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Joachim Beuckelaer, The Four Elements: Fire

Key facts
Full title The Four Elements: Fire
Artist Joachim Beuckelaer
Artist dates probably about 1535; died 1575
Series The Four Elements
Date made 1570
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 158.2 × 215.4 cm
Inscription summary Signed; Dated
Acquisition credit Bought, 2001
Inventory number NG6588
Location Not on display
Collection Main Collection
The Four Elements: Fire
Joachim Beuckelaer

This large and well-stocked kitchen is a hive of industry. Four female servants prepare and cook food while a young man perches on a stool before the fire, swigging from an earthenware jug. Pots and pans litter the brick floor and every available surface seems stacked with produce.

This is one of four large paintings in which food is used to symbolise the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, with biblical scenes in the background. Here, in the back room, is Christ in the house of Martha and Mary. When Martha complained of her sister’s laziness in leaving her to do all the work, Christ replied that Mary had chosen better by sitting at his feet and listening to him.

Beuckelaer often put his signature in half-hidden places; here, it is on the edge of the sideboard. The date, 1570, is on the lintel above the doorway.

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The Four Elements


Packed with fish, fruit, vegetables, birds and animals, these four big pictures are like giant stage sets, teeming with life. Although superficially market and kitchen scenes, the different types of food represent the four elements: vegetables for earth, fish for water, poultry for air and game for fire. In the backgrounds are biblical scenes.

Beuckelaer has created an impression of great abundance and variety, although the foods shown were readily available to ordinary Netherlanders for most of the sixteenth century. However, these pictures were painted at a time of political and religious repression and severe economic recession. They perhaps show a remembered golden age, when food was plentiful.

The group may well have been commissioned in Antwerp by a foreigner, probably the vastly wealthy and cultured Fernão Ximenes, Consul for the Portuguese Nation. By 1884 the paintings were in Florence, in the Palazzo Panciatichi-Ximenes d'Aragona.