This buoyant scene of village life in 16th-century Flanders by Lucas van Valckenborch depicts a kermesse, an outdoor festival commemorating the feast day of the local church's patron saint. A kermesse was also an occasion for secular celebration, providing a welcome break from the rigors of the agricultural year, and a favorite subject for Valckenborch, who depicted it more than a dozen times. This brightly colored work laden with finely wrought details captures the exuberant and multi-faceted spirit of the event. At left, priests, whose tonsures suggest they belong to a monastic order, process towards a church as onlookers kneel in worship. To the right of the church door, the commercial aspect of the kermesse is evident, as villagers crowd vendors' booths filled with wares for sale. Meanwhile, the foreground is devoted to figures on a hillside engaging in riotous activities such as dancing, fighting and embracing as a man playing the bagpipes serenades them.
The artistic giant associated with kermesse subjects in Flanders is Valckenborch's predecessor Pieter Bruegel I (c.1525/30-1569), whose iconic imagery persisted for decades after his death in the work of his son Pieter Brueghel II. In the present work, Valckenborch responds to Bruegel's peasant types: the lusty middle-aged couple dancing in the left foreground, for instance, bears a strong resemblance to the pair dancing at left in Pieter I's Wedding dance of 1566 (Detroit Institute of Arts; inv. 30.374), which Valckenborch may have known through the engraving by Pieter van der Heyden from after 1570. Yet, whereas Bruegel and his son explored physiognomy and movement in a somewhat stylized environment, Valckenborch depicted his figures in a more naturalistic and finely detailed setting. The present work includes one of Valckenborch's most accomplished landscapes, in which a harmonious balance of miniaturist detail and broad panorama is masterfully achieved. The foreground action occurs in the shade of two towering oaks, a common motif for Valckenborch, whose textured leaves and bark are rendered with fine, feathery brushstrokes. Behind the trees, the composition opens up into an expansive landscape which includes a tree-covered valley abutting a river with a line of misty, blue-hued mountains and a distant town beyond.
Lucas van Valckenborch came from a family of painters who originated in Leuven in the Spanish Netherlands before moving to the more tolerant German imperial city of Frankfurt am Main, presumably for political or religious reasons. In 1560, he joined the painters' guild in Mechelen, before fleeing in 1566 to Liège and then Aachen, where his brother, the landscape painter Marten van Valckenborch I (1534-1612), had settled. Lucas likely created the present picture sometime in this period, before moving to Antwerp around 1574/75. It is signed with the type of monogram which Valckenborch used after 1570 (the 'L' above 'VV'). Indeed, Wied dates it to around 1572 based on stylistic comparisons with three other comparatively early paintings, an upright Peasant dance of around 1570, in the Uffizi, Florence (inv. 1249), which is a fragment of a horizontally oriented painting (Wied, op. cit., pp. 133-135, no. 10); and two roundels, Landscape with peasants dancing, dated and monogrammed 1574/LVV (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, inv. no. 658; Wied, op. cit., p. 138, no. 18); and Kermesse (Schlossmuseum, Schloss Friedenstein, Gotha; Wied, op. cit., p. 139, no. 20). The popularity of such scenes by Valckenborch suggests the extent to which his contemporaries enjoyed a reminder of the ebullient behavior and lack of social order associated with kermesse celebrations throughout the year.