CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

The Head-Baker

17 July 2023 - 17 July 2024

The Head-Baker

Presentation: 17 July 2023 - 17 July 2024

Next on view in the Keizerkapel in Antwerp is a new focus exhibition on one of the artworks from the collection of The Phoebus Foundation. In the latest Phoebus Focus edition (vol. XXI), Dr Wendy Wauters explores the layered meanings of a curious painting with an equally enigmatic title: The Head-Baker.

Over the past four hundred years, the theme of the Head-Baker has increasingly faded into the background, but in the seventeenth century many households were quite familiar with the farcical cabbage baker.

Anonymous (Southern Netherlands), The Head-Baker, ca. 1600-30
The Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp

In the painting, those not happy with their God given head, can have it ‘re-baked’. But beware! Before you know it, things turn into a disaster and you end up with a half-baked head. So it is better to accept yourself as you are; a stoic message behind a nonsensical image.

The Head-Baker occupies a curious midpoint between shrewd rederijker (‘rhetorician’) humor and popular culture. On the one hand, there is a strong linguistic component to the baking humor in the Dutch language: you can sweet-talk someone (zoete broodjes bakken) and play a trick on someone (een poets bakken).

On the other hand the motif echoes the witty folk tales that were popular from the seventeenth century onwards and were often linked geographically to small towns. The Head-Baker might be connected to the city of Eeklo, located in the East of Flanders in present day Belgium. But one must take in to account that most of this local folklore and small town gossip should be taken with a large grain of salt. Whether the baker was to be found in East Flanders, elsewhere or everywhere, the story fits seamlessly with tales that are meant to amuse and moralize at the same time.

Text by Frauke Vandoren