The present composition is just one which helps illustrate the professional connection between Jan and Quentin Massys. Jan was the eldest of Quentin's ten children by his second wife Catharina Heyns. Jan's name does not appear in the list of apprentices of the Antwerp painters' guild until 1531 (two years after Quentin's death), and thus it seems quite plausible that he received his training from his father, who was not obliged to register his own son. As a young apprentice in his father's studio, Jan would have had access to his father's pictures, and may have possibly assisted or replicated some of those images. Two Praying Monks is one such image, another being Two Tax-Collectors (Liechtenstein collections, Vienna), also repeated in a number of versions of varying quality.
Technical analysis of the picture undertaken at the Ghent Interdisciplinary Centre for Art & Science at Ghent University has revealed illuminating details about the genesis of the work. Infrared reflectography has uncovered highly developed underdrawing executed freely in a dry material, and an attempt by Massys to reconsider his father's original composition. Though not fully worked up, Massys may have originally sketched the hands with the knuckles facing the sky, as opposed to outward towards the viewer as seen in the final painted version. Such a deviation from Quentin's original composition seems to have not suited the artist, as he ultimately chose to employ the highly foreshortened and stylized hand design now visible. Furthermore, as Annick Born has noted, the overall handling of the underdrawing here is consistent with other preparatory drawings from Jan Massys' early career, in particular his Tax Collector from 1539 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden).3 An early dating for the present work is also supported by dendrochronological analysis of the panel.4 According to this analysis, the tree from which it was produced would not have been felled between before 1497, with a likely use of the panel between 1497 and 1529. Although it is difficult to ascertain how long the wood was stored before it was shaped into a panel and then used by Massys, that range is consistent with an early date of execution in the artist's career, possibly during his first Antwerp period (1531-43), and more specifically, from a similar moment as his Saint Jerome (1537, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).5
The image of the praying monk illustrates various humanist modes of thought which were promoted by both Jan and Quentin Massys, but also by the great scholar Erasmus (1466 - 1536), whose teachings were critical in forming the Massys approach to religious painting. The inward spirituality of the monk can be seen as a didactic message, meant to inspire the viewer towards self-conscious living, good deeds, and quiet prayer. In the composition's original conception, the stoic religiosity of the monk can be easily contrasted with that that of the the second figure, who peers over his shoulder at his partner. The second monk holds the outward symbol of prayer and devotion, prayer beads, yet his bewildered gaze quite clearly indicates a confusion, or loss of spiritual understanding.5 Such a dichotomy is a clear allusion to Erasmus' humanist teachings, for example Modus orandi Deum, which promotes the idea that devotion need not be expressed through abstract symbolism and ceremony, but instead through inward contemplation and that a strong moralistic grounding should be expressed through good deeds towards fellow man. Though Massys here chooses to depict a sole figure, a clear departure from the original contrasting composition, it also focuses the viewers attention on the singular spirituality of the monk. One must assume that when seen with a sixteenth century period eye, its lesson would not have been lost on an enlightened viewer.
We are grateful to Dr. Larry Silver and Dr. Annick Born, who each independently identified the present work to be by Jan Massys, for their assistance in the cataloguing of this lot.
1. See L. Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys, Totowa, NJ 1984, plates 108-9.
2. See L. Buijnsters-Smets, Jan Massys een Antwerps schilder uit de zestiende eeuw, Zwolle 1995, p. 159, cat. no. 6.
3. Ibid, p, 166, cat. no. 11.
4. It should also be noted that there is no indication that the panel has been altered or cut down at any point in its history. The engaged frame and picture comprise a single piece of oak.
5. A high resolution image of the infrared reflectogram of the present work, as well as the complete dendrochronological report is available upon request.
6. Silver 1984, p. 118.
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