symbolize life and death, as a bestiary frolics on the hills and dales behind her. Water, embodied by Venus, sits in an almost drapery-like swirl and welter of aquatic creatures, in one hand a compass and in the other a ship. Air, a well-muscled man in the clouds, is surrounded by birds and flying insects and holds aloft a chameleon — the mascot of all that's ethereal. Fire, Helios, is seen encircled by flames, a Phoenix rising towards him and in his hand a salamander. Although the latter is amphibious, it has long been associated with fire in legend, most likely due to its habit of hibernating in logs, which when used as fuel would result in salamanders mysteriously escaping from the flames.

The set engraved by Raphaël Sadeler depicts the four temperaments — Sanguine, Choleric, Melancholic, and Phlegmatic — a spin-off theory from humourism which relates to essential personality types (often considered in parallel to the four elements). The picture for the Sanguine temperament (associated with the Air element) depicts Flora sitting next to a young man in a beautiful arbor-like structure, behind which plays out bucolic scenes of lovers, music-making, and general frivolity. The Choleric temperament (associated with Fire) is represented by the war god Mars and the wheat goddess Ceres, with soldiers marauding in the background. The Melancholic (associated with Earth) shows a troubled woman sitting over a man lying on the ground before her: around them, all is broken, abandoned, or otherwise depressing. (The performance going on in the background is apparently a charlatan exhibiting false cures and miracles.) Finally, in the image for the Phlegmatic temperament (associated with Water) we are treated to a somewhat simpler scene wholly dominated by fish and fish-based activities (including the act of gazing peacefully into a fish's face).

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