That Darn Fox:
A cautionary tale for my grandchildren
with footnotes, afterwards and illustrations.

Mixed media-
Polymers, plaster, oak, copper,
acrylics and oils
14.5” x 15.5” x 15.5”


As the tattoo artist worked away on my shoulder blade, it occurred to me that I hadn’t given any thought to the tattooing process since my mom’s dire warning, “You better never get a tattoo. They shoot you with needles and you can get diseases.” I was ten or eleven years old and in those days only sailors or prisoners got tattoos, of which, I was neither. Straining my neck, I peered down at my shoulder and watched the tiny bubbles of blood appear behind the needle’s tract. It was an odd time to have this recollection. Remembering how I hated needles, I considered telling the tattoo artist, “Hey wait a second, I forgot I was afraid of needles,” but wasn’t sure if the guy would get my sense of humor… He looked the type that had tattooed many sailors and prisoners.

The image that was being imprinted on my shoulder was from a painting called, An Allegory of the Martyrdom of Charles I, an obscure painting from the 17th century, by Cornelis Saftleven. In moments between the droplets of blood being wiped away with a tissue and the stippling of the gun, I watched the image of a fox emerge. A sly little creature on his hind legs wearing a human mask stood in the painting’s foreground. In one arm he held a head chopping ax and a bucket of blood; his other arm rested against a painting of a public gathering. In the middle, a man in a red cape rode a white horse. An apocalyptic landscape of flying goblins and crazed animals unfurled around the fox, and the background of the painting was illuminated by a burning city.


I spent several years researching the painting, traveling to libraries and museums across the country in search of answers. Cornelis Saftleven was Dutch. He had a father and brother who also were painters. They painted the landscapes and portraits which were typical of the period. Art historians consider Cornelis the most prominent of the three painters, but besides short biographies written in art encyclopedias and cross-references with listings of other Dutch Artists, I could find little else written about his life and artwork. In various catalogs I found some reproductions of his works. These included, The Temptation of St Anthony, Salome Delivering the Head of St. John, Hunter Sleeping on a Hillside, Rhineland Fantasy View, A Cat Looking Though a Fence. These paintings, similar in style and technique, lack the fantastical imagery I saw in An Allegory of Martyrdom of Charles I. This painting’s imagery is more reminiscent of the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch and the earlier Dutch painter Bruegel. His Peasants Smoking and Drinking in a Barn with Devils Dancing Beyond and the Meeting of Witches seemed more influenced by the earlier painters, but I didn’t run across these until much later.2

With the passage of time, I found my fox becoming elusive. While learning nothing about the image in my research, as long as I didn’t stand still and think about it too long, it seemed like I was doing something important. I thought maybe I was just trying to answer a simple question. How far should I let curiosity take me? There was no reward. One afternoon I was reading a magazine. I flipped the page and saw the painting. It looked interesting. I had some free time. I went to the library. I didn’t find anything. I thought - maybe I’ll try another library. And when I found nothing at the next library or the one after that I started delving into circuitous searches. Seventeenth century Dutch art, English history, Oliver Crownwell and Charles I, Charles I’s jesters John Armstrong and Muckle John.3 These searches, at times, yielded interesting facts, but no insight on my little friend. Finally, while digging around in the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington D.C., I found a journal article that mentioned the painting several times, unfortunately it was in German…or maybe it was Dutch.


Stepping back, I should point out I was aware my research method was flawed. From the day I saw the painting, an illustration in the Journal The Sciences, I knew who its owners were, a Museum in Sussex, England. I have hung out with enough art historians to realize the importance of knowing a painting’s provenance. I could have very easily written the current owners, and inquired about the painting’s history and any relevant research they might have had. While there was no certainty that they would reply or even if they had any useful information, this should have been my first step. I never wrote the museum. So other than curiosity about the painting, what was I looking for? I do like visiting libraries. I enjoy the journeys they can take you on. I like watching people on their own quest. I enjoy exploring the stacks and finding their most quiet and desolate spots. It feels a lot like being alone in a beautiful forest… except there are no birds or animals and your shoes don’t usually get dirty.

During the years I was researching An Allegory of the Martyrdom of Charles I, I started making pottery. I received a minor in Scientific Russian Translation. Moved to Washington D.C.. Was accepted and dropped out of law school. Twice. Got married and divorced.4 Took some etching and drawing courses. Moved back to St. Louis. Retook my old bar job waiting tables. There, I spent my evenings with colleagues drinking free alcohol, smoking and throwing darts. One day, my manager invited me along with her to the tattoo parlor. She was going to add to her growing collection of insects and reptiles and I had recently mentioned to her I was thinking about getting my first tattoo. I showed her a photo copy of the painting, pointing out the fox, the head-chopping ax and his bucket of blood. “It’s either that,” I said, then pointed to another image, “or the pig.” The pig leaned over a wall, and appeared to be throwing up writing parchment, letters, and what looked like a personal journal.

I entered the Library of Congress through a rear door. It required identification and signing my name into a log, followed by a search of my book bag and a walk through a metal detector. The collection is divided between three buildings, all in near proximity to the Capital. Thomas Jefferson, the building I entered, was the oldest of the three and was dedicated in 1897. Built as a repository of knowledge to serve the Congress and the American people, it was called, “a glorious national monument, and "the largest, the costliest, and the safest" library building in the world.”5 Normally tourists can enter the building in the front, into a grand hall with exhibition wings to either side. In these exhibition halls, citizens could see examples of important documents in the library’s collection. But at that time, the building was closed for renovations, only researchers like myself, Congress, and their staff could enter the building.

Hidden behind the walls of the reading room, lay the library’s old card catalog. Seldom used since the advent of the computer catalog, the massivecollection of old wooden files lay abandoned in a cavernous room that looked like the underbelly of a football stadium. I sat in a discarded office chair; the room to myself. It was the most tranquil spot I had found in the library. Out of the corner of my eye something caught my attention. A shadow cast, by light passing through a small transom and striking some banal object, but I could imagine it being something else. A small fox scurrying through the stacks. An aberration wanting me to follow.


Through a side door I walked into a long empty hall. Down at the bottom of some steps, I found myself in another corridor at the end of which I came to an elevator bay. Thinking I should head backed up into a more public part of the Library, I pressed the elevator call button. Inside the elevator I looked at a panel and noticed there was yet another floor below the one I was on. Instead of pressing a button that might take me nearer to the library’s reading room, I pressed the lowest one.

The doors opened into a darkened corridor. Fluorescent lights above me flickered on. The ceiling was lower than the floors above and the halls followed a different path. There were no offices and the hall stretched far into distance, darkened and reaching out further than I could see. I was in a tunnel. These subterranean halls connected the individual buildings of the Library of Congress and probably continued onto the Capital and the other congressional buildings. I continued forward and eventually came to a room with glass paneled doors. In the room, a soda machine stood next to an automatic coffee machine, and there were several tables and chairs. I went in and bought myself a cup of coffee. I tried to read a book, but distracted by the fear that I might be some place I wasn’t supposed to be and a need for nicotine, I soon got up to leave. I had been in the library for six hours. I needed to be outside.

I passed an elevator I failed to notice before. Pressing the button, I was startled to see the doors open immediately before me. I rode the elevator. The doors opened into a gigantic room lined with workers’ scaffolding lining the walls. Where was I? I stepped into the room and the elevator doors closed behind me. No lights were on, but the sun filled the room through enormous picture windows. I looked up and could see the paintings in the giant rotunda of the grand foyer of the Library of Congress. Peering around the room, I had several quick realizations. First, I definitely wasn’t supposed to be in there; second, with the closing of the elevator doors, I might just have locked myself in this place and thirdly; I had the entire library to myself. I took another hesitant step forward, my third realization drowning out the others. Was this a dream come true? I took another step. I had no idea this was where I would end up today. Through a window, I could see the edge of the Capitol’s dome. Above, light from outside flickered on the crystals of a giant chandelier. My parsed lips opened. “Damn,” I said and in a split second I was greeted by my echo. Reaching into my shirt pocket, I pulled out my pack of cigarettes. All it took was a brief moment of awe and amazement to fail to notice the smoke rising from the painter’s tarp on which my match fell.


The walls of the tattoo parlor were covered with hundreds of photos. Some of the images where humorous, others disturbing. All were statements or expressions, of some sort, of one’s individuality. My tattoo would be that, but I also saw it as a scare. A self-inflected wound. A permanent reminder of my folly. In the corner of Cornelis’ painting, a falling meteor streaked through the sky. On the evening Charles I was executed, Londoners reported seeing the meteor. A great ball of light illuminating the evening sky. This can only be speculation on my part, but Charles I, who had a fascination with astronomy and had his own observatory and telescope, might have been waiting most of his life to see such an event. Maybe being poked with needles was responsible for my overly dramatic thoughts, but sitting in the chair, I realized the irony of my situation. I had seen my Meteor and I was still alive. I hadn’t been in a dark tower. I was not beheaded.



1I have no grandchildren and there is no afterwards.
2Current online research reveals a little more information than it did ten years ago, but I still found no mention of An Allegory of the Martyrdom of Charles I… Unless I missed it, but I’m not falling into that trap again.
3Muckle John, the last official Court Jester. It seemed like an interesting subject to research as well. And boy did I, with similar but less destructive result.
4My editor feels I should take this last sentence out because it’s not true. In a compromise, I agreed to leave out my children. But I was afraid I would be headed for a slippery slope if I took out much more.
5From the History of the Library of Congress’ web page.

All work © 2006 Bradley Bowers
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