Workshop of Herri met de Bles (Netherlandish, Bouvines 1480?–after 1550)
Oil on wood
Overall 8 7/8 x 13 3/4 in. (22.5 x 34.9 cm); painted surface 8 1/2 x 13 3/8 in. (21.6 x 34 cm)
Bequest of Harry G. Sperling, 1971
Not on view
Herri met de Bles, of whose life little is known, was the most important Flemish landscape painter after Joachim Patinir. This fine panel (better preserved at the left than at the right) is characteristic of a number of his works that feature catastrophic, fantastic landscapes. Also, Hieronymus Bosch’s Lisbon Triptych of the Temptation of Saint Anthony functioned as a source for the panels’ Christian iconography and compositional elements. The artist cleverly conflated the style and motifs of Bles and Bosch to satisfy a local and foreign art market demand for small-scale and easily transportable paintings.
The Painting: This richly colored, small-format painting presents a spacious and mesmerizing view of an inhospitable landscape. A doomsday conflagration with menacing demons hovering above engulfs a village at the left. The right half is dominated by fanciful architecture consisting of two prominent towers flanking a stairway, which leads to an altar. A kneeling Saint Anthony, who can be identified by his T-shaped staff, prays before the altar and its triptych. The saint beseeches Christ for solace and protection while a grotesque creature attempts to drag him backward toward the gaping mouth of hell.
The Temptation of Saint Anthony was one of the most popular subjects in mid-sixteenth-century Netherlandish landscape painting. Artists could study several sources of the saint’s life, all of which derived either from the Vita Sancti Antonii, written in 357 by Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 296/98–373), or from the Collationes patrum in scetica eremo by the monk and theologian John Cassian (ca. 360–435). Based on these sources, an account of Anthony’s life had been included in the sixth-century collection of hagiographies known as Vitae Patrum. This widely disseminated Latin text was translated and published in Middle Dutch as Vader Boeck (Book of the Fathers) in 1490 by Peter van Os in Zwolle. Additionally, Anthony’s vita was featured in Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea (Golden Legend) of about 1260, which had been translated by 1500 into both Southern and Northern Middle Dutch, surviving in many manuscripts and thirteen printed editions (see Paul Wackers, "'Latinitas' in Middle Dutch Literature," in Boethius in the Middle Ages, Leiden, 1997, p. 91).
Born in the fourth century in Upper Egypt, Saint Anthony mortified his flesh and suffered tribulations from demons in the desert as well as lustful temptations from devilish visions of female nudes for twenty years after becoming a hermit. The torments in the life of the saint echo the example of Christ’s passion and his earlier temptations by Satan in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11; Mark 1:12–13, Luke 4:1–13). This is highlighted in Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews (2:18): "For because he himself has suffered and has been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted." This analogy is evoked in The Met’s painting by the juxtaposition of the praying saint and the altarpiece, which displays Christ’s Crucifixion on its central panel and Christ’s Carrying of the Cross on its left wing—both passion narratives that emphasize the torments inflicted on the suffering Savior. Remembrance of these events served Anthony as support and consolation during his struggle and prepared the ground for the hermit’s triumph over his own temptation. Thereby The Met’s painting provided its contemporary viewer with an example of both the constancy of the believer and God’s mercy—in other words, the two elements, which together ensure the triumph of good over evil, the salvation of the soul, and the victory of life over death.
The Painting’s Prominent Model: The central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s (ca. 1450–1516) Triptych of the Temptation of Saint Anthony (Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon) functioned as an essential source for various motifs and compositional elements of The Met’s painting. Bosch’s triptych was one of his most popular pictures during the first half of the sixteenth century and generated various contemporary copies. The artist of The Met's painting must have studied the triptych or one of its detailed copies very closely since he adopted not only Bosch’s color palette and the main composition of his central panel but also inconspicuous details, such as the meandering river and its bridge, the wayside cross, the clothes-washing women, and the flock of black birds. Yet the painting is more than a simple pastiche of Boschian elements. In drastically reducing the number of figures displayed on the triptych’s central panel as well as Bosch’s complex narrative, the painter specifically emphasized the interpretative analogy between Christ and Saint Anthony. This becomes obvious by the artist’s decision to adopt two of the scenes shown at the exterior of Bosch’s ruined tower displaying Old Testament and pagan religious scenes. In The Met’s painting the upper scene represents a group of Jews sacrificing animals to a simian idol, enthroned on a column base. Most likely this depiction shows the Israelites who fell into idolatry under Gideon as well as after his death (Judges 8:27 and 33). At the bottom, contrasting groups juxtapose idolatry with true faith, as Moses receives the Tablets of the Law on top of Mount Sinai, while the Hebrews dance around the false god of the Golden Calf (Exodus 31:18, 32:1–6). The lower event serves as a biblical example of true spiritual vocation rather than the several false devotions of idolatry.
Thereby, the scenes on the exterior of the ruined tower add an Old Testament angle to the saint’s vita. Together, they depict the Jewish people’s arduous journey to the Promised Land. They can be read as a typology or prefiguration of the suffering that Christ had to endure prior to his death and resurrection, and at the same time of the hardship and torments suffered by Saint Anthony (see Matthijs Ilsink et al., Hieronymus Bosch: Painter and Draughtsman: Catalogue Raisonné, Brussels, 2016). In order to emphasize this aspect, the artist integrated and transferred the scene of Christ Carrying the Cross, which originally was displayed as a grisaille painting on the exterior right wing of Bosch’s triptych. This shows how deliberately the artist of The Met’s painting studied Bosch’s triptych and its Christian iconography.
The Function of the Painting and its Commercial Context: Due to Saint Anthony’s triumph over suffering and temptation, he became one of the most frequently invoked helpers of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and his special care was sought against a gangrenous skin ailment, called St. Anthony’s fire. Modern medicine usually associates this disease with either ergotism (caused by a fungus on rye bread) or erysipelas (from bacteria). A medieval hospital order, the Antonites, had been founded in the name of the saint to treat such diseases (see Larry Silver, Hieronymus Bosch, New York, 2006). Art historians saw iconographic references to the mission of the Antonite order especially in those paintings of Anthony’s temptation, which display the subject in combination with a fire landscape or burning buildings and towns. Fire seems to have been one of Anthony’s attributes due to his torments by evil forces, and later because of the order’s connection with fiery diseases (Corwin 1976). While in many sixteenth-century paintings depicting Anthony’s temptation an Antonite Hospital can be identified, The Met's painting only indirectly refers to the Antonite order. However, such paintings might well have been purchased by private individuals for curing purposes and as protection against St. Anthony’s fire. They gradually became popular picture types to own in the first half of the sixteenth century.
Most of these paintings were produced in Antwerp and their large number coincides with the city’s prosperity from about 1520 to 1566. In this period, Antwerp workshops began to sell panels and canvases made on speculation both for the local market and the export trade. The popularity especially in Italy of landscape images by the South Netherlandish artists Herri met de Bles and Joachim Patinir (active by 1515–died 1524) prompted the large-scale production of small and easily transportable paintings. Equally favored was Bosch for his weird creatures, fantastic landscapes, and moralizing themes. The painter of The Met’s panel cleverly conflated the style and motifs of both Bles and Bosch to satisfy this art market demand. The loose and very rough underdrawing of The Met's painting, found during its technical examination, suggests an artist following popular compositions and perhaps standard motifs from a sketch or model book, which were then very prominently used in painting workshops (Technical Notes and Additional Images forthcoming).
The Attribution and Date: This painting entered The Met’s collection in 1975, attributed to Herri met de Bles. Even if no signed or otherwise authenticated paintings by Bles have come down to us, he must have been a widely known painter. Writing only one generation after the artist, Karel van Mander was able to mention in his Schilder-Boeck of 1604 several works that were regarded as by Bles, and he refers to the international renown of the painter. Bles’ panels were especially popular in Italy, where the painter was known as il Civetta (little owl). Since Van Mander also mentions the artist as the man met der uilken (man with the little owl), the presence of an owl somewhere in the painting was seen as the hallmark or signature of the artist. However, a close comparison of the owl in The Met’s painting with the central panel of Bosch’s Lisbon triptych reveals that Bosch included an owl in the tower on his central panel, which the artist of the New York painting assimilated. Thus, the owl in The Met's painting has to be seen as an adoption from its Boschian model rather than a reference to the signature of Bles.
There exist several paintings, which iconographically and stylistically resemble The Met's painting, and all of which once had been attributed to Bles or his workshop. The closest is a Temptation of Saint Anthony (Christie’s, London, July 5, 1985, no. 53; see Additional Images, fig. 1), which has similar dimensions and displays a close overall composition and iconographical interpretation of Bosch’s triptych. Both pictures are reminiscent of a painted tondo of the same subject (Sotheby’s, London, July 5, 1995, no. 33), which repeats and refashions the tower, the burning city, and the altarpiece. Two additional tondi representing Anthony’s temptation (Sotheby’s, London, April 29, 2010, no. 9; Paris, Custodia Foundation, inv. no. 5788) can be linked stylistically to this group.
Corwin (1976) was the first to attribute The Met's painting to a follower of Bles, namely "hand K," due to the "exaggerated spirit of a later era," and she dated it about 1550–60. Sintobin (1998) and Ainsworth (2012) attributed it directly to the workshop of Bles. Unfortunately, there is very little known of Bles’ workshop and its exchange of assistants, models, and ideas with slightly later workshops, such as those of Pieter Huys and Jan Mandijn. Thus, until a comprehensive technical study of the paintings attributed to the workshop and followers of Bles is undertaken, any attribution of our painting must remain preliminary.
[Linda M. Müller 2016]
Heinz Kisters, Kreuzlingen, Switzerland (in 1965); private collection (until 1968; sold to Böhler); [Julius Böhler, Munich, 1968–1969; sold to Kleinberger]; [Kleinberger, New York, 1969–75; bequeathed by Harry G. Sperling, last surviving partner of firm, to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 65.
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. "Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 6, 2012–January 4, 2013, no. 20.
Beijing. National Museum of China. "Earth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," February 8–May 9, 2013, no. 20.
Nancy A. Corwin. "The Fire Landscape: Its Sources and Its Development from Bosch through Jan Brueghel I, with Special Emphasis on the Mid-Sixteenth Century Bosch "Revival"." PhD diss., University of Washington, Seattle, 1976, p. 290, no. 79, pl. 86, catalogues it as "present location unknown" and attributes it to the "Hand K" follower of Bles, about 1550–60; calls it "certainly by the same hand" as a Temptation of Saint Anthony (Rex de C. Nan Kivell, England); observes that although "showing characteristics of Bles's style, there is a tendency to exaggerate them more than he does as in the mountains in the left background," and that "the tower seems inspired by Bosch".
Luc Serck. "Henri Bles & la peinture de paysage dans les pays-bas méridionaux avant Bruegel." PhD diss., Université Catholique de Louvain, 1990, vol. 4, pp. 938, 941, 943, no. 73, ill., ascribes it to "Henri Bles" and mentions a similarly composed picture formerly in the Wetzlar collection, Amsterdam (sold, Christie's, London, July 5, 1985, no. 53); compares the architecture with that in the "Temptation of Saint Anthony" in the Lisbon Museum [Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga].
Luc Serck. Letter to Katharine Baetjer. July 7, 1991, observes that he had not seen our picture at the time he was writing his dissertation [see Ref. 1990] and that having seen it here last year, he is convinced that it could not be by Bles; cannot suggest a specific artist and, for want of something better, accepts Corwin's attribution [see Ref. 1976]; believes that the artist was in the "proche entourage" of Bles.
Véronique Sintobin inFrom Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 37, 256–57, no. 65, ill. (color), dates it about 1550–60.
Peter Barnet and Wendy A. Stein inEarth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. [Tokyo], 2012, ill. pp. 36, 71 (color).
Maryan W. Ainsworth inEarth, Sea, and Sky: Nature in Western Art; Masterpieces from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. [Tokyo], 2012, p. 215, no. 20, ill. [Chinese ed., Heifei Shi, 2013, pp. 48–49, no. 20, ill. (color)], dates it about 1555.