Jan Brueghel the Elder Brussels 1568 - 1625 Antwerp
- Jan Brueghel the Elder
- Aeneas and the sibyl in the underworld
- signed and dated lower right: BRVEGHEL. 1598.
- oil on copper
- 26.4 by 35.3 cm.; 10 1/2 by 14 in.
With Richard Green, London;
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Essen, Villa Hugel, Die Flämische Landschaft, 1520-1700, 23 August - 30 November 2003, no. 113 and then Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, 21 December - 12 April 2003 and Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum, 8 May - 1 August 2004.
The subject is taken from Virgil's Aeneid (vi. 269-282). Aeneas, having reached Cumae on his travels, visited the Sibyl and prayed to be allowed to see his father Anchises once again. Guided by the Sibyl and holding a branch of mistletoe for protection, Aeneas is here shown entering the underworld on a precarious rocky path. Behind them the river Styx stretches into the distance. They edge their way past a coven of three witches or gorgons, while Aeneas flinches as an assortment of fantastic demons snap at his heels. On either side, piled up amidst a grotesque congregation of deformed monsters and devils, lie the naked bodies of the damned, and beyond various devils push a crowd of condemned souls (in unmistakably contemporary dress) towards the hell-fires in the caverns beyond. According to Virgil, among the dead Aeneas encountered his former lover Queen Dido, before finally finding the shade of his father in the Elysian Fields. Here Anchises points out to him the souls of his descendants (as yet unborn) who represent an unbroken line of heroes and rulers from his day to Virgil's own.
Unrecorded until its rediscovery in 2001, this painting is Brueghel's earliest known treatment of this mythological subject. It is an important addition to one of the most celebrated aspects of Brueghel's oeuvre and, in addition, it would also appear to be the only extant example of his famous 'hell' landscapes to remain in private hands. Until 2001, the composition had only been known through a series of later replicas produced in the Brueghel workshop in the 1630s and perhaps by the artist's son, Jan Brueghel the Younger. One is now in Brussels, Musées Nationaux des Beaux-Arts (inv. no. 6249),1 and the others last recorded in the Hardy collection, Bendorf,2 and the collection of Baron Kronacker, Antwerp.3 Brueghel was to return to the subject of Aeneas and the Cumaean Sibyl on at least three further occasions, and this composition clearly forms the prototype for a closely related group of works in which many of the compositional motifs found within the present picture are redeployed. Two examples, also on copper and of similar size to this painting, are now in the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest,4 and the third, unsigned and of slightly larger dimensions (36 by 52 cm.), is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.5 The Budapest paintings are signed and dated 1600 (one indistinctly) and the Vienna painting is generally assigned a similar dating of around 1600 or slightly later. These later works follow the compositional arrangement of the present work in that, with the fiery vista of the Styx behind, the principal figures of Aeneas and the Sibyl occupy the left foreground, surrounded by the bodies of the damned, while to the right the newcomers to the infernal regions are ushered to their doom. In these other works, however, Brueghel has moved the central coven of witches to the left of the composition and elaborated and increased the numbers of sinners to the right. Although of a different subject, the Juno in the Underworld now in Dresden, Gemäldegalerie,6 evidently also belongs to this group, and although the last digit of the date is no longer legible, was probably painted in the same year as the present work.
Brueghel's extraordinary visions of the underworld are among his most famous works. Although the famous sobriquet 'Hell Brueghel' is usually given to his elder brother Pieter, it is in fact far more likely, as Marlier argues, to refer to Jan who, unlike his brother, clearly made a speciality of these 'diableries'. Despite their widespread reputation, Brueghel only produced a limited number of such works, all of which were painted in his early years between 1594 and 1604. They fall roughly into two groups: those such as the present work with mythological subjects such as the stories of Aeneas, Juno and Orpheus, where the depiction of the infernal landscape is the dominant motif, and those with subjects such as the Temptation of Saint Anthony or Lot and his daughters, which are placed in more traditional nocturnal landscape settings. Brueghel's first essays in this genre were painted in Italy, where he travelled between 1592 and 1596; the earliest is the Orpheus before Pluto and Proserpine of 1594 now in the Galleria Palatina, Florence,7 and two other works, a Hell Scene in Milan, Ambrosiana,8 and a Temptation of Saint Anthony associated with his work in Milan for Cardinal Federico Borromeo between 1595 and 1596.9 The last signed picture in this vein is the Temptation of Saint Anthony now in Dresden, Gemäldegalerie, which is dated 1604; after this date Brueghel seems to have forsaken the theme of the Underworld for the genres of landscape and still-life painting. For the most complete discussion of Brueghel's Hollenbilder and of the Aeneas and the Sibyl group see K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere, Cologne 1979, pp. 116-135.
Brueghel returned from Italy in October 1596, and with the Dresden Juno the present painting appears to be the earliest example of this genre painted by him after his return to his native Flanders. It is not clear where Brueghel derived his inspiration for his Hell scenes. It is commonly assumed that he must have been influenced by precedents in Netherlandish painting, most notably the works of his father Pieter Breughel the Elder and those of Hieronymous Bosch and his followers such as Jan Mandyn or Pieter Huys. He would undoubtedly have been aware, for example, of his father's work in this vein, namely the three great paintings of 1562, the Triumph of Death (Madrid, Museo del Prado), the Fall of the Rebel Angels (Brussels, Musées Nationaux des Beaux-Arts) and Dulle Griet (Antwerp, Museum Mayer van den Berg), and indeed only the previous year in 1597 had painted a version of the Triumph of Death, now in the Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz. However, in contrast to his father's deliberate meditation on the theme of sin, Jan Brueghel's approach to his subject matter seems quite devoid of any moral overtones, his figures instead adopting a suitably subordinate role to the effects of the fantasy landscape. He was also no doubt influenced by works that he may have seen during his sojourn in Italy. Ertz, for example, speculates that in his depiction of the figures in the present work, Brueghel may have been influenced by Italian works such as Jacopo Zucchi's Amor and Psyche in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, Rosso Fiorentino's Moses and the daughters of Jethro in the Uffizi in Florence, or Luca Signorelli's fresco of The Damned in the Cappella di San Brizio in Orvieto Cathedral.10 More specifically he also observes that the source for the figures of the witches in this and other paintings in this group may have derived from similar drawings by the German artist Nikolas Manuel.11 Whatever his sources, there can be no doubt that these extraordinary works of the imagination, with their highly refined miniaturised idiom, clearly answered to a strong demand on the part of contemporary collectors in both Italy and the North, and remain to this day among Brueghel's most original and successful creations.
A note on the provenance: A painting described as "Enea condotto dalla Sibilla negli Elisei, di Brueghel d'Enfer" is listed in the 1848 inventory of Giovanni Andrea Colonna, Rome, no. 392. By this date Brueghel's three other versions of this subject (mentioned above) are known to be in their current locations, two in the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum, Budapest, and the other in the Kaiserhaus, Vienna (later entering the Kunsthistorisches Museum). It is thus possible that the present work is identifiable with the Colonna painting. The earlier Colonna inventory of 1783, made by Filippo III Colonna, lists only a pair of works described as: "Due Quadri di 1 1/2 per traverso, uno rappresentante Orfeo, ed Euridice all'Inferno, l'altro Enea agli Elisi = Bruguel Infernale". Again, the present work may be identifiable with the second of the pair, fitting both the description and the dimension (no painting identifiable with the former, depicting Orpheus and Euridice, is known today and is either lost or the subject was mis-identified by the inventory compiler). No painting specifically mentioning Aeneas appears in the 1714 Colonna inventory, but the descriptions here are, in general, extremely vague. Whether identifiable with the present work or not, the painting mentioned in the 1848 inventory may have entered the Colonna collection through marriage, which would explain its non-appearance in the 1714 inventory. On the other hand it is conceivable that Cardinal Ascanio Colonna, the artist's patron in Rome from 1592-94, commissioned it directly from Brueghel, who had returned to Antwerp two years before its execution, in 1596, and the subject is simply unidentified in subsequent inventories.
1 Reproduced in K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel the Younger, Freren 1984, p. 303, no. 130.
2 See Ertz, op. cit., p. 304, no. 131, reproduced.
3 Ibid., no. 132, and reproduced in G. Marlier, Pierre Brueghel le Jeune, Brussels 1969, p. 20, fig. 5.
4 Reproduced in K. Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere, Cologne 1979, p. 568, nos. 65 and 66, figs. 50, 57, 119 and 121.
5 See Ertz, op. cit. 1979, p. 568, no. 67, fig. 133.
6 Idem., p. 562. no. 32, figs. 49, 50 and 121.
7 See Ertz, op. cit., 1979, p. 557, no. 9, fig. 126.
8 Idem., p. 558, no. 9, fig. 141.
9 For which see K. Ertz, in the exhibition catalogue, Breughel-Brueghel, Essen & Vienna, 1997-98, under cat. no. 39.
10 Ibid. pp. 121-22.
11 Ibid., p. 121, reproduced fig. 122.