The discovery was made by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in collaboration with international specialists as part of a cultural inventory of the municipal hall. Since the 1960’s the panel painting had been considered a mere copy, but it is now recognised as the oldest known version of ‘The Holy Family’ by Jordaens.
“It’s an extraordinary moment of emotion to discover an original work by one of the greatest Baroque painters,” reflected Constantin Pion, an Art Historian at KIK-IRPA.
Although less famous than his 17th-century contemporaries Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) and Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), Jordaens became the most esteemed painter in Antwerp for his vivid use of colour and realism. The artist was just 25 when he produced the Brussels painting, which depicts an infant Christ surrounded by Mary, Joseph, and Saint Anne.
The painting underwent rigorous analysis to determine its attribution, including x-rays, infrared analyses, XRF macro scanners, and macro and ultraviolet photographs. Dendrochronology – a method of dating tree rings – was employed to specify the exact year the panel’s wood had been felled, thereby proving the painting was created between 1617 and 1618. Experts fromthe Jordaens Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project also found that Anthony Van Dyck had made several paintings from the same tree as Jordaens.
“This reinforces the hypothesis put forward by the Jordaens Van Dyck Panel Paintings Project that the young Jordaens and Van Dyck were active simultaneously in Rubens’ studio,” explained co-founder of the project, Joost Vander Auwera.
Jordaens went on to reuse the Holy Family composition in three later paintings, now displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, and Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Speaking about the remarkable find, Saint-Gilles cultural heritage expert Pierre Dejemeppe said it provided “something of a matrix of what he would do later…it will give us a better understanding of the later versions”.
The painting will undergo restoration throughout 2021 to reveal its original colours, which currently lie under centuries of dirt and over-painting. Jordaens’ masterpiece will eventually go on display at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.