Monumental in both scale and artistic ambition, this panel is a masterpiece of Northern Renaissance landscape painting. The work of an anonymous, talented master of early Netherlandish painting, it offers a visual feast, in the infinite details it incorporates, its vivid palette, and in the coherence and intelligence of its composition.
The master behind this intriguing painting was working in the tradition established by Joachim Patinir in early sixteenth-century Antwerp. Using the pretext of a biblical narrative, Patinir created vast and richly detailed panoramas, inventing a genre that has been called the Weltlandschaften or ‘world landscape’. Patinir himself frequently treated the theme of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, one of the most accomplished examples being that now in the Prado Museum, Madrid (fig. 1), to which the present panel seems to owe a degree of debt: for instance in the placement of the Virgin and Child on a centrally elevated mound, and in the careful depiction of the staff and white saddlebag in the foreground. Also following Patinir, the artist has incorporated several extraneous narrative details relating to the biblical story of the Flight, including the Massacre of the Innocents in the far right background and the Miracle of the Wheatfield in the left middle distance. Of the myriad of carefully rendered details others are more incidental, such as the figures bathing in a pond adjacent to a farm in the distance.
Far from purely emulating Patinir’s art, however, the present artist was clearly attempting to surpass it in this panel by demonstrating the full scope of his painterly skills: from the loose and deft brushstrokes that evoke the lush foliage and flowers in the foreground, to the miniaturist touches used to render the buildings in the far distance. The still life elements that abound in the foreground testify to his knowledge and emulation of the great early Netherlandish painting tradition, especially Eyckian: note the astonishingly realistic discarded pattens (shoes worn outdoors), the half-open travel chest and the small meal of cheese, bread and butter prepared on a nearby rock. The left side of the panel is dominated by a Flemish farmhouse. The rendering of the fall of light on this building is the result of careful observation, which, breaking from the homogeneous and artificial lighting visible in other Antwerp landscapes of the period, anticipates the spirit of the Dutch Golden Age.
This painting was first discussed by Fagin in 1968 (op. cit.), who associated it with three other works which he believed were by the same hand. Of these, the only panel that can still confidently be ascribed to the same artist is an anonymous Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the Prado, Madrid (fg. 2). Although compositionally less ambitious and more subservient to Patinir’s models, the Prado picture displays the same abundance of surface details. The staff and saddlebag in the foreground are virtually identical, while the figure of Joseph ascending towards the Virgin and Child and the farm to the left are also remarkably similar. Comparison can also be made with the landscape backgrounds in works by Joos van Cleve, such as the Virgin and Child and the Crucifxion with Saints and a Donor (both New York, Metropolitan Museum). While the figures show a strong debt to Joos van Cleve’s depictions of the Holy Family, for instance the Virgin and Child and Virgin and Child Enthroned (both Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum).
At a time when most Antwerp landscape painters ran large studios producing rather standardised works of varying quality, this painting stands out thanks to its high quality and idiosyncrasies. Possibly conceived as a showpiece to attract prospective clients, it could also have been the result of an important commission, as the yet unidentified coat-of-arms in the lower right corner may suggest.