The painting depicts the feast of St. Martin, as denoted by the depiction of the saint dividing his cloak with a beggar in a painting decorating the building to the left. In other versions the white flag fought over by three youths in the right middle ground also carries a depiction of this scene. The feast was celebrated on 12th November and is distinct from other such feast days in the lighting of fires throughout towns and villages. It was a popular festival celebrated until its removal from the Catholic calendar in 1642. Here we see a young boy holding out his hat to be filled with nuts, an elegantly dressed boy to the left holding a monkey by a chain who has just pilfered an apple from a nearby basket. Revellers surround them and scuffles break out in a scene of lively activity.
This is a composition singular to Marten van Cleve and surprisingly was not taken up later by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Another version is known in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dunkirk.1 A later copy features in the inventory of Arnold Lunden, Rubens’ brother-in-law, in 1641, a painting that Rubens is said to have retouched.
1. K. Ertz, Marten van Cleve, Lingen 2014, p. 137, cat. no. 8, reproduced.
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