Beyond the Martyrs Mirror: The Prints of Jan Luyken

Originally exhibited at the Regier Art Gallery, Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, October 30 to December 4, 2015. Excerpted from an article of the same name in Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 41 no.1 (January 2018): 10-29

by Rachel Epp Buller

Jan Luyken (also spelled Luiken) was born in Amsterdam into a middle-class family led by a school-teaching father who was devout in faith and committed to intellectual study. After his formal schooling, Luyken apprenticed in the workshop of a local painter, Martin Saeghmolen, and then learned etching and engraving from printmaker Coenraet Decker. He also met regularly with a group of friends, who called themselves De Wijngaardranken (The Vine Tendrils), to write poetry. In 1672, at the age of twenty-three, Luyken married Maria den Oudens. Of their five children, only their son Caspar survived childbirth. At the time of their marriage, Luyken joined the Anabaptist movement at his wife’s instigation, but he did not fully commit until having visions and experiencing a powerful religious conversion in 1673. Luyken remained committed to the Anabaptist church and to piety for the rest of his life.

Following Luyken’s death in 1712, fellow artist Pieter Sluiter etched Luyken’s portrait, shown at left, and published it together with a six-line poem by Adriaan Spinniker that encapsulates how his contemporaries viewed him:1

The desire for God and good deeds, which burns in LUIKEN’s heart
Shown in his behavior, and etchings, and poetry,
Spread thus its glow in the modest countenance,
Which gaze made each aspire to share his way of living.
Thou, who dost always view and read his work with pleasure,
Look frequently at this face, as incentive for thy spirit.

Professional Work

Although he is known predominantly in today’s Anabaptist communities for his iconic etchings in the Martyrs Mirror by Thieleman J. van Braght (1685), Jan Luyken produced over three thousand other works that included paintings (of which only a few survive), drawings, prints, and poems. Luyken published twelve books focused on piety and Scripture, for which he both created prints and wrote poetry. He also produced illustrations for nearly five hundred books by other authors in disciplines as varied as biology, chemistry, geography, shipbuilding, early Christian history, and Dutch history, among others. The books and prints in this exhibition offer a closer look into the breadth of Luyken’s work.

Many of Luyken’s prints fall into the category of emblem literature. Throughout sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, but particularly in the Low Countries, artists and writers favored the use of emblems, which combined images and verses for didactic ends. Emblems generally included a title or motto, an illustration, and an explanation in prose or poetic form. Taken together, these three pieces sought to impart a moral lesson to the viewer or reader. Luyken’s emblems offered meditations on living a godly life and on attaining the path to salvation, using a wide variety of symbolism that would have been easily understandable to his contemporaries.

De Onwaardige Wereld vertoond in Zinnebeelden (The Unworthy World, as told in Emblems), 1710


The Dangerous Stand, from The Unworthy World (Menno Simons Historical Library photo)

Dutch artists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries commonly depicted immoral or dangerous behavior, partly as an instructional device to their viewers. In this book of religious emblems, Luyken pictured “the unworthy world” as a warning to urge his readers onto the right path of Christian life. In the scene displayed here, a mortal hangs by a thread above the fires of hell while the specter of death waits to snip his life thread with scissors. If only the man will change his ways, he might be saved. The accompanying verse, Matthew 10:28, reminds us that a better fate awaits us beyond this life if we so choose it: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

Dangerous Stand), from De Onwaardige Wereld (The Unworthy World), 1710. Reproduced in Het Werk Van Jan en Casper Luyken door P. Van Eeghen, vol. 2, 1905


Preparatory drawing for The Dangerous Stand (Menno Simons Historical Library photo)

A catalogue raisonné lists all of the works created by a particular artist. This compendium of the works of Jan and Caspar Luyken includes not only the finished prints but also the sketches and preparatory drawings made in advance of the completed works. Looking at this drawing in comparison to the eventual print (see page 15) shows how Luyken worked out the basic composition in the drawing but added a much higher level of detail and linework to the finished product. Notice also how the compositions are reversed since Luyken would have drawn this image onto the copper plate, only to have it printed as a mirror image.

Tafereelen der Eerst Christenen (Scenes of the First Christians). With prints by Jan Luyken and verses by Pieter Langendijk and Claas Bruin, 1722; reprinted 1740, Bedieninge des Doops in een rivier” (Ministry of Baptism in the River)


Ministry of Baptism in the River, from Scenes of the First Christians (Menno Simons Historical Library photo)

Even posthumously, Jan Luyken’s work continued to garner much attention. Ten years after Luyken’s death, ninety-two of his engravings were published in this volume of early church history. Poems by Pieter Langendijk and six-line verses by Claas Bruin accompany each of Luyken’s images. Not surprisingly, given Luyken’s Anabaptist connections, one of the scenes he chose to include in his series of early Christians is a scene of adult baptism. Notice how Luyken’s compositional lines lead our eyes to the baptism in the center of the image, with small background figures building up to larger foreground figures and with circular ripples of water surrounding the key players.

De Schriftuurlyke Geschiedenissen en Gelykenissen, Van het oude en nieuwe verbond [Scriptural Histories and Parables of the Old and New Testaments], 1712

Genesis III: 1-7, from De Schriftuurlyke Geschiedenissen en Gelykenissen, Van het oude en nieuwe verbond (Scriptural Histories and Parables of the Old and New Testaments), 1712


Genesis 3:1-7, from Scriptural Histories and Parables of the Old and New Testaments (Menno Simons Historical Library photo)

In picturing the fall of humanity from the Garden of Eden, Luyken placed the blame squarely on the figure of Eve through both image and text. In the print, Eve occupies the center of the composition and points to the tree of knowledge while she hands the apple to Adam. The rhyming verse that accompanies the image, which Luyken titled “Man Seduced,” laments the bitter outcome of Eve’s temptation.

Jan Luyken, De Schriftuurlyke Geschiedenissen en Gelykenissen, Van het nieuwe verbond (The Scriptural Stories and Parables of the New Testament), 1712


Image for Luke 2:6-7, from The Scriptural Stories and Parables of the New Testament (Menno Simons Historical Library photo)

In this visual retelling of the New Testament, Luyken highlighted both somewhat obscure and well-known stories. The scene depicted here illustrates the two most familiar verses of the nativity story in Luke’s gospel:

6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. 7 And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Notice how Luyken positioned the Christ Child at the center of the composition, surrounded by the parents, the shepherds, and the animals of the stable. Luyken’s rhyming poem on the theme of Christ’s birth accompanies the print.

Wreede moordt der Spanjaarden tot Naarden, den eersten December des jaars 1572 [Cruel Murder by the Spanish at Naarden, 1 December 1572], 1677-79, from Hugo de Groot, Nederlandtsche Jaerboeken en Historien (Netherlandish Yearbook and History), 1681


Cruel Murder by the Spanish at Naarde, from Netherlandish Yearbook and History (Rijksmuseum photo)

In historical prints such as this, Luyken displayed a rare patriotic sentiment. The scene depicted here marks an episode in what came to be known as the Spanish Fury, a series of bloody confrontations in the sixteenth century when Spanish troops sacked and pillaged Dutch towns in an effort to maintain Catholic rule and allegiance to the Spanish Crown. Luyken pictured the chaos of the battle, and the closed-in setting suggests that the citizens of Naarden had no way to escape the villainous Spanish soldiers.

Dr. Rachel Epp Buller is a feminist art historian, print maker, book artist, and mother of three whose art and scholarship often speak to these intersections. She speaks and publishes widely on the maternal body in contemporary art, including her book Reconciling Art and Mothering (Ashgate/Routledge). She privileges collaboration in her work, which has resulted in various outcomes, including the edited collection Mothering Mennonite, with Kerry Fast (Demeter Press); an exhibition and book, Alice Lex-Nerlinger, Fotomonteurin und Malerin / Photomontage Artist and Painter, with Das Verborgene Museum in Berlin; and the exhibition “Beyond the Martyrs Mirror: The Prints of Jan Luyken,” with Bethel College student Alexandra Shoup, exhibit designer  David Kreider and archivist John Thiesen at the Mennonite Library and Archives. She is a Fulbright scholar, a board member of the National Women’s Caucus for Art, a regional coordinator for the international Feminist Art Project, and current associate professor of visual arts and design at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas.

  1. Josephine V. Brown, “Biography of Jan Luiken,” Digital Collections, Pitts Theology Library, 

Intimacies and Admonishments: Some Thoughts on the Crossing the Line Exhibition

Jennifer Shenk

Many of the artists in this beautifully intimate exhibition curated by Dr. Rachel Epp Buller cross the boundaries of time. They are time travelers of a sort, seeking to open windows into the past to understand the lives of their fore-bearers, and their own, anew.

Jayne Holsinger

Jayne Holsinger, Selections from Nine Tetrameters, 1996. Oil on Canvas

Jane Holsinger, for example, frames her paintings in the four-patch quilt block pattern, a grid structure that is at once reminiscent of both domestic labor and modernist painting. Painting is a form of relationship between the artist and the subject; in this case it is a relationship characterized by a search for affinity with the hands of the women in the artist’s past.

Teresa Braun’s eerily beautiful video piece, accessible via screen and headphones in the exhibition space, also floats between multiple worlds. She combines performance, the body, film, and the digital to craft a family mythology that questions the autonomous boundaries of the individual. In The Plaint, the body is organism, architecture, and sustenance all at once, and the artist’s present identity is navigated through the characters of the past.

Gesine Janzen

Gesine Janzen, “September 11, 1817,” 2015 (top). Etching. “The Color of Memory,” 2016 (bottom). Photopolymer intaglio print.

Gesine Janzen’s prints play with the role of remnants. What happens when we glimpse the gaze of our ancestors, frozen in a photograph, or their handwriting, lining the pages of a journal? The photograph is an object that by definition is a marker of loss (in the fact that when looking at a photograph one is never when/where the photograph is taken, and can never be then or there again.) Loss pervades Janzen’s work, in the woman who is no longer here and the message that can no longer be read.

The works of Jennifer Miller, Kandis Friesen, and Karen Reimer, on the other hand, carry strong admonitions, seeking to bring attention to our forms of complicity and ask us to question the narratives we have inherited.

Jennifer Miller

Jennifer Miller, Crude, Powdered graphite, ink, acrylic on paper 2013.

Kandis Friesen

Kandis Friesen, Onsa Japse Jeit Jantsied, 2015. Leather and thread.


In Miller’s case, she is implicated in her political criticism of the Keystone XL pipeline through the personal history of her family’s involvement with it. Tension becomes palpable in the green paint, actively oozing from the surface of Crude. In Friesen’s piece, a hand-sewn drawing on leather, it is the recognition of the colonial history that has been erased from many Mennonite narratives of trauma and migration, evident in the staunch pierced leather, a material that is a product of conquest.

Karen Reimer

Karen Reimer, Socialist Worker, March 31, 2000, 2000 (detail)

Rendering a copy of the Socialist Worker, March 31, 2000 through embroidery in her piece of the same title, Karen Reimer not only elicits questions about the notion of originality and authorship (i.e. who gets to take credit for the work of art?) but also calls the status of the very art object into question, flattening the mythology of the individual-artist-genius. Drawing on the rich history of activism and consciousness-raising associated with fiber arts, Reimer’s piece, like many in this exhibition, subtly probe the relationship between the past and the present, asking us to examine the hierarchies in our own systems of value.

Editor’s Note: While Anabaptist Historians generally focuses on historical research, in the interdisciplinary spirit of “Crossing the Line”, we are broadening our scope during this series to include a wide variety of Anabaptist studies.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

On Exhibit: Contextualizing Amish Quilts

Janneken Smucker

In the early 1970s, art enthusiasts began to display Amish quilts from the early twentieth century on the walls of apartments, galleries, antiques shops, and museums, noting how their strong graphics and minimalist designs resembled abstract paintings of the post-World War II period. Prior to the 1970s, no one really had paired the adjective Amish with the noun quilt. Yet with this cultural dislocation, Amish quilts shifted in status from special, heirloom bedcovers, kept folded in chests and treasured as gifts between family members, to cult objects in demand within the outside world. Amish families responded by selling their “old dark quilts,” happy to have extra money that could be split among descendants in a way a quilt could not be, and glad to remove objects now considered “status symbols” by outsiders from their homes. In turn, Amish entrepreneurs began making quilts to sell to consumers, creating a quilt industry that could capitalize on increasing tourism to settlements and the growing fascination with Amish-made bedcovers.


Center Diamond, Unknown Amish maker, Circa 1920-1940, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln; Jonathan Holstein Collection, 2003.003.0072

This intersection between the Old Order Amish and the worlds of art, fashion, and commerce is a central tension of my recent book, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). As I worked on this book, I frequently imagined it as an exhibition, with the objects themselves serving as evidence and touchstones within the narrative. With this mindset, I was thrilled when the International Quilt Study Center & Museum at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln invited me to guest curate an exhibit of Amish quilts. This exhibit, Amish Quilts and the Crafting of Diverse Traditions opens October 7, running through January 25, 2017.

Since the 1971 landmark exhibition Abstract Design in American Quilts at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the typical mode of display for quilts in museum settings has been on walls, hung vertically like the paintings to which Amish quilts in particular have often been compared. As I began work translating my research into an exhibition, I struggled to figure out how to simultaneously interrogate the de-contextualization of Amish quilts while participating in the process itself. I did not want to simply hang quilts on walls as they had been for the last 45 years, where too often they appear merely as great works of design, rather than as objects symbolic of the Amish emphasis on community, mutual aid, and Gelassenheit. But what could we do instead that would fulfill the museum’s dual mission of showcasing quilts’ artistry and cultural significance?

All public history requires careful and deliberate communication; it’s intended to translate complex ideas into meaningful and engaging forms. Working with the IQSCM staff, we’ve developed ways to communicate the multiple contexts of Amish quilts. When museum-goers enter the gallery, they will indeed still see quilts hanging on walls. But in the center of one gallery, there will be an object strangely foreign to most quilt exhibits, Amish or otherwise: a bed. My parents, who live in Goshen, Indiana, generously loaned the museum the ¾ size four-poster rope bed that descended in my mother’s family from our Amish-Mennonite ancestors. Made in the family of Solomon Beachy from Holmes County, Ohio, c. 1840-1860, the bed will be the perfect showcase for an early twentieth-century quilt made by Barbara Yoder.


Nine Patch, Made by Barbara Yoder (1885-1988) Circa 1920, Made in Weatherford, Oklahoma, Machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln; Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2005.039.0005

But the Amish origins of these quilts are not the only context through which I interpret them. The lives of these objects since they left Amish homes are equally intriguing, and I explore them as influential within contexts of art, consumer culture, and fashion. The Esprit clothing company, well-known for its color block designs of the 1980s, was home to a significant corporate collection of Amish quilts which hung on the walls throughout its San Francisco headquarters. We will hang a quilt that Esprit once owned alongside a mannequin dressed in one of my personal favorite objects of material culture—this amazing Esprit vest that in my mind was clearly inspired by Amish quilts.


One Patch/Checkerboard, unknown Amish maker, circa 1900-1920, machine pieced, hand quilted. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebaska-Lincoln, Ardis & Robert James COllection, 1997.007.0469


Espirit women’s vest, circa 1985, United States. Collection of Janneken Smucker

We will also display images of contemporary Amish quilt shops, along with two new quilts made for the consumer market, with designs in clear contrast to the “cult objects” with which art enthusiasts became enamored. I also had the pleasure of attending the Gap (Pennsylvania) Fire Company Sale last March, known locally as a mud sale. We include photographs from this event, which supports the local volunteer fire company, along with quilts I acquired on the museum’s behalf there (not a bad gig — bidding with someone else’s money). The quilts include a white and lavender Dahlia quilt from the mid-twentieth century, complete with intricate lavender hand quilting and ornate fringe—not what we expect from an Amish made quilt, but one of the many styles that have co-existed within Amish communities.


Dahlia, Unknown Amish maker, circa 1940-1960, probably made in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. International Quilt Study Center & Museum, University of Nebraska – Lincoln Gift of the Robert & Ardis James Foundation, 2016.030.0003

I have relished the challenge of translating my research into this physical form. I hope my thesis—that the craft of Amish quiltmaking has never fossilized, but has been a living, evolving, and diverse tradition, adapted by creative quiltmakers, capitalized upon by businesswomen eager to earn a livelihood, and embraced within both Amish communities and the broader artistic and consumer worlds—comes through. But even if my message is lost, the quilts look great, as they always have, both in and out of context.