In the same family collection since the nineteenth century and documented only once in a small regional exhibition in 1907, the existence of this picture has until now remained largely unknown and has been unrecognised by scholars including both Georges Marlier and Klaus Ertz. Its reappearance, prompted by the recent sale of the Coppé version of this subject in these Rooms (7 July 2009, lot 8, £1,497,250), constitutes a major addition to the oeuvre of Brueghel the Younger's religious paintings, remarkable both in terms of its excellent state of preservation and the highly detailed manner of the execution.
The inspiration for the subject, as with so many of the younger Brueghel's paintings, was provided by a work of his father Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which in this case is widely acknowledged as the picture dated 1566, in the Széptmûvészeti Museum, Budapest. The quality and the number of extant versions by Brueghel the Younger suggest that he knew his father's original from first hand in spite of the thirty years or more that elapsed between his own production and his father's death. Ertz lists thirteen autograph versions by Brueghel the Younger, including dated examples from 1601 (Bonn, Reinisches Landesmuseum, 1604 (St. Petersburg, The Hermitage), 1620 (Bern, Ludwig Collection) and 1624 (Stedelijk Museum Wuyts-Van Campen en Baron Caroly).
To judge from the distinctive brushwork used in this version and the finesse of the execution an early dating for the present panel is likely. The high quality construction of the four plank panel and its excellent state of conservation are noteworthy. A dendrochronological test recently carried out by Ian Tyers establishes a terminus post quem of 1591 for usage of the panel. Applying standard estimates for missing sapwood growth and using a number of assumptions based on evidence from panels of this date, Tyers suggests it was likely to have been used between this date (1591) and 1623, thus providing a median date of 1607.
Scholars have long held the view that Bruegel the Elder's picture offered a coded comment on the religious debates that raged in the Low Countries during the 1560s and that it was inspired by the clandestine sermons that Protestant reformers were attending in the countryside at the time. In the central foreground, as here, the artist (a devout Catholic) depicts a man in black who faces the viewer and is having his palm read, which can be seen as a thinly veiled defiance against Calvin's prohibition of the reading of palms. The distinctive face of this character suggests that it may be a portrait, and several candidates, including the artist himself, the person who commissioned the painting, or Thomas Armenteros, the adviser to Margaret of Parma, have been proposed, but are without real foundation. The figure of Christ has often been identified either as the man in grey behind the left arm of the Baptist or the bearded man further to the left with his arms crossed.
The popularity of the picture in the time of Pieter Brueghel the Younger, a generation later, when the subject had not only lost its political implications but ran contrary to the religious current of the time, attests to a more general, aesthetic appreciation of the subject. As Jacqueline Folie has pointed out, the composition was enjoyed more for its representation of humanity in all its diversity of race, class, temperament and attitude (see the catalogue of the exhibition, Bruegel. Une dynastie de peintres, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1980, p. 143).