While the KMSKA has been closed for refurbishment, the museum’s conservation studio has taken the opportunity to restore over a hundred works of art. Their successful treatment means you can now admire them for many more decades in their original condition. With all this experience, the studio knows a thing or two by now, but there’s still room for surprises. Four conservators recently worked on three paintings at once by the same artist – unusual, even for us. Which painter was it exactly?

The Fall of the Rebel Angels altarpiece is one of the museum’s absolute masterpieces. Its creator was Frans Floris, by whom the KMSKA has even more work, notably The Judgement of Solomon and The Banquet of the Gods. The generous support of the Léon Courtin-Marcelle Bouché Fund enabled the museum to conserve those works at the same time. Conservation of The Fall of the Rebel Angels was funded by the Flemish Government.

Treating several works at once offers all sorts of advantages. The conservators can compare notes and pool their research. We look in this article at Floris the man and how his biography is interwoven with his visual language. A follow-up article will focus on the pigments he used and the layered structure of his works.

Italy forever

It’s fair to call Frans Floris (1519/1520–1570) the 16th century’s Rubens. He travelled in his twenties, most notably to Rome, where he made a careful study of Michelangelo and Raphael’s work in the Vatican. Michelangelo had completed his work on the Sistine Chapel, for instance, in 1483. Like Rubens after him, Floris was impressed by the classical statues and reliefs that were being unearthed at a rapid rate during his time in Rome. The period he spent in Italy remained a constant source of inspiration after he returned to Antwerp around 1546.

A feast of Roman footwear in 'The Judgement of Solomon'.

This is clear from the KMSKA collection. Roman sandals or soldier’s boots weren’t a problem for Frans Floris and he excelled in antique Roman armour too. He simply dipped into his Italian sketchbooks whenever the need arose. The armour that Mars sits on in The Banquet of the Gods, for instance, seems to have been inspired by the cuirass or breastplate found in a statue of the victorious Emperor Augustus.

Mars tests the strength of a Roman cuirass similar to the decorative example worn by Emperor Augustus. It’s more than a match for the divine posterior!
Vergelijkbaar met een decoratief geval van keizer Augustus. Sterk materiaal!

Floris also turned to his Italian sketchbooks for his hairstyles: the Roman portrait busts and Roman copies of Greek sculpture he recorded provide a neat picture of how hair-dos evolved over the centuries.

Venus in 'The Banquet of the Gods'
A Roman copy after a Greek statue of Aphrodite/Venus

As a learned painter, a pictor doctus, Frans Floris regularly represented mythological scenes from Greek and Roman antiquity. Or at least scenes that feature Roman deities as in The Banquet of the Gods. But he also set biblical stories in Roman settings, including The Judgement of Solomon. This was a real innovation in Antwerp and an immediate hit. People queued up to get hold of Floris’ work. Antwerp was experiencing a Golden Age as an economic and cultural powerhouse at the time, offering a climate in which the painter was able to thrive.

One big recycling workshop

Floris established a large studio, from which altarpieces, mythological scenes and portraits flowed. To keep up this high output, he resorted to head studies or tronies, for which unidentified models had their heads drawn and painted from every angle. The resulting studies could be recycled, with Floris and his assistants adjusting the facial expression and costume according to whether the figure was meant to represent a saint, an angel or an antique god.

A head study in the KMSKA collection closely resembles the king in our 'Judgement of Solomon'.

When we talk about ‘recycling’ in the case of Frans Floris we mean it. It’s something we find in all three of the works in our recent triple conservation. The same head is found several times on different shoulders even within a single painting and examining all three works together reveals the unprecedented reuse of such studies.

The same woman features in three separate roles in 'The Judgement of Solomon'.

Evolution and variation

Floris produced the three recently conserved works between 1547 and 1554. As the earliest of the trio, The Judgement of Solomon, which he painted shortly after returning to Antwerp, remains closest in style to Michelangelo and Raphael.

The direct influence of his Italian examples gradually waned, however, and he also began to incorporate sources of inspiration from closer to home. The seven-headed dragon/demon in The Fall of the Rebel Angels of 1554, for instance, comes from a print by Dürer.

Dürer’s dragon
Frans Floris turned Dürer’s dragon into a hyper-realistic demon.

His men, by contrast, retain their downright athletic, Michelangelesque muscularity. These are among the most powerfully built male figures in the Netherlandish art of the time.

A muscular Mercury in 'The Banquet of the Gods'
A ripped demon in 'The Fall of the Rebel Angels'.

Floris didn’t only rely on head studies, of course, he peopled his scenes with other heads too, including portraits of real people as well as some very strange faces indeed.

A more realistic head in 'The Judgement of Solomon'.
A strange-looking face from the same painting

Frans Floris succeeded more than any other in integrating his Italian examples in the local Antwerp tradition. His ingenious blend of tronies and real people enabled him to keep up with strong demand while maintaining a high artistic standard. The Fall of the Rebel Angels was his absolute masterpiece in this respect. Look out for our follow-up article, in which we tell you more about this painter and his creative process.