EAccording to the “Kassel Policey- und Commercienzeitung”, a Greek priest named Erasmus came to the city on November 18, 1767 and lived in the Hotel “Goldener Engel”. Shortly thereafter, Erasmus wrote a letter to the Hessian landgrave Frederick II and introduced himself as a bishop from Arcadia in Crete, who had left his island because of the Ottoman persecution, had come across Europe to Kassel and could no longer return because , as he found out on the way, French troops had meanwhile landed on Crete. Incidentally, he was supported everywhere out of Christian charity, in Frankfurt as well as in the Netherlands, and now, in Kassel, he humbly begs the Landgrave’s help.
In his essay on the petitioner, Jörg Westerburg explained that this story is not particularly credible – he recalls numerous documented cases in which people with fictitious résumés pretended to be religious refugees from distant countries in order to receive support. But the case of Erasmus is special. His story must have been credible, at least initially, and must have stirred people’s emotions, because a little later the Kassel court painter Johann Heinrich Tischbein himself captured the features of the petitioner.
The alleged bishop looks quite impressive, he supports his face with the long, thick beard in his right fist, his left hand rests on an open heavy book, the facial expression is friendly but a bit absent, as if he were relaxing while studying old texts get in the way when that’s required, but he’s still busy with things other than the material world. The blurred background and the soft light contribute to this, as does Tischbein’s staging of the alleged bishop in a rather sparse chamber: the painter certainly does not aim to cast doubt on Erasmus’ story.
The painting, purchased in 1998, is one of the strictly selected exhibits in an exhibition that is now on view at Wilhelmshöhe Palace in Kassel to mark the painter’s 300th birthday. In view of his life story, it is not surprising that the local stock of his works is so rich: Tischbein, born the fifth son of a baker from the Hessian province, was at the Landgrave’s court in Kassel from 1753 and remained there until the end of his life. He created ceiling paintings for Kassel’s residential palace, three of which have miraculously survived and two of which are being shown to a larger audience for the first time since the palace was destroyed. He became director of the newly founded art academy and seems to have been treated kindly by three very different landgraves – in any case he painted them dozens of times, with their families and also individually.
Where is the father of these children?
An impressive painting shows the later Landgrave Friedrich II as hereditary prince, but only after Tischbein had revised the picture, because the first version only shows the prince’s wife and children. He himself is still painted on the edge twenty-six years later, while the painter stands on the other side of the picture and shows the portrait he painted of the current Landgrave Wilhelm VIII in a frame. The expression on his round, almost fleshy face is confident and serious; the baker’s son from Haina counts for something in this round.