Dating to circa 1625-6, this intimate rendering of The Holy Family with an Angel, which is the prime composition from which a number of studio variants derive, was painted relatively early in Jordaens’ career, when he was still in his early 30s, during the period described by the great Jordaens scholar R.-A. d’Hulst as ‘The rich unfurling’ (c. 1619-1627; op. cit., 1982). Jordaens executed some of his finest and most celebrated works at this time, including the monumental Saint Peter Finding Money in the Mouth of a Fish (Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst); these established his reputation and secured his position alongside Sir Peter Paul Rubens and Sir Anthony van Dyck as one of the greatest northern Baroque painters of the seventeenth century. Indeed, he succeeded Rubens as the leading painter in Flanders on the latter’s death in 1640. Unlike Rubens and van Dyck, Jordaens never travelled to Italy, however, his style was influenced by the work of the great Italian titans of the previous century, notably Titian, Bassano and Veronese, and that of his closer contemporary Caravaggio. The impact of the latter is particularly evident in this painting.
Jordaens did not train in Rubens’ studio, unlike van Dyck, but rather in that of Rubens’ own teacher, Adam van Noort, who would later become his father-in-law. His work was informed by that of Rubens from an early stage, however, as Professor Balis makes clear: ‘his repertoire of figure types and the overall visual effect he strives for in these early years can only be interpreted as a deliberate effort at emulating Rubens’ style’ (A. Balis, ‘Fatto da un mio discepolo, Rubens’s studio practices reviewed’, in Rubens and his workshop, ed. T. Nakamura, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo, 1994, p. 112). Rubens’ Holy Family with Saints John the Baptist and Elizabeth of circa 1614-15 in the Wallace Collection, London (fig. 1), shows a similarly compact arrangement of figures and dramatic light effects as in the present work. The Virgin and Christ Child in this painting are likewise presented in the immediate foreground, almost protruding into the viewer’s space, with the elderly figure of Joseph crouching immediately behind them. In Jordaens’ composition, an angel embraces the Holy Family, his beautifully rendered wing closing of the composition, thus heightening the intensity of the scene. The composition is articulated with expressive gestures and glances: the Virgin wraps her arms around the Christ Child in a protective gesture, which is in turn echoed by Joseph’s hand on her shoulder and the angel’s hand on his; Joseph and the angel gaze at the Virgin and Child, who in turn look directly at the viewer. Christ’s fate is made explicit by the bunch of grapes held by the angel (a symbol of the Eucharist) and the rosary clasped in the Child’s chubby hands.
Jordaens frequently used members of his family and immediate circle as models. D’Hulst (op. cit., 1982 and 1993) suggested that the likeness of the Christ Child in this painting compares closely with that in an oil Study of a Small Child (fig. 2; Gdansk, Muzeum Narodowe), which has been identified as a portrait of the artist’s son, Jordaens the Younger, who was born in 1625 (J.S. Held, ‘Jordaens’ Portraits of his Family’, The Art Bulletin, XXII, 1940, pp. 81-2). In a later rendition of The Holy Family, now in Southampton City Art Gallery, the head of the Christ Child would appear to relate to an oil Study of a Child (private collection), which d’Hulst initially dated to circa 1628 and identified as a slightly older likeness of Jacob (op. cit, 1982, pp. 124-5), but has more recently re-dated to circa 1620 and suggested that it is more likely a portrait of the artist’s daughter Elizabeth, who was born in 1617 (op. cit., 1993, p. 86). While neither scholar suggests this, the physiognomy of the Virgin is loosely comparable with that of the artist’s wife, Catharine van Noort, whose portrait features in a family group that Jordaens painted in circa 1621-22 (fig. 3; Madrid, Prado), and may constitute an idealised version of her (the nose being less pronounced and the lower lip less full). Indeed, Catharina and the couple’s elder daughter Elizabeth were used as the central figures in Jordaens’ Satyr and peasant of circa 1620-21 (Göteborg, Konstmuseum).
Jordaens’ use of realistic models and his presentation of religious subjects with rustic simplicity betray Caravaggio’s influence. The impact of the Italian’s work can also be perceived in the dramatic rendering of light and shade in this painting, in which a light source outside the picture illuminates the main protagonists, casting strong shadows over the faces of Joseph and the angel. While Jordaens never travelled south of the Alps, according to Joachim von Sandrart he did his utmost to see works by such luminaries as Titian, Veronese, Bassano and Caravaggio, so that he could apply their ideas in his work (Joachim von Sandrarts Academie der Bau-, Bild-, und Mahlerey-Künste von 1675, ed. A.-R. Peltzer, Munich, 1925, pp. 2145). Jordaens would also have absorbed elements of Caravaggio’s style via Rubens, who painted a number of works that were strongly Caravaggesque after returning from Italy in 1608, such as Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Brunswick, Herzog Anton Ulrich-Museum) and Boy Blowing on a Brazier (Dresden, Gemäldegalerie), both circa 1616-17. Jordaens’ The disciples at Christ’s tomb in Dresden, executed in the same year as the present painting, reveals Jordaens’ interest in Caravaggio, especially his Entombment in the Vatican, which Jordaens most probably knew through Rubens’ copy now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The one canvas by Caravaggio that Jordaens could admire at first hand was his The Madonna of the Rosary, which was acquired in 1618/19 by an Antwerp consortium that included Rubens and Jan Breughel the Elder, and hung in the Dominican church at Antwerp (fig. 4). While the figures of the Virgin and Christ Child in Caravaggio’s composition relate more closely to Jordaens’ Holy Family with a maid-servant of circa 1625-30 (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum), the prominence given to the rosary and the complex and expressive arrangement of hands around it (drawing the viewer’s attention to it) can be seen to have influenced this painting.
This composition clearly proved popular since copies by the workshop are in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and in Kassel; while a modified and enlarged version, in which the figure of Joseph is moved to the left and his position is taken by Saint Anne, thought by Jaffé to be autograph (op. cit., p. 89, under no. 34), but by d’Hulst to be painted with studio assistance (op. cit., 1982, p. 123, note 66), is in the De Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco.