PROPERTY FROM A EUROPEAN PRIVATE COLLECTION
With Julius Böhler, Munich, on consignment from the above, 1964;
Acquired from the above by the father of the present owner in 1965;
Thence by descent.
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Stefan Lochner, Meister zu Köln: Herkunft, Werke, Wirkung, 3 December 1993 – 27 February 1994, cat. no. 15;
Rotterdam, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, The Road to Van Eyck, 13 October 2012 – 10 February 2013, cat. no. 62, reproduced in colour, 2 versos also reproduced
T.L. De Bruin, ‘Vier südflandrische Tafeln’, in Das Münster, vol.4, 1967, pp. 305–08 (as South-Netherlandish, possibly Piérart de la Vingne d. 1425);
C. Sterling, ‘Observations on Petrus Christus’, Art Bulletin, LIII, 1971, pp. 3–8, figs 4–7 (as Netherlandish or Lower Rhenish c. 1415);
G. Zehnder in Stefan Lochner Meister zu Köln: Herkunft, Werke, Wirkung, exh. cat. Cologne 1993, pp. 256–59, cat. no. 15, reproduced in colour (as South Netherlandish, possibly Tournai, c. 1400);
S. Kemperdinck, Der Meister von Flémalle: Die Werkstatt Robert Campins und Rogier van der Weyden, Turnhout 1997, p. 110, the ‘Marriage of the Virgin’ reproduced fig. 132;
A-F. Köllerman, ‘Netherlandish Painting before the Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden’, in The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden, exh. cat. Frankfurt and Berlin, 2008, p. 50, reproduced fig. 36 (as Netherlandish c. 1430);
K. Dyballa in The Road to Van Eyck, exh. cat., S. Kemperdick and F. Lammertse (eds), Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 2012, pp. 244–47, cat. no. 62, reproduced in colour, two versos also reproduced (as School of the Low Countries c. 1430).
Like nearly all those works which have survived, we possess no certain information as to the early history or origin of these pictures. These four panels would originally have formed the inner wings of an altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Each depicts an episode from the Life of the Virgin and is set in chronological order. The first of the series is the Miracle of the blossoming rod: suitors for the hand of Mary had been asked by the High Priest to bring a branch with them; these would be kept in the Temple overnight and on the morrow the chosen one would be revealed by a miracle. The next day Joseph’s rod had flowered miraculously, and the High Priest is seen returning it to him in front of the Temple, thus marking him as Mary’s husband to be. This is followed by The Marriage of the Virgin in which Mary and Joseph are married by the High Priest amid a crowd of onlookers. The third in the sequence depicts the Death of the Virgin and shows eleven disciples gathered around her deathbed, reading, praying and burning incense. A rare iconographical detail shows the twelfth apostle, Thomas, outside the chamber receiving Mary’s girdle from the Holy Spirit in answer to his call for proof of her ascension.2 The final scene is that of the Assumption of the Virgin showing Mary borne up to Heaven by three angels, where she sits between God the Father and Christ, while the Holy Spirit and a group of five angelic musicians float above them. The versos of each panel were painted with depictions of the Four Fathers of the Church. Three of these survive, namely Saint Jerome on the reverse of the Miracle of the Flowering rod, with Saints Gregory and Ambrose on the versos of the Marriage of the Virgin and the Death of the Virgin respectively (figs. 1–3). The fourth Father of the Church, Saint Augustine, is either lost or untraced.
The survival of the portraits of the four Fathers of the Church provide us with a good indication of the likely arrangement of the panels within the altarpiece. Their damaged state indicates that they were originally on the outer sides of the altar wings, with the higher quality and more expensive scenes from the Life of the Virgin only shown on Feast days or other important dates in the Church calendar. As Dyballa and Zehnder have both speculated, the most likely configuration of the panels was as part of two wings flanking a central panel or sculpture completing the Marian programme. This might have been, for example, an Annunciation, Presentation in the Temple, Nativity, Adoration of the Magi or shepherds, or else these subjects may also have formed additional panels in the wings. The latter also conjectured whether the panels may have been stacked vertically as opposed to horizontally. The problem is much simplified if we assume that the Saints on the outer wings were conceived as pairs facing each other. This would suggest that the Miracle of the flowering rod and the Marriage of the Virgin formed the left wing of the altarpiece, with Saints Jerome and Gregory facing each other on the outer sides, and similarly the Death of the Virgin and the Assumption of the Virgin formed the right wing with Saints Ambrose and (the missing) Saint Augustine facing each other in their turn (figs 1, 2 and 3). This would also follow the chronological sequence of the various episodes from the Life of the Virgin, starting with Miracle of Joseph’s flowering rod and ending with the Assumption of the Virgin. As Dyballa points out, the use of this broad and low format for an altarpiece was not unknown in the Netherlands. Another such, also composed of scenes from the Life of the Virgin was painted by Jacques Daret for the Abbey of Saint Vaast in Arras around 1433–35.3 It is perfectly possible that the present panels bear witness to a more extensive cycle of Marian scenes that has since been dispersed. The standing Saints on the outer sides of the wings are, for example, the work of a different and probably later hand, and might therefore hint at a later configuration of the panels which differed from the original.
All four panels were made of planks of Baltic oak, suggesting that their geographical origin was most probably in the Low Countries or northern Germany. Recent dendrochronological examination has revealed that a possible date of execution for the panels is feasible from 1418 onwards, and most probably between 1420 and 1425, a very early date indeed. This would pre-date, for example, the early works of Jan van Eyck painted for Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy after 1425. Dyballa, however, at the time of the 2012 exhibition, allowed for a longer period of ten years for seasoning of the panels, thus concluding that a date of execution around 1430 onwards was more likely.4 Stylistically, however, the panels are very hard to classify with certainty, for their author combines a number of different stylistic influences within them that suggest that he was familiar with more than one school, or else worked in a centre that or cultural crossroads in which they might have met. The decorated gold ground, the architectural elements, and especially the long and graceful figures, all show that their author was still rooted in the traditions of the International Gothic. The scenes are all set upon a curious beaten or cracked earth slabs of landscape, with their protagonists depicted before a variety of flat-fronted or two-dimensional architectural settings, reminiscent of both ecclesiastical and lay architecture. Both elements suggest, as Alfred Stange was the first to notice, that their author might have been familiar with Italian paintings of the late Trecento or early Quattrocento. Similar beaten earth settings may be found, for example, in Taddeo di Bartolo’s Adoration of the Shepherds of 1404 today in the Basilica di Santa Maria der Servi in Siena.5 The curious pink and chalk colours of the buildings also suggest a particular knowledge of works of the Sienese school. This is again reinforced by the gold ground upon which all four panels are set, with a decorative incised arabesque pattern. The use of decorated or punched gold ground was practised across northern Europe in the pre-Eyckian era, but most notably in the German-speaking regions. Stange, however, rejected the traditional(?) description of the panels as south German or Styrian, and placed them in the south of Flanders, with a date of execution around 1400. Although the dendrochronological dating of the panels has yielded a slightly different result, some of the parallels that Stange observed between them and Netherlandish works were perceptive. For example, although the stylistic differences are very great, he observed some relationship with early works by the ‘Master of Flémalle’, usually identified with Robert Campin (c. 1375–1444)6, whose workshop was based in Tournai, then a bishop’s enclave to the west of the Duchy of Hainaut, closely linked to Flanders by the river Scheldt. Details of this possible interaction include the frequency of figures seen from behind, the stone reliefs en grisaille decorating the architecture and several similar facial types. The head of the suitor on the right in the Miracle panel here, for example, with his luxuriant hair, can be compared to that of a mourner in Campin’s Entombment triptych in the Courtauld Galleries in London, generally dated around 1415 (fig. 4), and again in the fragmentary Saint John the Baptist today in the Cleveland Museum of Art of about the same date (fig. 5).7 The elegant decoration of the gold backgrounds in all four panels recalls that in the Courtauld triptych, sharing its curling stems and grape-like bunches of flowers. The curious stone reliefs that decorate the architecture here are also reminiscent of those adorning the architecture in the great Marriage of the Virgin panel of c. 1420 attributed to Campin at the Prado in Madrid (fig. 6).8 Taken together all of these similarities might suggest that the author of the present panels had access to some designs or originals emanating from the Campin workshop in Tournai around 1415–20. What is also interesting, as Stange and Sterling pointed out, is that some compositional details of the Betrothal panel, where Saint Joseph is (unusually) shown between the High Priest and the Virgin Mary, taken together with the episode of the Miracle of Joseph’s flowering rod accord him a particular status, which suggests that iconography of the panels reflects the cult of Saint Joseph, which grew from the end of the fourteenth century and reached its greatest momentum in northern Europe in the first two decades of the fifteenth. The Feast of Saint Joseph was first adopted by the Franciscan order as early as 1399, and from this date on it appears in the service books of churches in Liège and Utrecht (the lower Mosan and Rhenish regions). Similar emphasis on Saint Joseph recurs, for example, in Campin’s great Merode altarpiece of 1425–30 in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.9
Taken together, these elements might suggest that the author of the panels was aware of, and perhaps even connected to, artistic developments in Tournai in the second and third decades of the fifteenth century, but, as Sterling suggests, could have been active further east in the region of the Lower Rhine. It is certainly true that certain elements in the panels, such as the flattened architectural settings and elongated figures, look back to the work of slightly earlier painters in the International courtly style practised in Westphalia by painters such as Conrad von Soest (1370–1422) and may be found, for example, in his Niederwildungen altarpiece of 1403. Sterling also saw in the curious architectural elements present the influence not of Italian painting but of Bohemian art. The figures here, however, show a different graceful flowing rhythm to Bohemian Gothic, and their Baltic oak supports would also seem to suggest that this was an unlikely origin. De Bruin, in his examination of the gold ornamentation in the hems of the draperies, discerned the initials PIV, which he tentatively associated with either Piérart Vicart, a painter recorded in the the Guild of St Luke in Tournai in 1424, or Piérart de la Vigne, who was active in the church of St, James in Tournai in 1405.10 The potential association with Tournai was again examined by Stephan Kemperdick and Friso Lammertse in the recent Rotterdam exhibition. They have argued for a relationship between these panels and a small triptych of The Lamentation in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne (fig. 7),11 which remains the only panel painting with a certain association with the city. The scenes of the Death of the Virgin and particularly The Ascension of the Virgin clearly share an artistic vocabulary with their counterparts in the present Marian group. The stylistic connection, however, is not persuasive; even allowing for the discrepancy in scale, the Lamentation figures lack the graceful elongated proportions of their counterparts here. In his use of a primitive naturalistic landscape background and settings in place of the traditional gold ground, its author does show some awareness of the new developments afoot in Netherlandish painting, but his more provincial style altogether lacks the elegance of the present panels. It is similarly difficult to find further parallels between the present panels and manuscript illumination in Tournai of the same date. Some echoes may perhaps be found in other media, such as the famous tapestry depicting The Legend of Saint Piatus of 1404 in the cathedral at Tournai, which Stange noted displays a similar interest in connected architectural settings, albeit with very different figure types.12
The influence of the works in the Master of Flémalle group was, of course, more widely spread than just Tournai, and the painter of these panels may have encountered their new ideas in quite another location. Whatever their source, be it in Tournai or the Lower Rhine, they provide an elegant and enduring testament to the last flowering of the International Gothic and a foreshadowing of the great revolution in northern European painting that had just begun.
1 Sterling 1971, p. 3.
2 The pairing of Thomas receiving the girdle with the Death of the Virgin is most often found in the north of Europe rather than Italy, where it is more typically associated with the Assumption. For his subject, the painter may have availed himself of the Golden Legend or the Apocrypha’s narrative of the Assumption, in which it was stated that Thomas did not attend the death-bed of the Virgin, but instead received the girdle upon the Mount of Olives.
3 The altar is now dispersed, with the panels divided between Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Madrid, Thyssen Collection, and Paris, Musée du Petit Palais. See A. Châtelet, Robert Campin. Le Maître de Flémalle, Antwerp 1996, pp. 172–78, each reproduced in colour.
4 Examination by Peter Klein, November 1993. The earliest heartwood rings date from 1400 on three panels and the last (the Death of the Virgin panel) dates from 1404. Allowing for a median of twelve sapwood rings and at least two years seasoning of the timber this would suggest an earliest possible date of execution around 1418.
5 Exhibited Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale, Da Jacopo della Quercia a Donatello. Le arti a Siena nel primo Rinascimento, 2010, no. A.41
6 The identification of Robert Campin as the Master of Flémalle has been the subject of scholarly dispute for many years, as has the precise nature of his relationship to his most famous pupil Rogier van der Weyden, but has been adopted here for ease of reference. No less than four large monographs devoted to the two painters have been published in the last two decades, and reference is made here to more than one of these, even though their opinions are frequently divergent. Campin had attained citizenship in Tournai by 1410, and by 1419 his fame was sufficient for him to run a large and profitable workshop similar to that of Jan van Eyck in Lille and Burgundy.
7 See F. Thürlemann, Robert Campin, Munich 2002, p. 255, cat. nos 1.2 and 1.3, reproduced figs 5 and 19.
8 A. Châtelet, Robert Campin. Le Maître de Flémalle, Antwerp 1996, p. 198, reproduced.
9. Thürlemann 2002, p. 269, cat. no. 1.12, reproduced figs 42–44, 46, 52.
10. De Bruin 1967a, pp. 305–7.
11 Exhibited Rotterdam 2013 no. 60
12 Kollermann, 2008, p. 45, fig. 28.
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