Painted on a beautifully preserved oak panel, this image of Saint John the Baptist preaching to the multitude returns to one of the favourite subjects of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Flemish art. Treated by Netherlandish painters of an earlier generation, such as Herri met de Bles, Jan van Amstel and Jan Swart, the theme received perhaps its most famous and most influential reinterpretation at the hands of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, whose signed and dated masterpiece of 1566 hangs in the Szépmuveszéti Muzeum, Budapest (see M. Sellink, Bruegel: The Complete Paintings, Drawings and Prints, Ghent, 2007, no. 153). Whereas in the earlier, conventional iconography, the Baptist was logically placed in a prominent, central part of the composition, Bruegel cleverly shifted the emphasis of the depiction, placing Saint John in the deep background, a small, perhaps initially unnoticeable figure, engulfed by the masses of listeners packed in around him. The importance of his sacred message becomes underscored not by his own physical stature within the painting, but by the quantity, diversity and attitude of the audience which has gathered from far and wide to hear him speak. This counterintuitive inversion of the precedence of speaker and audience, individual and community, proved to hold a deep appeal to viewers both of Bruegel’s lifetime and of ensuing generations well into the seventeenth century, giving rise to numerous versions by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Brueghel the Younger (such as the pictures sold at Christie’s, King Street, on 7 July (lot 8) and 8 December (lot 16) 2009, for £1,497,250 and £1,553,250 respectively), as well as to related compositions by David Vinckboons (see K. Goossens, David Vinckboons, Soest, 1977, pp. 54-6, fig. 27), Jan Brueghel the Elder (Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum) and the latter’s son, Jan Breughel the Younger (The Sermon by the Sea, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum). The development of the subject reflects the larger development of the genre of landscape painting, tracing the same trajectory from Herri met de Bles, through Pieter Bruegel and into the seventeenth century. The inscription on the reverse of the present panel may suggest an old attribution to the landscapist Gillis van Coninxloo, although the date 1536 makes little sense. The figures bear a close stylistic resemblance to those of David Vinckboons, although the landscape is not that of one of the artists with whom he typically collaborated. Details such as the patriarchal muleteer at the extreme left, the elegantly dressed lady at the extreme right and the woman wearing a baby-carrier on her back, lend the picture a pronounced idiosyncrasy and pictorial interest.