Matheus Molanus

Travellers attacked on a forest road

Together with Adriaen van de Venne, Christoffel van den Berghe and Jacob van Geel, Matheus Molanus numbers among the leading landscape painters of Middelburg, a town whose artistic production was determined by the numerous refugees from Antwerp who fled the religious conflicts at the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th century. Molanus’s oeuvre was influenced by early Antwerp landscape painting, primarily by Gillis van Coninxloo and Jan Brueghel the Elder. In the present painting, this impact is apparent particularly in the bluish-green and brown tones by which the space of the picture is organized. 

Due to the fact that he produced several winter landscapes, Molanus received the nickname “Sneebrueghel”. Little is known however about Molanus’s life. Born in Frankenthal ca. 1591/93, it is not known where or with who he trained. His earliest known work is dated 1611. At some point, the artist moved to Middelburg, where he would remain until the end of his life. In 1625 he became a member of the local Guild of Saint Luke; one year later, he was appointed as its superintendent. He preferred small and medium-sized formats and, in the tradition of Brueghel, employed the traditional brown, blue, and green shading.

The present work may be considered a typical example of Molanus’ work. A dense forest is punctured by a see-through which takes the viewer along a meandering road, passing fields and a river and populated with travellers, to the faraway city in the distance. In the foreground, a small convoy of travellers in unpleasantly surprised by a band of highwaymen who were lurking in the forest and are now charging, guns blazing. A battle ensues while a lone horseman can be seen galloping back towards the city – perhaps to go get help?

The skeleton of the horse in the foreground – a possible remnant of an earlier conflict – seems to suggest that these kinds of events were common at the time. However, despite the relative unsafety of travel when compared to now, highway robberies were not quite as common as the widespread popularity of the genre depicting them seems to attest; rather, there was a ready audience of middle-class collectors in the cities for these action-packed works, without these necessarily being a grounding in reality. The artist has cleverly also included a reference to the punishment of any robber who was caught, for in the back of the scene, to the left, the gallows field can be made out – providing a moral undertone for the learned and cultivated viewer who would never even dream of making a living as the bandits in the scene.

Artist: Matheus Molanus (Frankenthal ca. 1591/93 - 1645 Middelburg)
Medium: oil on panel
Dimensions: 48 x 74 cm