Lot 2
  • 2

Jan Massys

60,000 - 80,000 GBP
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  • Jan Massys
  • The Apocalypse of Saint John the Evangelist on the island of Patmos
  • signed and dated lower right: 1563/JOANNES MASSiiS.PINGEBAT
  • oil on oak panel


Acquired by the grandmother of the present owner, probably in the 1930s;

Thence by descent.


The following condition report is provided by Simon Folkes who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: Support The panel construction remains relatively unaltered for a picture of this size and is without the addition of a full cradle. However, a series of small rectangular wooden buttons have been glued along the length of each of the five horizontal joins in the six plank construction to support the joins and three vertical bars have also been attached using a series of wooden bridges glued to the back of the panel to block any attempt by the timbers to warp. The panel generally remains quite flat although the vertical bars no longer move suggesting that there is some slight change in the curvature since they were attached. One of the joins in the panel, which runs across the lower half of the painting through the sail of the boat on the left and across the Saint's midriff, has a gentle wave indicating that it may have once split just above the straight join resulting in a break that followed the curve of the grain of the wood. This is reflected on the back where the line of supporting buttons has been broadened to accommodate both the original and the split line in the panel. Paint layers The paint surface is marked by a number of areas where it is slightly raised. While the paint itself is generally secure, it would need to be treated if the painting is cleaned to ensure that it remains stable as well as to improve its appearance. The most affected areas are in the sky and at the lower left corner. The amount of intervention by later restorers is remarkably small for such a large work and most of the painting survives in exceptionally good condition. However, old restorations are visible along the wavy join in the panel mentioned above and along the highest of the joins which runs across the painting just above the head of the woman standing on the moon at the upper left side. There is a single area of overpaint in the sky at the very top centre and a more broadly applied passage of restoration at the top right hand corner covering an old split line in the panel. A few small retouchings are also located in the Saint's pink drapery along with an area of discoloured repaint at the lower right corner covering thinness in the original paint. Otherwise the paint surface has survived in a remarkably good state of preservation. Varnish coating The painting is covered in a moderately yellow varnish and some surface blemishes, fly spots and other superficial dirt. Frame The black frame with a gilt sight edge has some small chips and knocks but is otherwise in reasonable condition.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

The subject of Saint John the Evangelist's visions of the island of Patmos is told in the last book of the New Testament, commonly called Revelation. Better known by its Greek name Apocalypse, the text describes in the authors admonitory and prophetic visions the eternal battles between Good and Evil resulting in Armageddon, interspersed with vistas of celestial bliss culminating in the establishing of the heavenly Jerusalem. There was a particularly strong tradition of representation of the Apocalypse in manuscripts and books from the Middle Ages to the 16th century, but painted depictions of Saint John's visions are relatively rare in northern art. Massys' version faithfully follows Saint John's text. The Saint's vision in the sky on the left side of the painting is taken from Revelation 12: 1,3-5 and 14-15:

'And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars...And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth... And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron....And to the woman were given two wings of great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness into her place...And the serpent cast out of his mouth water as a flood after the woman...'

On the other side of the painting Massys has depicted the destruction of the city of Babylon, as described in Revelation 19: 9-10, 17, 21:

'And a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying, Thus with violence shall that great city Babylon be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all'

In the foreground the Kings and the merchants of the earth lament the burning of the city, while in the ships more merchants and sailors bemoan their fate, all details recounted by Saint John in his vision.

Hitherto apparently unrecorded, this is an important addition to Massys' known oeuvre. It was painted during his second Antwerp period, which followed his return in 1555 from an eleven year period of exile from Brabant on account of his 'heretical' religious views. In style and in its tripartite format it clearly recalls his treatment of the theme of Lot and his daughters painted in the same year, and now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, wherein the protagonists are set against a landscape divided between the destruction of Sodom on one hand and a more welcoming vista on the other.1 Massys repeated the theme two years later in 1565  in another work now in the Musée de Beaux Arts in Brussels.2 Massys' painting of Saint John appears to be the only one of its time in which the destruction of Babylon, seemingly inspired by the vistas of hell in the work of Hieronymous Bosch, is depicted. Bosch's own painting of the subject, however, now in Berlin, merely depicts Saint John before a vision of the the Virgin and Child 'clothed with the sun', with a view of Antwerp beyond. 3 Other works by Herri Met de Bles in Antwerp and Joos van Cleve in Michigan reduce both the saint and his vision to incidentals in more panoramic and benign world landscapes.4  


1. See L. Buijnsters-Smets, Jan Massys, Een Antwerps schilder uit de zestiende eeuw, Zwolle 1995, p. 207, reproduced.
2. Buijnster-Smets, op. cit., 1995, pp. 214-5, no. 50, reproduced. A third unsigned  version is in the Musée de Cognac in Cognac (ibid, no. 50a).
3.For which see L. Silver, Hieronymous Bosch, New York and London 2006, pp. 205-7, reproduced plate 104.
4. For the latter see J.O. Hand, Joos van Cleve, the complete paintings, New York and London 2004, p. 147, cat. no. 56, reproduced fig. 83.