Adriaen Collaert after Maerten de Vos, Africa, plate 3 from the Four Continents (Antwerp, 1588-1589). Engraving, 22 x 26.9 cm, Baillieu Library Print Collection, University of Melbourne.

In the 16th century, maritime expansion transformed and connected the world in a new, global trade network. As accounts of the New World reached Europe, an iconographic genre emerged to provide a visual reference to European colonialism: personifications of the Four Continents. Prints such as Adriaen Collaert’s Africa constructed ethnographic information, contributing to an ontological theory for the categorisation of human kind. They drew on the work of artists, scholars and mapmakers, who used biblical and classical sources, travel literature, costume books, encyclopaedias and information gathered from maritime voyages to create a vision of ‘other’ worlds. The prints tried to explain human diversity by inventing distinct ethnic groups in cultural opposition to European ones.

In this era of oceanic expansion, Antwerp grew to become the richest city in Europe. As foreign merchants filled the city, and ships packed with pepper, cinnamon and other exotic spices flooded the marketplace, Flemish engravers and printers began to conceptualise this newly enlarged world. By 1572, Antwerp was also the printmaking capital of the world, and this conjunction of trade and print provides the context for the Four Continents. The Four Continents was produced there between 1588-1589, based upon drawings by Maerten de Vos (1532-1603), who often worked with Collaert and with many other printers.

Iconographic prints with their use of personification and allegory established an interpretative collaboration between the print and the viewer, and the series reflects “contemporary trends in continental personifications through numerous, specific, accoutrements in each print” (Smith 2014, pp. 5 – 6). In Collaert’s Africa, we see the body used to feed European curiosity and to represent European colonial ambitions. The continents were all normally personified as women (all are feminine nouns in Latin), but they are not afforded equal status. Collaert’s Africa is stripped of embellishments except for a few jewels and a turban-like headdress, depicted as a scantily clad woman astride a ferocious alligator. As she clutches an olive branch (the symbol of peace) the eye wanders upwards to her disproportionate arms. The thickness of Africa’s forearms opposes her dainty hands and feet. Each bicep protrudes; concave lines form popping muscles that jut out from underneath skin recall the toned body of a warrior. Two small breasts sit symbolically upon her chest, lacking any sense of realism. In a nod to the classical, a draped robe covers her sex, crumpled in hard, angular folds of firm material. The assumptions and perceived meanings of the gendered body exist along a “horizon of expectations” (Jauss, 1982, pp. 3 – 45): the female body as soft and supple and the male body as strong and muscular. However, Africa embodies both suppositions: her attractive face is coquettish in profile, whilst her body is hard, agile and warlike. Through Collaert’s exploitation of the naked form, Africa subverts European ideals of gender normalcy, thereby characterising the continent as the metaphoric ‘other’.

Cassandra Kiely, Bachelor of Arts (Honours), University of Melbourne, 2018


Smith, Edmond. “De-personifying Collaert’s Four Continents: European descriptions of continental diversity, 1585–1625.” European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire 21.6 (2014): 817-835.

Jauss, Hans Robert. “Literary history as a challenge to literary theory.” Toward an aesthetic of reception (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982), pp. 3-45.