Pfefferle, Munich, 1869 (according to a red wax seal on the reverse)
Martin Haller (1835-1925), Hamburg
Osswald collection, Hamburg, and by descent
Ilse Fabarius, Hamburg
From whom inherited or acquired for a private collection, Hamburg, in circa 1950
Thence by inheritance to the previous owner
Private collection, Germany, until 2021
Anonymous online sale, Sotheby’s, London, 9th December 2021, Lot 118
Härting, Studien zur Kabinettbildmalerei des Frans Franken II. 1581-1642,
1983, no. A147.
U. Härting, Frans Francken der Jüngere. Die Gemälde mit kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, Freren 1989, p. 286, no. 204, reproduced.
Frans Francken the Younger painted many scenes from the Passion of Christ. The most important repertory of subjects in Christian art, the Passion Cycle encompasses the sequence of events beginning with Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem and ending with the Resurrection. In the Gospels, the narrative concerning Christ on the Road to Calvary is brief (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26; John 19:17), but various figures and episodes were added later in the apocryphal gospels. Of these, the most famous is the episode in which Veronica wiped the sweat and blood from Jesus’s face using a cloth upon which the image of his features became miraculously imprinted.
In this depiction of the subject, Jesus is shown making his way along the road from Jerusalem to Golgotha, or Mount Calvary, the hill outside the city walls where criminals were crucified. Huge crowds have turned out to accompany him on the last journey of his earthly life. Visible in their midst, their hands tied behind their backs, are the two thieves, who, like Jesus, were condemned to death. The scene is one of great pathos: Christ, ashen-faced and wearing the crown of thorns, has stumbled beneath the weight of the cross. Simon of Cyrene, an old man with a white beard, tries to help him, but the guards, bearing sticks and ropes and apparently unmoved by his suffering, goad him on. Much to the surprise of some bystanders in the foreground, a young woman, recognisable as Veronica, has come forward and now kneels by the roadside, holding out a cloth with which to wipe the blood from Jesus’s face. In the background, a sinister forest of crucifixes is silhouetted against the darkened sky – a reference to the biblical text that relates that there was a “darkness over all the earth” after Christ died on the Cross.
Unlike in the Northern Netherlands, where the subject matter of painting became increasingly secular in the seventeenth century, religious painting flourished in Catholic Antwerp during the same period. In a climate stimulated by the Counter Reformation and the Catholic Revival, the demand for religious paintings remained strong, not only for large-scale altarpieces, but also for smaller cabinet paintings suitable for the private collector. Representations of the suffering of Christ were especially popular and were recommended to the faithful as emotional stimuli to piety.
Christ on the Road to Calvary was an ideal subject for Francken as it offered him the opportunity to demonstrate his talents at painting large numbers of figures in lively and varied poses. Indeed, he painted it on more than a dozen occasions in a variety of compositions[i]. Although several versions, including the present painting, recall in general terms the design (in reverse) of a famous print by early German artist Martin Schongauer (c. 1475-91)[ii], it is a measure of Francken’s unfailing inventiveness that the details and figure groupings are different in every composition. Here, Francken has succeeded masterfully in capturing the sense of the crowd’s relentless movement as it surges along the road from Jerusalem, in the lower left of the composition, to Mount Calvary, in the upper right. The panel’s excellent state of preservation allows for a full appreciation of the artist’s lively and delicate brushwork and his bright transparent hues. Against a somewhat subdued background, the figures’ varied and colourful costumes stand out clearly.
As the provenance indicates, this painting, which turned up recently in a private Hamburg collection, had not been on the market since an auction in Munich in 1869. In the early twentieth century, it belonged to the leading Hamburg architect Martin Haller (1835-1925), who was responsible for a number of the city’s significant landmarks, including the Rathaus and the building of the Consulate General of the United States of Hamburg. After his death, it passed by inheritance and marriage through several generations to the previous owner.
One of six children born to the painter Frans Francken the Elder and Elisabeth Mertens, Frans the Younger was baptised in the Cathedral of our Lady in Antwerp on 6 May 1581. Frans II and three of his brothers – Thomas (c. 1574-after 1639), Ambrosius II (1581-1632) and Hieronymus II (1578-1623) - followed in the footsteps of their father Frans I, and their uncles Hieronymus I (1540-1610) and Ambrosius I (1544-1618), becoming painters. It is assumed that Frans the Younger served his apprenticeship in the studio of his father, but also probably trained in Paris with his uncle Hieronymous I. In 1605, Frans II became a master of the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke. In 1607, he married Elisabeth Placquet, and by August of the same year he had bought a house in the Nieuwe Kerkstraatachter St. Andries. The couple had seven children, four of whom survived until adulthood, and three - Frans Francken III (1607-1667) Hieronymus Francken III (1611-1661/81) and Ambrosius Francken (1614-c.1662) - became painters.
In 1615 Frans II was elected Dean of the guild, and the following year he bought a house with a gateway near the ‘iron weighbridge’ at the Boksteeg. He became extremely successful and operated a large studio. However, only one pupil, Daniel Hagen, is recorded in the guild records in 1616/17, but Francken may have been exempted from the obligation of reporting apprentices to the guild. Alternatively, he may have been able to run his studio only with the assistance of members of his own family. Documents reveal that he worked directly for the art dealer Christian van Immerzeel through whom many of his paintings were exported to Seville between 1624 and 1635. His greatest skill was as a figure painter and he collaborated with at least twenty of the leading landscape, still-life and architectural painters of the day including Jan Brueghel the Younger, Abraham Govaerts, Joos de Momper II, Tobias Verhaecht, Bartholomeus van Bassen, Pieter Neefs I and II, Hendrick van Steenwijck and Paul Vredeman de Vries. Frans Francken the Younger died on 6 May 1642 and was buried in the Church of St. Andries in Antwerp.