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Renaissance man in search of a catalogue

by
13 April 2011

Gossaert needs a little more help, Nicholas Cranfield discovers

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Sacred and secular: Jan Gossaert’s Mocking of Christ, 1527;

POTENTIALLY, Jan Gossaert (called Mabuse, active 1503-32) deserved a substantial exhibition after 45 years of seeming neglect, to set him in the context of the Northern Renaissance. Dürer waspishly observed (December 1520) that he “was not so good in design as in painting”. The current exhibition of some 60 paintings, drawings, and engravings of his, together with some 30 other works of his Burgundian and German contem­poraries, both fleshes out the “North­ern” Renaissance and helps us assess the Nuremburg Master’s criticism. Flemings pride themselves on living at the crossroads between the Gothic, Romanesque, and Anglo-Saxon cul­tures. Gossaert’s art inhabits the federal world of all three styles, which may explain something of his abiding popularity in England.

The National Gallery exhibition is a third smaller than its New York parent show (Metropolitan Museum of Art), and omits many of the clas­sical sculptural pieces that inspired his work. We get to see the wonder­fully self-possessed 1514 portrait of a member of the Privy Council at Mechelen, Jean Corondolet (from Toledo, Ohio), but not the diptych of him as donor alongside the ravishing Madonna and Child (The Louvre). The London showing also omits the crucial Christ carrying his Cross, a diminutive study, illustrating the Imitatio Christi X, 11, 12, last seen pub­licly in a New York dealer’s in 1983.


Portrait of a Man (Jan Jacobsz Snoek?), c.1530,

The publications support the show unevenly. Only ten of the pictures are included in Van Eyck to Gossaert, the book by Susan Frances Jones that the NG is passing off as a substitute catalogue; it does not even include a checklist for the exhibition it accom­panies. For more detail (and to write this review), one has to have recourse to the New York monograph, which costs £60, weighs, troy for sterling, almost as much, but only surveys Gossaert.


Portrait of a Man (Jan Jacobsz Snoek?), c.1530,

The publications support the show unevenly. Only ten of the pictures are included in Van Eyck to Gossaert, the book by Susan Frances Jones that the NG is passing off as a substitute catalogue; it does not even include a checklist for the exhibition it accom­panies. For more detail (and to write this review), one has to have recourse to the New York monograph, which costs £60, weighs, troy for sterling, almost as much, but only surveys Gossaert.

Or rather Gossart, as he is unhelp­fully renamed on the other side of the Atlantic. The London Adoration of the Magi, which the Director, Nicholas Penny, surely rightly acclaims his masterpiece, is unequivocally signed with an “æ”, a spelling consistent with what we know of 16th-century Flemish orthography.

On the one hand, for all the interest in the essay on developing Netherlandish art and painting tech­niques, Jones offers little more than an accessible account of 50 paintings in the National Gallery. On the other, the weight of Maryan Ainsworth’s scholarship will pass many by, even though it includes a list of all the works shown on both sides of the pond. Many exhibits need fuller explana­tion than can be provided by the wall labels, especially where these include rarely seen works.

Born in Maubeuge (hence his other commonly used sobriquet) around 1478, some 35 years after the death of van Eyck, Gossaert is first recorded as a member of the Antwerp guild of painters in 1503. By then, he had hired two apprentices, and was in the service of Philip of Burgundy, the Admiral of Zeeland. With Philip, he went on an embassy to the Vatican in 1508, as one of the first Northern artists to travel to Renaissance Italy.

Early in 1509, they reached Rome, where Michelangelo had begun to decorate the Sistine Chapel for the commission of Pope Julius II, who had also summoned Raphael. The next year, the Augustinian friar Martin Luther would make his own ill-fated pilgrimage to the Eternal City.

Whereas Luther returned in haste, revolted by its luxury and splendour, Gossaert introduced idioms of the Italian Renaissance and a love of classical form into the art of the Low Countries. Gossaert re­mained in service to Philip, who became Bishop of Utrecht in 1517 and who died seven years later, and then to the exiled Danish king, Christian II, and to Henry III of Nassau-Breda (1483-1538).

The portrait heads of Christian’s three children (HM the Queen) and the more assured exile Princess Doro­thea, aged ten, hold­ing an armillary sphere upside down as if to in­dicate that something was rotten in the state of Den­mark are here. So, too, is a presumed portrait of Henry III (Kimbell, Fort Worth) on the eve of his establishing an important art collec­tion with his third wife, Mencía de Mendoza.

The long central hall brings together 15 excep­tional portraits, many of which surpass Hans Hol­bein in their humanity and close observa­tion. I found myself wondering how contemporaries saw themselves in times of threatened religious change. A generation earlier their grand­parents could only have found recognisable familiar faces in saints and attendants in religious scenes. The rise of mercantilism, the spread of literacy, and the growing criticism of a monolithic Church had led to an unheralded artistic shift. With the rise in portraiture (and self-portraiture) how did men and women feel to be exalted thus?


Hercules and Deianeira, 1517

The silent, almost androgynous portrait of a man with flaxen hair caught up in a snood beneath a black hat proves to be a posthumous study of Franck van Borselen, Count of Ostrevant (c.1395-1471), painted for Margaret of Austria, while the very real Francisco de los Cobos y Molina (a splendid piece owned by the Getty since 1988) was painted at the time he accompanied Charles V to Italy to be crowned emperor at Bologna by Pope Clement VII (1530), and is one of Gossaert’s last portraits.


Hercules and Deianeira, 1517

The silent, almost androgynous portrait of a man with flaxen hair caught up in a snood beneath a black hat proves to be a posthumous study of Franck van Borselen, Count of Ostrevant (c.1395-1471), painted for Margaret of Austria, while the very real Francisco de los Cobos y Molina (a splendid piece owned by the Getty since 1988) was painted at the time he accompanied Charles V to Italy to be crowned emperor at Bologna by Pope Clement VII (1530), and is one of Gossaert’s last portraits.

Both are remarkably illusionistic, such that one can well believe that, on another occasion, Charles V mistook Gossaert’s tabard, made from paper painted to look like damask, for the real cloth with which the court had recently been dressed at great expense.

The wealth and splendour of the Burgundian court is seen in the first room in The Virgin and Child en­throned by Quinten Massys (c.1495), a work bequeathed to the Nation in 1958. Although the colour scheme is innovative. the composition is strictly Gothic, the architecture of the golden throne as static as the demure face of the Virgin. Compare this with the face of the Virgin in London’s great altarpiece of The Adoration from 20 years later in the next room.

Painted for the Lady Chapel in the Abbey Church of St Adrian at Geraards­bergen, it is thought to date from after Gossaert’s trip to Rome. He emphasises the Virgin by placing her centre stage, but her downward gaze is both more real and more humane than Massys had achieved, recalling his older contemporary Gerard David. If some of the figures are awkwardly composed (as Dürer might have objected), the faces are alert, individually characterised, and all too credible.

The hauteur of the kings is offset by the embarrassment of the shep­herds who have scuttled behind the nearest buttress. The angelic host above, led by the distinctive figure of Gabriel — to whom only St Joseph pays attention, no doubt surprised by the sound of so many fluttering wings — could have been flying at any time in the previous century. So far, so conventional.

But then, down the alley, beyond the broken picket-gate, two local lads, standing behind a donkey, look in on the scene as if mirroring the viewer in front of the altar. These country bumpkins mean no harm. They are as awestruck by glimpsing the Word made flesh as we are meant to be.

The transition in style is neither uniform nor consistent, however. From the Louvre’s great collection, we get to see Simon Bening’s delightful Landscape with Saint Jerome from a few years later (1515-20). It is painted in tempera on paper. Jerome wrote to Eustochium of his time (374-5 and 376-7) in the desert as the “com­panion of scorpions and wild beasts”, and the landscape includes lizards on the rocks, a black pig, herons, a stag and several does, an ass, and a rabbit burrowing, but no horse or hound. It is a second paradise in which Jerome can contemplate. Its archetype is clearly a throwback to the earlier com­positions of the Bellinis, which had already become a standard Nether­­landish backdrop.

Such a devotional composition, all contrivance and tradition, was shifting. Tackling the same subject for the wings of an altarpiece that is reas­sembled here for the first time, Gossaert, at much the same time, or possibly even earlier, painted Jerome in the desert in grisaille (The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) to cover a Christ in the Garden of Geth­semane (Berlin). This is an excep­tional piece of night painting (La Nuit Américaine, as it were), which places devotion before theology and scrip­tural consistency.

The paschal moon has become a crescent that eerily back-lights the whole scene in the garden a couple of hours before dawn, as telltale high cirrus clouds scud through the heavens. Christ himself, rather than being tormented or racked with doubt, is kneeling, tears streaming down his cheeks, as he gazes on a chalice with the consecrated host set up on a rocky outcrop. On the hem of his robe (arguably more legible in the copy in the Ferdinandeum at Inns­bruck) can just be made out the opening invocation of a well-loved prayer: “O God, the protector of all that trust in Thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy”, etc. This is an outspokenly eucharistic work of great piety, starkly contrast­ing the power of the victim Christ with the old order of Diana, the goddess of the moon.

How much this change had to do with Gossaert’s own Antwerp style, court taste in Brussels, or the de­mands of his unconventional first patron is not readily apparent. Philip the Bastard, whom he served for more than 15 years, may have relinquished his successful military life early at the age of 52 in order to become the Bishop of Utrecht, but there is little evidence for his own personal holiness. He seems to have made the switch primarily for the perquisites of office, an assured income, and access to as many women as he chose. Not for nothing was his motto “A plus sara” (More to come).

Philip also encouraged some of Gossaert’s frankly more erotic images that loosely hang on the stories of Adam and Eve, Neptune and Am­phitrite (the 1516 canvas from Berlin is not here), or Hercules and Deian­eira; in that painting, from the Barber Institute in Birmingham, Hercules grips his prodigious iron girt club as he cradles the hapless Deianeira, their legs intertwined. The too, too solid flesh already adumbrates Rubens with a particularity of observation that is learned in the bedchamber, not in the anatomy school. A drawing of women in a communal bathing pool (British Museum), possibly a sketch for a bathhouse mural, and a copied drawing of Eve fondling Adam (Rhode Island) show ancient pleas­ures.

The greatest lacuna in this other­wise worthy show, and in the accompanying book, is any scholarly consideration of whether Gossaert worked alone or with collaborators. Maryan Ainsworth has recently proposed that Gossaert and Gerard David (d. 1523) worked together on both the London Adoration and the Malvagna triptych (c.1513-1515) that made it from Palermo to New York, but has sadly gone back to the Palazzo Abatellis all too soon. This opinion is not accepted orthodoxy yet, but it is passed over in Trafalgar Square in silence.

As much of a puzzle is the National Gallery’s own Virgin and Child, in which the Christ Child reaches out into the world aware of the prophecy of Genesis 3.15 arching above him on the frame. In the Complete Illustrated Catalogue (1995), this was said to be only a 17th-century copy; but it was “almost certainly painted in 1527” when it was illustrated in Dürer to Veronese four years later. Here it is claimed as original, without mention of the version in Vienna which the Metropolitan Museum regarded as the original, or of another copy in Munich.

This risks selling Gossaert, who was nothing if not extravagant, short, and suggests that a standard cata­logue would have proved of outstand­ing use on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 30 May. Phone 020 7747 2885.

www.nationalgallery.org.uk

“Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 30 May. Phone 020 7747 2885.

www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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