Unlike his famous contemporary Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens never traveled to Italy to study the arts of antiquity and the Renaissance. Instead he spent his life in his native Antwerp, where he often painted peasants and other simple folk. In this painting, Jordaens portrays the Holy Family as robust, modestly dressed individuals in a humble setting; however, he includes various details to impart a deeper meaning to the scene. Although Mary has no halo, her coiled braid suggests one, and her high-backed wicker chair resembles a throne. The infant Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, wears a garland of flowers in place of a halo.
Greeting the mother and child are their kinspeople, the young John the Baptist and his parents, Elizabeth and Zacharias. The young John the Baptist has the attributes associated with his adult ministry as a wilderness preacher and prophet. He wears a camel-skin garment and is accompanied by a lamb, in reference to his identification of Jesus as the “lamb of God.” The goldfinch flying from its wicker cage may symbolize the human soul set free by God. Because it feeds on seeds from thorny thistles, the goldfinch also was associated with the legendary bird which tried to pull thorns from Jesus’ crown of thorns and was smeared with blood, accounting for the red patches on either side of its head.
Tags: Flemish painting, Baroque, 17th-century
Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina, and gift of the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest) and David M. Koetser