(b. 1593, Antwerpen, d. 1678, Antwerpen)

Allegory of Fertility

c. 1623
Oil on canvas, 180 x 241 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

This is without doubt one of Jacob Jordaens' most magnificent compositions and one of the most successful examples of his cooperation with still-life specialist Frans Snyders. In this work, painted around 1623, a good eight years after Jordaens had become a free master, the painter is at the peak of his career. Nothing remains of the clumsiness of his youthful work. Whether the eye stays on the anatomy or the expressions of the figures, on their rhythmic ordering or their gestures, or enjoys the creamy, confident paint strokes or the alternation between the golden light and the transparent shadows, or is tempted by the rich colours of Snyders' opulent fruits: everywhere it senses the same impressive harmony.

The life-size figures, allowing only a glimpse of the landscape to show through, unfold like a sculpted frieze on both sides of a female nude, seen from behind, standing slightly off centre and so introducing a certain dynamism into the composition. Her nakedness catches the full light and draws the viewer's attention. A golden glow strokes her skin, in which nothing reminds us of the cold stone from which her sculptural monumentality initially seems to originate. Rather, as a nymph she belongs, together with her female companions and the satyrs surrounding her, to the category of beings between humans, gods and animals which in antiquity embodied the untameable powers of nature. The grapes that they are all gathering possibly symbolise the rich fertility of nature. For this reason the identification of the nymph seen from behind as "Humanity" is not convincing. Just as unsatisfactory is the identification of the woman in a red mantle to her right as Pomona, the goddess of fruit.

The cornucopia on the far right is a reference to Ovid's Metamorphoses, which tells how it came into being when the horn of Achelous, metamorphosed into a bull, broke off in his fight with Hercules. It was not Pomona but the water nymphs or naiads that afterwards filled it with fruit. In Jordaens' picture we do not, however, find the unambiguous references to Hercules and his unfortunate opponent, making it difficult to correctly title this masterpiece.