Lot 6
  • 6

GILLIS CLAEISSENS | Christ the Saviour adored by Abbot Robert Holman

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
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  • Christ the Saviour adored by Abbot Robert Holman
  • inscribed on the donor's gloves with his initials: RH and with his coat of arms on the prie-dieu
  • oil on oak panel, rounded top, within a South Netherlandish mid-to-late seventeenth-century fruitwood frame carved with angels bearing instruments and symbols of the Passion
  • 25.4 x 15.2 cm.; 10 x 6 in.


Commissioned by Robert Holman, Abbot of Notre Dame des Dunes; Mr Pennell;

His (anonymous) sale ('A small assemblage of Pictures of a High Class'), London, Christie's, 30 June 1832, lot 2 (as Hemmelinck), for £24.3s. to Coxe;

Samuel Jones Loyd, later 1st Baron Overstone (1796–1883), by whom acquired c. 1835 (according to the Guide to the Pictures at Lockinge House, 1928);

Thence by inheritance to his son-in-law Brigadier-General Robert Loyd-Lindsay, 1st Baron Wantage. VC, KCB, VD (1832–1901), Lockinge, Oxfordshire;

Thence by descent to the present owner.


London, Royal Academy, Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters, January – March 1902, no. 5 (as Jean Bellegambe); Bruges, Provinicaal Hof, Exposition des Primitifs Flamands et d'Art Ancien, 15 June – 5 October 1902, no. 310 (as Gilles Claeis);

Birmingham, City Museum and Art Gallery, Paintings and Tapestries from Lockinge House, Wantage, 1945–52, no. 6 (as attributed to Claeis);

Bruges, Musée Communale Groenige-Bruges, L'Art Flamand dans les collections Britanniques et la Galerie Nationale de Victoria, August–September 1956, no. 48 (as Peter Claeissens the Elder);

Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, on long term loan (as Peter Claeissens the Elder).


G. Redford, Descriptive Catalogue of the Pictures at Overstone Park (Lord Overstone's Collection), 1877, p. 11, cat. no. 15 (as Memling); A.G.Temple, Catalogue of the Pictures forming the Collection of Lord and Lady Wantage, 1902, pp. 8–10, cat. no. 12, reproduced (as attributed to Bellegambe or Claeis [sic]);

Guide to the Pictures at Lockinge House (A.T. Lloyd's Collection), 1928, pp. 7–9 (as attributed to Claeis [sic]);

B. Dewilde, 'Gillis Claeissens: een 'onbekende' schilder uit het zestiende-eeuws Brugge. Aanzet tot reconstructie van zijn œuvre binnen de Claeissensgroep', in Revue Belge d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’art, vol. 78, 2009, pp. 54–59;

B. Dewilde and A. van Oosterwijk, 'Puzzling Art. Reconstructing the Claeissens's œuvre: Gillis Claeissens, Portraitist to the Bruges Beau Monde', in Forgotten Masters. Pieter Pourbus and Bruges. Painting from 1525 to 1625, exhibition catalogue, Bruges, Groeningemuseum, 2017, pp. 41 n. 40, 267, reproduced fig. 24.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: Pieteer Claessen the Elder. The Saviour adored by Abbot Holman. This painting on panel, probably oak, is set into a remarkable carved frame. It was not possible to see the back. There appears to be one central joint, or possibly a crack, running down from the centre of the rounded top. Much exquisite detail is well preserved in the figure of Christ, with just a few minute slightly darkened retouchings on His knee. Elsewhere as well the surroundings lower down and to the right are delicately described. Only by the central joint or crack running down through the great mandorla surrounding Christ is a certain amount of blurred old retouching faintly visible, slightly confusing the little original winged angelic heads. This report was not done under laboratory conditions.
"This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

Catalogue Note

This richly detailed and engaging panel must originally have served as a portable altar, intended for private devotion. The picture was undoubtedly commissioned by the Abbot who we see kneeling in devout prayer before his Redeemer, who stands in a vision before him holding the cross. From his coat-of-arms he can be identified as Robert Holman (1521–1579), the Abbot of Notre Dame des Dunes near Veurne, and the panel must therefore date from between his accession as Bishop in 1568 and his death in 1579. Its remarkable carved fruitwood frame is probably a slightly later addition dating from the seventeenth century, but most effectively picks up its theme of Christ’s Passion. Once thought to be the work of the great Hans Memling, recent research has shown this panel to be the work of the Bruges painter Gillis Claeissens, who worked at the court of the Archdukes themselves in Brussels, and whose elegant and highly detailed style made him the leading portraitist in Bruges at this date. Robert Holman was born at Sluis near Bruges. A Cistercian, he became the 36th Abbot of Notre Dame des Dunes in 1568. He died in 1579 and was buried in the church of the Poor Claires in Bruges. In his vision here Christ appears as Redeemer, holding the cross and an open book inscribed with Latin texts from Hebrews 2, 14: ‘..that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death’ and Revelations 5, 4: ‘…no man was found worthy to open and read the book’. With His right foot Christ tramples upon a serpent, symbol of Satan and evil. The globe at the foot of the cross symbolises His role as Salvator Mundi. Despite the small scale, Holman’s face is very finely painted, and the painter has taken the greatest care in rendering the different textures of the Abbot’s robes, the snakeskin and the body of Christ. Holman was painted again by Gillis Claeissins in 1571 in a larger half-length format today preserved in the Grootseminarie in Bruges (fig. 1). The Abbot’s slightly younger features suggest that the Bruges likeness may predate the present work.

Although relatively little is known about Gillis Claeissens today, in his own time he was highly esteemed, and is praised by two early chroniclers, Arnoldus Buchelius (1565–1641) and Antonius Sanderus (1586–1664), as having been court painter to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella in Brussels.1 Gillis was trained in the workshop of his father Pieter Claeissens the Elder, to whom this panel was attributed until very recently. He became a Master painter in his own right in the Bruges Painters Guild on 18 October 1566. In 1572 he became a member of the archers’ Saint Sebastian Guild and in 1576, following his father’s death, he took over the running of the family workshop in the Oude Zak. In 1569, he went to Brussels to become court painter to the Archdukes Albert and Isabella, for whom he painted a Crucifixion for the court chapel in 1604.2 It seems that Gillis was chiefly active as a very accomplished portrait painter. Two wings from a triptych painted for Claeys van de Kerchove and his family as an epitaph for the family tomb in the church of St Catherine in Assebroek, just outside Bruges (Szépmuvéseti Múzeum, Budapest, figs. 2a and 2b), for which a contract of 13 February 1574 survives, has enabled scholars to construct a small œuvre of related works alongside this panel and the related portrait of 1571. These include a Portrait of Joris van Brakele in a private collection, a Portrait of an unknown gentleman in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, two female portraits in private collections in London and Antwerp, and a pair of Portraits of a lady and her son in Stockholm, Hallwylska Museet.3 These portraits all share quite modest dimensions, and are painted in a refined courtly style, seemingly indebted to French models. Their sitters share slightly large eyes and distinctive hands. They suggest that Gillis enjoyed a certain vogue among well-heeled members of the Bruges gentry. The concern for detail on a small scale, above all the rendering of the costume and jewellery in each, finds ready parallels with the present work, especially with Bishop Holman’s features and his episcopal robes, and their kinship with the Budapest panels has finally allowed scholars to convincingly determine his authorship of this remarkable work.

1 A. Buchelius, Res Pictoriae, G.J. Hoogewerff and J.Q. van Regteren Altena (eds), The Hague 1928, p. 54; and A. Sandreus, Flandria Illustrata, Amsterdam 1641–44, vol. I, p. 210. Gillis is the only member of his family to be so mentioned. His fame seems to have remained constant well into the eighteenth century.

2 See also B. Dewilde, 'Gillis Claeissens: een 'onbekende' schilder uit het zestiende-eeuws Brugge. Aanzet tot reconstructie van zijn oeuvre binnen de Claeissensgroep', Revue Belge d’archéologie et d’histoire de l’art, 78, 2009, pp. 29–67. The suggestion that he may have worked for Alessandro Farnese in Parma does not seem to have any foundation.

3 Dewilde and Oosterwijk 2017, pp. 261–75, cat. nos 44, 45, 47, 48 and 49, all reproduced.