This remarkably well-preserved picture is an outstanding example of Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione's virtuosity at the zenith of his career. Trained in Genoa, the influence of Rubens and Van Dyck, who had both worked there earlier in the century, is visible in the dramatic depiction of the offerants to the left of the composition. The mysterious classical setting, and in particular the two priests crowned with laurel wreath, recall Poussin's early work, with which Castiglione became familiar when he lived in Rome (c. 1629-38). By contrast, his study of Venetian painting is apparent from the kneeling boy who often figures in compositions by Bassano. his depiction of fowl and farmyard animals, here piled high in the foreground with a rich array of still-life objects, including gleaming copper vessels, earned Castiglione great acclaim and are prominent in most of his pictures. In style the picture is comparable to Christ and the Money-changers in the Louvre (inv. no. 241; Newcome Schleier, op. cit., no. 59) and to that in the Bowdoin College Museum of Fine Arts which both Newcombe Schleier and Ann Percy date to the 1640s (inv. no. K. 1775B; ibid., pl. 59, fig. 59.1, and A. Percy, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione. Master Draughtsman of the Italian baroque, Philadelphia, Museum of Art, 17 September-28 November 1971, p. 40). Both compositions are painted in the same warm tonality as the present picture and present a foreground crowded with figures and animals, with, in the background, a similar temple with a pyramid. The two figures behind the column on the right are repeated in the Bowdoin College picture. The pyramid, which figures in Castiglione's print from the 1640s of Theseus discovering the sword and sandals of his father (ibid., no. E12), supports a similar dating.
Until its publication by Newcome Schleier in 1992 (loc. cit.) only the preparatory drawings to this picture were known. The first is a sketch at Windsor Castle in which the artist drew the composition in oil with free brushstrokes on paper, a technique frequently applied by him (254 x 355 mm.; inv. no. RF 3876; A. Blunt, The Drawings of G.B. Castiglione and Stefano della Bella in the Collection of H.M. the Queen at Windsor Castle, London, 1954, no. 161). The main composition of the figures in the foreground is established in this drawing, although there are minor differences to the painting, as for example the position of the boy on the left who is facing the altar in the drawing and the absence of the two men behind the column to the right. Newcome Schleier suggests that the drawing in a private collection in the same technique could have been used as a modello to present to the patron who commissioned the picture (422 x 573 mm.; loc. cit., illustrated). Although the composition is slightly more upright the width of the drawing is the same as that of the painting and the foreground and architectural setting in the background are defined as in the picture, the only difference being in the group of figures in the background.
The subject of this picture is uncertain; the man in the background pointing his right arm to Heaven, and the relief of Moses receiving the Tables on the sarcophagus under the pyramid, suggest a biblical theme. Castiglione frequently situated the central characters of his biblical subjects towards the rear of his compositions, as for example in the Christ and the Moneychangers in the Louvre. Situated in a similar temple, an agitated crowd of merchants with livestock is a dramatic prelude in the foreground to Christ and the Moneychangers under the same pyramid in the background. However, if the figures in the background of the present picture are the protagonists, Castiglione only decided on the subject at a late stage. For in the drawing at Windsor Castle he only swiftly outlined two figures in the background and in the other preliminary drawing he substituted them with a group of men carrying urns. Conversely, he attached great importance to the sacrificial scene in the foreground, the composition of which was established at an early stage and drawn in both sheets in great detail.
When the picture appeared in the sale in Paris in 1809 the cataloguers did not recognise a specific subject and therefore described it as a sacrifice to an Egyptian God [probably because of the pyramid] in a temple: 'one sees the idol surrounded by numerous offerings which have already been brought to Him, while several figures are still gathering to present their tributes; in front of Him is an altar on which incense is burning.' This description, the correspondence of the measurements and the French label on the reverse leave little doubt as to the identification of the present lot as the one from the estate of Guyot sold in Paris in 1809. In 1815 it reappeared in Ghent in the sale of the pictures, drawings, prints, books and painter's tools of Charles Spruyt (1769-1851). The introduction to the catalogue relates that the proceeds of the sale would enable the artist finallt to travel to Rome and to see 'la belle Italie', 'un désir trop long-temps comprimé'. This longing was not surprising since Charles's father, with whom he had trained, had travelled to the Eternal City at a younger age and had worked for three years there in Raphael Mengs's studio (1757-60).