The Madonna of the Cherries dates to the 1520s, Massys’ last decade. It was a period during which he was concentrating on devotional images, mainly of the Virgin, many of which are known in multiple versions, rather than altarpieces. At the beginning of his career, Massys modeled his compositions on Netherlandish prototypes, but later he turned to more contemporary sources for inspiration, so that his representations of the Virgin changed over time. In his earlier works Massys depicted the Virgin as the Queen of Heaven, with a halo and seated on a celestial throne – an image that was intended to be adored by the viewer. In the present work, the Virgin is still a Queen of Heaven but has lost her halo and is dressed in a remarkably plain costume. Rather than being an intercessor and a figure to be adored, she has in some ways become more human. Some of these changes reflect the influence of Leonardo, whose style Massys would have known as interpreted by Joos van Cleve. Van Cleve’s Madonna of the Cherries in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, which also shows Virgin in three-quarter length seated on a throne and a landscape at the left could well be an inspiration for the present work. The emotional connection between the Virgin and Child is stronger here than in any other composition by Massys. The motif of her kissing the Child ultimately derives from 12th century icons, but probably comes to Massys through the intermediaries of Dirck Bouts and Gerard David.1 Massys’ version, however, is more restrained, his Virgin a more stoic figure, who holds herself back, perhaps envisaging what was to come.
In 19th century accounts, the subject is recorded as having been attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, and the present panel was purchased by Thomas Baring as by Bernard van Orley.2 Subsequently it has been considered either by Massys himself or an old (presumably studio) copy of a painting by the master. Martens and Van den Brink have compiled a list of 13 known versions of the composition (some possibly duplicates), but accept only this and the painting in the Mauritshuis, The Hague (on loan from the Rijksmuseum since 1948, inv. no. SK-A-247) as by Massys himself.
One of the issues that has complicated the question of attribution for the entire group is that all the paintings are related to a lost work owned by the Antwerp collector Cornelis van der Gheest (1577-1638). It is prominently included in a painting by Willem van der Haecht commemorating a visit by the Archdukes Albert and Isabella to Van der Gheest in 1615 (fig.1). While the overall composition is essentially the same, there are significant differences in details among the versions and those closest to the image preserved by Van Haecht are of generally poor quality. These variations relate mainly to the decoration of the throne, the color of the Virgin’s dress and position of the fruit on the foreground sill. In the present work and the Hague picture, the throne is more elaborate, with swelling columns and a brocade cloth behind the Virgin — rather than a plainer, marbleized structure — the Virgin’s dress is darker and the placement of the grapes and apple is reversed. Both are also of distinctly better quality than the other versions. In the past it was assumed that the lost Van der Gheest picture would have been the unique version of the subject and any others must have been copies. However, our view of Massys has changed and scholars now agree that there are variant versions of some compositions also by the hand of the master. Here we can see Massys’s hand in such details as the finesse of the brocade, the elaborate columns and the marble decoration on the throne. We also see it in the modeling of the Christ Child, who is round and plump, his soft flesh yielding to the Virgin’s touch and in the transparent veil, barely visible over her hair and circling her left shoulder.
We are very grateful to Maximiliaan P.J. Martens and Peter van den Brink for confirming the attribution to Massys and for their help in preparing this note.
1. See Literature, Silver, p. 78.
2. Weale and Richter (see Provenance).
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