This important work by the Antwerp Baroque master Jacques Jordaens (1593-1678) was brought to light during the inventory of the Saint-Gilles collection carried out by urban.brussels and IRPA in 2019. It was formally identified in 2020. Today, the work has finally been restored to its original brilliance, colour and style and is now on display in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.
A long-hidden work
The artwork, which had been lying dormant in the cabinet of the alderman for urban planning for almost 60 years, was long considered to be a mere copy. However, the precious painted panel has been authenticated. It is the oldest known version of a composition of The Holy Family, which Jordaens reused in three other paintings in the prestigious Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg and the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. It was the scientific collaboration between IRPA, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium (RMFAB) and the international experts of the Jordaens Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project that made it possible, after more than a year of in-depth research, to attribute this work with certainty to Jacques Jordaens, around 1617-1618.
Collaboration and interdisciplinarity
A dendrochronological examination (which accurately analyses the date of felling of the tree from which the panel was taken) was carried out by the Jordaens Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project from 2019 onwards. The KIK-IRPA also carried out valuable scientific imaging analyses: X-ray, infrared reflectography, macro XRF analysis and ultraviolet photography. The analyses carried out by IRPA's multidisciplinary research team revealed that the work had already been restored many times in the past, in a crude and clumsy manner. Having arrived at IRPA in a poor state, the restored Holy Family now provides a unique and detailed record of the painter's palette. This restoration guarantees the lasting preservation of this masterpiece for future generations.
Collaboration and interdisciplinarity are the basis of successful heritage management. Led by the Brussels-Capital Region, this project shows the importance of bringing together the different skills present in the institutions involved. And this is for the benefit of the Brussels and Belgian public, which has gained a new masterpiece.
Dating and identification of marks
Despite the modern cradle added to consolidate the panel, the presence of marks on the reverse side of the panel had never been reported or noticed before. However, the latter allow us to corroborate the attribution to Jacques Jordaens by providing precious information on the origin and identity of the maker of the oak panel (the panel maker). The back of the panel bears the ancestor of today's "quality control", with the mark of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke (two hands and a castle) applied with a hot iron when the panel is finished. Next to this is the mark of the panel maker “Guilliam Aertsen” (a monogram consisting of the initials 'G.' and 'A.'), master of the Guild of Saint Luke from 1612. This mark was used by the Antwerp carpenter between about 1617 and 1623, and appears on several other works by Jacob Jordaens.
Jacques Jordaens (Antwerp 1593-1678) was a genius of Baroque painting. However, he is less known and less studied than his contemporaries Peter Paul Rubens (Siegen 1577 - Antwerp 1640) and Anthony Van Dyck (Antwerp 1599 - Blackfriars near London 1641). In contrast to Rubens' heroic style and Van Dyck's noble refinement, he opted, both theoretically and commercially, for a realism that represents humanity no better (but also no worse) than it is. Apprentice of Adam van Noort, like Rubens, then free master in 1615-1616, he would soon develop anatomical insights and use warmer and more pearly flesh colours under the direct influence of Rubens. It is, therefore, very likely that he was active in Rubens' studio as a young freemaster and painted on panels from the same trees as Van Dyck. After the deaths of Rubens and Van Dyck, he is considered the most important history painter of the Southern Netherlands.
Now on public display
The work of the commune of Saint-Gilles is now on loan at the Royal Museums. By joining its collection, the Holy Family will now be presented to the public in good conservation conditions. From 22 December 2022, the public will be able to rediscover the original work, as it was created by the Master, in the permanent collection of the Old Masters Museum, in the room devoted to Jacques Jordaens, alongside the famous painting The King Drinks and another Holy Family illustrating another stylistic approach of the young master who was evolving at great speed. The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium house one of the most important collections of Jacques Jordaens in the world.
Exploring an incredible collection and discovering a masterpiece by Jacques Jordaens, one of the greatest Baroque painters, shows the richness of our heritage and the importance of inventory work.
The conservation and restoration treatment, as well as the scientific imaging carried out, not only offers new keys to better understand, apprehend and study this early work by Jacques Jordaens, but also allows us to learn more about the execution technique, the pictorial execution and the writing of the great Antwerp master (and his collaborators) in general.