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Faith behind the art

28 March 2013

A newly restored triptych reveals the skill of the Dutch master Maerten van Heemskerck


Van Heemskerck's self-portrait (detail), in front of the Colosseum, in Rome (1553)

Van Heemskerck's self-portrait (detail), in front of the Colosseum, in Rome (1553)

THE Ecce Homo triptych, commissioned for the Augustinian Priory in Dordrecht, in the northern Netherlands, in 1544, remained there for less than 30 years.

Like a great deal of Dutch devotional art, it fell victim to the Protestant revolution that accompanied William of Orange's campaign against Spain. Unlike many works, however - including everything else from the Dordrecht Priory - it survived.

In 1572, Dordrecht sided with the nascent revolt against Philip II; the prior was captured, the monks fled, and the first Reformed services were held in the whitewashed church on 25 July.

The Ecce Homo triptych had been removed by then, reclassified as a piece of domestic art, and given residence in the house of a wealthy wine merchant and collector, Matthijs Berck.

To complete its history, the triptych appeared in a Stuttgart auction in 1870, where it was bought by a German book publisher, Heinrich von Korn. He presented it to the Schlesische Museum der Bildenden Künste in Breslau, which, in 1946, gave it to the National Museum in Warsaw.

In 2009, the National Museum invited conservators from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles to consider work on the triptych. As a result, it travelled to the United States for renovation, which was completed last year.

THE triptych is the work of Maerten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), an acclaimed Dutch artist, who combined rugged, muscular figures with Renaissance elegance. His self-portrait depicts him in front of the Colosseum in Rome during his seminal visit in 1532. He was commissioned to produce the triptych by Jan van Drenckwaerdt, one of the most prominent figures in Dordrecht, who served as Sheriff for more than 30 years. Jan is depicted on the left-hand panel, his recently deceased wife, Margaretha, on the right.

Behind Jan is St John, holding his poisoned chalice; Margaretha kneels in front of St Margaret of Antioch. Both saints are depicted again on the closed panels of the triptych, designed to look like stone statues in alcoves.

The main panel shows Pilate presenting the beaten Jesus to the crowds: "Behold the man." As was conventional at the time, the crowd members around him are shown as grotesques.

THE work was well preserved and in its original frame. It was, none the less, in need of careful cleaning. The restoration revealed much about Heemskerck's technique. For example, he worked quickly, and was not worried about using impressionistic brushstrokes for minor details.

Something of his palette can be seen in details from two other paintings, different versions of St Luke Painting the Virgin. Among the materials he used was ground glass, employed to bulk up expensive pigments, but also to add a luminosity. The cleaning, and some careful photography, revealed much, including shadowy figures behind Christ's head, and painted carvings behind St John to match those behind St Margaret.

The story of the painting and its restoration is told in  Drama and Devotion: Heemskerck's "Ecce Homo" altarpiece from Warsaw by Anne T. Woolett, Yvonne Szafran, and Alan Phenix (Getty, £16.99; 978-1-60606-112-1)

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