School of Bruges, 16th Century
- School of Bruges, 16th Century
- The Annunciation
- oil on oak panel
Thence by descent until sold London, Christie’s, 13 December 1996, lot 27 (as circle of Pieter Pourbus).
E. Tahon in M.P.J. Martens (ed.), Bruges et la Renaissance: De Memling à Pourbus. Notices, Ghent and Oostkamp 1998, p. 170, no. 149.
The parallels between the two paintings are indeed striking when it comes to the decorative features of the spacious surroundings that are reminiscent of contemporary sixteenth-century palaces. Perhaps the most immediately noticeable similarities between the two paintings relate to the shape of the dressoir behind the Virgin, with its unusual triangular pedestal; the Corinthian columns; and the representation in the background of a light room adjacent to the Virgin’s chamber. In Pourbus’ painting, the inclusion of an altarpiece for private devotion with the depiction of the Fall of Man alludes to the concept of the overcoming of Original Sin by the Sacrifice of Christ who becomes flesh at the moment of the Annunciation; the same idea is expressed in the present panel even though the private altarpiece on the dressoir is replaced by a relief depicting Cain and Abel that is decorated with a representation of Moses and crowned by the figure of Iustitia.
The close parallels between Pourbus’ 1552 Annunciation in Gouda and the present panel would at first indicate that Pourbus’ monumental masterpiece served as the model for the latter. This assessment though, however appealing, might be misleading since it is entirely possible that the present Annunciation, in fact, precedes by some years the far more elegant and refined painting by Pieter Pourbus who – as Paul Huvenne has argued – modelled his principal figures after prints by Raphael.1 The figures in the present panel are, in contrast, far more conventional in character and reflect much older prototypes: the kneeling Virgin is reminiscent of the type of Annunciata that Rogier van der Weyden depicted in the Louvre Annunciation, a panel that originally formed the centre of a triptych commissioned by the Villa family.2 Her posture and the position of her hands have undergone only minor alterations. The prototype of the Archangel, on the other hand, seems to be lost but had already been copied around 1490 by a follower of the Cologne Master of the Holy Kinship, on the exterior of the Crucifixion altarpiece in the Catholic Church of Vallendar near Koblenz (Germany). The same is true of the somewhat old-fashioned depiction of God the Father in the upper left corner of the present Annunciation panel, which refers to older iconographical types and which was not employed by Pourbus.
There can be little doubt that the representation of the Corinthian columns must be directly linked to the highly influential translation of Sebastiano Serlio’s treatise Architettura by Pieter Coecke van Aelst in 1539, which provides a secure terminus post quem for the present painting. The conservative manner in which the figures are painted does suggest that – regardless of whether the master responsible for the Annunciation preceded Pourbus or followed his design – the conception of this painting was far more strongly linked to tradition than to Pourbus.
The hypothesis that the present Annunciation was conceived independently from Pourbus’ masterpiece in Gouda and predates the latter by a few years is also supported by its relationship with a third Annunciation, dated 1562, that has long been attributed to an anonymous Bruges Master but which was, in fact, produced by the workshop of Pieter Claeissens the Elder.3 While it has been suggested that the composition of the painting in Dublin is directly based on Pourbus’ Annunciation of 1552, the visual evidence clearly contradicts such an assumption: Claeissens’ monumental Annunciation not only greatly simplifies the interior compared to both the present panel and Pourbus’ painting. He abandoned the complex space and replaced the Corinthian columns of the door with caryatids of a monumental chimney. Moreover, Claeissens closely modelled his figures after Mary and archangel Gabriel in our painting, instead of emulating the elegant Italianate postures of Pourbus. Claeissens copied the kneeling Virgin literally after the figure in the present panel (or its model) as is evident by the similar drapery of Mary’s blue cloth to the right and the position of her hands. While the posture of Gabriel has been somewhat altered and, in fact, modernized, the prominent central position of the flower-vase – a symbol of the immaculate conception of the Virgin – implies that Claeissens was inspired by the present painting and not by Pourbus. He even included the somewhat anachronistic detail of God the Father in the clouds sending out the holy dove and even though he altered the position of this motif, it is clear that he referred to the present Annunciation as Eva Tahon has already observed.4 The fact that Claeissens, in 1562, referred not to the more elegant types of Pourbus but to the present Annunciation indicates that the latter must have been conceived independently from Pourbus.
The key to understanding the authorship of the present panel lies perhaps in a comparison with the monumental Annunciation by Jan Provoost that is today in the collection of Palazzo Bianco in Genoa. This panel was originally part of an altarpiece made for a Genoese or Portuguese client. Despite its unusually large scale, the composition seems very conventional and combines motifs from Rogier van der Weyden, Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus. The subtle manner in which the wings of the Angel Gabriel change colours is closely related to this Annunciation panel. Even though the paintings attributed to Provoost are, on the whole, heterogeneous in style, there are correlations between some of the master’s major works, such as the Paris Allegory or the London Virgin and Child, and the present panel.5 The facial features seen in this panel, and those of the Archangel Gabriel in particular, approach very nearly to Provoost’s type. This would suggest that the painter of the Annunciation very likely had access to Provoost’s model books.
As the Annunciation cannot have been executed before 1540 and does not blend in stylistically with works by any of the known painters of sixteenth-century Bruges, it seems most likely that we are looking at an unknown painter. The fact that this artist had access to Provoost’s prototypes would suggest that he worked with that master prior to Provoost’s death in 1529. By way of hypothesis, it may be argued that one painter who would fit the picture would be Adriaan Provoost, Jan’s son, who became a master in Bruges in 1528 and later settled in Antwerp. Even after moving to Antwerp, he remained active in Bruges, maintaining close business contacts in that city. Adriaan married the daughter of Hugues Provoost, another painter in Bruges, who was presumably also a relative. Hugues Provoost established a workshop in the sixteenth century in Bruges.6
This painting has a distinguished provenance, having belonged to the collection of a Bohemian and Austrian noble family. Maximilian von Dietrichstein was created Graf (Count) von Dietrichstein on 18 September 1612, and his uncle Franz Seraph was elevated as Fürst (Prince) von Dietrichstein zu Nikolsburg in 1624.
We are grateful to Till-Holger Borchert for his assistance in cataloguing this painting.
1. P. Huvenne, Pieter Pourbus, Meesterschilder 1524–1584, exhibition catalogue, Bruges, 1984, p. 141.
2. S. Kemperdick, J. Sander et al., The Master of Flemalle and Rogier van der Weyden, exhibition catalogue, Frankfurt/Berlin, no. 26.
3. Dublin, National Gallery of Ireland, inv. NGI 1223, cf. C. Vogelaar, Netherlandish Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Paintings in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin 1987, pp. 14–15.
4. See M.P.J. (ed.) 1998, under Literature.
5. Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. RF 1963-44, and National Gallery, inv. NG 713.
6. See R.A. Parmentier, 'Bronnen voor de geschiedenis van het Brugse schildersmilieu in de XVIe eeuw, XX: Adriaen Provoost', in Belgisch tijdschrift voor Oudheidkunde en Kunstgeschiedenis, 11, 1941, pp. 111–18.