This is one of a set of four pictures which take as their theme the four elements of 'Earth', 'Water', 'Air' and 'Fire'. In the art of the Low Countries in the later 16th and 17th centuries it became common to symbolise the elements by references to the natural world. Here, seductive representations of market produce for sale or for cooking are combined with relevant Biblical episodes. Beuckelaer's series of paintings are among the earliest and most accomplished fusions of these themes. These four pictures were produced in Antwerp, probably for a patron in Italy.
In this painting, 'Earth', the produce is depicted with tremendous bravura: vegetables tumble from the basket held by the woman on the left, and cascade towards the viewer. Sixteen different varieties of vegetable and fruit have been identified. The tiny figures of the Holy Family can be seen crossing a bridge in the far distance on the left.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Nine, March 2009