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Scenes from the Passion of Christ

Scenes from the Passion of Christ
one (vii) signed ‘BRVEGHEL’ (upper right)
bodycolour, pen and black ink, pen and brown ink or gold framing lines, on vellum
circa 3 x 2 in. (7.5 x 5 cm.), each
(17)a set of seventeen

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Lot Essay

The son and brother of two of the most popular Netherlandish painters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Jan Brueghel the Elder is celebrated for his extraordinary skill and meticulous and refined technique, applied mostly to landscape painting. The group of seventeen miniatures on vellum presented here, together with another sixteen, of identical style and size and previously on the art market (sale Artcurial, Paris, 26 March 2014, lot 109), stand out in his œuvre for their technique – bodycolor on vellum – as well as for their subject matter. Brueghel regularly treated certain themes from the Old and New Testaments as pretexts to create lush landscapes, such as Saint John the Baptist preaching, the Adoration of the Magi, or the Flight to Egypt (see K. Ertz, with C. Nitze-Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere (1568-1625). Kritischer Katalog der Gemälde, II Lingen, 2008-2010, nos. 183-324, ill.). Instead, here he focuses on the Biblical narrative in scenes taken from the lifes of the Virgin and Christ, one of which, the Ecce homo included in this lot, is signed in gold. In typically crowded compositions, enlivened with numerous charming details, the figures fill the miniature frame. A dating for the works is offered by the comparison with figures in paintings by Brueghel from the mid- to late 1590s, such as those in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen (M. Neumeister, Brueghel. Gemälde von Jan Brueghel d. Ä, exhib. cat., Munich, Alte Piankothek, Munich, 2013, nos. 23, 26, 28, ill.), or, even more strikingly, in a small copper depicting Christ carrying the Cross (offered at Koller, Zurich, 22 March 2016, lot 3024). Additional comparisons with the facial features of figures and landscape elements in paintings, made by Jaco Rutgers in a discussion of the set of sixteen scenes, include dated examples from between 1594 and 1600 (The Art of the Masters. Jan Brueghel the Elder as a Miniaturist, Oudenaarde 2014, pp. 5-9, figs. 2-17).

As remarked by Rutgers (e-mail communication, December 2023), the set of sixteen and the one presented here, of which not one scene overlaps, once probably belonged together, forming an even more extensive series. Originally, it may have been larger still, and possibly bound in a manuscript Book of Hours (Rutgers, op. cit., p. 11). No other miniatures by Brueghel are known today, but we know from a most reliable source that he did produce such works: a letter by the artist himself, dated 6 December 1619 and addressed to Ercole Bianchi, a secretary of Brueghel’s major Italian patron, Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan. In the letter, the artist explains a delay by work he had to deliver to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, namely ‘thirty-eight miniatures by my own hand’ (‘di miniatura 38 pezzetti di mia mano propria’), a commission on which he suggests he worked for nine months (Jan Brueghel il Vecchio: le lettere in italiano dell’Ambrosiana, R. Argenziano, ed., Milan, 2019, p. 215). This archducal commission cannot be identified with the works proposed here, which, as seen above, date from some two decades earlier. But the passage in the letter reveals that Jan Brueghel, beyond the exquisite paintings he is best known for, was also valued as a miniaturist by some of the most discerning patrons of his lifetime. The rediscovery of the New Testament series now make it possible to fully appreciate the quality, originality and technical mastery he achieved in such works.

We are grateful to Jaco Rutgers for confirming the attribution of these works to the artist, and for his help in writing this note.

i. Christ taking leave of his Mother
ii. Christ before Caiaphas
iii. Christ before Pilate
iv. The Mocking of Christ
v. The Crowning with thorns
vi. The Mocking after the Crowning with thorns
vii. Ecce homo
viii. Pilate washing his hands
ix. Christ carrying the Cross
x. Christ nailed to the Cross
xi. The Crucifixion of Christ
xii. The Descent from the Cross
xiii. The Deposition of Christ
xiv. The Lamentation of Christ
xv. Christ in Limbo
xvi. The Resurrection of Christ
xvii. The Journey to Emmaus

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