Abel Grimmer ran one of the most prosperous and acclaimed studios in Antwerp at the turn of the 17th century, producing hundreds of works, which often fetched prices to rival the paintings of Jan Breughel the Younger. He is principally known for his highly decorative landscapes, which evoke an earlier manner of landscape painting. His chief sources of inspiration were the works of his father, Jacob Grimmer, as well as Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Hans Bol, whose popular compositions he modified and revitalised. In his own compositions, the older artistic idiom is simplified and transformed by the introduction of broad blocks of colour, which animate his forms and express the vernacular architecture in terms of simple geometric shapes. Figural groups were then frequently added in thin layers of paint on top of completed landscapes.
His characteristic linearity and vibrant palette are manifest in this picture, which illustrates the Biblical episode of Christ’s encounter with the centurion at Capernaum. Both accounts of the miracle (Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1–10) recall how a Roman centurion asked Christ for his help in healing his servant boy. In response to Christ’s offer to visit the child the centurion declared: ‘speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed’ (Matthew 7:8), thus attesting to his faith. Accordingly, the boy was cured within the hour.
The gospels necessitate that the lesson of the miracle – the curing of the child – takes place in a separate domain; in pictorial terms, the dramatic action is, therefore, removed from the picture. Tasked with representing an action which transcends visible manifestation, Grimmer opted to show the event that precipitated it. The human encounter is played out in the foreground, the centurion on the right salutes Christ who lifts His hand in blessing, effecting the miracle.
Reine de Bertier records a smaller variant of this composition (27 x 52.3 cm.) on panel, dated 1603 and of inferior quality, which was last documented at Lempertz in Cologne, 22 May 1986, lot 41 (op. cit., p. 213, no. XXXIX).