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Joachim Beuckelaer painted The Four Elements in 1569. They were made in Antwerp, probably for a patron in Italy. In the art of the Low Countries during the later 16th and 17th centuries, it became common to symbolise the elements – earth, water, air and fire – by references to the natural world. In Beuckelaer’s paintings, the elements are represented by seductive images of market produce.
A small scene from the life and teachings of Christ is included in each of the pictures, making them among the earliest and most accomplished fusions of New Testament narratives with everyday life. The paintings were made extremely quickly, with bold and broad brushstrokes. Beuckelaer was also a skilled colourist, repeating and echoing colours and patterns in order to guide the viewer’s eye across his compositions.