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Hendrick van Steenwyck the Younger (Antwerp c. 1580 - The Hague? 1649)

The Liberation of St Peter Signed and dated 1619

Oil on copper | 48.3 x 66.0 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 403041

Cumberland Bedchamber, Hampton Court Palace

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  • The subject comes from the Acts of the Apostles (12: 6-7): ‘the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off his hands.’ The subject was popular because it suggests the idea of the soul of man liberated from the prison of the tomb, especially when Peter is seen led up from out of a dark vault.

    The angel bringing light into the prison had provided artists, from Raphael onwards, with an opportunity to create effects at once realistically observed and magically evocative. Steenwyck rationalises the aura of light surround the angel, by suggesting a flaming torch concealed immediately behind him. A similar device is used in Jupiter and Mercury in the House of Philemon and Baucis (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) by Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), which Steenwyck may have known through Henrick Goudt’s print of 1613. Steenwyck also throws a variety of artificial lighting into the mix: fires, oil lamps and a false hint of daylight in the distance, to create the effect of a dungeon peopled with spirits and will o’ the wisps.

    The development of architectural painting in the Netherlands led from the simply aligned, linear and diagrammatic perspectives of Hans Vredeman de Vries towards the oblique views, textured surfaces and ‘breathing’ spaces of Gerrit Houckgeest (c.1600-61) and Johannes Vermeer (1632-75). In this context Steenwyck’s work appears forward looking; the view here is frontal, but there is an extraordinary feel for the rough stone blocks and the way in which their textures and forms are unreliably and intermittently revealed by the light playing over their surfaces. The perspective here demands that the eye be brought close to the surface of the copper; we are meant to peer into the darkness, to lose ourselves in this labyrinthine undercroft and to smell the dank air of a prison.

    Signed on the second step to the right: HENRI V STEINICK and dated on the tablet on the raised platform in the centre: 1619

    Possibly acquired by Frederick, Prince of Wales, first recorded in the Royal Collection during the reign of George III

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on copper


    48.3 x 66.0 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    80.5 x 97.5 x 8.0 cm (frame, external)