At time of painting, a picture for somewhere private: Hans Bock the Elder, ‘The Baths at Leuk’, 1597.
At time of painting, a picture for somewhere private: Hans Bock the Elder, ‘The Baths at Leuk’, 1597. Kunstmuseum Basel

A scene of racy bathing pleasure as a social critique

The Reformation brought stricter social mores to many places in Europe, and artists had to adapt if they didn’t want to lose commissions. But these social mores were not popular with everyone – as revealed by this painting by Hans Bock in Basel’s Kunstmuseum.

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting

Barbara Basting worked as a cultural editor and currently heads the visual arts division in the City of Zurich’s Culture Department.

The frivolous bathing scene may be almost 500 years old, but it still never fails to catch the eye on a tour of the Kunstmuseum’s collection in Basel. Perhaps because it gives us a glimpse into dating and courtship in the pre-digital era. The work is by Hans Bock the Elder and was painted in 1597, as shown by the inscription on the wall in the bottom left. The format of the painting gives an initial indication of who commissioned the work and what it was used for: the genre scene was typically a showpiece in a private collection. The bathers are sitting in walled spa baths and the backdrop is suggestive of an Alpine landscape. Like on a theatre stage, the action in the water is directed at us. The men, elevated at the top of the painting and leaning against a handrail, are the only fully-clothed figures and reflect the onlooker, confirming that the work is primarily intended to serve a male gaze. The oversized items of clothing discarded on the handrail act like an invitation for the onlooker to whip their clothes off and join in the fun.
Two men observe the goings-on in the water.
Two men observe the goings-on in the water. Kunstmuseum Basel
Gropey music practice.
Gropey music practice. Kunstmuseum Basel
A comparison with another bathing scene – the much better-known Fountain of Youth by Lucas Cranach the Elder, which was painted around 50 years earlier – is also indicative of private male patronage. Cranach was court painter in Saxony and produced his male fantasy for the rooms of a prince (his painting later ended up with the kings of Prussia and now hangs in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie). However, Cranach’s The Fountain of Youth only features women, who enter the water on the left-hand side frail and decrepit and emerge on the right of the painting rejuvenated, fresh and ready to join the prince in his private quarters.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, ‘The Fountain of Youth’, 1546.
Lucas Cranach the Elder, ‘The Fountain of Youth’, 1546. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders
It is unlikely that Hans Bock was familiar with Cranach’s original but a number of depictions of bathing scenes in the form of woodcuts and engravings were in circulation at the time. Historian Sarah-Maria Schober compiled a number of these scenes for her comprehensive study Gesellschaft im Exzess (‘Society in Excess’) on the organisation of early modern society in Basel. Schober took Hans Bock’s painting as a starting point for her study. Bathing scenes were primarily intended to illustrate scholarly writings on the effect of spas and springs. These sorts of baths were particularly popular with the people of Basel at the time, especially as some – such as Bad Maulburg in nearby Wiesental – were also accessible to poorer people. However, sophisticated resorts, such as Baden, Pfäfers and Leuk remained the preserve of the wealthier classes. Bock provides some obvious clues about this: for example, while the women in the baths are all completely naked, almost all have kept their heavy gold necklaces on. The cover of the 1559 treatise Von heilsamen Bädern on the healing effects of spas by Basel physician Jakob Huggel depicts a scene, which, although more restrained than Bock’s, contains an initial discreet allusion to the desired curative effect – namely increased fertility – through the jug conspicuously placed in the centre and the cupid on top of the fountain. Other images in the book are less modest and show bathers engaging in unabashed petting.
Jakob Huggel’s ‘Von heilsamen Bädern des Teutsche[n]lands’ with its chaste cover...
Jakob Huggel’s ‘Von heilsamen Bädern des Teutsche[n]lands’ with its chaste cover... Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
... and more explicit images inside.
... and more explicit images inside. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
Sebald Beham’s series of woodcuts are even more bawdy. For example, one shows a giant rectal syringe being aimed at a woman’s behind. With his titillating depiction, Beham shows the fantasies that bathing culture gave rise to. And his work indirectly proves that such images were obviously not shocking, at least in the circles for which they were intended.
Hans Sebald Beham, ‘Jungbrunnen und Badehaus’, 1536 (detail).
Hans Sebald Beham, ‘Jungbrunnen und Badehaus’, 1536 (detail). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Prints and Drawings
The erotic bathing fantasies stemmed from a medieval image of the body, shaped by the ancient notion of humorism, according to which the body with its various openings and secretions was seen as porous and permeable by all types of fluids. The notion of bodily humors led to people spending up to eight hours in spas, which may seem unusual today. This explains why Hans Bock arranges his bathers in the water around a table, as if it were a flooded salon. To counter the boredom, they spend the time reading, making music, drinking wine and eating – and with all manner of canoodling.
The fact that assaults did sometimes occur in these settings is shown by Sebald Beham’s 1541 woodcut ‘Der Narr im Frauenbad’ where the harassed women are putting up quite a fight against their molester.
The fact that assaults did sometimes occur in these settings is shown by Sebald Beham’s 1541 woodcut ‘Der Narr im Frauenbad’ where the harassed women are putting up quite a fight against their molester. City of Nüremberg’s Art Collections
The portrayal of the baths as a meeting place that would set off a foreseeable chain reaction was very much in line with convention. Anecdotes about the mysterious effects of a trip to the spa and similar cures were widespread. For example, according to a story told by one sharp-tongued contemporary, a trip to the baths in Baden resulted in pregnancy not only for a woman who was thought to be infertile, but also for her maid and her puppy. The ‘miracle cures’ owed less to the beneficial qualities of the springs, and more to the amorous adventures that took place there. The various chalices and other receptacles depicted in Bock’s painting from which people are drinking or pouring, as well as the bunch of grapes that one woman is holding, would clearly have been understood as metaphors for fertility and sexuality by his contemporaries. Finally, the figure of the heavily pregnant woman in the foreground dispels any remaining doubts.
Pregnant woman in Hans Bock’s 'The Baths at Leuk', 1597.
Pregnant woman in Hans Bock’s 'The Baths at Leuk', 1597. Kunstmuseum Basel
We can assume that Bock’s celebration of sensual pleasures was commissioned by a member of the Basel elite. Several clues point to this. Hans Bock (c. 1550–1624), who was from Alsace, was a master of the Kleinmann painters’ guild in Basel from 1572 and started to establish himself as a commission artist for the local bourgeoisie. He also received public commissions. Today he is regarded as the most important artist from Basel in the post-Holbein era. Like Holbein, Bock produced designs for the murals that were popular in Basel. He also worked as a scientific illustrator, notably for the medical professor Felix Platter. He was commissioned by the famous legal scholar from Basel, Basilius Amerbach (1533–1591) to draw the systematic excavations of the Roman ruins in Augst (Kaiseraugst), that had just begun at the time. Amerbach was also one of Bock’s most important patrons and had his portrait painted by him.
Hans Bock the Elder, 'Portrait of Basilius Amerbach', 1591.
Hans Bock the Elder, 'Portrait of Basilius Amerbach', 1591. Kunstmuseum Basel
This portrait, together with the famous Amerbach Cabinet, was acquired by the Basler Kunstmuseum as one of its original pieces. Amerbach has less to do with The Baths at Leuk, however, as the Basel Kunstmuseum only acquired the work in 1872. Another clue emerges if we compare The Baths at Leuk with Hans Bock’s Dance around the Statue of Venus, as done by Basel historian Susanna Burghartz. She believes the two paintings, which were both produced after 1590, belong together. What we initially notice when making this comparison is that in The Baths at Leuk, Bock replicates a figure from his Dance around the Statue of Venus: the woman sitting down in the front right, who is not depicted as pregnant in Venus.
Hans Bock the Elder, ‘Dance around the Statue of Venus’, circa 1590.
Hans Bock the Elder, ‘Dance around the Statue of Venus’, circa 1590. Städel Museum
Like Bock’s The Baths at Leuk, the rollicking and operatic scene, featuring naked female dancers, some of whom are striking obscene poses, can be interpreted as a painted commentary on what the artist perceived as a grave change in social mores in Basel at the time. In the 16th century, Basel was a stronghold of Humanist discourse. In the social circles in which Bock’s clients moved, people were inspired by the Italian Renaissance and its recourse to classical ideals. However, the Reformation eventually arrived in Basel, too, albeit somewhat late. In 1597 – the same year that Bock painted his bathing scene – the Basel Council issued a stricter mandate of morals (Sittenmandat) at the instigation of the reformed clergy. The mandate was also directed against proponents of the Italian Renaissance and its epicurean ideals.
Title page of the Basel mandate of morals, 1597.
Title page of the Basel mandate of morals, 1597. Staatsarchiv Basel-Stadt
As a commissioned artist, this development hit Bock hard. His mural designs for Basel Cathedral featuring scenes from ancient mythology, which had been approved by the Council in 1592, were criticised as ‘graven images’ by the reformed presbyter in Basel, Johann Jacob Grynaeus. In Dance around the statue of Venus, like in The Baths at Leuk, Bock let rip on behalf of the circles who had supported his work and on whom the moral guardians had cracked down. Convivial locations and events, such as spas and dances, where individuals could mix outside their everyday environments, were ideally suited to presenting and at the same time testing the applicable codes. Even three hundred years later, in 1872, when it was acquired for the Basel Kunstmuseum, Bock’s genre scene still managed to incite strong reactions from the people of Basel. The wealth of subtle erotic allusions in The Baths at Leuk meant the painting initially remained in the conservator’s office. That also shows how social standards have changed with regard to the depiction of nakedness and sexuality – an interesting perspective to consider in current societal debates.

coveted. cared for. martyred. Bodies in the Middle Ages 

15.03.2024 14.07.2024 / National Museum Zurich
There were conflicting perspectives of the human body during the Middle Ages: it was glorified, suppressed, cared for and chastised. The exhibition features many loaned exhibits from within and outside Switzerland to explore how the human body was viewed during the Middle Ages from a cultural history perspective, thereby also raising some questions about how we perceive the human body today.

Further posts