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Jan Wellens de Cock

St. Christopher in a panoramic landscape

Panel: 56 x 93 cm

introduction

Well established since mediaeval times and its miniatures, the iconography of St. Christopher is omnipresent in 16th century painting. In Jacques de Voragine’s Golden Legend, this saint is described as a Canaanite of a phenomenal stature. Convinced after his encounter with a hermit that he should serve Christ, St. Christopher devoted himself to helping the poor and the weak cross a river. The story tells us that one evening, he was carrying a small child on his shoulders who became heavier and heavier. It was then that the child told him that he was Christ. He confided in the saint that he had been carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. Hence, there is no doubt about the meaning of "Christopher" in Greek: “carrier of Christ”.

According to tradition, St. Christopher is shown here crossing the water while a hermit holding a lantern stands on the opposite bank of the river. In the foreground, the landscape is dominated by earth-coloured tones. However, the greens in the intermediary planes lead the viewer’s gaze to the luminous bluish background with silvery highlights. This panoramic landscape, undoubtedly inspired by Patenier, is a choice setting for this portrayal of St. Christopher. The painter reconstructs the entire universe by bringing together mountains, sea, forests and countryside in a unique vision. The realistic details scattered throughout the work blend into an imaginary whole, typical of the tradition of “cosmic landscapes” for which Patenier was so well known. As for the other figures – i.e. the hermit - they are more akin to Bosch's work. The group comprising Christ and St. Christopher is particularly well executed here. The Child and the giant enter the water in one movement. The sculpturally painted pink drapes of the two cloaks, the deep blue of the tunic, and the strength of this robust character gripping his staff, create the central element of our painting. In the other version [1] from the Bissing Collection, on which Friedländer’s study is based, the protagonist is portrayed in the centre but on a far smaller scale, and the landscaped background is less accomplished. The reason this subject became so popular in the 16th century is that it provides the ideal pretext to portray a river landscape with a limitless horizon without obscuring the biblical episode.

[1] Sold in London, Sotheby’s, 8 December 2004, lot 7.

Provenance :
Private collection, France.

Littérature :
Max J. Friedländer, Early Nederlandish Painting, Leiden, XI, 1974, p. 37-43;
Marc Rudolf de Vrij, Jan Wellens de Cock, Antwerp Mannerist Associate, Zwanenburg, 2009.