We might feel small and insignificant when looking at this wild and unruly landscape. The large sand-coloured rock formations framed by trees, shrubs and trailing vines are animated by small animals and birds. It’s only at second glance that we notice the small group in the left foreground standing before a grotto.
The man in the red cloak is Saint John the Baptist, depicted with his customary attributes of the lamb and reed cross and clad in a camel skin. He confronts four men in exotic dress, possibly a group of Pharisees or Sadducees who, according to the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 3: 7), came to observe and investigate his preaching and baptisms.
The rapid brushstrokes in this landscape enhance the realism of the details, but we know that the artist has departed from nature by using stock motifs that we can find in a number of his other works.
We might feel small and insignificant when looking at this wild and unruly landscape. The large sand-coloured rock formations framed by trees, shrubs and trailing vines are animated by small animals and birds. Fresh water makes its way through the cracks in the rocks, nourishing the little vegetation in this otherwise barren landscape.
Only at second glance do we notice the small group in the left foreground, who stand before a natural stone arch that leads to a distant, more verdant view. The man in the red cloak is Saint John the Baptist, depicted with his customary attributes of the lamb and reed cross and clad in a camel skin. He is confronting four men in exotic dress, possibly a group of Pharisees or Sadducees – two of the early factions within Judaism – who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, came to observe and investigate his preaching and baptisms (Matthew 3: 7).
A pentimento – a change made by the artist during the process of painting – is now visible inside the grotto: a person dressed in red once stood here, and has been overpainted, probably soon after the painting’s completion. Another change has become noticeable in the figure of Saint John the Baptist: the ghostly shape of an outstretched arm and index finger pointing towards the grotto suggests that this was, at some point, a different figure altogether. All this demonstrates an aspect of the working method of Joos de Momper. We know that he frequently collaborated with other artists, as was customary for landscape painters of the period. First, de Momper would have painted the landscape; another artist would then have provided the figures afterwards. Many of de Momper’s collaborators are known by name, but in this case it has not yet been possible to ascribe the figures to a particular artist with any degree of certainty.
De Momper is a key figure in the transition between imaginary panoramic landscapes of the late sixteenth century (the so-called ‘world landscapes’) and the more naturalistic Flemish landscapes of the seventeenth century. The mountainous landscapes for which he became most famous might have been loosely inspired by his journey through the Alps, but he deliberately departed from nature as observed using stock motifs instead that we can find in a number of his other works.
In order to increase his output, de Momper worked as rapidly as possible, and put his personal stamp on every work by using his distinct fluid and expressive brushwork. However, the artist did show his fidelity to traditional landscape painting practice in putting the finishing touches on his works: he sparingly added details of foliage and white highlights, painting each colour in a separate session, never blending details wet-in-wet. As a result, the surface of this – and of his other paintings – appears crisply textured and suggestive of complex detail, despite the efficiency with which it was produced.
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