Probably Austria. Early Eighteenth Century.


Central Painting: Height: 67" (170 cm); Width: 108 1/4" (275 cm).
Side Painting 1: Height: 67" (170 cm); Width: 56" (142 cm).
Side Painting 2: Height: 67" (170 cm); Width: 57 3/4" (147 cm).


Oil on canvas, mounted to board, set with hinged carved polychrome panels with later molded marbleized frames.

Italian art market

The present group of paintings belongs to a tradition of the use of allegory to represent events in the history of the Habsburg dynasty. The figure seated on the ship of the main painting, dressed in green regalia, has been identified by art historian Dr. Christian Steeb as Archduke Joseph of Austria (1678-1711). Joseph I was crowned King of Hungary in 1687, at just nine years of age. Three years later he was declared King of the Romans, the title born by the successor of the Holy Roman Emperor. He became Holy Roman Emperor in 1705, upon the death of his father, Leopold I. Dr. Steeb indicated that Joseph I is shown wearing the traditional Hungarian national costume of the nobles, the so called “Magnatenkleid.” Additionally, the young monarch is decorated with the Order of the Golden Fleece, which he received as crown prince in 1686.

It is possible that the paintings commemorated Joseph I’s coronation as King of Hungary, however, because of the strong references to the Holy Roman Empire and Austria, it may be that the paintings celebrate his election as King of the Romans, or that it is a posthumous work about his life’s royal accomplishments.

Another painting by Frans Francken the Younger, now in the Rijksmuseum, applies the same principal elements (figure 1). Titled Allegory on the Abdication of the Emperor Charles V on 25 October 1555, in Brussels, it was painted 75 years after the abdication, and it is not known why or for whom it was executed. Charles V sits in the center having divided his empire between his son, Philip II, who received the Spanish and Netherlandish possessions, and his brother Ferdinand, who took control of Germany. Like the central painting in the present group, symbols of the Holy Roman Empire and flags of the arms of provinces under Habsburg sovereignty are depicted. Symbols suggesting that the empire was boundless include allegories of the continents, Hercules’ pillars at the straights of Gibraltar bearing Charles’ Latin motto PLUS ULTRA (“Further Still”), and an entourage of tritons and nereids led by Neptune, implying that the Habsburgs also ruled the seas.

The present group consists of one wide and two narrow works, all of which are of the same height. Each of the three paintings is comprised of a framed canvas and hinged polychrome panels of carved relief on the left and right sides of the works, as well as at the center of the largest painting, which are directly integrated into the scenes. The paintings have been re-lined and it is probable that the pictures were once mounted to the wall, the hinged panels concealing hidden niches.

Heading the central painting of the present group, the flag of the Holy Roman Empire is flown from the middle mast of a ship; the distinctive black double-headed eagle against a gold ground holds the sword, scepter, and globus cruciger and bears a shield depicting both the charges of Austria (red field with a white fess) and Bohemia (red field with a white rampant lion). To the left of this flies the flag of Hungary, represented by a white double-cross on red ground. To the right and below, the flag of Bohemia occurs again with a white double-tailed rampant lion on red ground. Two additional coats of arms are depicted at the bow of the ship: a red flag presents the coat of arms of Lorraine, a shield with gold field, red bend, and three white allerions, and the coat of arms of Moravia, which was joined to Bohemia in the 11th century, is placed on the sail and comprises a shield of a blue field with red and white checkered eagle.

The Austrian flag is given a prominent place beside the regal figure dressed in green and is inscribed with the Latin ITE TRIUMPHALES CIRCA SUA TEMPORA LAURUS, meaning “The laurels of victory rest upon your temples.” The sail below the Holy Roman Empire’s flag is inscribed with the acronym “ A E I O U,” which stands for “Austriae Est Imperare Orbi Universo” (“Austria is to rule the world”). The three angels hold the crowns of the Holy Roman Empire (top), the Kingdom of Bohemia, (lower left), and the coronet of the Archduchy of Austria (right).

The present paintings combine historic, heraldic, and mythological references. While the central painted portions appear to represent historic figures, the flanking painted areas and carved panels are reserved for mythological elements. All three pictures are rife with allusions to Roman mythology and Virgil’s Aeneid. Maximilian I Holy Roman Emperor (1459-1519) and his grandson, Charles V Holy Roman Emperor (1500-1558), began the precedent of tracing their genealogy to Troy, proclaiming a descendance from Aeneas.

In the large painting, the ship sails amongst tritons, sea nymphs, dolphins, and sea monsters. The ship is being held safely against the winds being blown by figures above the right-hand carved panel. In the Aeneid, Juno asks the wind god Aeolus to impede Aeneas’ journey by having his winds blow about the ships before Neptune comes to the rescue and calms the seas for Aeneas.

The female figure in the center probably represents Cloelia, a figure from early Roman history who was kidnapped and escaped by swimming across the river Tiber. She is often represented making her escape on horseback. The left-hand panel is carved and painted in the form of a classical arch in ruin. A putto pours a basket of flowers over a pyramid in the background, two animals chase each other in the mid-ground and a group of one male and two female figures sit in the foreground.

One of the smaller paintings also features a pyramid. It makes up one of the carved panels, the other composed of a craggy cliff. The work is centered by two rowboats bearing flags, a trumpeter apparently announcing their arrival. On the bottom right a hunter sleeping alongside his dog is painted, while on the bottom left there is a carved depiction of a river god. The river god holds his characteristic oar and overturned urn flowing with water. Beside him stands a cupid with an upturned torch, which typically signifies a dead or dormant love.

In the second smaller painting, the central painted portion is again taken up by a small ship. It is similarly surrounded on three sides with carved rocky cliffs. On the bottom left, Pan is represented, surprised to find that the nymph Syrix, whom he had been pursuing, had turned into a bunch of reeds. On the bottom left, three Nereids congregate in a pool. Above them, a female figure rests among putti and at the top of the cliff two doves, the symbol of Venus, are depicted beneath Cupid and a sign that reads HUIC NIDUM FLORES AMORES, or “In this nest, love blossoms.”

The carved panels open to reveal to their reverse lacca povera on vivid blue ground, beneath which areas of blank canvas are concealed. Intended to imitate Asian lacquer, lacca povera was the decoupage technique of adhering cut-outs of prints to a painted surface.1 The lacca povera decoration on the present panels features both provincial and cosmopolitan vignettes in vibrant colors, the likes of which were made popular by German engraver Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756), one of the preeminent engravers and printsellers in Ausburg at the close of the 17th century. Among these small scenes on the present panels, illustrations of the five senses are distributed throughout the panels of all three paintings labeled in Latin: Auditus, Gustus, Visus, Odoratus, Tactus. Other prints depict animals, classical ruins and mythological figures like Bacchus, while the remaining vignettes range from playful and youthful scenes to a pair of busts of old women who sit beneath banners reading Cassée de vieillesse, je suis dans la detresse (“Broken from old age, I am in distress”).

The present paintings are very unusual in their incorporation of hinged, carved polychrome panels that form part of the scenes. While they are the only 18th century mixed media compositions of this particular kind known to us, a few examples  can be found from centuries prior. A depiction of Christ on the Cross between the Virgin Mary and St. John by an anonymous Cologne artist, circa 1425, today in the Wallraf Richartz Museum, incorporates a sculpted and painted head of Christ into the picture. A further example can be seen in Jerónimo Francisco García’s St. Jerome Praying, 1619 (Museo de Art de Ponce), in which carved polychrome wood and terracotta composes the foreground of St. Jerome reclining on a rocky landscape, while the background scenery is painted (figure 2).

Another feature of the present paintings is the figurative nature of the carving. An 18th century mirror, probably Austrian, from the Collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge (sold by Christie’s Paris, 23-25 February 2009) also comprises a frame of parcel-gilt and polychrome decoration depicting allegories of war and science (figure 3), and the carving is closely related to the present piece. The carving of the Yves Saint Laurent mirror has been compared to the work of Austrian sculptor Leonhard Sattler (1676-1744). Apart from free-standing sculpture in stone or wood, Sattler also devoted his time to the ornamentation of furniture or works of art like those in the Abbey of St. Florian, Linz, Austria, where he spent the second half of his life.

1. Meincke, Angela, Chris White and Kim Nichols. Decorative and Functional Uses of Paper on Furniture. Wooden Artifacts Group for the American Institute for Conservation, Stanford University, 2003. 4.

Full research report available on request.