Anonymous sale ('The Property of a Gentleman'), London, Christie's, 29 June 1973, lot 13 (as Circle of Rogier van der Weyden);
Private collection, Spain.
M. Beas-Dondeyne, 'Een Teruggevonden Luik van het Brussels Geboorteretabel uit 'The Cloisters' te New York', in Bulletin van het Koninklijk Institut, Brussels, XI, 1969, pp. 93–108;
M.W. Ainsworth (ed.), From Van Eyck to Bruegel. Early Netherlandish Painting in the Metropolitam Museum of Art, New York 1998, p. 212, both reproduced (in reverse; as 'Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden').
It has been tentatively suggested that originally this wing would have been placed directly to the right of the central panel: between the central panel and the right hand panel depicting the Adoration of the Magi. The corresponding panel on the left remains lost but has been tentatively identified in the past as an Annunciation last recorded in a private collection in England in 1951.1 The present and the missing panels might equally have been placed at the extreme right and left, thus allowing a continuous chronological narrative from left to right: Annunciation to the Virgin; Visitation; Nativity; Adoration of the Magi; and Circumcision. When closed the reverse of each wing would have been on view, and thus a series of four saints, each standing within a carved stone niche, would have greeted the viewer.
Dendrochronological analysis of the Metropolitan panels gives a plausible date of execution for the altarpiece in 1459 or later. On this basis it may therefore be hypothesized that the altarpiece was produced during the lifetime of Rogier van der Weyden (who died in 1464) and, given its great debt to his work, it would seem highly likely that it was produced in his workshop.
The subjects to the left and right of the Nativity in the central panel (in the Metropolitan Museum), the Annunciation to Augustus and the Annunciation to the Magi, are extremely unusual and are found, respectively, in the descriptions of the feasts of the Nativity and Epiphany in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend. Here, their appearance probably derives from Rogier’s Bladelin triptych (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), the only altarpiece painted prior to 1459 which includes these stories. Furthermore, the presence of the banderoles in the main panel of the Metropolitan altarpiece is particularly interesting in relation to the Bladelin triptych. Although not visible on the painted surface now, infra-red photography of the Bladelin panel reveals that such banderoles were originally conceived for it, as was the circle around the Christ-star in the Annunciation to the Magi. With such strong links to the Bladelin triptych it seems very likely that the design of the latter was used in the workshop of Rogier and that the painter of this altarpiece used it for reference when executing the work.
In the entry on the Nativity altarpiece in M.W. Ainsworth (ed.) 1998 (see Literature), the images are not only reversed but also show a repainted area from the head of the donor figure down to the back of the neck of the foremost figure. This area of overpaint has since been removed, restoring this small area to its presumably original appearance.
Note on the Provenance
It is not known when this (and the missing) panel were separated from the main altarpiece. However, it was certainly before 1854 as they are not described in the Christie’s auction catalogue of 25 March that year when the Nativity altarpiece was sold by J.D. Gardner Esq. of Bottisham Hall, Cambridgeshire. Prior to that sale the altarpiece is recorded in the collection of a ‘Frasinelli’ in Stuttgart in 1843, and before that in a convent in Segovia in Spain. It is possible, even probable, that the altarpiece’s departure from the convent, and its dismemberment, occurred during the Desamortisación between 1835–37.
1. This Annunication however has no painted saint on the reverse and shows no sign of being sawn, so that any identification of it as the missing panel remains inconclusive.
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