(b. 1542, Herentals, d. 1616, Antwerpen)

Jesus among the Doctors

Oil on wood, 250 x 220 cm (centre panel), 250 x 97 cm (wings)
O.-L. Vrouwekathedraal, Antwerp

Following the restoration of Spanish rule and Catholic worship in Antwerp in 1585, the city fathers ordered the crafts and guilds to reinstall their altars in the Cathedral. Among the first to respond were the Schoolmasters and the Soap-boilers, who shared an altar in the church. They contracted Frans Francken to paint a triptych showing Jesus among the Doctors. (The left wing depicts St Ambrose Baptising St Augustine, while the right wing the Miracle of the Flowing Oil.)

The scenes plainly have most to do with the schoolmasters. The centre panel shows the episode from St Luke's Gospel in which the twelve-year-old Jesus debates theology with the Jewish scribes in the Temple at Jerusalem. His parents, who have found him after a long search, look somewhat dejected. The Temple is represented by a Renaissance church interior with a menorah and the Ark of the Covenant in the background.

The left wing shows Ambrose, the patron saint of Antwerp's schoolmasters, baptising St Augustine in the presence of a canon-scholaster and several council members from the Schoolmasters' Guild. The only reference to the Soap-boilers is in the right wing, where the Bible story of the Miracle of the Flowing Oil is depicted. The prophet Elisha helped the widow of Zarephath out of debt by causing her oil jug to continuously replenish itself - an appropriate theme, for oil was one of the ingredients used by the soap-boilers.

The style of the triptych is sober and didactic, as befits the schoolmasters, if not the soapmakers. The balanced composition with its symmetrically arranged groups and the restrained presentation of the principal theme, without many secondary scenes or symbols, is characteristic of the Italian Renaissance, the latest artistic trend at the time.