This bright and lively roundel represents the Holy Family in the enclosed courtyard of a Renaissance palace. In the foreground, Saint Joseph is dressed in a striking red robe with a vibrant-blue chaperon, practicing his trade as a carpenter as he shapes a wooden plank with an ax. To the right sits the Virgin Mary, majestically draped in a brilliant white veil that covers her blue dress and flutters in the wind. Her attention is completely devoted to the white cloth on her lap which she is embroidering. The Virgin is attended by two angels, attired in ornate clerical robes which often appear in the Master of the Antwerp Adoration's paintings. One plays a lute, while the other proffers a silver dish of fruit, a reference to the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Beside this angel, the Christ Child attends to his father's work, while watchful of his mother.
In 2007, Peter van den Brink linked this panel - which he had in an earlier article convincingly attributed to the 16th-Century Antwerp Mannerist painter known as the Master of the Antwerp Adoration - to a dismantled, composite altarpiece datable to 1510-1530 that was most likely dedicated to the Virgin Mary and produced for a church in the Lower Rhineland area (op. cit., 2007, passim). The several surviving panels which Van den Brink has identified as belonging to this altarpiece include an equally small Flight into Egypt (private collection), a panel of The Visitation (whereabouts unknown), and a fragment in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp of Mary Cleophas and her family. In addition to stylistic similarities, the panels in this group are further connected by their underdrawings: remarkably, infrared reflectography (IRR) reveals that both the Flight into Egypt and the present panel contain notes by the artist in identical handwriting specifying the subject - The Holy Family in a garden is inscribed "Da Josef timmert" (where Joseph is being a carpenter) - and indicating where certain colors should be used (ibid.). In the present panel, substantial changes are visible both in the underdrawing itself, and in the painted surface (for a detailed analysis, see Van den Brink 1997, op. cit.). The two music-making angels and the peacock, for instance, were later additions by the master's hand, while the background architecture was originally a farmhouse, rather than a Renaissance palace. The fountain too, was initially more modest. Stylistically, all of the panels from this group are similar to two altarpieces in Saint Martin's Church in Linnich: the large Passion Altarpiece on the High Altar, and the so-called Kruzaltar, a smaller Passion Altarpiece in the church's south transept, both also by the Master of the Antwerp Adoration and his workshop.
According to Van den Brink's 2007 reconstruction, the Larsen Holy Family originally would have been one of four panels on the so-called Alltagsseite of the altarpiece, visible when the wings were closed. Van den Brink speculates that sometime after the Secularization of the Rhineland in 1802, when the altarpiece was dismantled, the present panel was modified from its original rectangular shape to a circle so that it would best present as an independent painting.
When conceiving this composition, The Master of the Antwerp Adoration was likely inspired by Albrecht Dürer's print of The Sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt (figure 1) from the Life of the Virgin series, begun in 1500. As in Dürer's woodcut, the Virgin sits in the foreground attended by angels and embroidering a garment on her lap. Also similar is the bearded Saint Joseph at her left, carving out a long piece of wood. In Dürer's print, Joseph is surrounded by jovial putti who frolic about, picking up the shavings and placing them into a basket. In the Larsen painting, it is the Christ Child himself who assumes this role.
The Master of the Antwerp Adoration has incorporated symbolic imagery in the painting in a manner typical of Netherlandish art of this period. The fanciful architecture in the background, together with the dense wood and columned structure on the right, suggest that the Holy Family resides within a hortus conclusus, that is, an enclosed, sacred precinct dedicated to the Virgin. Two angels fill silver pitchers with water from an elegant fountain in the courtyard, which together with the garden itself symbolize the immaculate purity of the Virgin. This imagery derives from the Song of Solomon as interpreted by Saint Bernard, who read the biblical love poem as an ode to the Virgin as the Bride of Christ. By the time panel was painted, the juxtaposition of the fountain, or "well of living waters", the enclosed garden, and the Virgin was well-established in Netherlandish art. Indeed, it appears in Jan van Eyck's famous Madonna at the Fountain of 1439 (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp). In the present Holy Family in a garden, a peacock appears in front of the fountain. An exotic bird of paradise, it would have been understood in the artist's time as a symbol of Christ's immortality and the Resurrection. The cross formed by Saint Joseph's plank and the wooden board beneath it is in no way accidental, but rather deliberately refers to Christ's Passion. Likewise, the pincer in the foreground alludes to the tool that was used to remove the nails from the Cross after Christ's death. Thus, within this everyday scene of familial tranquility and harmony, The Master of the Antwerp Adoration subtly alludes to Christ's future sacrifice, creating a beautiful composition that rewards prolonged contemplation.
We are grateful to Peter van den Brink and Jan Piet Filedt Kok for their assistance in cataloguing this painting.