Small animals and birds enliven this barren landscape consisting of sand-coloured rock formations framed by trees, shrubs, and trailing vines.
In the left foreground, standing before a natural stone arch leading to a distant, more verdant view, is a group of five figures. Saint John the Baptist, depicted with his customary attributes of the lamb and reed cross with banderole, and wearing a camel skin under his red cloak, is confronting four men in exotic dress, possibly a group of Pharisees or Sadducees (Matthew 3:7).
A pentimento of another figure clad in red that was overpainted soon after the painting’s completion, is visible inside the grotto. Another change has become apparent in the figure of Saint John: The ghostly shape of an outstretched arm and index finger pointing towards the grotto suggests that this was at some stage a different figure altogether.
Joos de Momper frequently collaborated with other artists who provided the figures for his paintings, as was customary for landscape painters of the period. It is possible that David Teniers the Younger, whose father had been known to collaborate with de Momper, provided the figures in this work.
De Momper is a key artist in the transition between the ‘world landscapes’ of the 16th century and the more naturalistic Flemish landscapes of the 17th century. His mountainous landscapes, for which he became most famous, might have been loosely inspired by his journey through the Alps, but he deliberately deviates from nature, as observed here, in favour of highly formulaic fantasies.