Best known as a remarkable miniaturist and illuminator of works on paper, this previously unpublished painting is a significant addition to the corpus of only two other known works in oil by the Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel, namely A fête at Bermondsey (Hatfield House, the Marquess of Salisbury; see fig. 1) and the small Allegory of Friendship (Rotterdam, Museum Boymans van Beuningen).
In a rhythmic, frieze-like arrangement, elegantly dressed figures gather for a celebration in the foreground of the village scene. The reason for this celebration is to be found in the solemn procession unfolding across the middle ground. Leading the party are two young men carrying large oval cakes wrapped in white napkins; then come two fiddlers and a gentleman carrying a cup aloft. Finally, a darkly attired lady is escorted by two older gentlemen, followed by a group of young maidens. The procession moves out of the church on the right and heads towards the banqueting tables that are being set to the left, where a gentleman, extending his arm in invitation, awaits them. In the kitchen, a great feast is being prepared. This choreographed ceremonial closely matches late sixteenth-century accounts of nuptial processions, as recounted for instance by the English novelist and balladist Thomas Deloney (1543-1600) in his History of John Winchcombe:
'The Bride being attired in a gown of sheeps russet, and a kertle of fine worsted, her head attired with a billiment of gold [...], she was led to church between two sweet boys [...]. A bride-cup of silver, gilt was carried before her, wherein was a goodly branch of rosemary, gilded, hung about with ribbands of all colours; and next followed Musicians who were playing. After the bride came the chiefest maidens of the country, some carrying great bride cakes' (1871 edition, first published in 1630 but written in the late sixteenth century, Newbury, p. 24).
An almost identical procession is depicted in Hoefnagel's Fête at Bermondsey at Hatfield House. That picture is likely to be the panel recorded in the first inventory of Hatfield House, dated 1611, and catalogued as showing 'the solemnities of marriage'. This near-contemporaneous identification of the subject-matter thus supports the view that both the Hatfield picture and the present panel depict bridal feasts. This interpretation has however been challenged more recently by E. Auerbach and C.K. Adams (Paintings and Sculptures at Hatfield House, London, 1971, p. 54) and subsequently by K. Hearn (Dynasties, London, 1995, p. 112), on the basis that the lady dressed in black leading the procession makes an unlikely bride.
The similarities between the two paintings go beyond their thematic (whether bridal or not) analogy. They share almost identical dimensions and a horizontal compositional scheme. Some iconographic motifs and figures recur in both, though never as straight quotations but as inventive reformulations. These include, for instance, the nursing mother, the falconer and the couple on horseback arriving at the feast, the young boy with a dog in the foreground, the cook in his kitchen, the dancing peasants and the pilloried commoner. Unlike the Hatfield picture, this painting does not show any evidence of a signature. Yet, when it appeared on the Belgian art market in 1964, Léo van Puyvelde securely identified the panel as an autograph work by Joris Hoefnagel (L. van Puyvelde, written communication, Brussels, 16 June 1964). A comparison of the style and handling is enough to prove beyond any doubt that the two paintings are by the same hand. The broad brushstrokes used for the sky are virtually identical. In both, the foliage of the trees consists of similarly nervous and deftly curved dark green strokes convincingly topped in areas by smaller, lighter ones. Atmospheric perspective is suggested by using the same greenish blue tonalities that come to dominate the landscape as it recedes. Finally, in both paintings, the artist has deployed the full extent of his celebrated skills as a miniaturist, showing extreme attention to fine details such as jewellery, embroidery, individual faces and expressions.
The two works differ, however, in their topographical and geographical detail. With the emphatically placed Tower of London to the upper left and its array of English costumes from all social classes, the Hatfield picture presents itself as a faithful snapshot of late sixteenth-century English society and customs. This painting, however, is not as straightforward, and deprived of any such hallmarks or readily identifiable monuments, the village scene becomes more generic. A study of the clothes worn by the revellers is even more puzzling: their attire comes from all over Europe. On the basis of comparison with contemporary costume books, such as Abraham de Bruyn's famous Omnium pene Europae, Asiae, Aphricae atque Americae gentium habitus, first published in 1577, the following identifications may be made, from left to right: the woman lifting her veil corresponds to the type of the Venetian courtesan. Her consort is dressed as a Venetian procurator. The couple next to them, with the lady's distinctive striped bright green skirt, is likely to be German. Conversing to the right are Flemish patricians. Sitting on the ground is a pair of Flemish peasants involved in some kind of transaction, the woman with her pointed headdress and the man with his fur hat. Next to them is a card-playing elegant French company, the ladies wearing characteristic flat-topped bonnets. The couple serenading in the central group are likely to be Spanish. Another group of soberly attired Flemish gentlemen and their wives advance solemnly to the right. Finally, the elegant figures arriving on horseback, the gallant musical company in the middle ground, the dancing peasants and, most importantly, the figures taking part in the procession are all dressed in the English fashion. Because the main celebration is English, it seems safe to assume the scene is set in the British Isles, a proposition already put forward by van Puyvelde. Like the Hatfield picture, this panel can thus be dated from the period of Hoefnagel's stay in England (1568-9), or soon after his return to Antwerp in 1570.
Hoefnagel's decision to depict such a wide variety of dress is not coincidental. He had become a connoisseur of costumes through his close involvement with Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg's Civitates Orbis Terrarum (1572-1618), an ambitious six-volume atlas compiling more than five hundred maps and city views with figures depicted in local costumes in the foreground -- a format strongly reminiscent of both the Hatfield painting and the present work. These engravings were mostly based on drawings made by the Antwerp-born artist during his youth while on an exploratory journey across Europe, travelling through France (1560-2), Spain (1563-7) and England. Some of the figures in this picture clearly derive from types Hoefnagel elaborated in the Civitates (see, for instance, the views of Nonsuch or Bourges; fig. 2). Furthermore, in England Hoefnagel was closely associated with exiled Flemish artist Lucas de Heere, who touchingly dedicated a 1576 drawing to their 'true and enduring friendship'. The latter is known for his encyclopedic survey in watercolour of the costumes of the world, the Theâtre de tous les peuples et nations de la terre etc. (c. 1573-7, Ghent, University Library). It is notable that both the Hatfield panel and our painting exactly match some of the figures used in de Heere's Theâtre (see fig. 3), although it remains unclear whether Hoefnagel or de Heere was the first to devise these types.
The reason for such an international gathering of figure types remains elusive. It is unlikely that the picture records an actual event, as has been proposed by Auerbach and Adams for the Hatfield picture (Auerbach and Adams, 1971, p. 54). The painting could have aimed to include, in the context of an imaginary celebration, as many costumes as possible as an encyclopedic endeavour very much in the contemporary spirit of a Cabinet of Curiosities. According to Karel van Mander, Lucas de Heere was commissioned to execute such a project by the Admiral of London, Edward Clinton, Earl of Lincoln, painting a gallery of the costumes of different nations. This interest in local costume and customs, shared by both this community of Flemish peripatetic humanist artists and their learned patrons was the direct consequence of the advances in geographical studies of the period (F.A. Yates, The Valois Tapestries, London, 1959, p. 14). It also relates to other encyclopedic projects that Hoefnagel would carry out later on in his career: his Four Elements manuscript, a natural history compilation of the entire animal world, or the calligraphic codex he illustrated for Emperor Rudolf II showing a wide range of botanical specimens.
Interestingly, there can be little doubt that the highly individualized faces of the Flemish attendees are portraits. Hoefnagel had already included such likenesses in the Hatfield picture and this has been interpreted as an attempt to immortalize his Flemish humanist friends, and possibly himself, as acute observers of the English society they were then living in (Hearn, 1995, p. 113). Based on a comparison with the Hatfield picture, the gentleman to the centre left, looking out to the viewer, between the two ladies conversing, could possibly be a self-portrait. Such specific portraits in context of a wider gathering of all European nations are possibly reminders of the opportunities of peace and accord among nations brought together through music and merry-making, while the evil of discord, personified by the ape in the foreground, is tamed and tied to a weight. Such allegories of European harmony would have had particular resonance at a time when religious dissensions were fuelling war and destruction across the continent, the very reason that prompted so many of Hoefnagel's Flemish friends to seek shelter in England.