Unlike many of his fellow painters in Antwerp, Hemessen was especially adept in rendering nude figures on a large scale, a skill no doubt influenced by Italian painters he must have encountered during a trip to Italy in the 1520s. Luminaries of the day, including Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto and Raphael, had an enormous impact on the young artist, who, more than any other painter in the North was able to translate the Italian model into a new Flemish vocabulary. Hemessen's powerful figures were often times, as here, combined with exaggerated poses, a practice taken from the great Mannerist painters in Italy and Fontainebleau such as Giulio Romano, Primaticcio and especially, Rosso Fiorentino. Hemessen's spectacular Judith with the Head of Holofernes in the Art Institute in Chicago (fig. 2) is in fact based directly on a model by Rosso.2 An important example of his ability to blend Early Netherlandish linearity with Italian modelling is the Last Judgement Altarpiece, dating from the late 1530s, and painted for the Chapel of Adriaen Rockox in the Church of Saint James in Antwerp (fig. 3).3 The large, powerful nudes in the foreground of the center panel, as in the present work, were groundbreaking at the time, in their Italianate and deeply humanizing style that itself was an outgrowth of the mid-century genius of Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Peter van den Brink dates this work to circa 1545 based on similarly rendered single figure panels of a similar date. Of note is the signed and dated 1540 variant of this composition in the Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum in Linz, Austria. That composition provides insight into this panel's original size and format, as does an inferior enlarged workshop version, which recently appeared on the market at Hampel Fine Art Auctions, 4 July 2018, lot 419.
Dendrochronological analysis of the oak boards by Prof. Dr. Peter Klein suggests that the picture was painted after 1541, just after the Linz version, but more likely circa 1545-7.4 Close observation of Christ’s right hand indicates that the original lay-out the fingers was planned to be somewhat longer, as in Christ’s right hand in the painting in Linz. There can be little doubt that the correction is a great improvement, but it places the present picture most certainly after the 1540 dated Christ in Linz. A date around 1545 seems to fit the picture most agreeably.
Infrared reflectography suggests a manner of preparation entirely consistent with Hemessen's practice. The IRR mosaic does not display a powerful underdrawing, but rather an outline of carefully applied, thin contour lines. This initial stage was followed by the application of a layer of light-grey paint, the so-called doodverf stage, before painting up the composition in full. It is highly likely that Van Hemessen made use of model drawings, although none of these have survived.
Christ is not portrayed here as the Man of Sorrows. His self-assured upright pose, the presentation of His wounds a demonstration of His triumph over death and the heavenly light above him marks Christ as the Redeemer of the World.5 In all probability Jan van Hemessen’s portrayal of Christ as Saviour must be seen as powerful reference to the upcoming Counter-Reformation, already visible in the artist’s work ten years earlier, when he finished his masterpiece, the Last Judgement Altarpiece for burgomaster Adriaen Rockox in 1536-37.6
This entry derives from an essay by Peter van den Brink, to whom we are grateful. The full version is available upon request.
1. On Hemessen, B. Wallen, Jan van Hemessen. An Antwerp Painter between Reform and Counter-Reform, Ann Arbor 1983.
2. Inv. no. 1956.1109. See Wallen 1983, pp. 2, 107-108, 309-310, no. 36, fig. 121; M. Wolff, Northern European and Spanish Paintings before 1600 in the Art Institute of Chicago, New Haven/London 2008, pp. 232-236, color image. With regard to the Rosso model, Wolff, ibid., pp. 235-236, fig. 2.
3. Wallen 1983, pp. 292-294, no. 17, figs. 71-74, 80.
4. See the report by Prof. Dr. Peter Klein of January 22, 2018.
5. There are certainly other pictures where a comparable supernatural light has been used, as in the Salvator Mundiby the anonymous Master of the Mansi Magdalen, an artist active in the studio of Quentin Massys, now in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen.
6. Wallen 1983, pp. 84-88.
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