Jacob de Backer is one of the most mysterious and intriguing figures in sixteenth-century Netherlandish art. Although regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most innovatory and prolific artists of his time, little information about his life and artistic activity has survived. Our two main sources are Karel van Mander’s Het Schilder-boeck
(231v-232r) and Filippo Baldinucci’s Notizie De' Professori Del Disegno Da Cimabue In Qua, 1610–1670 (IV: 375). From these sources, scholars have deduced the artist’s approximate lifespan as either c. 1555-1585 or 1560-1590, based on the notion that de Backer died at the young age of thirty. Thus, de Backer’s activity took place during a key transitional moment in the development of Antwerp painting, between the generation of Frans Floris (1519/20-1570) and that of Rubens (1577-1640) and the Age of the Baroque.
According to the traditional accounts, de Backer first trained in the workshop of painter and art dealer Antonio da Palermo (1503/13-before 1589) and, later on, under Hendrick van Steenwijck the Elder (1550-1603). Contemporary records state that he was prodigiously prolific and that his works were widely appreciated and sought after. Despite this, only a few paintings can be ascribed to his hand with certainty. Although very distinctive both in terms of style and subject matter, his paintings often appear in multiple replicas – as is the case for the present work – and show evidence of different hands. This prompted the art historian Eckhard Leuschner to assemble a selection of works under the umbrella term "the de Backer group", rather than focusing on isolating de Backer’s individual production. This strategy is consistent with what we know of the ways in which sixteenth-century workshops functioned, where De Backer would have been a sort of “brand name” – a quality stamp – for products to which multiple personalities contributed collectively. The great demand and widespread appreciation for de Backer’s works, reported by the sources, attests to the success of his efficient workshop, although we have, as yet, very little precise information about how the workshop operated.
De Backer specialised in the production of complex symbolic images, of which our painting is a noteworthy example. The scene presents three monumental allegorical characters set in a wild landscape; behind them a series of ghostly figures scattered on a hill turn to the sky above them in emphatic gestures; on the clouds at the top left a seated figure draped in a red cloth receives a procession. While the scene in the background clearly depicts a Last Judgement, with the triumphant Christ crowning the resurrected in Heaven, the group in the foreground presents a more challenging exercise in iconological interpretation. One possible reading would be to identify the group as Faith triumphing over Sin. The seated young woman, dressed all’antica, one hand raised to her chest, the other resting on an open book on her lap, and a stone tablet at her feet, might, according to this interpretation, be thought to symbolise respectively the heart as the place of faith, the New Testament and the tablet of the Ten Commandments received by Moses on Mount Sinai; these three elements are common features of the traditional depiction of Faith, as would be later attested in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (1593). The half-naked man to her right, wrapped in a primitive speckled fur, looks up at the young woman with a grin and offers her an apple, the symbol of temptation par excellence, and an incarnation of Sin. Behind the two, an angel is attempting to redirect Faith’s attention, pointing to the heavenly procession; Faith, with a contrite expression, is immortalised in the struggle between Sin and Salvation. Under Faith’s left foot a green-glass globe, crowned by a golden cross, holds a mask, a bag of golden coins and a golden crown. This beautiful feature can be interpreted as an iconic encapsulation of the message: Christian Faith triumphs over earthly temptations.