BRUEGHEL, Jan the Elder
(b. ca. 1568, Bruxelles, d. 1625, Antwerpen)

Vase of Flowers with Jewellery, Coins and Shells

1606
Oil on copper, 65 x 45 cm
Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan

This painting was commissioned by Cardinal Federico Borromeo; it served him as an object of meditation.

To paint flowers means to enter into competition with Nature, in a sphere in which she herself is an artist. With brushes and paints, the artist creates a living spring full of unfading blooms that will neither wilt in the heat of summer nor perish beneath the winter's snow. In reality it would be impossible to arrange a bouquet such as that presented here, not simply because it combines flowers that bloom at different times, but also because it would collapse.

In this painting, the smaller flowers are painted at the bottom and the larger and heavier ones at the top - a device that serves to guide the eye through this cabinet-piece of fine painting. Unlike their leaves and stems, the blooms - of which there are a good hundred varieties - are all evenly lit; they are arranged in one plane and only rarely overlap.

Amongst the insects attracted to the bouquet are butterflies. Painters of butterflies take up an illustrious tradition that can be traced right back to Zeus, the father of the gods, who also practiced this skilful art - as Dosso Dossi shows him doing in the painting Jupiter and Mercury of c. 1530 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum). In Christian tradition the butterfly is an allegory of human existence and the cycle of life in a physical body, death and the resurrection of the soul. A bee has also strayed into the picture, as an indication of the care with which the painter has selected, from amongst the countless varieties of flowers, only the most magnificent blooms for his bouquet.