Jan Brueghel the Elder or “Velvet” Brueghel Flowers in a Vase with Jewels, Coins and Shells


Veneranda Biblioteca Ambrosiana




450 x 650 mm


Still Life

historical period


Exhibit Artwork

Artwork Details

The painting depicts a big vase of flowers in the foreground that covers the entire space of the painting.

The composition of flowers rests on the marble table and stands out against the dark background that brings out the many varieties of colorful flowers in the vase. At the bottom there are a few fallen flowers, a dragonfly and a butterfly with black and red wings sitting on a leaf as well as a gold pedant with precious stones, two coins and shells.

Many types of flowers, such as tulips, irises, roses, carnations, bluebells, wild flowers, dahlias and lilies are portrayed with great naturalism and attention on the different shapes and colors that perfectly reflect the original ones.

The rendering is faithful to the natural details and its juxtaposition with the preciousness of the jewel and the shape and the color of the rare shell as well as the coins symbolizing wealth that make this little copper painting precious, and it is a perfect example of the subject popular in Flanders, loved by the Flemish painter. In fact, Jan Brueghel was well known for his ability to paint flowers, fruit and plants and for this he was also known as Jan of Flowers.

According to a legend, Brueghel had painted these rare and expensive flowers to a poor woman who could not afford to buy them. However, the correspondence between the artist and Milanese cardinal Federico Borromeo, his patron and protector, indicates that the execution of the work began in January 1606 and the artist chose to depict these flowers because he found them beautiful and rare. The painter also reminded the cardinal that he had seen these plants at the court of Archduke Albert and his wife Isabella in Brussels, where he served as a painter.

This elaborate still life is a genre particularly loved by Borromeo, who saw the divine reflection in the beauty of plants, flowers, fruit and animals and it belonged to cardinal’s collection, which was donated in 1618 to the Milanese religious institution he founded.

Artist Details

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Jan Brueghel came from a family of artists. He was the second son of Pieter Brueghel the Elder, who died when Jan was only 1-year-old and he was the brother of Pieter the Young and father of Jan the Young, who became famous Flemish artists between the 16th and 17th centuries.

He trained in his family’s workshop studying his father’s works, then he went to school in Antwerp with Pieter Gotkind and in the end of the 16th century Jan stayed twice in Italy, the first time for four years. In 1595 he met Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan, the great collector and patron of artists. The prelate took Jan under his wing and he did the same with his son, who was also a painter.

Borromeo admired still lifes and the silent and naturalistic painting of the Flemish artist, which was very different from the modern interpretations of Caravaggio’s style, dark and dramatic. Jan worked also in Rome and he painted small paintings for Cardinal Borromeo that can be grouped into two allegorical series; the series of Elements and that of Five Senses which today are preserved in Museo del Prado in Madrid.

In 1598 he returned to Flanders, Antwerp and enrolled in the Guild of St. Luke, the guild of painters. Brueghel continued to paint similar subjects, still lifes and flowers, but also landscapes often in collaboration with other artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens. In fact, he often painted the natural landscape while the collaborators painted the figures.

In Brussels the artist painted small landscapes, also on copper, for Archduke Albert and his court, but then he moved again to Antwerp where he had become very famous and where he eventually died of cholera epidemic.

In Italy Jan is also known as Brueghel of Velvets or Flowers for his extraordinary capacity to represent clothes with that fabric and flowers, such as tulips, daisies, sunflowers that came from America and were considered rare and exotic species.

Brueghel is also known as Paradise painter because the flowers, plants and fruits he painted were so perfectly represented that they seemed to have been collected in Paradise.

Collection Details

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Pinacoteca Ambrosiana was established in 1618 by cardinal Federico Borromeo, when he donated his art collection to the Ambrosiana library, which was founded by him as well in 1607. The building was named after the patron saint of Milan, St. Ambrose.

It was the first museum in the world to be open to the public. The history of the Pinacoteca and the library goes hand in hand, as this was also the first library to be open to the public. The book collection includes prestigious volumes, among them Petrarch’s Virgil with illuminated manuscript by Simone Martini and Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, donated in 1637 by Galeazzo Arconati.

In fact, cardinal’s plan was to display art with its symbology and evocative power to serve Christian values reaffirmed by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), which were threatened by the diffusion of the Protestant reformation.

The academy was added in 1637 and transferred to Brera in 1776. It was supposed to be an artistic school of painting, sculpture and architecture which would allow the students to learn from the great models of the history.

The building was designed by architect Fabio Mangone (1587-1629) and it is located in the city center. The space is expanded over 1500 square meters and divided into twenty-two rooms. The cardinal illustrated the works and the objects himself in his book in Latin, Museum (1625), which still today represents the main nucleus of the Pinacoteca.

Through commissions and purchases Federico Borromeo’s collection grew with the paintings of Lombard and Tuscan schools, among them works by Raphael, Correggio and Bernardino Luini and casts from Leone Leoni’s workshop, arriving to a total of 3000 artworks of which 300 are exhibited.

There are great masterpieces such as the Portrait of a Musician by Leonardo Da Vinci (1480), Madonna del Padiglione by Botticelli (1495), the cartoon for the School of Athens by Raphael (before 1510), the Holy Family with St. Anne and Young St. John by Bernardino Luini (1530) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Jacopo Bassano (1547).

A great part of the collection is dedicated to landscape and to still life, because the Cardinal saw the nature as an important tool raising the human mind into the Divine. For this reason, Federico collected Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit and the miniature paintings by Jan Brueghel and Paul Brill.

After the cardinal’s death the collection was enriched with the donations of the artworks from 15th and 16th centuries, such as the frescoes by Bramantino and Antonio Canova and Bertel Thorvaldsen’s marble self-portraits. Museo Settala, one of the first museums in Italy, founded by canonical Manfredo Settala (1600-1680), was joined to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in 1751. The museum is a sort of science history museum with a variety of curiosities of all time.

During the period of growth, the museum required some structural and architectural changes as well, including the expansion of the exhibition halls between 1928 and 1931, which were decorated with 13th century miniature motifs of Ambrosian codes, and between 1932 and 1938 a new series of restorations was implemented under the guidance of Ambrogio Annoni. The renowned readjustment in 1963 was curated by architect Luigi Caccia Dominioni and the museum excursus was concluded with the current reorganization between 1990 and 1997.