1559; Oil on wood, 122 x 177 cm; Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
In the 16th century Antwerp rose to the position of the most significant trade and banking centre in Europe. In the area around this town there was an extensive cottage industry for the processing of English cloth and the production of glassware, soap, sugar, and other goods. The changing conditions in agriculture were almost equally revolutionary. The population increase at the beginning of the 16th century meant a greater demand for food, which had to be satisfied buy an agricultural system that was now no longer catering merely to itself but also to the market.
After years of inadequate supplies the increase in food production was experienced by the general public as a great improvement - so much so, in fact, that it virtually demanded some form of artistic expression. Celebrating this new wealth in an almost solemn manner, the Amsterdam-born painter Pieter Artsen, who lived in Antwerp in 1555-56, depicted market scenes as part of biblical illustrations. However, instead of following traditional conventions and playing only a minor part in these illustrations, these market scenes dominate the biblical motifs so much that the latter are literally pushed into the background.
In this painting Christ and the Adulteress, the biblical event takes place at the back, on the left, while the foreground is dominated by a market scene with peasants offering clay pots, baskets laden with fruit, vegetables such as onions, carrots, cucumbers and cabbages, as well as eggs, loaves of bread and large jugs of milk. It is this foreground which attracts our attention. There is also a peculiar mixture of time levels: the biblical scenario (with people wearing the clothes of antiquity) and the contemporary market scene (with sixteenth-century peasants) are intricately interwoven, as is shown in the Roman soldiers storming past the market stall. The same feature can be found in numerous other paintings of Aertsen.