At the center of this composition is Saint John the Evangelist, who, as told in the Golden Legend, was thrown naked into a cauldron of boiling oil on the orders of Roman Emperor Domitian after refusing to make a sacrifice to a false god. He miraculously survived unscathed, however, to the shock of all onlookers. He emerges here from the center of a scalding vat with raised arms and an upward gaze, while his red robe and book have been discarded in the foreground. In clear contrast to Saint John's serene appearance, both beseeching and thankful at the same time, are the two tormentors to his left and right who twist and turn as they prod and kindle the flames below. These three figures fill the entire foreground of the composition, their powerful and balanced movements anchored by firm stance of Saint John. They are set apart from the myriad of figures in the background, Emperor Domitian, soldiers and other onlookers who fill the streets on horseback and foot, with lances, spears, and banners raised high above. Although there is much commotion within the background of the composition, the overall atmosphere of the scene is steadied by the unwavering calmness of the martyr. His brightly illuminated and athletic figure serve as a clear focal point within the otherwise very energetic composition.
This painting arose during an important period of artistic resurgence in Antwerp in the years following the Iconoclastic Fury that wracked the city in 1566, destroying and plundering many religious works that adorned the churches and cathedrals. In the years that followed, a number of younger artists tirelessly set out to meet the renewed demand for replacing the altarpieces and religious works that had been lost. The present work is a testament to Quentin the Younger's position within this thriving moment, and although little is known about its early life, until recently it formed part of the collection of the Church of the Old Beguinage in Antwerp (see Provenance), suggesting its original setting may have been unsurprisingly one of a religious nature.
Among the most important and prolific artists of this post-iconoclastic era was Marten de Vos (1532-1603), one of the leading artists in Antwerp before the age of Peter Paul Rubens. An interesting visual dialogue arises when comparing the composition of the present lot to that found in a series of five large panels depicting the life of Saint Paul that de Vos painted for the dining room of the Antwerp merchant Gillis Hooftman, in particular his Saint Paul among the Rioters in Ephesus of 1568 (fig. 2). Their notable similarities help to add further color to the early career of Quentin the Younger, illustrating how in addition to inheriting a familial artistic tradition, he was clearly influenced by the visual culture in Antwerp during the late 1560s and early 1570s, yet he developed his own distinct style that distinguished him both from his contemporaries and from those that preceded him.
At the same time, the present work highlights the enduring influence of his grandfather's (Quentin the Elder's) rendering of The Martyrdom of Saint John the Evangelist (fig. 1), directly inspired by a woodcut of the same subject by Albrecht Dürer that served as the first image in his 1498 Apocalypse series. Quentin the Elder’s iteration of the subject formed the interior right wing of his Saint John Altarpiece, a triptych that was commissioned in 1508 for the chapter of the joiners' guild in Antwerp Cathedral and completed by 26 August 1511. This triptych was among the most important in Quentin the Elder’s oeuvre, known by not only Quentin the Younger but also by artists and audiences throughout the Netherlands. Though the cathedral was sacked during the iconoclastic frenzy of 1566, the triptych was protected. Later, in about 1581, Marten de Vos saved this triptych again by preventing its sale to Queen Elizabeth I. It was subsequently bought by the city and placed in the Stadhuis and then returned to the cathedral in 1599.
In comparing the right wing of the altarpiece to the present work, it becomes clear that Quentin the Younger adapted specific visual details and tropes from his grandfather's composition. The figures of Saint John, with their concave abdomens and upraised arms and gaze, are mirrored in the cauldrons, and though the costume of the Emperor has been altered, the head of his white horse is still prominently featured. In addition to the crammed gathering of figures, perhaps the most notable similarities are the grimacing faces of the martyrs’ tormentors, which clearly echo the grotesque heads of Leonardo da Vinci. Quentin the Younger inherited these expressions from his grandfather, by way of his father Jan Massys, with whom he likely trained, and it is interesting to note the nearly identical faces of the tormentor at right of the present work and of the male figure in Quentin the Elder’s famous Ill-Matched Lovers of circa 1520-1525.1
Quentin the Younger’s known body of work is quite small, and in addition to this lot, only two other signed and dated paintings by him are known: his Vision of the Prophet Ezekiel of 15682, last seen on the art market in 2011, and his Vanitas Vanitatum of 1572 in a private collection, Barcelona, depicting a reclining female and a figure of cupid.3 In 1895, another painting by Quentin the Younger was discovered in an attic in the Palazzo Reale in Siena, this depicting a Portrait of Elizabeth I, the same individual who was thwarted in buying the Quentin the Elder's Saint John Altarpiece a few years prior (fig. 3).4
1. Oil on oak panel, 43.2 by 63 cm., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, inv. no. 1971.55.1.
2. Oil on canvas, 237 by 218 cm. See L. Buijnsters-Smets, Jan Massys: een Antwerps Schilder uit de zestiende eeuw, Zwolle 1995, p. 226, not reproduced
3. See Ibid., p. 227, reproduced.
4. See Giovanni Battista Moroni, Il Cavaliere in nero: L'immagine del gentiluomo nel Cinquecento, exhibition catalogue, Milan 2005, pp. 98-100, cat. no. 5, reproduced.
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