Crispin van den Broeck, 1524 c.1590
Two young men, date unknown
Oil on panel
According to Karel van Mander, an early biographer, Crispin van den Broek was a good inventor
clever at large nudes and just as good an architect. But even van Mander had difficulty saying much more: I do not know any more particulars about him because my request to those who knew them was not granted. The two anonymous young men in this panel keep their secrets similarly close to their chests.
In its motif of one figure offering another an apple, van den Broecks picture resembles representations of Adam and Eve. The apple from the Tree of Knowledge, which the serpent persuades Eve to eat, and which she then gives to Adam, was from an early time associated with sexual pleasure. Some Northern European depictions from this period explicitly show a naked Adam and Eve embracing while she hands him the fruit.
In classical art and myth the apple was closely associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She was awarded a golden apple by Paris, who judged her the most beautiful of the goddesses. This event, which caused the Trojan War, is shown in an early 17th century painting by Hendrik van Balen in the Fitzwilliam, left .
So given the well established erotic connotations of the apple, and taking into account the two boy's obvious mutual affection and physical intimacy, it might be tempting for the modern viewer to conclude that they are homosexual lovers. This is however unlikely. In Northern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, the civil and religious authorites were uncompromising in their condemnation of homosexuality. With their distinctive reddish hair and similarly shaped faces, the two young men are more likely to be brothers.
Death rather than sex is more clearly alluded to. The stone panel in the top centre of the picture, bearing the artist's initials, recalls funerary sculpture. And the owl and the raven carry morbid connotations. In Shakespeares Macbeth, written c.1605, both birds are mentioned as ill omens and portents of death.