Janssen joined the painters' guild in Antwerp in 1601, just after returning from a few years of study in Rome. From about 1606 until 1612 he worked in a strongly Caravaggesque manner; this canvas is a typical example of about 1610. The subject, sometimes described as an "angel pietà," can be traced to Byzantine prototypes but was popular with recent North Italian artists such as Tintoretto. The canvas was probably commissioned as an altarpiece, and its resemblance to polychromed sculpture (a quality Rubens criticized in contemporary Flemish painting) gives it an iconic power favored by the Counter Reformation Church in the Spanish Netherlands.
Colonel Robert Goulborne Parker, Browsholme Hall, near Clitheroe, Yorkshire (until 1958; sale, Christie's, London, May 9, 1958, no. 21, as "Pieta" by Caracciola, for £52.10.0 to Jeen, bought in; sale, Christie's, London, December 12, 1958, no. 50, as by Janssens, for £63 to "Jean" [Belden]); James Belden, Paris and Washington, D.C. (1958–71)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Painter's Light," October 5–November 10, 1971, no. 4.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "The Age of Rubens," September 22, 1993–January 2, 1994, no. 3.
Toledo Museum of Art. "The Age of Rubens," February 2–April 24, 1994, no. 3.
Raleigh. North Carolina Museum of Art. "Sinners & Saints, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and His Dutch and Flemish Followers," September 27–December 13, 1998, no. 24.
Milwaukee Art Museum. "Sinners & Saints, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and His Dutch and Flemish Followers," January 29–April 18, 1999, no. 24.
Dayton Art Institute. "Sinners & Saints, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and His Dutch and Flemish Followers," May 8–July 18, 1999, no. 24.
Justus Müller Hofstede. "Abraham Janssens: Zur Problematik des flämischen Caravaggismus." Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen 13 (1971), p. 250 n. 135, dates it about 1615, calling it a repetition with workshop participation of the painting in the church of Saint John the Baptist, Lage Zwaluwe, North Brabant, which he dates about 1610.
Richard E. Spear. Caravaggio and His Followers. Exh. cat., Cleveland Museum of Art. Cleveland, 1971, pp. 114–15 n. 4, fig. 28, suggests a probable date of about 1604–5.
John Walsh Jr. Letter to Richard E. Spear. June 4, 1971, dates it near Janssen's "Allegory of Antwerp" (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp) of 1609, noting the close relationship between the angel at left in the MMA picture and Antwerpia.
Benedict Nicolson. The International Caravaggesque Movement. Oxford, 1979, p. 62 [2nd ed., "Caravaggism in Europe," Turin, 1989, vol. 1, p. 129; vol. 3, pl. 1393].
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 300, 305, 308, fig. 540 (color).
Joost Vander Auwera. Letter to Walter Liedtke. August 7, 1981, suggests that it may have been painted "some ten years after a (possibly lost) original of about 1609".
Walter A. Liedtke. Flemish Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1984, vol.1, pp. 109–11; vol. 2, pl. 49, as probably derived from the print by Jacob Matham after Hendrick Goltzius's "Savior in the Tomb, with Two Angels"; dates it about 1609–10 on the basis of comparison with Janssen's dated works of that period.
Hans Vlieghe. "Walter A. Liedtke, Flemish Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Oud-Holland 100, no. 3/4 (1986), p. 202, dates it "not before 1620".
Introduction by Walter A. Liedtke inFlemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, p. 341, no. 275, ill.
Marjorie E. Wieseman inThe Age of Rubens. Exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston, 1993, p. 216, no. 3, ill. p. 217 (color).
Peter C. Sutton. The Age of Rubens. Exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Boston, 1993, p. 15, as anticipated by Janssen's "Allegory of the Scheldt River and Antwerp" (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp) of about 1609–10.
Dennis P. Weller. Sinners & Saints, Darkness and Light: Caravaggio and His Dutch and Flemish Followers. Exh. cat., North Carolina Museum of Art. Raleigh, 1998, pp. 144–46, 225, no. 24, ill. pp. 144 (color), 225.
A version of this composition in the church of Saint John the Baptist, Lage Zwaluwe (North Brabant, The Netherlands) was published by Müller Hofstede (1971) as the original by Janssen van Nuyssen, but it is certainly inferior in execution and is probably a workshop replica.
Janssen's treatment of the subject seems to derive from Jacob Matham's engraving after Hendrick Goltzius's Savior in the Tomb, with Two Angels (see Liedtke 1984, vol. 1, fig. 20).
The painting was probably commissioned as an altarpiece. The display of Christ's body, the instruments of the Passion, and the distant but centrally placed cross can be appreciated properly in the light of resurgent Catholicism in Flanders.