Rubens’ depiction of the Holy Family is thought to have been painted in France, probably in response to a commission from a high-ranking court official. Majestic in its fluidity, the work is an outstanding example of Flemish Baroque. The landscape that opens up in the left half of the picture immediately puts us in mind of Flanders. A typical thatched farmer’s cottage can be seen between the trees. The sheet lightning in the overcast sky presages the arrival of a storm. This realistic depiction of the present day and the setting contrasts with the Biblical event in the foreground.
The motif of the folded-back curtain emphasizes that we are witnessing a family situation: Mary and the Infant Jesus dominate the group. The child appears to have just turned away from his nursing mother and towards the viewer. Mary’s gaze, meanwhile, rests on the approaching putto. Advancing into the picture from the front bearing gifts, the putto was interpreted at the time as the embodiment of the Christian soul. At the same time, the motif merges conceptions of paradise with the Biblical narrative. The apples stand for the lost Arcadia, while the grapes symbolize the wine of the Last Supper.
To the right, Rubens has closed off the picture with a simple architecture. Here we see Joseph, almost in profile. He looks on meditatively, thus embodying the attitude of reverence that the viewer, too, was expected to observe.