To set the stage for this question, it is helpful to know a bit about the artist, Jan Gossaert (c1478-1532), who is also often called Mabuse after his birthplace, Maubeuge. He introduced important innovations into Netherlandish art of the early sixteenth century, and he is quite an interesting figure. He played a central role in negotiating the transition between the Late Gothic style that still prevailed in the Netherlands and a style based on the principles of the Italian Renaissance. He was the first Netherlandish artist to paint nudes and the first to paint subjects from classical mythology. As we shall see, it is his ability to fuse, or to switch back and forth between different styles or visual modes that contributes to the riddle of this fascinating picture.
Unfortunately, our knowledge about his life is very sketchy. We don’t know who his teacher was, but he became a master in the Antwerp guild of artists in 1503. He seems to have entered the service of Philip of Burgundy, the illegitimate son of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He travelled to Italy with Philip in 1508-9 where he first came into contact not only with the artistic achievements of the Italian Renaissance, but also with ancient sculpture. At Philip’s request, he made pen-and-ink drawings of the Roman antiquities they encountered. The experience was something of a revelation for him and was to have a lasting impact on his art.