This large canvas is the work of Abraham Janssens, an important Antwerp history painter who left behind a fairly small but nonetheless varied and interesting oeuvre.1 In the last few years, Janssens, unknown to the general public, has undergone something of a revival among art historians, and a number of studies have been published on this remarkable and engaging painter.
Following his apprenticeship to the rather mediocre painter Jan Snellinck the Elder (1548-1638), Janssens continued his studies in Italy. According to surviving documents he was in Rome in 1598 and again in the spring of 1601, when he is recorded as a pupil of his compatriot Willem van Nieulandt the Elder (1561?-1626). Oddly enough, his earliest dated picture, Diana and Callisto of 1601 (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum, Budapest) appears to have been less influenced by Italian art than by the late Mannerist style then taking root among his contemporaries in Utrecht and Haarlem, inspired by the work of the Flemish painter Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611). On the other hand – like many of Janssens’s later works as well – it does draw on Italian sculpture of both antiquity and the Renaissance. With his return to Antwerp in 1601 (or at the latest 1602) Janssens joined the local painters’ guild, taking over a number of administrative functions as of 1606. In the years up to 1610 – in this period he was undoubtedly the most important painter of large-scale history pieces in the city – Janssens received many important commissions, among others for the decoration of the town hall. From 1608, the year in which the somewhat younger Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) returned to Antwerp, appreciation for his work began to dwindle. More and more commissions were given to Rubens, whose creative genius and enormous productivity soon garnered him great fame and reputation. The style of Janssens’s work, initially obviously influenced by both Mannerism and the work of the Italian painter Caravaggio (1571-1610),2 began to evolve under Rubens’s spur. In turn, Rubens was probably inspired by Janssens, who well understood how to incorporate realistic elements into his otherwise classical compositions.
Janssens is one of the most important representatives of Antwerp classicism and this painting is a consummate example of his later style. Characteristic are the decidedly sculptural rendering of the figures, their life size, and, last but not least, the well-balanced monumental composition. Nothing distracts from the three central figures, which fill almost the entire picture plane; they are set against a neutral background, broken only by a slightly raised column that is partially hidden behind a now more or less invisible green curtain. This curtain was certainly once a more prominent element, but – like the blue-green cloak of the Virgin, whose hair-ribbon and undergarments are particularly beautifully and convincingly executed and which have preserved their colouration – has undergone a great deal of abrasion over the years. This is often the case in Janssens’s oeuvre and can be blamed on the fragility of the often thinly applied paint.
The subject of this painting is the encounter between Christ and the somewhat older John the Baptist, an episode drawn not from the Bible but instead from the apocryphal proto-Gospel of Jacob, which includes a description of a visit by Elizabeth, Zacharias and their son John to the Holy Family. From the Italian Renaissance onwards artists condensed the story, concentrating simply on the Virgin and the two children.3 Janssens depicts Christ on the lap of his mother, who with her right hand points emphatically to the lamb held by John. This young animal, which in eastern religions is always part of the ritual offering and is one of John’s standing attributes, is an allusion to the sacrifice Christ would come to make for humanity. John the Baptist would later even refer to him as ‘the Lamb of God’ (John 1:29, 1:36). With his left hand the Child makes what appears to be a gesture of blessing, while his serious expression seems to indicate he has already accepted his fate. Particularly striking is the contrast between the smooth stylised portrayal of the Virgin’s face and the realism of the equally brightly lit body of her son – well fed and with numerous rolls of baby fat. The elegant rendering of the children’s fanciful corkscrew curls is typical for the painter.
It is notoriously difficult to determine the chronology of Janssens’s oeuvre, which includes only a few dated or documented works. Given the style and monumental composition, with the Virgin more of less filling the pictorial space, experts have dated this painting to around 1617-20.4 In a work on the same subject but probably of a slightly later date (fig. 1),5 also with a raised column at the upper left, the mood is somewhat more sombre. In the Ponce painting our attention is diverted from the Virgin and the two children by a table, a basket serving as a kind of crib, a pair of doves and, above all, by the sky serving as a backdrop. Even before carrying out the painting here under discussion, it seems likely Janssens completed a work with a very similar composition (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp),6 of which a second, better preserved and larger version has recently resurfaced that should probably be regarded as an autograph repetition (fig. 2), albeit with slight variations with respect to the picture in Antwerp.7 In this equally monumental rendition we again find the raised column, although this time placed at the right and truncated not by a curtain but by the edge of the canvas. The image is also somewhat more narrative, with John offering the Christ Child a handful of cherries. The Baptist’s attire and attributes – he is dressed in a hair shirt and carries the characteristic cross staff with a banner bearing the words ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ (‘Behold the Lamb of God’) – are an allusion to his future life as a preacher of penitence.
We know of no replicas or autograph variations of the work discussed here, which must be considered one of the highpoints in Janssens’s oeuvre. On the basis of its large dimensions and the subject matter it seems safe to assume that the picture – whose provenance remains a mystery – must have originally been an altarpiece. Janssens created a number of excellent works in this genre, often for private patrons.8 The pointing gesture of the Virgin, who looks at the lamb with such intensity, seems to be meant to encourage the believing spectator to meditate on the coming sacrifice of her son, the Saviour.