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Sodom and Gomorrah in Flames by Jan Bruegel the Elder By La Gazette Drouot

The red glow of the embers, the nocturnal mystery of the scene, not to mention the figures in the foreground whose immorality we can imagine, this picture has all the necessary ingredients to pique the interest of connoisseurs past and present. The work, Lot and His Daughters Before Sodom and Gomorrah Burning, was painted by one of the virtuosos of the genre, Jan Bruegel the Elder (1568-1625). Born into one of the most famous dynasties in Western art history, the artist was the younger son of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Unlike his elder brother Pieter Brueghel the Younger, who endlessly reproduced their father’s masterpieces, Jan was an innovator who developed a highly personal world. His meticulously accurate bouquets and allegorical landscapes earned him the nickname “Velvet”. But he also specialized in fires—or “hellfires”: a spectacular theme illustrated by this tondo panel dated 1609.

Hellfires: The Very Source of the Myths
He was not the first Flemish artist to draw on such tragic scenes, first explored by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516) in his time. This burning subject also fascinated his Dutch colleagues of the Golden Age, one of the most famous in the field being Jacob Van Swanenburg, teacher of the young Rembrandt. Some have rightly interpreted this obsession with fiery destruction as reflecting the trauma caused by constant warfare in the northern regions. But there is nothing contemporary in Jan Bruegel the Elder’s work: he drew inspiration from the very source of the myths and was inspired by three works in particular: two from the classical era, and one from the Judeo-Christian world. In Homer’s Iliad, the capture of Priam’s city provided material for some powerful effects, like those of The Burning Troy, a painting on copper from 1595 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). From Virgil’s Aeneid, he took an episode that allowed for every possible visual effect: Aeneas Led Through the Underworldby the Cumaean Sibyl (1604), the subject of another painting on copper now in the Colonna Gallery, Rome. Meanwhile the Bible, with its plentiful accounts of divine punishment, inspired this virtuoso vision of the burning of the two sinful cities, Sodom and Gomorrah. As well as the violent events shown in the background on several planes, the incestuous episode of Lot and his daughters is also shown. One is already in her father’s embrace; the second, equally naked, flashes the viewer a strange smile…

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