Object Image

The Four Elements: Air

At first sight this looks like a busy sixteenth-century street scene. A man sells poultry and other produce, piled up in baskets and barrels, in the corner of a market square. He lifts up two hens by their legs, feathers from their flapping wings drifting down and settling on the coop below. On the left, a smartly dressed young woman with a basket on her arm grasps a handsome cockerel by its feet. She turns and looks confidently out at us, as if we are standing next to her at this stall.

There's more going on here than the daily shop. This is one of four large paintings in which the four elements - earth, air, fire and water - are represented by food, with biblical scenes in the background. In another corner of the market we can see the prodigal son, in red trousers - he is wasting 'his substance with riotous living' (Luke 15: 13).

Packed with fish, fruit, vegetables, birds and animals, these four big pictures are like giant stage sets, teeming with life. Although superficially market and kitchen scenes, the different types of food represent the four elements: vegetables for earth, fish for water, poultry for air and game for fire. In the backgrounds are biblical scenes.

Beuckelaer has created an impression of great abundance and variety, although the foods shown were readily available to ordinary Netherlanders for most of the sixteenth century. However, these pictures were painted at a time of political and religious repression and severe economic recession. They perhaps show a remembered golden age, when food was plentiful.

The group may well have been commissioned in Antwerp by a foreigner, probably the vastly wealthy and cultured Fernão Ximenes, Consul for the Portuguese Nation. By 1884 the paintings were in Florence, in the Palazzo Panciatichi-Ximenes d'Aragona.

Credit: Bought, 2001

Oil on canvas
158.0 x 216.0cm
Image and text © The National Gallery, London, 2024

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