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: The Miraculous Field of Wheat


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Two of the most important artists in the history of Flemish painting are Quentin Massys and Joachim Patinir. Quentin Massys began a new epoch in Netherlandish art; he formed, as it were, “a connecting link between Jan van Eyck and Rubens.” Patinir, whom Dürer called “a good landscape painter,” was one of the first to emphasize the landscape rather than the figures in a painting. But, the time had not yet come when landscape could be painted for itself alone. It was necessary to connect it up, so to speak, with the familiar religious painting of the day by introducing some biblical or legendary theme. Favorite subjects were the Vision of St. John at Patmos, St. Hubert and the Stag, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.The Institute has been so fortunate as to acquire recently a remarkable painting on panel (dimensions: Height 13 1/2 in.; Width 19 1/2 in.) in which these two great masters collaborated; the beautiful landscape and the smaller figures by Patinir, the group of the Holy Family in the foreground from the brush of Quentin Massys. The attribution of the landscape to Patinir is so obviously supported by the stylistic evidence of the painting, that there can be no question of its correctness. It is well known, furthermore that the figures in Patinir’s paintings are not infrequently the work of other painters. By Quentin Massys, for example, are the figures in the Prado painting of the “Temptation of St. Anthony.” The attribution to Quentin Massys of the Holy Family in the Institute’s recent acquisition has been made by Dr. Wilhelm Valentiner, the distinguished expert in Netherlandish painting. The picture was to have been published by Dr. Valentiner, but as Dr. Valentiner has enlisted in the German army, this has necessarily had to be postponed. Dr. Max Friedlander, Director of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin, has certified the attribution to Patinir.The subject of the painting represents a legendary episode in the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Many legends have gathered about this event in the history of Our Lord. It may be of interest to relate a few of these. It is said, for instance, that when the Holy Family were passing through a thick forest, all the trees bowed sown before the Christ Child, with the exception of the aspen which remained upright in its pride. Whereupon, Jesus cursed the aspen, and at His words it trembled in all its branches and trembles to this day. Another time, at the command of Jesus, a palm tree bowed its leaves to shelter the Virgin and her Divine Son. Once, as they rested under a grove of sycamores in the village of Materea, a fountain sprang up miraculously for their refreshment. Although angels waited on them continuously, many dangers had to be encountered. While crossing the plains of Syria, two robbers attacked the Holy Family; one would have plundered them, but the other had a change of heart, bribed his companion to leave them in peace, and finally led them to a safe resting place for the night. The Virgin said to him: “The Lord will receive thee on His right hand and grant thee pardon for thy sins.” And so it came to pass; for these same robbers were afterwards crucified, one on each side of Jesus, and the merciful robber became the Penitent Thief.Another legend, that represented in our picture, is concerned with a miraculous field of wheat. The Holy Family were closely pursued by Herod’s soldiers, when they chanced to encounter by the road side, a man sowing wheat in a field. The Virgin spoke to him, saying that if anyone inquired if they had passed he should answer: “Such persons came by when I was sowing wheat.” Then, by a miracle, Jesus caused the wheat to spring up and ripen in one night. The next day, when the farmer was cutting it, those pursuing the Holy Family came up and asked if he had seen them. He replied as he had been told, with the result that the soldiers turned back, convinced that they had mistaken the road and the fugitives had gone elsewhere.In the painting, the Virgin is represented in the foreground, seated in front of a rocky mound, holding the Child in her arms. At the left, St. Joseph leans over a little pool to fill his water bottle. In the middle distance, at the right, is represented the miraculous field of wheat which grew up over night. The soldiers are questioning the farmer, who points to the field of golden wheat nearby. Other farmers are plowing the adjacent fields. In the background is a farm house, by which winds a narrow road. To the right, whence come the pursuing soldiers, there is a village where the soldiers are carrying out Herod’s cruel order to massacre the first-born of every family. Beyond the village, the country stretches out miles and miles into the horizon with winding rivers, walled cities, fertile valleys, and wooded hills, and in the distance, are towering mountains.In the reproduction, one necessarily loses much of the exquisite beauty of the execution of the original, and even more regrettable, the loveliness of the color. The landscape is distinguished by a beautiful variety of shades of green passing from the light bluish-green of the sky and distant hills to the war, verdant greens of the middle distance and the dark rich olive of the foreground. Contrasting passages in this harmony of green are the silver grays of the architecture, the brilliant straw-yellow of the field of wheat, and the rich russet red of the Virgin’s robe.The painters of this time surmised that the landscape of the Holy Land was presumably different from that of our own country, but as yet, no painter had gone to visit the actual scenes of biblical history. They compromised, therefore, between their desire to represent the Holy Land and their ignorance of it, by inventing landscapes which were different from what they saw about them but composed of elements familiar to them, although often exaggerated in their paintings. These landscapes may seem overburdened with details; but often, as in the Institute’s new accession, although the details even in the far distance are minutely, exquisitely, painted, the artist succeeds in giving a remarkable impression of space and atmosphere. The details, furthermore, contribute materially to the richness and elaborate beauty of the decorative pattern.Two paintings by Patinir are in the collection of Mr. John G. Johnson in Philadelphia; one of these, No. 377, represents a similar subject although the composition and figures are quite different from ours. In Mr. Johnson’s picture, the figures, on the authority of Dr. Valentiner, are by Patinir as well as the landscape. On comparing these two pictures, it is evident at once that the group of the Virgin and Child in our can not be by Patinir. On the other hand, comparison with paintings by Massys, for example with the painting of the Virgin and Child in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, Berlin, leads to believe that in this picture we have another example of collaboration between these two great Antwerp masters. Although Quentin Massys is best known by his paintings in which the figures, either whole or half length, are life size, the little group of Virgin and Child shows his broad technique, his flowing graceful line, and harmonious color. There is a delightful sentiment exhibited in the relation of the Mother and Child which is eminently characteristic of the master.Of the two painters, Quentin Massys and Joachim Patinir, Massys was the older. Quentin Massys was born in about 1466 at Louvain; in 1491 he became a member of the Guild of St. Luke in Antwerp, and died there in 1530. We know little of his life except that he worked at Louvain and principally at Antwerp, where at the beginning of the sixteenth century, he was easily the most important master of the school. Joachim Patinir was born at Dinant. We do not know the date of his birth, but in 1515 he was made a member of St. Luke’s Guild in Antwerp. He worked principally in Antwerp where he died in 1524.Referenced Works of Art
  1. The Virgin and Child, by Quentin Massys (detail)
  2. The Miraculous Field of Wheat, by Joachim Patinir and Quentin Massys
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Source: "The Miraculous Field of Wheat," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 3, no. 11 (November, 1914): 130-132.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009