Another six-course lute from iconography: the Master of the Half-Lengths

The “master of the half-lengths” was probably not one but several painters working to produce paintings for sale, probably in Antwerp c.1530. The paintings typically show a female lutenist playing from music on a table, for example this one (now in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg):

The jar of ointment is a consistent feature of these paintings, hence the title is often given as “Mary Magdalen playing the lute”.

There are also three paintings showing three ladies, also performing from written music, forming a trio of lute, flute and voice. In several of these paintings, the music is identifiable, so the painter(s) clearly took considerable care over the details. In this one (now in the Schloss Rohrau in Vienna) the music is Claudin de Sermisy’s Jouissance vous donneray:

The lutes in these paintings have certain features in common:

  1. The body shape is the “teardrop” shape we associate with the lutes of Laux Maler, with narrow shoulders and a rather rounded end. They probably have nine ribs, because although the backs are not clearly visible several of the paintings show a lute case (hanging on the wall) whose construction presumably mirrors that of the lute.
  2. They are all six course lutes and where the top string is shown at all it is single, though there are usually 12 pegs – suggesting that they were made with the idea of a double top string in mind.
  3. The roses are much darker in appearance than the rest of the soundboard. Perhaps they were made of some different material and then inserted, or recycled from an older instrument, or painted or gilded in some way.
  4. Some of the bridges have the typical “flower” ends, but the Hamburg and Rotterdam paintings show a kind of acanthus leaf design, which at least in the Hamburg lute appears to be gilded.
  5. The pegs are sometimes the standard heart shape, sometimes a variant which is more reminiscent of a tooth shape.

This painting is from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam:

The fact that there is some variation in the lutes suggests that there was not one (perhaps unusual) lute which was used as a model for the artists, but rather the lutes are possibly typical of those which were in use at the time. Paintings are not photographs, of course, and as usual we must admit that there are details which my be atypical or even fanciful, but we have no surviving lutes from this period so I still find some of the details intriguing. The proportions of the lutes (and the people!) are sometimes inconsistent or unconvincing: for example the necks are shown with the usual eight frets but often seem too long, the roses seem rather too close to the bridge etc. So in my reconstruction I have used the usual proportions such as rose at 3/5 of the body length, bridge at 1/6 of the body length, etc.

In this example I used cypress for the back, cherry for the neck and pegbox, and a very old (well oxidised) piece of spruce for the soundboard:

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