This picture is small, but it contains a lot of action. Franciscan friars (members of the religious order founded by Saint Francis) in brown robes hand out bread to the poor, an activity that was typical for them. The figure with the subtle halo most prominent among the friars is likely Saint Anthony of Padua.
Willem van Herp has painted the crowd of people on the receiving end of the friars' charity with great gusto. A blind man approaches from the right, assisted by a young boy; a mother and child directly in front of Saint Anthony reach out to the saint with urgency. Two dogs – one large and one small – turn their attention to a fallen loaf.
A large quantity of works by van Herp survive, which means he must have worked at great pace. Small religious scenes on copper, such as this one, were his trademark.
Willem van Herp’s picture is small, but the composition has a monumental feel to it. A group of Franciscan friars stand on a set of steps that are part of the classical architecture, handing out bread to the poor; the most prominent of them is thought to be Saint Anthony of Padua. Anthony, a Portuguese priest who did many good works in Italy, became a venerated Franciscan saint, canonised immediately after his death. Here, the subtle glimmer of divine light around his head makes him stand out among the other tonsured friars in their brown habits.
Judging by the reactions of the crowd, the friars’ charity is much needed. On the left, two young children eagerly accept the bread, while two dogs turn their attention to a loaf that has landed on the floor. A mother and child directly in front of Saint Anthony reach out to him with urgency, as does the older man stood next to them. Another man approaches the friars from the right, helped by the barefoot boy who clutches the hem of his coat; the man appears to be blind, and van Herp took great care in portraying him. His eyes are closed and he finds direction using his walking stick, assisted by the boy. An infant held by the woman dressed in red seems struck by his appearance and intensity. For a contemporary audience, the addition of this figure would have emphasised the friars' piety, as the Bible recounts how Christ healed blind people who came to the Temple in Jerusalem.
A large quantity of works by van Herp survive, which means he must have worked at great pace. Small religious scenes on copper, such as this one, were his trademark, and many of these pictures eventually ended up on the Spanish market through the dealer Matthijs Musson, who employed van Herp for a period. Many of his pictures exist in multiple versions. Working in Antwerp, van Herp enjoyed making copies and pastiches of paintings by his great contemporaries in that city, notably Rubens and Van Dyck, but also Gerard Seghers and Jan Boeckhorst. Besides working on his own pictures, van Herp also made a living painting so-called staffage figures (secondary individual and animals in landscape paintings).
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