Isenbrandt settled in Bruges in 1510 and was accepted as a Free Master in the same year. He seems to have enjoyed a long career, spanning four decades until his death in 1551, by which time he was a prominent and wealthy citizen. He ran a busy workshop that produced works for both the local market and the export trade and was elected vinder or Dean of the Guild of Saint Luke nine times between 1516 and 1548, serving as its Governor twice between 1526–27 and 1537–38. Despite this not a single signed or documented work by him survives, and his œuvre has therefore had to be reconstructed by art historians, in particular Max Friedländer, whose work in the 1930s defined his artistic personality and expanded the number of key works assigned to his name.1 Isenbrandt’s mature style is readily recognised, for the stylistic identity of this principal group is remarkably consistent. As in the present panel they are characterised by a soft, almost hazy technique in the flesh tones, ‘loosening and blurring the brushwork’, as Friedländer put it, and giving it ‘…an almost smoked or fired aspect’.2 The dominant stylistic influence upon Isenbrandt’s work was clearly that of his celebrated fellow townsman Gerard David (c. 1460–1523), the leading painter in Bruges at that date. It has often been assumed that Isenbrandt may have been David’s pupil, although his arrival in Bruges as a Master in his own right in 1510 would suggest otherwise.3 He may, however, have worked in David’s workshop, for from him Isenbrandt certainly seems to have acquired his brilliant sense of rich colour, and many of his compositions and landscapes were freely adapted by the younger painter. The striking reds and browns found in the present panel are typical of this aspect of Isenbrandt’s technique.
This is one of the finest of a group of small-scale panels of the Crucifixion painted by Isenbrandt, in which the composition revolves around the three figures of Saint John, the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross. Here they are set in a beautiful panoramic landscape, in which the artist has carefully portrayed the architecture of the distant city of Jerusalem. The design of the panel is traditional and quite conservative in taste, and notable for its stillness. The striking motif of the Magdalene embracing the foot of the cross, for example, is inspired by the much earlier example of Rogier van der Weyden (1400–1464).4 As Friedländer observed, the figure of the young Saint John was repeated by Isenbrandt in another panel of The Crucifixion with Saints Andrew and Francis and the Archangel Michael formerly in the collection of Marczell von Nemes in Budapest and today in the Szépmüvészeti Museum in the same city, in which a very similar landscape, including the same castle atop a rocky bluff to the left and the view of the distant city of Jerusalem and the mountain behind on the right, is also to be found.5 The figure of the Virgin Mary, together with that of Christ and the skull at the foot of the cross all recur in a smaller arched-top panel of The Crucifixion with Mary and St John and angels formerly in the Goldschmidt collection in Berlin and today in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg.6 The figures of both Mary and the Magdalene are repeated in a panel of similar size now preserved in the Musée de Brou in Bourg-en-Bresse in France, which follows in rectangular format the design of the Hamburg painting, and was probably painted in Isenbrandt’s workshop. Another high-quality autograph variant of the design, with the principal figures brought much closer to the picture plane and with various variations in pose, is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.7
Owing to the lack of signed or documented works it is extremely difficult to suggest a possible dating for any works associated with the Isenbrandt group. The high quality of the present panel, and in particular the very fine features of Christ and his mourners suggest that this is likely to be a work of his early maturity, later than recognised early works such as the Life of the Virgin triptych in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, generally dated around 1518 by scholars, but perhaps before the version of the Crucifixion in Philadelphia with its larger figures, a work that has been dated around 1525. Infra-red reflectography of the under-drawing on the present panel (fig. 1) reveals several revisions, for example around the head of the Magdalene. This contrasts with that on the Hamburg panel, which is marked by the use of pouncing.8 An early date is also supported by recent dendrochronological examination of the present panel by Ian Tyres, which suggests a felling date in the mid-1480s and a likely usage date from 1490 onwards.9
We are grateful to both Peter van den Brink and Till-Holger Borchert for independently endorsing the attribution to Adriaen Isenbrandt on the basis of photographs.
1 Gustav Waagen was the first to assemble the core group of works by this painter, who he wrongly associated with the Haarlem painter Jan Mostaert. The artist was subsequently nicknamed the ‘Pseudo-Mostaert’ or the ‘Master of the Seven Sorrows’ after the eponymous diptych from the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk in Bruges. In 1902, Georges Hulin de Loo and W.H. Weale were the first scholars to attribute a large group of these related works under the name of Isenbrandt, a hypothetical proposal that is still largely accepted to this day.
2 Friedländer 1974, p. 57.
3 The Ghent jurist Dionysius Hardwijn (1530–1604) who spent some time in Bruges around 1550, mentions him in his (lost) notes as a pupil of the ageing Gerard David, and excelling in ‘nudes and in portraits’. Isenbrandt may have worked there alongside the Lombard painter Albert Cornelis (c. 1475–1532), either under David or together with him in a joint workshop.
4 See, for example, the famous Triptych of the Crucifixion of c. 1440 in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
5 Inv. no. 9047a. Panel, 127.3 x 81.2 cm. Friedländer 1974, p. 92, no. 214, reproduced pl. 149.
6 Inv. no. 5231, Panel, 33.5 x 27.5 cm. Friedländer 1974, p. 85, no. 158, reproduced pl. 127.
7 Inv. no. A6050.51-2. Panel, 44.7 x 34.2 cm. Friedländer 1974, p. 85, no. 161.
8 Wilson 1990 pp. 524–55.
9 A very similar dating is also suggested by Piet Klein’s dendrochronological analysis of the panel in Budapest, for which see Urbach 2015. Klein’s analysis of the Hamburg panel reveals a very early terminus ante quem of 1476–80 for its use, suggesting that it too may have been an early work by Isenbrandt, or an older panel recycled for use in his workshop at a later date.