Surviving British paintings on religious subjects from this period are extremely few. The early history of this panel-painting is unknown, but as the inscriptions on it are in English, it must have been made for British usage. Such a combination of images, labels and texts is more usually found in prints from this period, but no engraved prototype for this work has so far been found.Source
The painting is inscribed as follows: 'O MAN THOW WRETCED CREATVRE HOW MAIEST THOVE DELITE IN RICHES BEWTY STRENGTH OR OTHER WORDLY THINGE. REMEMBRINGE THINE ENEMYES WHICH CONTINVALLY SEEKE THEE TO DESTROYE & BRINGE THEE TO NOTHING BVT SINE SHAME AND FYER EVERLASTINGE. THEREFORE FAST WATCH & PRAYE CONTINVALY WT FERVENT DESIER VNTO IESVS THE MIGHTIE CAPTAYNE WHO ONLY IS HABLE TO DEFEND THEE FROM THEIR FIERIE ASSAWLTS.' in bottom cartouche; 'COVETVSNES' on the miser's arrow, lower left; 'GLOTONY', 'SLOWTH' and 'LECHERY' on the lady's three arrows, centre left; 'GRATIA ME SVFICIT TIBIE, 2 COR[.] 12.' on scroll by Christ, top; 'BE SOBER THEREFORE & WATCH FOR THOW KNOWEST NEITHER THE DAY NOR THE HOWRE.' on scroll, centre right, above Death the skeleton; 'BEHIND THEE Y STEALE ¦ LIKE A THEIF THE TEMPORAL LIFE TO DEVOWER' on shield (oval target) of Death; 'PRYDE', 'WRATH' and 'ENVYE' on three arrows of devil, bottom right; 'TEMPORANS', 'GOOD REISINES', 'CHASTITY', 'ALMES DEEDS', 'AND COMPASSION', 'MEEKENES', 'CHARITY', 'PACIENS' on scroll encircling central figure of Man.
The original purpose of this panel is not known. It could have been for personal devotional use. The trompe l'oeil framing of the cartouche at the bottom is incomplete, suggesting that it might have formed part of a larger structure, such as a funerary monument. The main inscription warns the viewer of the human soul's vulnerability to the vanities and dangers of the world. The central figure - Man - wears classical military attire, and much of the imagery is martial, suggesting that the panel could have been painted for a soldier. The figure is being invested with a shield of Christian Virtues (whose names are inscribed on the white scroll that spirals protectively about his figure) by an angel.
The painting is full of meticulous detail, such as the office from which a male figure aims the broad arrow of covetousness from a sporting crossbow. On the desk lie piles of coins, open books and purses, one of which has a projecting handle. From nails in the panelled settle back (echoing the nails on Christ's cross above) hang a string of papers, and a pencase and inkwell on a cord. The richly dressed lady above wears a jewel with an hourglass device suspended from her waist, presumably alluding to the time wasted by slothfulness. The figure immersed in a pit of flames, bottom right, has the visual attributes of a devil: horns, pointed ears, a tail emerging from the naked flesh of his back, a fringe of hair along his arms, and wings. Above him is a skeleton, representing Death aiming his dart - a long spear - at the figure of Man.
Among thick clouds, above this earthly group, small winged child angels turn their heads to the figure of the resurrected Christ, who stands grasping a large wooden cross. The features of Christ and of the man below appear to be identical. It is extremely unusual to find a representation of Christ in a British painting of this period because, following the Reformation in the late 1540s, it was not permitted to display religious images, at least in public.
The dating of this work presents a puzzle. It had long been thought to date from about 1570, as the lady wears a fashion of c.1567-9. Moreover, it bears similarities of handling with another rare English religious painting on panel, the Allegory of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, reproduced Dynasties, p.74, fig.35, and Jones, p.142, fig.136) signed and dated 1570 by the Antwerp-trained Hans Eworth (active 1540-c.1574). Indeed, the present work had sometimes been tentatively attributed to Eworth himself. Dendrochronological analysis carried out by Dr Peter Klein in 1997 seems to show conclusively, however, that the earliest possible dating for its creation is about 1596.
K. Hearn (ed.), Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, Tate exhibition catalogue, London 1995, cat. no. 30, reproduced in colour
K. Hearn, 'Rewriting History on the Walls', Country Life, vol. 191, May 22 1997, p.53, fig.2, reproduced in colour
Rica Jones, 'British School: An Allegory of Man 1596 or after', in S. Hackney, R. Jones, J. Townsend (eds), Paint and Purpose, London 1999, pp.140-5, reproduced in colour
And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus