Hieronymus III Francken, The Denial of Peter, 17th century

Hieronymus III Francken (1611-post 1661 ?)

Oil on oak panel, 17th century


The episode represented by Hieronymus III Francken is that of Peter’s denial. The apostle is depicted in the foreground, wearing a blue suit and a yellow tunic, in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace. A servant, dressed in typically seventeenth-century clothes, holds a candle and turns to Peter, having recognized him as a disciple of Christ. The apostle has a terrified attitude and a terrified gaze, through which the denial is very clear. The woman’s interest attracts the attention of bystanders, a group of soldiers who surround him and observe him in an inquisitive manner. Further to the right, on the sidelines, scenes of daily life show soldiers and commoners playing cards and dice.

In the background, Jesus Christ is led by a group of warriors in the presence of the high priest, seated on a high chair. Jesus turns to Peter, witnessing his denial.
On the reverse of the panel the coat of arms of Antwerp is branded: a castle surmounted by two hands. Presented in a re-adapted period frame.

Dimensions: 52 x 68 cm (with frame 62 x 81 cm)
(20,5 x 26,8 in – with frame 24,4 x 31,9 in)


Historical-critical analysis:

The painting comes from an important Florentine collection, started by an ancestor of the family, who was in Vienna in 1798 and, subsequently, in Würzburg until 1813, as an exile companion of the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinand III. The collection was moved with its permanent headquarters to Florence on the fall of Napoleon and we have proof of its importance through a copy of an inventory compiled in 1881, in which our appears at no. 52 of the section dedicated to the works preserved in the family’s “Palazzo di Firenze”, generically described as “S. Peter in Pilate’s Oratory; table with small figures “. There is a further manuscript inventory that our collector in exile produced with his own hand before returning to Italy, and which is attributed in a letter from the heirs to 1813. This inventory describes the primitive collection consisting of 37 works, where the names of important authors. In this manuscript our table is described in detail: at n. 14, a number that is punctually matched by the one marked on the back of the frame and on a label affixed to the table itself, in fact a “… wooden picture two and four and a half inches long, and one foot and eight and a half inches tall, representing Peter denying Jesus Christ to the girl in Anna’s house. From afar we see the Savior being led ahead of that pontiff to be examined, in the midst of a number of mobs and soldiers ”. The identification with Anna’s house refers to the evangelical episode according to John, the only one among the four evangelists to also indicate these as high priest together with Caiaphas, whose father-in-law he was. The painting therefore belongs to the first constitutive nucleus of the collection. In the sixties the attribution to Bruegel was advanced, immediately denied in favor of the correct indication of the autograph to Hieronymus III Francken, a Flemish painter belonging to a well-known and prolific family of painters. Specializing mainly in religious subjects, but also portraits and still lifes, his works are characterized by a very particular attention to the contextualization of the episode.

The protagonists, in fact, often get confused with the other characters that populate the scene. This way of working certainly denotes its Nordic origin, together with the consideration of the chromatic palette and the light output. In fact, even in our work, particular attention was given to the representation of the setting: next to the episode of the denial, superfluous characters are depicted, not strictly necessary for the narration of the Gospel episode, such as soldiers intent on playing cards and dice.

The luministic atmosphere is also used here to give even greater emphasis to the episode.
The nocturnal setting, with the pale moon veiled in clouds, lends itself to increasing the pathos of the narrative: the background and the imposing architecture of the building emerge faintly from the darkness, in the light of the torches of the procession. But the main light source converts on the foreground characters, emphasizing the drama of the scene.
This composition was particularly successful, as evidenced by the numerous derivations of the workshop, among which some branches recently passed on the antiques market are known.

An interesting detail that allows you to indicate with certainty the geography of origin of the work is the trademark imprinted on the reverse. The castle surmounted by two hands is in fact the coat of arms of the municipality of Antwerp: the castle as a symbol of the city, while the two hands are in reference to a legend according to which a giant who controlled the river of the city, the Escaut, he cut off the hands of the boatmen who refused to pay.

This mark testified to the approval of the work of building the table, correctly carried out according to the regulations of the guild and of the city itself. The use of this brand in fire is present above all in the oak tables made in the seventeenth century, despite this practice, albeit applied to large altarpieces and wooden sculptures, is already mentioned in November 1470, in the regulation of the Gilda di San Luca. There is no news of the application of the coat of arms on panel paintings of smaller dimensions until 1617, when the strict regulation of the Carpenters’ Guild was enacted, in which it was clearly specified that no panel could leave the workshop before receiving the mark. of the city that would have attested the good quality of the wooden material used.

A study conducted by Wadum and published in 1998 made it possible to identify different brands of the city, with the same iconography, but made through the use of different red-hot irons.
Those identified by the scholar were used by the numerous municipal offices, in a chronological period that goes from 1600 to 1650. Wadum notes how the hands and the castle undergo slight changes, of which the most appreciable is certainly the greater stylization of the forms in the most later, unlike the more detailed figures that distinguish the brand towards the beginning of the century. While not finding a precise comparison with those recorded by Wadum, it is plausible to believe that other and different irons were used to mark the tables with the coat of arms of the city, to which the one affixed on our table must belong.
Characterized by a low degree of definition, it is possible to place ours at a later stage, close to the second half of the century.

Biography Hieronymus III Francken:

He belonged to a famous family of Flemish painters, son of the famous Frans II Francken. The training therefore certainly took place in the context of his father’s workshop, from which the representation of crowded scenes and well-finished sets comes from.
Born in 1611, the date of death is uncertain: it certainly occurred after 1661 (the year in which his son Constantijn, also a painter, was born) and before 1681.


– Jørgen Wadum, The Antwerp brand on paintings on panel, in “Leids kunsthistorisch jaarboek”11.1998, 179-198, pp. 179-198;

– Grazia Maria Fachechi, National Museum of the Palazzo di Venezia, v. II, Rome, Gangemi Editore, 2011.

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