The choice of material – a honey-coloured, lightly veined alabaster – provides additional confirmation of the sculpture’s Netherlandish origin. A calcite stone, softer and easier to work than marble, alabaster was the preferred material for sculptors from the Southern Netherlands until the middle of the 17th century.
In this work, the strong influence of the Netherlandish masters of the Renaissance can be seen, in particular that of Jacques Dubrœucq (1505-1584) and his contemporary Cornelis Floris (1514-1575). The artist certainly knew and was doubtless inspired by Dubrœucq's King David (fig. 1), a life-size alabaster figure in Mons cathedral, made around 1548 (cf. R. Didier, op.cit. fig.73). Here we find the same swaying stance and attention to costume detail, including the same motif of an angel with spread wings on the breast plate. The present Saint Adrian is distinguished by the mannerist rendering of his figure-hugging cuirass and the elegance of the cloak that drapes over his hips, falling in deep folds. The slender hands, with their long fingers, are comparable to those of the King David playing his harp. The saint’s magnificent burgonet helmet, decorated with a dragon, may have been inspired by models from the Italian or German Renaissance artists, such as Filippo Negroli's helmet, made in Milan in c. 1543, as well as another one by Desiderius Helmschmid, made in Augsburg, around 1550, both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (inv. no. 17.190.1720 and inv. no. 25.135.66).
The present Saint Adrian is a rare example from the period of transition between the Iconoclastic Fury (Beeldenstorm) of 1566 and the church restoration phase that took place in the re-catholicised regions from 1600 onwards. This church refurbishment programme was initiated by Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1633) and Albert of Austria (1559-1621). Few works survive from this transitional period, which heralded the beginnings of Baroque; they were made by the generation represented by sons of the great masters, such as Cornelis Floris III (1551-1615) and Rafael van den Broecke (1559-1599), and by the dynastic founders of Baroque sculpture in Flanders, such as Jérôme Duquesnoy (1570-1641) and Robert de Nole (1570-1636) (cf. A. Lipinska, op.cit. p. 93). Many altarpieces were commissioned for this vast restoration programme, but they would be replaced in the 17th century by works that were more compatible with developing tastes. At the time of the French Revolution, most of the decor of churches in the Southern Netherlands was destroyed, and the Abbey of Geraardsbergen was demolished. The present sculpture may have been part of the relics from this sanctuary for Saint Adrian. The size of the Saint Adrian and the fact that it is sculpted in the round suggest that it once formed part of an altarpiece or a tomb, placed in a niche or high up on a console, as in the tomb of Adriaan van Woestwynckele (Saint Jacob’s Church, Bruges) or the Saint Adrian by Grupello in the Geraardsbergen hospice. The use of alabaster reached its apogee in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and began to decline after 1620, as it was gradually replaced by marble. As the studies of F. Scholten have shown, the import of Italian marble from Livorno began between 1616 and 1621. From 1647 onwards, the market was established by a small circle of Amsterdam merchants, who took charge of the stone’s delivery to the Spanish Netherlands. These economic conditions, together with a change of taste at the height of Baroque art, led to an irreversible abandonment of sculpted alabaster in the Netherlands: the present Saint Adrian is a rare work of art, a wonderful illustration of the ending Flemish mannerism.
We thank Prof. Dr. Alexandra Lipinska, in Munich, and Dr. Robert Didier for their expertise brought to the research on this sculpture.
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