Jacob de Backer

An Allegory of Faith triumphing over Sin

Jacob de Backer is considered one of the most mysterious yet fascinating Flemish artists of the sixteenth-century Antwerp school. According to Flemish biographer Karel van Mander and Italian art historian Filippo Baldinucci, de Backer was short-lived, dying at the young age of 30. His lifespan is usually given as either c. 1555-1585 or 1560-1590, suggesting that he occupied a key moment in the development of Antwerp painting, between the generation of Frans Floris (1519/20-1570) and that of Rubens (1577-1640). Information on his artistic training is also quite vague. Both van Mander and Baldinucci mentions Antonio da Palermo (d. 1588/89), a painter and picture dealer of Italian origin, as his first master. They also affirm that the artist later studied under Hendrick van Steenwijck the Elder (1550-1603). Although Jacob de Backer never became a master in the Guild of St. Luke and lived shortly, he is believed to have been prodigiously prolific, his works being “sought after and wanted everywhere” and enriching “the cabinets and galleries of art lovers in many cities.” However, only a few works can be ascribed today to de Backer with certainty. Among these are two versions of the Last Judgement, both in Antwerp, one painted for the funerary monument of painter Pieter Goetkind I (d. 1583), the other for that of notorious printer and publisher Christopher Plantin (d. 1589). According to art historian Eckhard Leuschner, when considering paintings ascribed to de Backer, one should therefore be aware that they are likely to be products of a workshop, possibly led by de Backer himself.

Throughout his career, Jacob de Backer specialised in the production of complex allegorical images, of which the present painting is a remarkable example. The scene, set outdoors, has been traditionally interpreted as an allegory of Faith triumphing over Sin. Central to the composition is the seated figure of a beautiful, young woman dressed all’antica. The open book on her lap, the table of Moses at her feet on the right, and her left hand resting on her heart allow to identify her as Faith, as she was later described by Cesare Ripa in his famous Iconologia. Faith’s left foot touches a globe topped with a cross, on whose surface are a mask, a bag of coins and a crown, these symbols of wordly goods. To the left is a half-naked, bearded man offering Faith an apple. Considering the association between such a fruit and original sin, this figure has been commonly identified as Sin. His left ankle is enchained, as to suggest his defeat. Next to Faith stands a winged woman, possibly an angel, dressed in green. She points her right arm to the sky, where Faith directs her gaze. There, amidst the clouds and surrounded by golden light, a naked figure with a crimson cloak, possibly Christ, crowns and welcomes the faithful in Paradise during the Last Judgement. Below, still on earth, is a group of naked figures looking upwards, who might soon be granted eternal salvation.

As for most of de Backer’s works, the present painting was probably executed for a private client. During the 1570s and 1580s, painters in Antwerp turned to private commissions to compensate for the dramatic decline in State and Church’s patronage. Both the political instability and the two iconoclastic riots of 1566 and 1581 prompted Antwerp artists to concentrate on the growing private demand for secular and religious subjects. Many of their pictures appear to have been produced without a specific commission. It is uncertain whether this might be the case of the present work. Indeed, the existence of a painting almost identical to the Allegory  suggests that the work might have been painted in different versions for sale on the free market. With its richness in mysterious, religious symbolism and literary references, the work was probably intended for private use and might have attracted the attention of learned collectors. Considering that de Backer worked for personalities such as Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, the present work might have been destined to a cardinal or a religious figure.

The innovative style of Jacob de Backer greatly appealed to the taste of cultivated collectors of the time because of its references to Cinquecento Italian art and Mannerism. Indeed, in the second half of the sixteenth century, pictures in the Florentine style were particularly fashionable with private collectors in Antwerp. The marble-like rendering of flesh, the rich use of draperies and the polished pictorial surface characterizing the Allegory are typical of Florentine Mannerist artists, and specifically recall the art of Giorgio Vasari. The Michelangiolesque figures of Faith and the angel convey an impression of both grace and monumentality, this a combination rarely achieved by the preceding generation of Netherlandish painters. The use of bright colors, such as magenta, yellow and green in the figures’ draperies, also derives from Italian Mannerism. The ability of Jacob de Backer as a colorist was already acknowledged by the artist’s peers. Van Mander affirmed that de Backer was “one of the best colorists that Antwerp has known: he had a fleshy manner of painting because he highlighted not just with white but with flesh color, so that he earned eternal fame among painters.” Also the aforementioned Filippo Baldinucci reserved special praise for de Backer’s sense of colour, defining him as “one of the best colorists who ever lived in Antwerp.” It is still debated today whether de Backer ever travelled to Italy, as there is no evidence confirming a trip there. De Backer certainly encountered the oeuvre of the Italian Mannerists through their paintings arriving in Antwerp, and copies of Italian works painted by Flemish artists who had travelled to Italy.11 For instance, de Backer might have borrowed the theme of the mask from such paintings. Indeed, the mask in the Allegory is reminiscent of those in Bronzino’s notorious Allegory of Love.

In addition to Mannerist paintings, prints seem to have played a fundamental role in shaping de Backer’s visual repertoire. If Sin’s stance immediately recalls that of one of Michelangelo’s ignudi in the Sistine chapel, it is more likely that it derives from prints circulating in Antwerp at the time. Indeed, Sin can be compared to the seated old man in Cort Cornelis’ etching after Mannerist Italian artist Taddeo Zuccari depicting the Presentation of Mary into the Temple (Civica Raccolta delle Stampe Achille Bertarelli, Milan). The two figures share a similar stance and an almost identical physiognomy. In an etching by Hieronimus Wierix after an unknown painting (Kunstsammlungen der Veste, Coburg.) is a figure also similar to Sin, sharing an analogue disposition of the body and alike rendering of musculature. De Backer painted variations of this seated figure in other works, such as The Mirror of Time (private collection). This suggests that the artist probably reused the same models in different works. In the Allegory, the angel’s lifted arm pointing towards the sky is almost identical to that of the woman dressed in yellow in one of de Backer’s versions of the Last Judgement. In addition, masks similar to the one in the present work often recur in de Backer’s works, reappearing in allegorical paintings such as Venus and Cupid (private collection) and the Venus in the Musée National de la Renaissance in Ecouen.

Artist: Jacob de Backer (Antwerp ca. 1555 - ca. 1585)
Medium: oil on oak panel
Dimensions: 123,5 x 94 cm