Lot 37
  • 37

Southern Netherlandish, probably Brussels, late 15th century

50,000 - 70,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Relief with the Holy Family and Melchior
  • with a label on the reverse inscribed: THE ADLER COLLECTION
  • walnut
  • Southern Netherlandish, probably Brussels, late 15th century


John and Judith Adler, United Kingdom;
their sale, Sotheby’s London, 24 February 2005, lot 33

Catalogue Note

This beautifully executed carving with the Holy Family seems to be indebted to both the sculpture and the paintings of the Southern Netherlands of the 15th century. Showing only Melchior, the oldest of the three Magi, it is likely that the group was originally part of a larger whole - perhaps similar in layout to a well-known relief with the Adoration of the Magi which is in Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht (inv. no. BMH 144; Steyaert, op. cit. p. 287). The Utrecht relief has been praised for its originality and psychological characterisations of the protagonists. Although attributed to the Utrecht region, it shows clear influences from the Brussels school.

In the present walnut group, these influences are even more apparent, suggesting the relief is most likely to have been executed in Brussels. The characterful and intricately carved faces, showing an astonishing attention to detail – note, for instance, the crinkles beside Melchior’s eyes and the frown marks on Joseph's forehead – are on a par with some of the most advanced carved altarpieces of the Brabant region. Further comparison with Brussels altarpieces can be seen in the finish of the clothing, particularly of Melchior, whose cloak is adorned with a chain around the neck, an elaborate belt from which a bag is suspended, and a separate collar which is offset by trimmings: similar adornments can be seen on Jan Borman’s famous Altarpiece of Saint George in Brussels, particularly in the figure that bears his signature.

For its composition, however, the present group seems to owe more to Southern Netherlandish painting. The subject of the Adoration of the Magi, frequently encountered in the so-called 'Flemish Primitives', is often depicted in this manner: with the Christ Child perching on the Virgin’s lap, Saint Joseph standing in the background with his hat in his hands, the eldest Magi kneeling in front of Christ with his gift of gold, and the ox and the ass being included in the whole assembly. This type of composition can be seen, for instance, in Rogier van der Weyden’s Adoration in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich (inv. no. WAF 1189, part of the St Columba Altarpiece), or Hans Memling’s version of the Adoration in the Prado in Madrid (inv. no. P01557). Indeed, the influence of Rogier van der Weyden's work, active in Brussels 1430-1461, on sculpture of the same region, has often been acknowledged (van de Velde, op. cit., p. 39). The Virgin Mary in the present carving, with her high forehead, small mouth and straight, thin nose, fits Rogier’s type perfectly. Furthermore, significantly, Memling’s Adoration shows the Virgin with a veil that is partially folded back, revealing her long curly locks underneath – as it does in the present group.

With its apparent influences from both the Brussels school of carving and the paintings of the Southern Netherlands, this group presents an opportunity to acquire a piece of exceptional quality, which shows outstanding attention to detail and intricacy in its carving.

Flanders in the Fifteenth Century: Art and Civilization – Catalogue of the Exhibition Masterpieces of Flemish Art: Van Eyck to Bosch, exh. cat. The Detroit Institute of Arts, 1960, pp. 75-82; 141-145; J. W. Steyaert, Late Gothic Sculpture – The Burgundian Netherlands, exh. cat. Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, 1994, no. 80; C. Van de Velde, ‘La relation entre la sculpture et la peinture à la fin du Moyen-Âge’, in A. Huysmans (ed.) La sculpture des Pays-Bas méridionaux et de la Pricipauté de Liège – Xve et XVIe siècles, exh. cat., Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire, Brussels, 1999, pp. 39-44