Joachim Patinir – the early landscape artist.

Joachim Patinir  c.1480 -1524
Joachim Patinir
c.1480 -1524

When I visit local art galleries around my neighbourhood they are packed with landscape works from various local artists.  As it is Wales a few sheep and the odd shepherd are “thrown in” as a prerequisite for Welsh landscape paintings.  My featured artist today was one of the earliest landscape painters and although his paintings often incorporated religious themes which were commonplace in northern Renaissance art, his forte was his splendid detailed, visually fascinating landscapes.   He is considered one of the first modern landscape specialists. Let me introduce you to the great sixteenth century Flemish landscape painter Joachim Patinir (often referred to as Patenier) of whose style the English art historian Kenneth Clarke described as:

“…the first painter to make landscapes more important than his figures…”

So how well thought of as an artist was this sixteenth century painter? Felipe de Guevara was a sixteenth century Spanish humanist, art writer, patron of the arts and a connoisseur of Netherlandish painting and in his manuscript of 1560, which two hundred years later, was published in book form, Comentarios de la pintura, he wrote that he regarded Patinir as on being par with the great Netherlandish painters Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden.  Praise indeed!  So who was this man who achieved such great standing?

In all biographies the opening paragraph usually contains a date of birth and it is at this point, with this artist, that one hits a brick wall as his actual date of birth is unknown and his birth date, which often varies from book to book, is somewhat of an educated guess.

According to the 1521 diary of Albrecht Dürer, who described Patinir as the good painter of landscapes there was, at that time, a portrait of Patinir as a man in his forties and that would then put Joachim Patinir’s birth date somewhere around 1480.  If Patinir’s birth date is uncertain so is his birthplace albeit the consensus of opinion is that he was born in either the town of Dinant or the nearby village of Bouvignes on the River Meuse.  It is interesting to note that Dinant is situated at a point on the River Meuse where the river cuts deeply into the western Condroz plateau.  The town lies in a steep sided valley sandwiched between the rock face and the river and the spectacular landscape around this town came to influence Patinir in his landscape works.

The first concrete facts we have of him was that he was serving an apprenticeship in the Antwerp Guild of Painters in 1515, a city in which he was to live all his life.  During his time he met and worked with other great Netherlandish artists of the time such as Gérard David, Hieronymus Bosch, Quentin Matsys

The Temptation of St Anthony by Joachim Patinir  (c. 1520-24)
The Temptation of St Anthony by Joachim Patinir (c. 1520-24)

My first offering of Patinir’s work is one entitled Landscape with the Temptation of Saint Anthony Abbot which he completed somewhere between 1520 and 1524 was one of the few paintings which was signed by the artist. The painting now resides at the Museo Nacional del Prado. This work of art was not a solo effort by him, but a collaboration with Quentin Matsys, who painted the figures, which we see in the foreground.  St Anthony, who had given up his worldly possessions and devoted himself to a contemplative life, is depicted sitting on the ground.  He is surrounded by temptation in the form of three courtesans who try to seduce him.  One of the women holds out an apple which symbolises temptation reminding us of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  A demon-like monkey pulls at his clothes.   Lying on the ground we see a discarded rosary symbolising the possible abandonment of faith.  Although our eyes are initially drawn to the large figures in the foreground and as we try to work out what is going on, they soon move to take in the wondrous landscape in the middle ground and background which is a setting for various events in the life of the saint. Cast your eyes to the central middle ground and one can make out Anthony and his hut which is under attack by an army of demons.  To the right of that scene we see St. Anthony sitting at the water’s edge of a lake on which is the royal barge carrying the queen and her ladies-in-waiting, some of whom are naked; all part of a seduction scene.  The rocky landscape and the river hark back to the geography of his birthplace.  The painting was acquired by the Spanish king, Philip II in 1566 and was hung in the Escorial Palace.

Landscape with St Jerome by Joachim Patinir (c. 1517)
Landscape with St Jerome by Joachim Patinir (c. 1517)

Patinir often incorporated hermit-style life depiction in his landscape works.  This was a very popular subject in Northern European devotional works of art. This next painting focuses on these two elements.  It is his Landscape with St Jerome painting, which he completed around 1517, and which also can be found in the Prado in Madrid.  The work combines an extensive landscape background, with its vibrantly coloured and decidedly naturalistic vista, with the tale of Saint Jerome.  In this work we see the moment in time when Saint Jerome, seen huddled under a rocky outcrop, removes the thorn from the paw of the lion.  Patinir’s depiction of the saint is not as we would expect to observe him.   Jerome, who was a cardinal in the Catholic Church and eminent theological scholar, was often depicted alone, dressed in his red ceremonial robes, studiously at work in his room.  However, in this work Jerome is dressed in the rags of a hermit living outside his battered wooden shelter.  As was the case in the first painting I featured, our eyes soon leave Jerome and the lion and focus on the way Patinir has beautifully depicted, in great detail, the landscape which surrounds the saint. Perched on rocky plateau is a monastery, supposedly a depiction of the one at Bethlehem where Jerome once worked.   The painting seems to have three well defined colour patterns.  The foreground is the darkest made up of various tones of brown and black depicting Jerome’s shelter attached to the high and dark rocky outcrop.  The middle ground is full of green of differing shades from the dark greens of the tree foliage to the lighter greens of the fields further away which surround a small village.  The background is predominantly lighter with blues and greys depicting the sea and the far-off mountains although to the left we see the black clouds of an approaching storm.  This change in colours from the darkness of the foreground to the lightness of the background creates perspective in the work.  Once again the high craggy outcrops hark back to the geography of his birthplace, Dinant which nestled snugly between the high rocky cliffs which protruded out towards the River Meuse.

Charon crossing the River Styx by Joachim Patinir (1524)
Charon crossing the River Styx by Joachim Patinir (1524)

My third offering is fundamentally a landscape work and yet this has a mythological connotation.  It is entitled Charon Crossing the River Styx and was completed by Patinir around 1524.  Again, like the two previous works, it can be found in Madrid’s Prado museum.  This is not a devotional work and was probably originally commissioned by a wealthy merchant and scholarly connoisseur who was also an avid art collector.  The painting is divided into three vertical parts, the centre of which is the River Styx and the outer parts represent the banks on either side of this great mythological waterway.   The River Styx was one of the five rivers that separated the world of the living from the world of the dead. In Greek mythology, it was written that the River Styx wound around Hades nine times. The name of the river derives from the Greek word stugein which means hate, and so, Styx, was the river of hate. To the left of the river is the swamp-like and rugged bank of Paradise and to the right of the river is that of Hell

Charon and the Soul
Charon and the Soul

Our eyes immediately home in on the sandy-coloured boat and its occupants which are midway between the two banks.  The boatman is Charon, the old ferry man who ferries the dead onto the underworld, and we see him crossing the river Styx towards the underworld, where the dragon-tailed three-headed dog, Cerebus, stands guard, allowing all souls to enter but none to leave. We can see Cerebus curled up in his lair at the entrance to the gates of Hell, which is depicted in the right background of the painting, burning brightly.

The Angel pointing the way
The Angel pointing the way

Along with Charon in the boat is the soul of a recently deceased person. The soul is looking around and has to decide on to which bank it wants to disembark.  If you look carefully at the left bank you will notice an angel perched on a mound pointing towards another waterway and another land.  This water is the Fountain of Life and it is part of Paradise.  We can see peacocks and ravens on this land and these symbolise Resurrection and Redemption.  The angel is canvassing that this should be the soul’s land of choice.  Now, if we look on the right bank that also seems to be calm and peaceful with birds flying around the trees.  Cerebus is out of sight but on the ground near the foot of the trees is a small monkey which is a symbol of the devil and that for the soul in the boat should be warning enough.  Unfortunately, looking at the way Charon is steering the boat, the soul has made the wrong choice!  The background story is interesting but for me the beauty of this work is not the characters in it but the artist’s depiction of the landscape.

Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching by Joachim Patinir
Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching by Joachim Patinir

My fourth and final offering of works by Joachim Patinir is entitled Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching and one version of this work can be found in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique – Brussels, but the one below is from the collection of  the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in the lower right hand corner of this version we see a crest.   It is the crest of the wealthy Rem family and it could well be the wealthy merchant, Lucas Rem, the sixteenth century Augsburg merchant and art collector had this version painted for himself and had the family crest added to it.

Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching by Joachim Patinir with the Rem Crest
Landscape with Saint John the Baptist Preaching by Joachim Patinir with the Rem Crest

In the painting, we have a bird’s eye view of St John the Baptist preaching to a group of followers but what I like most about the painting is the beautifully depicted imaginary landscape which acts as a backdrop to the religious scene,   Once again it crosses my mind that the religious story plays a secondary role to Patinir’s depiction of the landscape.  Once again we see a similar landscape to that in his other works – tall rocky outcrops closely bordering on to a river, which because of the religious nuance of the painting could have represented the River Jordan and on the left bank, although not clear in this picture, is a depiction of the baptism of Christ, in the Jordan river, by John the Baptist.

We observe St John, bent over, leaning heavily against a sturdy branch of a tree.  It is almost as if he is leaning against a lectern or pulpit rail as he looks down upon his followers who sit entranced by his words.  In the foreground to the left of the painting we see a tree which is dying around which is a vine.   This is thought to allude to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden which withered and died once Adam had taken a bite of the apple offered to him by Eve.  According to legend, the tree eventually came back to life once Jesus Christ had died on the cross and in so doing, had atoned for the sins of the world.

Both John the Baptist and his audience are in the shade as the bright light we see lighting up the meandering river, which wends its way towards the horizon, is incapable of penetrating the thick tree canopy above the group.  As was the case in the earlier painting, Patinir has used different colour combinations to craft perspective.  Dark browns and greens in the foreground around the people gradually change to lighter greens of the banks of the river and then in the distance lighter blues and greys become the dominant colours.

Bayard Rock, Dinant
Bayard Rock, Dinant

There is a fascinating delicacy about Patinir’s landscape work and as I have said before this favoured landscape depiction of the artist probably stemmed from what he remembers of his birthplace around Dinant and the rock structure there known as the Bayard Rock, which looms above the town and the River Meuse.

In German, Patinir would be classified as a painter of Weltlandschaft which translated means world landscape.  The Weltlandschaft painters completed works depicting panoramic landscapes as seen from a high viewpoint.  These works of art typically included mountains and lowlands, water, and buildings. As in Patinir’s works, the subject of each painting is usually a Biblical or historical narrative, but the figures included in the work are secondary to their surroundings and they were often made-to-order by secular patrons.  The landscapes in these works were not geographically accurate.  In her 2005 book, Seventeenth-century Art and Architecture, Anne Sutherland Harris, a professor of Art History, describes this form of art:

“…They were imaginary compilations of the most appealing and spectacular aspects of European geography, assembled for the delight of the wealthy armchair traveller…”

So again I ask – was Patinir a religious painter who liked to add a landscape background to his work or was he a landscape painter who liked to add, or get somebody else to add, figures appertaining to religious and mythological stories?  Perhaps his friend Albrecht Dürer had the answer to this conundrum when he described his friend as:

“…der gute Landschaftmaler…

(the good painter of landscapes)

Judith Leyster and Tulip madness

The Merry Company by Judith Leyster (1630)
The Merry Company by Judith Leyster (1630)

Of my featured artist today, the Dutch Golden Age writer and poet Theodorus Schrevelius wrote in his 1648 book about the history of Haarlem entitled Harlemias:

“…There also have been many experienced women in the field of painting who are still renowned in our time, and who could compete with men. Among them, one excels exceptionally, Judith Leyster, called “the true Leading star in art…” 

Judith Jans Leyster was born in Haarlem in July 1609.  She was the eighth child of Jan Willemsz Leyster who was a cloth maker and owner of a local brewery, which was called Ley-ster (guide or leading star).  It is thought that her initial artistic tuition came from Frans Pieter de Grebber.   De Grebber, a member of the local painters’ guild, Haarlem Guild of St Luke, was a landscape artist and portraitist, who also designed tapestries. The reason for this belief is that the chronicler of life in Haarlem at that time, Samuel Ampzing, mentioned Judith Leyster in his 1628 book about life in Haarlem, Beschrijvinge ende Lof der stad Haelem in Holland.  He commented that Leyster, then 19 years old, was a painter who had “good and keen insight”.   It was interesting to note that he also made the comment: “Who has ever seen paintings by a daughter?” which alluded to the fact that it was very unusual for a female to become a professional painter and furthermore, in 1633, she was one of only two females in the 17th century who had been accepted as a master in the Haarlem Guild of St Luke.  The first woman registered was Sara van Baabbergen, two years earlier.

It was around this time that Judith’s family left Haarlem and moved some forty kilometres to the southwest and went to live in Vreeland, a town close to the provincial capital Utrecht.  Utrecht in the 1620’s was the home of the group of artists known as the Utrecht Caravaggists.  These painters, such as Dirck van Baburen, Hendrick ter Brugghen, and Gerrit van Honthorst had spent time in Rome during the first two decades of the 17th century and, in the Italian capital, it was a time when Caravaggio’s art was exerting a tremendous influence on all who witnessed his works and by the early 1620s, his painterly style of chiaroscuro, was wowing the rest of Europe.   Whether Judith Leyster mixed with these painters or just picked up on their style is in doubt as the family stayed in the Utrecht area less than twelve months, moving to Amsterdam in the autumn of 1629 but two years later Judith returned to her home town of Haarlem.

It is known that she met Frans Hals when she was in Haarlem but although many of Leyster’s work resembled Hals’ work, both in style and genre, art historians are not in agreement as to whether she was ever actually Hals’ pupil or simply an admirer.  Leyster’s paintings were secular in nature and she never painted any religious works.   Although she is known to have painted a couple of portraits she was, in the main, a genre painter, recording on canvas the life of everyday people.  They were, generally speaking, joyous in their depiction and were extremely sought after by wealthy merchants.

Self Portrait by Judith Leyster (1835)
Self Portrait by Judith Leyster (1835)

Her famous self-portrait was completed around 1630 when she was twenty-one years of age and could well have been her entrance piece for the Haarlem Guild of St Luke’s.  In the work, she is at her easel, palette and an array of eighteen paint brushes in her left hand.  Her right arm is propped against the back of her chair and a brush, held in her right hand is poised ready to carry on painting the work we see on her easel.  She has turned towards us.  She is relaxed and seems to have broken off from painting to say something to whoever is in her studio.  The first things we notice are that the clothes she is wearing.  These would not be the ones she would wear when she was painting.  They are too good for such a messy job to be worn by somebody who is painting.  Her skilful depiction of her clothes allude to her social status and her depiction of them is a fine example of the up-to-date female fashion. Also consider, would a painter working on a painting really be clutching all eighteen of their brushes at the same time?   Of course not!   This is more a painting in which Judith Leyster is intent on promoting herself.  Through this self- portrait she is eager to reveal herself, her painterly skills and her social standing.  In this one painting she is advertising her ability to paint a merry genre scene as seen by the painting of the violin player on the easel.  This depiction of a musician was similar to the one depicted in her 1630 work entitled The Merry Company, which she completed around the same time as this self-portrait.  Of course this being a self-portrait it has also highlighted her ability as a portraitist.  It is interesting to note that when this painting was subjected to infrared photography it was found that the painting on the easel was Leyster’s own face and so one has to presume she originally intended that this painting would be a quirky “self-portrait within a self-portrait”, but presumably, Leyster on reflection, decided to have the painting on the easel represent another facet of her painterly skills – that of a genre painter.  This was her most successful and profitable painting genre with its scenes of merrymakers.  It was this type of work which was extremely popular with her clientele, who wanted to be reminded of the happy and enjoyable times of life.  Although Leyster was proficiently skilled as a portrait artist the art market was already crowded with popular portraitist and so, probably for economic reasons, she decided to concentrate on her genre paintings.

Judith Leyster's signature
Judith Leyster’s signature

Around 1629 she set up a studio on her own and started to add her own signature to her works.  Her signature or moniker was an unusual and clever play on her surname “Leyster”.  Lei-star in Dutch means “lode star” or “polestar” a star often used by sailors to navigate by and she was often referred to as a “leading star” in the art world, and so she used this play-on-words to create a special signature: a monogram of her initials with a shooting star.  She must have been successful at selling her works of art as soon she had employed three apprentices.  It is interesting to note that she had a falling out with Frans Hals who had “illegally” poached one of her apprentices and the whole matter ended up in court at which time Hals was made to apologise and make a payment to her for his action.

The Jolly Toper by Judith Leyster (1629)
The Jolly Toper by Judith Leyster (1629)

Judith Leyster completed many genre pieces in which she portrayed people as being happy with their lot in life.  Settings were often inside taverns but whereas with other Dutch artists who tended to portray the tavern dwellers with a moralistic tone around the evils of drink and the repercussions of becoming a heavy drinker, Leyster wanted to focus more on people enjoying themselves.  A good example of that was her 1630 painting which is in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum entitled The Jolly Toper or The Merry Drinker which is considered to be one of her finest works.

The Merry Drinker by Frans Hals (1628-30)
The Merry Drinker by Frans Hals (c.1628)

However with this painting came the assertion by many critics that she was merely a copier of Frans Hals style of painting, such as her choice of subjects and her brushwork.  Hals had completed his own painting The Merry Drinker in 1630 so I will leave you to decide whether there are more similarities between Leyster and Hal’s paintings other than the subject matter.

The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster (c.1639)
The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier) by Judith Leyster (c.1639)

Although Leyster’s genre scenes would often focus on happiness and merriment with no moralistic judgement, she did occasionally focus on the darker side of life and a good example of this can be seen in her 1639 painting which is housed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, entitled The Last Drop (The Gay Cavalier).  It is a vanitas work, meaning it is a work of art which in some way symbolises the brevity of life.   In the work we see two men dressed in festive clothing having an enjoyable time drinking and smoking.  The fact that they are not just celebrating but are also dressed up for the occasion has led people to believe that this merriment is taking place on the Dutch holiday of  vastelaovend, which we know as Shrove Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent.  This was the day when people took advantage of the last day of merrymaking before the forty days of Lent abstinence and fasting.  However it is not just the two revellers that Leyster has depicted in the drinking scene, for between them we see a skeleton.  The skeleton holds an hour-glass in one bony hand and a skull and a lit candle in the other.  The candle both casts a shadow on the seated drinker but at the same time lights up the cavalier’s face.   The skull, burning candle and hour-glass are classic symbols of a vanitas painting which have the sobering effect of reminding us of the brevity of life and the inevitability of death.  There is no interaction between the drinkers and the skeleton which is probably an indication that as they have imbibed so much alcohol the thought of death never crosses their mind.  Look at the expression on the face of the cavalier dressed in red.  It is one of blankness and stupidity which we have often witnessed when we look into a face of a drunkard.  At that moment in time, he has no concern about his own mortality.   One final comment about this work is that it is a good example of how Leyster utilised a style of painting which was associated with the Italian painter Caravaggio and his Dutch followers, the Utrecht Caravaggists, whom Leyster would have seen earlier in her career.  It is known as tenebrism which is where the artist has depicted most of the figures engulfed in shadow but at the same time, have some of them dramatically illuminated by a shaft of light usually from an identifiable source, such as a candle as is the case in this painting, or from an unidentifiable source, off canvas.

A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel by Judith Leyster (c.1635)
A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel by Judith Leyster (c.1635)

On a lighter note I offer you another painting with a moral, but somewhat more humorous, which Judith Leyster completed around 1635 and is entitled A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel.  It is a visual joke with a moralising tale.  It is one of those paintings, typical of Dutch genre scenes, in which you have to look carefully at all who and what are depicted in the painting so as work out what is going on.  See if you can fathom it out.

The two main characters are a boy and a girl.  The boy has a cheeky smile on his face.  He has enticed the cat to join them by waving a wriggling eel which he now holds aloft, having grabbed the cat.   The little girl has now grabbed the tail of the cat, which in a state of shock and fear.  It is desperate to get away from the pair of young tormentors and has extended its claws and about to scratch the boy’s arm in an attempt to escape his clutches.  The young girl who has a face of an older woman, admonishingly wags her finger at us – so why is she so censorious?   It is believed that she is smugly warning us against foolish and mischievous behaviour alluding to the Dutch saying: ‘He who plays with cats gets scratched’.  In other words he who seeks trouble will find it. Although children are depicted in this moralising scene, it is more a warning to adults about their behaviour and many Dutch artists who painted genre scenes with a moral twist frequently used children to put over their moral message.

In the late 1630’s, a strange phenomenon occurred in the Netherlands, which had been brewing for a number of years.   It became known as Tulpenwoede (tulip madness) which saw the price of tulip bulbs rocketing.   It all began when some tulip contracts reached a level which was about 20 times the level of three months earlier.   In one particular case a rare tulip known as Semper Augustus, which had been valued at around 1,000 guilders per bulb  ten years earlier was fetching a price of 5,500 guilders per bulb in  January 1637.  This meant that one of these bulbs was worth the cost of a large Amsterdam house.  Many people, who watched the rising value of the tulip bulb, wanted part of the action.  People used their life savings and other assets were cashed in to get money to invest in these bulbs, all in the belief and expectation that the price of tulip bulbs would continue to rise and they would suddenly become rich.  Alas as we have all seen when a thing is too good to be true, it usually is, and by the end of February 1637 the price of a tulip bulb had crashed and many people lost their savings.

Tulip by Judith Leyster
Tulip by Judith Leyster
from her Tulip Book

However the rising value of the tulip bulb came as a boon to floral artists for if people could not afford the actual tulips for their gardens or pots the next best thing was to have a painting of them and even better still would be to have a book full of beautiful depictions of different tulips.   Judith Leyster realised that the public’s love of tulips could be advantageous for her and she produced her own book of tulips.

Flowers in a vase by Judith Leyster (1654)
Flowers in a vase by Judith Leyster (1654)

In 1636 Judith Leyster married Jan Miense Molenaer, another genre painter, and the two of them set up a joint studio and art dealing business.  They moved to Amsterdam as the opportunity to sell their works of art was better and there was also a greater stability in the art market.  Judith went on to have five children and the role of mother and housekeeper meant that her art output declined.  Until recently it was thought that her artistic output had all but ceased, that was until the run-up to a Judith Leyster retrospective at the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem a number of years ago when a beautiful floral still life which she painted in 1654 surfaced.  It had been hidden from public view in the collection of a private collector.

Judfith Leyster and her husband remained in Amsterdam for eleven years.  They then moved to Heemstede in the province of North Holland, where in 1660, at age 50, Leyster died.

The Misers by Followers of Marinus van Reymerswaele

The Misers by the Followers of Marinus van Raymerswaele (1548-51)

Whenever one picks up a newspaper nowadays, or switches on the television or radio, one is regaled with tales of dastardly deeds done by bankers.  Story upon story is written about their misappropriation of our money.  We sit and read or listen to these tales which coincide with the deterioration of our own financial situation and we seethe with anger.  Over time we are convinced that our own personal financial woes can be directly traced back to and laid at the doorstep of the bankers.  In our minds, the government is also to blame as we are taxed to the hilt and our wrath is also levelled at the role of the tax collectors.  We would rather cling to this belief than question why our credit cards and stores cards are “maxed-out”.   Soon it is not just the bankers and tax collectors whom we despise but we begin to focus our attention on those who are financially sound and before we know it,  they too become targets for our dislike, our jealousy and our envy.   Why should we suffer pecuniary embarrassment when others seem to be untouched by the money problems of the country?  Now we read newspapers, listen to radio reports and watch television stories with glee when we see bankers are being bashed and rich people suddenly lose their fortunes.  We revel in this feeling of schadenfreude.  The media of course knows what we want and they continually feed us with such stories.

The Banker and his Wife by Quinten Massys (1514)

So is this a new phenomenon?   Actually it isn’t.   The portrayal of greedy bankers, money-lenders and tax collectors often with anti-Semitic connotations has been around for a long time and may have derived from paintings such as Jan van Eyck’s 1440 work entitled Banker and Client, which unfortunately has been lost.  Later, in 1514, the Flemish painter, Quentin Metsys, would carry on the theme in his work entitled The Banker and his Wife.   Just as the present day media are aware that we want to witness the vilification of these people, the artists of the past also knew what would strike a chord with the people of those days when it came to disparage those who had “taken” our money from us, whether it is bankers and money lenders or tax collectors.   In My Daily Art Display today I want to feature another 16th century painting on that very subject.

The Moneychanger and his Wife by Marinus van Reymerswaele (1539)

If you care to look back at my blog of January 2nd 2011 you can read about a 1539 work by Marinus Claeszoom van Reymerswaele entitled The Moneychanger and his Wife in which one sees seated at their table a married couple in 16th century Flemish dress totally absorbed, almost spellbound, as they count their money. Both husband and wife are gripped equally by this act and in some ways it maybe this common love of money which brings them happiness and cements their relationship.   However one should observe that they focus their attention on the coins on the table and seem to ignore each other.  It is also interesting to note that in the paintings, The Banker and his Wife by Metsys, The Moneychanger and his Wife by van Reymerswaele and today’s offering there is also something else in common in the depictions besides the two characters and that is behind these people there is a shelf which forms part of a still life depiction of items which add to the story behind the main theme of money.

Two Tax Gatherers by Marinus van Reymerswaele (c.1540)

My featured painting today is entitled The Misers and was completed between 1548 and 1551.  It is attributed to the “Followers of Marinus van Reymerswaele” and is part of the Queen’s Royal Collection.  It is a variation on a number of paintings by van Reymerswaele himself, one of which, entitled The Tax Gatherers, he completed around 1540 and is in the National Gallery in London.

In today’s featured painting we see the man on the left writing out a list of taxes and exchange rates on commodities such as wine, beer and fish,  which will then be given to private individuals to collect.  This was a common practice in those days.   The setting for the painting is one of congestion.  In it we see two figures positioned tightly together with their desk positioned ridiculously close to the door but, in a way, this has given the scene a claustrophobic and unsettling atmosphere. On the green baize table in front of the two men are piles of coins which are being counted and registered in a ledger.  There is also a four-bag money pouch with a handle, some jewellery and an ink pot.   The title of the painting, The Misers, is probably a misnomer as in fact these two men are simply tax collectors going about their every-day business. The man on the right points at the ledger being written in French by his colleague.  The exchange rates listed in the ledger gives us a valuable clues to the dating of the picture, as these rates first came into use on 11 July 1548 and were superseded on 16 December 1551.  The fact that the French language was used could mean that either this painting was commissioned by a French patron or the artist lived in the French-speaking region of the Netherlands.  The man on the right stares out at us.  He sneers.  He gloats.  His face is grotesquely distorted.  The artist has, through his depiction of this man, presented us with a “hate figure”.   There is an undoubted air of affluence about the clothes two men are wearing.  The man on the left wears a sumptuous red turban pinned to which is a large jewelled brooch.   He wears spectacles and in a way the artist may have wanted us to interpret the wearing of these as symbolic of moral shortsightedness.  However whoever chose to paint their rich garb decided to clothe them in 15th century costumes which at the time would have looked rather old-fashioned and maybe the artist had decided that by dressing them in such a manner,  he was subtly ridiculing them.

Look at the shelf behind them.  Art historians believe that this still-life depiction was probably painted by a different artist to the one who painted the two figures.  On the shelf there is a lit candle which is slowly burning away and this can probably be interpreted as a warning against greed, and questioning our attitude with regards wealth, because, like the candle, which will soon burn out, life is short and there is a futility about the desire to  accumulate wealth.

This painting which I saw last week when I visited the Queen’s Gallery is a beautiful work of art.

King Edward VI by William Scrots

King Edward VI by William Scrots (c.1550)

Let me start  by tantalising you and declaring that today My Daly Art Display is about three people, a young English king who came to the throne aged nine and died six years later, a Netherlandish portrait painter who became the King’s painter and finally a former chairman of an English Premier League football club.   Has that wetted your appetite to read on?

The king in question, who we see in the painting, was King Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour.  Edward was born in October 1537 just over nine years before his father died and the crown passed to him.  Although he was the first son of Henry he was the third child of the monarch.  Henry VIII’s first child was Mary, born in 1516, whose mother was his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  His second child was his daughter Elizabeth, born in 1533, his mother being Henry’s second wife Anne Boleyn.  However Henry didn’t want a girl to succeed him so he got Parliament to pass three Succession Acts, the First Succession to the Crown Act of 1534 disbarred Mary becoming Queen of England on the grounds that she was a bastard leaving the yet unborn Elizabeth the true successor.  However in 1536 with the execution of Anne Boleyn, the mother of Elizabeth, Elizabeth was declared also to be a bastard and Henry’s parliament passed the Second Succession to the Crown Act of 1536 which barred her from succeeding him to the throne of England.  At this time Henry had no heir although he had just married his third wife Jane Seymour and Edward had yet to be conceived.  In 1543 it all changed again when Henry had his Parliament pass a Third Act of Succession which made his son Edward the legitimate successor to his throne with Mary and Elizabeth reinstated as second and third in line.  Henry VIII died four years later and the nine year old Edward became King Edward VI.  His reign lasted just six years as at the age of fifteen he contracted tuberculosis and died.

The second person involved in this painting was the painter himself, William Scrots.  Little is known of his early life but he came to light as the court painter to Mary of Habsburg, the Regent of Netherlands in 1537.  We also know that Scrots travelled to England around 1545 where the following year he became the court painter of Henry VIII in succession to Hans Holbein.  It is believed that his annual salary for this position was £62. 10 shillings, double what Holbein had been receiving.  After Henry’s death in 1547 he remained as court painter to the young Edward.  Scrots painted a number of portraits of Edward VI, one of which is today’s featured painting.

Anamorphic portrait of Edward VI by William Scrots

It is interesting to note that Scrots painted an anamorphic profile of Edward VI, which is a painting which looks totally distorted unless viewed from a certain angle when what is depicted becomes clear.   His predecessor Holbein had painted The Ambassadorsin 1533, in which he included a distorted shape of a skull lying diagonally across the bottom of the painting and which can only be recognised as such if viewing it from a very acute angle.

Anamorphic portrait as seen from an acute angle

My Daily Art Display featured oil on panel painting is simply entitled King Edward VI and Scrots is thought to have painted it around 1540.  It is an unusual portrayal of the monarch as it is one in which the sitter is seen in profile.  It is awash with detailed iconography.  We see in the painting both a red and white rose which symbolised the Houses of Lancaster and York respectively, the two great English dynasties, which were united by Edward’s grandfather, Henry VII.   The Latin inscription below the portrait speaks of Phoebus, the sun, and Clytia, the sunflower, both of whom feature in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid relates how Apollo turned the Princess Clytia into a sunflower as punishment for exposing his romance with her sister Leucothea.  Look at the sunflowers in the painting.  Normally they would turn and face the sun but in this portrait they have their “backs” to the sun and face the boy-king, which was probably meant to symbolise the power and influence of the young man.  It is believed the portrait was commissioned by the Stanhope family who were related to Edward’s uncle and chief minister, Edward Seymour who was for a time also the Lord Protector.  The painting remained in the Stanhope family until 2004.

And so to the third person connected to this painting, the former Premier League football chairman.  As I have just said the painting remained in the Stanhope family for over four hundred and fifty years until 2004 when it was auctioned by Sothebys.  This painting was considered to be one of the most significant sixteenth-century paintings ever to have come up for sale.  It was purchased for £700,000  by the Peter Moores Foundation for Compton Verney.  Sir Peter Moores is a British businessman, art collector and philanthropist, a former chairman of the Liverpool-based Littlewoods football poolsand retailing business in the UK and was briefly the Chairman of Everton Football Club.

So there you have it – a fascinating oil on panel painting, a tale of three men;  a boy-king, an artist and an ex football chairman.   What more could you ask for?

The Young Bull by Paulus Potter

The Young Bull by Paulus Potter (c.1647)

After yesterday’s controversial and somewhat depressing painting by Klimt I thought I would lighten spirits with not one but two paintings which have a connection to each other.   I don’t really have a forward plan of what my next featured painting will be, the choice is often coincidental.  For example, today I received in the mail a long awaited catalogue which goes with the Dutch Landscapes exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.  A couple of weeks ago I had intended to visit the exhibition and was not best pleased that the catalogue had not arrived before my trip to London.  However if you read my blog on that day you will know I never made the exhibition as the Gallery was closed owing to the state visit of Barrack Obama.

So I was looking through the catalogue this morning and came across a work that is on display in the exhibition by Paulus Potter.  I had intended to feature that painting but when I was researching the artists and his paintings I changed my mind and My Daily Art Display features his most famous painting entitled The Young Bull.  The reason I changed my mind was because of an interesting connection his painting has with one by a American Modernist painter, Mark Tansey – but more about that later.

Paulus Potter was born in 1625, in Enkhuizen, a harbour town in Northern Netherlands.  His painting speciality was that of animals, especially cows, horses and sheep in landscape settings.  From Enkhuizen he and his family moved to Leiden and later Amsterdam.  His father, an artist, taught his son the basics of painting.  We know that Paulus eventually arrived in Delft because it is recorded that when he was in his early twenties he became a member of the Guild Of St Luke in Delft. In 1649 he  moved on to The Hague where he married.  His father-in-law was a wealthy builder and through him Paulus was introduced to the rich and privileged of Dutch society and with this fortuitous turn of events Paulus had a market for his paintings.  He wasn’t to capitalise on that for long as his life was cut short by tuberculosis in 1654 at the young age of 28.

Today’s painting, an early example of Romanticism, entitled The Bull, was painted by the twenty-one year old Paulus Potter around 1647  and can now be found at the Mauritshuis in The Hague.  This remarkable life-sized painting was, in the early nineteenth century, as popular with the Dutch people as Rembrandt’s Nightwatch.  Paintings featuring cattle were de rigueur in Holland at this time.  The scene of a bull in the meadow in itself is unremarkable but what makes it so special is the amount of detail in the painting.  Look at the flies hovering around the back of the bull which stands in the shade of the tree.   Look too on the ground by the feet of the cow and you can just make out a small frog which is being watched closely by the cow which is lying on the ground.    The standing bull takes centre stage in the picture and the artist has added a cow, three sheep and a farmer.  To the right we see a low-lying meadow with some cattle grazing and in the distance, just visible on the horizon sheltering below a low dark threatening sky is a church spire.  This has been identified as the church spire of Rijswijk which is now a suburb of The Hague.

The Innocent Eye Test by Mark Tansey (1981)

So now to the second painting I promised.  This is a much more modern painting.  The painting entitled The Innocent Eye Test is by the American Postmodernist painter Mark Tansey.  His forte is monochromatic paintings, which are often amusing, sometimes mocking and often touch on the subject of art critics and their critiques.   The picture (above) which he painted in 1981 depicts a group of officials looking at a cow who in turn is staring at a painting.  They are wanting to take note of the cow’s reaction to seeing a life-sized painting of a cow and a bull .  The painting which is being observed closely by the bull is the Paulus Potter painting The Young Bull.  I am amused to see all the bespectacled officials in business suits or lab coats especially the one holding the mop which one must presume is in case the bull gets too excited by the painting and has an “accident”!!!

……….and finally another twist to the story of the paintings, below is a recent article from the  New York Times newspaper dated May 11th 2011, regarding Mark Tansey’s painting The Innocent Eye Test…….

“..British collector Robert Wylde filed federal suit against the Gagosian Gallery on Thursday over a Mark Tansey painting, “The Innocent Eye Test.” Wylde alleges that the Manhattan gallery concealed the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 31 percent partial ownership of the work, and the fact that the museum planned to eventually to reclaim the painting altogether.

The Innocent Eye Test was originally owned by Artforum publisher and established art dealer Charles Cowles, then partially owned and promised to the Metropolitan Museum in 1988.  In 2009, collector Robert Wylde was shown the Mark Tansey painting at Cowles’ SoHo apartment, when Cowles was closing his Chelsea Gallery after 30 years.

Wylde, who lives in Monaco, purchased the Tansey through the Gagosian Gallery for $2.5 million on August 5th, 2009. In spring of 2010, a Gagosian lawyer contacted Wylde, when the gallery learned of the Metropolitan Museum’s partial ownership.

Gagosian Gallery is internationally renowned as a foremost art market institution, and rarely discloses transactions on the basis of client confidentiality and business discretion. Although this is not the first suit against the gallery – most recently, misidentified protester Ingrid Homberg filed after being removed from an Anselm Keifer show in February–the Tansey suit is uniquely sale-related.  Robert Wylde additionally contends that Gagosian Gallery canceled his Richard Prince sale when a higher offer was received.

Gagosian Gallery spokeswoman Virginia Coleman told the New York Times that Charles Cowles claimed clear title to the painting, and that, “the gallery acted in good faith.”

In lieu of the lawsuit, Cowles himself told the New York Times he considered the 2009 sale his mistake. He “didn’t think about” the Metropolitan Museum’s stake in the painting once it was returned from its initial showcase, and sold it through Gagosian in 2009 for financial reasons.

The Beverly Hills  Gagosian Gallery is set to show its latest Mark Tansey works in an upcoming exhibition from April 19th to May 28th. The gallery’s artist summary alludes to complex uncertainty, inviting the viewer to engage in the metaphorical aesthetic disorientation during exhibition..”

….and all this because my gallery catalogue arrived in today’s mail !!!

 

 

A Man aged 38 by Lucas van Leyden

A Man aged 38 by Lucas van Leyden

My Daily Art Display for today returns to portraiture.   The oil on canvas painting is entitled A Man aged 38 and is by the Dutch artist Lucas van Leyden.  Along with the likes of Gossaert and Massys he was looked upon as one of the most significant Netherlandish artist of the early sixteenth century.  According to the eminent Dutch painter and biographer of Netherlandish artists, Karel van Mander, Leyden was born around 1494 in Leiden, one of five children.  His father was the painter Huig Jacobsz.   Leyden is looked upon as a child art prodigy as at the age of nine he was already making engravings and three years later had sold his first painting, Legend of St Hubert.  He received artistic training from his father and also from Cornelis Engelbrechtsz, a leading artist of the day.  By 1508 he was, according to the biographer van Mander, “a master of repute as a copperplate engraver”.

Lucas Van Leyden portrait in silverpoint by Durer

In 1521, whilst in Antwerp, van Leyden met Albrecht Dürer, an artist who had influenced his work.   In Dürer’s diary kept during his travels in the Low Countries, he records that whilst at Antwerp he met Lucas, who asked him to dinner, and that he had accepted the invitation. He valued the art of Lucas at its true figure, and exchanged the Dutchman’s prints for eight florins’ worth of his own.  Dürer even drew a silverpoint portrait of the young Dutch artist (above).  Lucas returned to his home town of Leiden.  In 1526 he married Lysbeth van Bosschuysen, a young lady from one of the most influential and wealthiest families of the town.  In 1527 Lucas journeyed around the Netherlands, hosting dinners to the painters of the guilds of Middleburg, Ghent, Malines and Antwerp.    During his tour of the Netherlands he had Jan Mabuse (Gossaert) as a companion.   Van Leyden liked to imitate him in his style as well as in his love of rich costume.

After returning home, van Leyden took ill and remained unwell until his death in 1533, aged 39 years of age.  Van Leyden was convinced that an envious colleague, who was jealous of his success, had given him poison.   He left a wife, daughter Gretchen who days before his death had given birth to van Leyden’ first grandchild.

The majority of van Leyden’s work was engravings and etchings of which he completed almost one hundred and seventy between 1508 and 1530.  These circulated throughout Europe and because of this the young artist’s reputation grew steadily. However today I am not featuring one of his many engravings or etchings but his painted portrait of a young man which he completed around 1521 at around the time he met up with Albrecht Dürer.

 We see in front of us the bust-length figure of a clean-shaven man wearing a black coat and dark green gown clutching a piece of paper in his right hand.  Inscribed on the paper are the numbers “3” and “8” and it is believed that this refers to the age of this unknown sitter.  He looks lost in his own thoughts.  He is a picture of concentration.  The background is of a plain mid-green colour and is only interrupted by the dark shadow cast by the man’s head and his black cap.  This type of shadowing effect was often seen in sixteenth century portraiture.    Although the man is looking to our left we see his face in full.    Look carefully at his eyes.  I am fascinated by how we can see the reflection of a double-light window in his eyes as he stares out at the light.  This full light shining on the sitter allows us to see clearly every detail of the tone and colour his face.  One strange facial characteristic of the sitter is his extremely low-set eyebrows.   Art historians have discussed the face and lean towards the view that maybe van Leyden has by enlarging the eyes and the angles of the face made the sitter’s portrait more flattering.  Obviously the sitter has commissioned the portrait from the artist and is expecting both a truthful and flattering image, which of course is often at odds with one another!  Still, I am sure the sitter was pleased with the result.

 Of the painting the English writer and art historian Sir Claude Phillips wrote:

 “…neither Dürer nor Holbein has painted anything more expressive than this still youthful dreamer of dreams, who but seems to look out at the spectator – in reality absorbed in the sad contemplation of his own soul….”

Portrait of a Young Man by Petrus Christus

Portrait of a Young Man by Petrus Christus (c.1460)

I suppose I lay myself open to criticism by the way I jump from one genre of painting to another or from one period to another but all I am trying to achieve is to offer you up as many art genres as possible and by so doing open up the world of art to you.   There are many web blogs which concentrate on one particular art genre and maybe when you have decided what particular type of painting you like you can then find a website or blog which solely concentrates on that genre.  However for me, my love of art is not centred on one particular genre.  I love being able to dip in and out of painting types and by doing so I am able to discover real gems.  Yesterday, I featured a twentieth-century American artist and his city landscape today I am going back in time to the fifteenth century and looking at a portrait by a Netherlandish painter.  My featured artist today is Petrus Christus and My Daily Art Display is his oil on oak painting entitled Portrait of a Young Man which he completed around 1460 and which now can be seen in the National Gallery of London.

Petrus Christus was born around 1410 in what is now known as Baarle-Hertog and lies on the Belgium side of the Belgium-Netherland’s border.  Little is known of his early life until 1444 when he was noted as being an active painter in the city of Bruges.  It is thought that earlier he could have been a student of Jan van Eyck and on van Eyck’s death in 1441, Christus took over his workshop and completed some of his master’s work, but this is purely speculation and has yet to be irrefutably proven.  One argument against this turn of events is that it is known that Christus did not receive his Bruges citizenship until 1444, which is three years after van Eyck’s death.  Had he been a pupil of, and working for, van Eyck at the time of his death in 1441, he would automatically have received his Bruges ‘citizenship then.  So the question of whether Christus was a pupil of, or a successor to, remains unanswered.  However, having said all that, the one thing which is certain is that as an artist he was influenced by the work of van Eyck and made many copies of his works and became van Eyck’s successor.

And so, to today’s painting.  We see in front of us a young man holding an open prayer book looking towards the right of the picture, which lends us to believe that this is probably the left hand part of a devotional diptych and that the missing right-hand part of the diptych may have been a picture of the Virgin Mary. 

The Veronica

Over the man’s left shoulder, we can see on the wall an illuminated parchment showing an image of a revered icon known as the veronica, and a prayer.  The words of the prayer Salve sancta facies, “Hail, Holy Face”, which was a prayer to the face of Christ imprinted miraculously on Veronica’s veil.  .   The veronica according to legend bears the likeness of the face of Jesus Christ and comes from the Latin word “vera” meaning ‘truth’ and “icon” meaning ‘image’ and therefore the Veil of Veronica, simply known as The Veronica was regarded in the Middle Ages as the true image of Jesus’ face.  These illuminated manuscripts were very popular at this time as indulgences could be gained by reciting the prayer whilst looking at the face of Christ.

Look how Christus has painstakingly painted the minute details of this illuminated parchment.  It is amazing.  See how he has illustrated the curling up of the bottom right hand corner of the parchment as it comes away from its wooden backing.  The parchment has been fixed to the wood with metal pins which have been pressed through a narrow red ribbon which acts as a colourful border to the sacred parchment. 

To the left of the picture we see a stone arch way which has been decorated with carved stone statuettes.  On the outer side we have two statuettes, one of a prophet and the other a sibyl or prophetess, who foretold of the coming of Christ.  On the inner side of the arch we have the stone sculpture of John the Baptist who also foretold the coming of Christ.  Below his carved figure there is an empty plinth and one wonders what statuette had been intended for that space.

Purse

The artists has skilfully illustrated the folds in the young man’s long red cloak with its fur trim and I particularly like the elaborate design of the money pouch with the metal purse bar which can be seen under the right arm of the figure.

This is a truly remarkable painting.

An Elderley Couple by Jan Gossaert

An Elderley Couple by Jan Gossaert (C.1520)

Yesterday I told you I had been to London to visit some art galleries and I talked about the Dulwich Picture Gallery.   I also mentioned I had been to the National Gallery to see the Jan Gossaert exhibition.   This was a wonderful exhibition with an exceptional collection of his paintings.  Today and tomorrow I would like to focus on two of the paintings which were on display.

My Daily Art Display today is An Elderley Couple painted by Gossaert circa 1515-1520.  This is an oil on parchment laid down on canvas work.  It is thought that the artist used parchment as this medium is fine and smooth and allows the artist to include fine detailing.  It is the only known double portrait painted by Gossaert.  This painting demonstrates Gossaert’s mature style and combines Italianate fundamentals and Flemish naturalism.  We have before us two people depicted in a bust-length pose against a dark green background.  The light in the painting emanates from the upper left corner and manages to highlight their facial features.   Who are these people?   Nobody seems to have put names to the faces.  By the clothes they wear, we must assume that they are wealthy, not noble but of the merchant-class.  Their heads almost seem too large for their bodies but by doing this Gossaert makes us concentrate on their faces.

Looking at their faces, would you say they looked a happy couple?  I wouldn’t.  To me, they exude more an air of resignation than contentment.   I don’t detect any signs of happiness in their expressions.  I don’t see any suggestion of interaction between the couple.  In many ways it is a sad portrait.  As you look at the couple you hope that your relationship with your partner will not end up like theirs.   The man’s face has an uncompromising look and the woman looks gloomy almost miserable and for my mind exudes an air of acquiescence and subservience which is emphasised by the way she is positioned behind the man.   She seems somewhat downtrodden and I have the feeling that she would walk a few steps behind this man when they were out and about.   Note how her eyes are cast down.  Her mouth curves slightly downwards which gives her the unhappy appearance.   Her white head-dress is reflected on her cheek and chin and casts a shadow across her forehead. 

The man’s face is wrinkled and we can see a  silvery stubble on it.  His neck is scrawny with age and the sinews of the neck seem strained.   His silvery hair rests upon the soft fair of his coat.  The fingers of his left hand are wrapped tightly around the silver top of his cane whilst his left hand grasps the fur collar of his coat.   He wears a black cap, on the front of which is a gold badge with two nude figures and a cornucopia.  The nude couple were probably Mercury, the god of trade and Fortuna the goddess of fortune and prosperity and could be the badge of some merchant society of which the man is a member.  His lips are pressed tightly together.  His face looks sunken.  His skin appears worn and tired.  His cheeks are hollow, which suggests he has lost many of his teeth.  However having noted his physical facial failings, it has to be said that he has a determined look.  I believe he still wields power in his business and probably in his relationship with his wife.

I wonder what the couple made of their portrait.  Have they just accepted that life has almost passed them by or do they believe that they look dignified?   This is almost a vanitas painting in which we are reminded of our own mortality.  Like it or loathe it, if I had been the man in the painting, I don’t think I would have it on prominent display in my house !

Tomorrow I will show you the gem in the Gossaert exhibition which I found totally mesmerising.

Trial by Fire by Dieric Bouts

Justice of Otto III The Trial by Fire panel by Dieiric Bouts (1470-75)

Yesterday we looked at the left hand panel of the Justice of Emperor Otto diptych entitled The Execution of the Innocent Count.  Today I want to show you the right-hand panel which is entitled Trial by Fire.

To follow on from yesterday’s story regarding the execution of the innocent nobleman we delve further into the legendary tale The Golden Legend  written by Jacobus de Voragine in the late Middle Ages to seek out the consequences of that execution and discover the meaning behind Bout’s painting.   The nobleman’s widow, convinced of her dead husband’s innocence, asked for an audience with Emperor Otto so that she be allowed to prove the truth of her husband’s claim of innocence and clear her husband of the stain of adultery by suffering an ordeal of fire.   The Golden Legend tells of the event as follows:

 “…In the year of the Lord 984 Otto III, surnamed the Wonder of the World, succeeded Otto II. According to one chronicle his wife wanted to prostitute herself to a certain count. When the count refused to perpetrate so gross a crime, the woman spitefully denounced him to the emperor, who had him beheaded without a hearing. Before he was executed, the count prayed his wife to undergo the ordeal of the red-hot iron after his death, and thus to prove his innocence. Came the day when the emperor declared that he was about to render justice to widows and orphans, and the count’s widow was present carrying her husband’s head in her arms. She asked the ruler what death anyone who killed a man unjustly was worthy of. He answered that such a one deserved to lose his head. She responded: “You are that man! You believed your wife’s accusation and ordered my husband to be put to death. Now, so that you may be sure that I am speaking the truth, I shall prove it by enduring the ordeal of the burning iron.”

Seeing this done the emperor was overwhelmed and surrendered himself to the woman to be punished. The prelates and princes intervened, however, and the widow agreed to delays of ten, eight, seven, and six days successively. Then the emperor, having examined the case and discovered the truth, condemned his wife to death by fire, and as ransom for himself gave the widow four burgs, naming them Ten, Eight, Seven, and Six after the above-mentioned delays….”

So now look at the painting which depicts the scene described in the passage from the book.  As was the case with yesterday’s left panel, the painting on the right panel is split into two different scenes.  The main scene is featured in the foreground and middle-ground and features the widow kneeling before the emperor with the head of her dead husband, cradled by her right arm. In her left hand she defiantly holds the red-hot iron bar and by this action has, according to the emperor’s dictate, passed the test.    Otto sits on his throne surrounded by six courtiers.  He wears his red and gold brocaded robe with its sumptuous brown ermine lining.  A crown sits upon his head and he holds his sceptre of office in his right hand.  His eyes are transfixed on the poor woman before him as she pleads with him.   He realises with some disconcert that he has ordered the death of an innocent and loyal man.  His left hand is placed over his heart acknowledging his heartfelt contrition.  He is dumbstruck at the realisation he has condemned an innocent man to death and has discovered the truth about his wife’s infidelity and perjury.  He knows he has to try and rectify the wrong and orders the execution of his wife. 

In the second scene we see the burning of his wife at the stake, watched by crowds, and is depicted in the background of the painting.  She is bound to a pole watched over by a white-frocked cleric, who has been with her during her last few moments extending God’s mercy to the hapless woman.  The place of execution appears to be on the hillside in the country, outside the walls of the town.

 The diptych on view for the magistrates of Louvin to see each day was to act as a salutary lesson of the consequences of hasty and ill-thought out judgements and the perils of not hearing both sides in a case.  It also reminds them that no matter how powerful they may be they should not sit in judgement in cases in which they are personally involved for fear of bias.  Some historians believe Bouts was putting forward the idea that such errors of judgement ultimately cause the judges great anguish.

To end on an historical note Emperor Otto III in reality lived a very short life, dying of the plague or malaria at the age of twenty-one in the year 1002 during one of his military campaigns.  So what of his wife?   Actually Otto never married and had never had any children and on his death the great Ottonian Dynasty ended.

The Execution of the Innocent Count by Dieric Bouts

The Execution of the Innocent Man by Dieric Bouts (1470-5)

On January 27th  I showed you two painting by Gerard David entitled the Judgement of Cambyses and the Flaying of Sisamnes which was originally hung in the magistrates chambers in Bruges to act as a salutary warning to all those who dispensed justice in that city.  Town halls were often decorated with justice scenes in those days and today and tomorrow I want to look at two more examples of this artistic genre.  Our artist featured in today’s My Daily Art Display is the Dutch artist, Dieric Bouts the Elder.

Bouts was born in Haarlem around 1420 where he spent most of his early life.  Little is known about his childhood and early life except to say that most of his work was carried out whilst he was living in Louvain from 1457 until his death in 1475.  It was in this town that Bouts became city painter in 1468.  We know that he was influenced by the works of Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, the latter at one time being his tutor.  Art critics talk of a certain stiffness to his drawing and drew attention to the disproportionate length and angular nature of the figures in his paintings.  However they do concede that his figures are extremely expressive and that there is a richness of colour in all his works especially the backgrounds of his landscapes.

 Our painting today is one half of the diptych known as the Justice of the Emperor Otto or simply the Justice Panels which he commenced in 1470 and which he was still working on at the time of his death five years later.  He had completed one of the two panels and had begun on the second one.  There were to be four panels in all but the third and fourth panel were never completed.  The two panels that exist and now form a diptych are now on view at the Musées Royaux, Brussels.  In 1468, Bouts who was at the height of his career had just completed his greatest masterpiece, The Last Supper.  He was approached by the town council of Louvain to paint a series of four panels for the town hall.  The town council’s reason behind such a commission was that they believed that their magistrates would benefit from the depictions of this old moral story – a judicial exemplum.

 Today I am going to look at the left hand panel which is entitled The Execution of the Innocent Count.  First let me relate the background to this painting.  The tale which is wholly legendary comes from the 12th century chronicle of Gottfried the then Bishop of Viterbo.  The story is also mentioned in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend or Aurea Legenda.  It tells of the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III whose wife was the daughter of the King of Aragon.  According to the story Otto’s wife was a very hot-blooded and feisty young Aragonese woman.  She became captivated by a married nobleman of Otto’s imperial court and without a care of the consequences tried to seduce him.  However, to her horror and anger, the nobleman rejected her amorous approaches and remained faithful to his wife and loyal to his lord, Otto.  The woman had been scorned and was furious and sought revenge on the noble who had rebuffed her.  She immediately went to her husband, Otto, and falsely accused the nobleman of having raped her and this set in motion a terrible set of events and a great injustice.  The emperor was furious and without even listening to the pleas of innocence from the nobleman ordered his execution by beheading. 

Otto and his wife

This oil on panel painting which is very large, measuring 325cms tall and 182cms wide and the people depicted in the scene are life-sized.    There are three distinct scenes to this painting and they are arranged in chronological order.  To the right, in the middle-ground, behind a stone wall, in their Imperial garden, we have the Emperor and his wife.  Their high position in the painting symbolises the fact that they were present, overseeing the proceedings.  They are witnessing the execution of the innocent man solely condemned by the perjury of the emperor’s wife.  She is emotionless and even seems bored with the event unfolding before her.

The condemned man and his wife.

On the left hand side of the middle-ground we have the accused, barefooted, with his hands tied before him.  He is dressed in a simple white robe and stands next to his wife who is dressed in red, with clasped hands praying for the soul of her husband.   The nobleman shows no emotion and seems resigned to his fate.  A Franciscan monk walks ahead of the man and his wife as they share their last words.  He is the confessor.  His hand is raised as he begins to make the sign of the cross.  He will listen to the nobleman’s last wishes and will pray with him at the end and offer him absolution for his sins.

Executioner and the severed head

In the foreground we see the aftermath of the execution.  The executioner is dressed in green and yellow tights which show splashes of blood.   His bloodied sword is held behind his back as he hands the severed head of the nobleman to the grieving wife.  She lovingly cradles the head in a white shroud.  The decapitated body of her husband with blood pouring from the severed neck lies on the green grass.  This stark contrast of the two colours intensifies the painting.   The scene is witnessed by townspeople, merchants and the clergy and probably some of them would be portraits of actual people of Louvain at the time of Bouts.

The moral of the tale depicted in this painting and what the burgers of Louvain wanted to stress to their magistrates was that one should not judge top hastily.  One should not judge a case without hearing the other side of a story and finally a judge should not make a judgement on a case in which he is personally involved.   The tale and the painting also highlight the damage which can be done through perjury and defamation.

This is just the first part of the story depicted by Bouts on one of the two panels.  Tomorrow I will focus on and discuss the second panel which deals with the repercussions of the execution of the innocent man.