This finely rendered panoramic landscape, which is previously unrecorded (save for its appearance in a Munich sale catalogue in 1977), is a rare example of early Netherlandish landscape painting, a genre known as Weltlandschaften or ‘world landscapes’, due to the sheer breadth of vista which these works incorporated on a relatively modest scale. Lucas Gassel was the chief exponent of this genre in the generation that followed Joachim Patinir, the Antwerp painter who invented the type in the early-sixteenth century. Probably trained in Antwerp in the 1520s, but working in Brussels between 1538 and 1568, Gassel is credited by Walter Gibson with ‘humanising’ Patinir’s barren landscapes, in which towns and buildings remained largely unpopulated (W.S. Gibson, ‘Mirror of the Earth’: The World Landscape in Sixteenth-Century Flemish Painting, Princeton, 1989, p. 18). By contrast, Gassel’s vistas are bustling with life and activity: note for instance in this panel the fishermen patiently waiting for the day’s catch where the path meets the bridge and the shepherds leading their flocks to be sheared in the middle distance.
This work is typical of Gassel’s refned style and many of the architectural motifs recur in other works by the artist. For example, the carefully drawn manor house on the water with its turret and drawbridge features in a slightly modified form in his Landscape with Shepherds (Schoten-Antwerp, private collection), and in another, larger, version of the theme of Tamar and Judah (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). Gassel’s distinctive approach to painting foliage, in dense, carefully painted clumps, is also manifest in this panel and calls to mind its treatment in The Flight into Egypt (Maastricht, Bonnefantenmuseum) and Landscape with Mining Scenes (Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique). Infrared refectography has further revealed free and sketchy underdrawing (fig. 1), made with a dry medium, perfectly consistent with that found in other works by Lucas Gassel.
The subject of this painting is indicated by the elegant cartellino hanging from the tree in the left foreground. The story of Tamar and Judah is a morally complex tale of lineage, broken promises and deceit relayed in the Book of Genesis (chapter 38). Tamar was a beautiful widow whose twice father-in- law, the patriarch Judah, had promised his third son to her in marriage once he came of age. When Judah failed to honour this engagement, Tamar set about to deceive him. Disguising herself as a prostitute, she waited for him on the road to Timnah, the town where Judah intended to have his sheep sheared. Unaware of her true identity, Judah let himself be seduced and, as tokens of future payment, gave her his staff, cordon and seal. Once he had returned home, he attempted to send the prostitute the agreed sum and obtain in exchange the return of his belongings, but the prostitute had disappeared. Tamar was soon found to be pregnant by Judah and, accused of adultery, was sentenced to be burnt. Before the sentence could be carried out, however, Tamar sent Judah his staff, cordon and seal. Instantly recognising his possessions, Judah released Tamar and, as the bearer of his offspring, finally granted her the rightful position in his household and lineage.
We are grateful to Dr. Peter van den Brink for confirming the attribution to Lucas Gassel upon first hand examination of the painting.