Object Image

The Four Elements: Water

A plethora of piscine produce is presented to us: fish of all kinds are piled in baskets, tumble over the edges of platters or slip from the stallholder's grasp - there are even mussel shells scattered on the floor. The two vendors ignore their prospective clients and look directly at us, as if asking us to buy. This is one of four large pictures in the National Gallery's collection in which the four elements - earth, air, fire and water - are represented as food.

Although it looks like a contemporary scene, something else is going on too. Through the arch in the middle you can see a ship with fishermen hauling in their nets. One man wades through the water towards a figure on the shore. This is the miraculous draught of fishes, when Christ, risen from the dead, appeared to his apostles and told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. They pulled in a multitude of fish.

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
158.1 x 214.9cm
Image and text © The National Gallery, London, 2024

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