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Windows Onto the Past IV

Stained glass windows were the starting point of the first two posts in this sequence, and a woodcut the springboard of the third. This time we feature a monument carved in stone in the seventeenth century by the Flemish sculptor Artus Quellinus the Elder – metaphorically as much a window onto early modern attitudes to ‘madness’ as the stained glass was onto medieval. Frenzy depicts a woman disrobed and tearing at her hair in evident mental torment. The trope of disordered hair (to represent the disordered mind) is employed to unsettling effect here as elsewhere – depictions of Matilda of Cologne and Crazy Jane spring to mind in this connection.

Now in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the original setting of Frenzy was the courtyard of the city’s lunatic asylum. Faces stare out from the plinth upon which the woman writhes, each “with a pleading yet futile expression [as if] determined to see and be seen while at the same time realising that any thoughts of escape are useless”, according to the art historian Richard Cork. Presumably it functioned to advertise the role of the asylum in much the same way as did Cauis Gabriel Cibber’s statues of Raving and Melancholy Madness for London’s Bethlem Hospital from 1676 to 1815. But was it intended as a stigmatising image? Richard Cork thinks not. Whilst certainly “forthright”, it may perhaps have been intended “to arouse compassion for the plight of this possessed woman” and, by extension, that of the insane in general.1

A comparison is worth drawing between Frenzy and another work attributed to Cibber, Dementia, which was sold to a private buyer at auction in 2008. Rather than portraying the illness we commonly associate with old age, Dementia seems to represent a middle-life trauma involving child neglect and alcoholism. It shares with ‘Raving’ and ‘Melancholy’ a stark realism that belies caricature. “How could anyone laugh at their suffering, when Cibber had gone out of his way to avoid all semblance of absurdity?”2