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Art review: Truly bright and memorable, Jan de Beer’s Altarpieces at the Barber Institute

20 December 2019

Jan de Beer’s name is unfamiliar, but his work is worth viewing, says Nicholas Cranfield

 © The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

The Nativity, on the reverse of Joseph and the Suitors, about 1515/20, by Jan de Beer

The Nativity, on the reverse of Joseph and the Suitors, about 1515/20, by Jan de Beer

THERE could be many reasons for wishing to visit the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, the impressive collection held in trust by the University of Birmingham in a purpose-built gallery (1939) on the campus. Its core derives from the 1932 donation by Lady Barber of her late husband’s collection from Culham Court, near Henley-on-Thames.

It now houses works by artists as early as the painful St John the Evangelist in prayer painted in 1320 by Simone Martini and still in its original frame and Lorenzo di Bicci (his panel painting of Saint Romuald), watercolours and drawings by, among others, Dürer and van Dyck, ceramics, furniture, sculpture, and coins.

The James McNeill Whistler 1867 portrayal of his mistress Joanna Hiffernan and a friend Milly Jones lounging decadently (Symphony in White, no. III), Rosetti’s 1883 portrayal of his mistress (The Blue Bower), Rubens’s Portrait of a Carmelite Friar, and the Poussin Tancred and Erminia all have their champions and are among the favourites that draw many to return to Edgbaston.

 © The Henry Barber Trust, the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of BirminghamJan de Beer’s Joseph and the Suitors, about 1515/20, which has The Nativity on the reverse  

Every autumn a work in the collection is highlighted as a “Masterpiece in Focus”. This year, the gallery is showing its recently restored altarpiece panel by Jan de Beer, who lived and worked in Antwerp from about 1475 to 1527-28. In 1515, he became dean of the city’s painters Guild of St Luke.

Don’t worry if you had not heard of him before: I hadn’t, either; but the painting shimmers as much as you might have expected if the eponymous diamond company used it for advertising. The immediate effect on entering the gallery room is of a brightly illuminated and colourful throng, and it is easy to appreciate at once the appeal of such intensely coloured work in a city that was one of the great entrepôts of Western Europe at the far end of the Silk Route.

Although de Beer’s reputation had sunk almost without trace by the end of the 16th century, and has been only gradually recovered in the past century, he was widely respected (and often copied) in his own day. The Servite Order in Venice commissioned him for an altarpiece for its principal church, and the Pleydell-Bouverie altarpiece from Longford Castle in this show was probably painted for a convent near Padua on the mainland.

Alongside the Barber’s own work, which is a large double-sided panel measuring 138.4 cm square, the curator Robert Wenley has assembled the seven known works from de Beer’s hand or his studio which are currently in English collections.

The exhibition fittingly opened on the feast day of St Crispin and St Crispinian, the patron saints of cobblers, as decorated shoes feature much in the scene of Joseph and the Suitors. They offer a commentary on the finery adopted by all but one of the marriageable men of the line of David who have been summoned by the high priest to the Temple. The obvious dandy in the front of the company wears bright orange winkle-pickers.

Courtesy of Private collection, UKJan de Beer’s Adoration of the Magi, c.1504-09

The scene, taken from the Gospel of Pseudo Matthew and The Golden Legend, is here set in a Gothic Netherlandish church, complete with a stone chancel screen and an organ loft. Looked at more closely, it has evidently been tricked out to suggest the Temple in Jerusalem.

In the medieval period, the colour red was associated with the Israelite peoples and, as well as a crimson canopy above the tabernacle of the side altar, there is a red background to the altarpiece glimpsed in a chancel chapel on which is seen Moses with the tablet of the Law.

Elsewhere, the gilded statue of Solomon, high on a pillar, and the stone statue of King David, on the screen itself, remind us that all the figures stand on holy ground. Aloft on the chancel screen are the Old Testament prophets.

The foremost turbaned suitor to one side is wearing scarlet and has a reddish beard. Around his right arm, he is wearing a tefillin, while, in his left hand, he carries a rosary as if to remind us that all is about to change as the Covenant with Abraham is transferred through David’s line to the coming Messiah.

The central figure, however, is that of an older contender for the 14-year-old Virgin’s hand, his head shrunk into his shoulders as if from diffidence; but it is his rod that has sprouted lilies, and the high priest plucks him by his cloak to say that he is the future husband for our Lady.

As well as a faithful dog leading off towards where the high altar would have been in a contemporary church, there is a greyhound very much in pride of place, reminding us that only the nobility were allowed to own such creatures. This one wears a collar on which is emblazoned a scallop shell, as if to suggest pilgrimage.

The panel would once have been one of several depicting the life of the Virgin, presumably including the meeting of the Virgin’s parents Anna and Joachim at the Golden Gate, the birth of the Virgin and possibly her education, the annunciation, and the visitation. On the other side of the panel is the nativity of our Lord.

Realistically, this is a nocturnal scene with bright bonfires burning in the background among the ruined hovels where the shepherds live. The artist has followed the visionary account of St Bridget of Sweden (1303-73) in which she saw the Virgin kneeling in adoration of her newborn infant. The Christ Child himself has become the source of all light. De Beer introduces a third source of light from the star of Bethlehem above.

As well as three drawings, the little exhibition includes two panel paintings of the Adoration of the Magi, deriving from a common prototype of the Antwerp Mannerist, and a complete triptych in which the seated Virgin and Child are surrounded by virgin martyrs; Catherine, Dorothy and Cecilia stand at her right, and Barbara sits on the ground at her left, engrossed in her reading.

The presence of books and of the portable organ plausibly argue that this altarpiece comes originally from a convent where nuns sang and taught orphans to read. Owned by the Earls of Radnor since 1821, this work is currently on loan from the National Gallery.

When the Florentine merchant Lodovico Guicciardini came to write his Description of all the Low Countries in 1567 after a generation of living in Antwerp he singled out de Beer as “veramente chiari e memorabili”. The title description is happily justified by this exceptional show, in which the light of scholarship makes real claims to champion the artist after centuries of obscurity.


“Truly Bright and Memorable: Jan de Beer’s Renaissance Altarpieces” is at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, until 19 January. Phone 0121 414 7333. barber.org.uk

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