oil on panel
support: height 133.5 cm × width 83.4 cm
depth 7.5 cm
oil on panel
support: height 133.5 cm × width 83.4 cm
depth 7.5 cm
The support consists of three vertically grained oak planks (27.5, 28 and 27.2 cm), and has been trimmed at the top, where the panel is much thicker than on the other three sides. Dendrochronology has shown that the youngest heartwood ring of plank I, which came from the same tree as plank I and II of SK-A-1308, was formed in 1495. The panel could have been ready for use by 1506, but a date in or after 1520 is more likely. Both the front and reverse of the panel have a light-coloured ground, which was applied in the frame. A barbe and unpainted edges of approx. 1-1.5 cm are present on the left and right sides and the bottom of the reverse. The unpainted edge on the right side tapers towards the bottom. An unpainted edge and a barbe are present on the left and right sides and the bottom of the front of the panel (unpainted edges: approx. 0.5 cm on the sides and 1.5 cm at the bottom). A limited amount of underdrawing, probably in a dry medium, can be observed with infrared reflectography in the architecture on the reverse. Two engaged columns at the back were underdrawn but not executed in paint. Pentimenti in the heads of some of the figures on both sides of the panel indicate that they were originally placed higher up. One figure seems to have been omitted altogether in the final paint stage. The verso shows some pentimenti which can be better observed with infrared reflectography. For example, the third figure from the left with the greyish beard was originally reserved further to the right. Also visible with the naked eye and infrared reflectography at upper left in the sky on the reverse are a woman seen from behind and other figures, cut off at the top (![fig. b][fig. b]). These figures were executed in paint, and were thus originally part of the final composition, but are now covered with a thin layer of green paint. The figures were reserved. The painting technique is precise and the decoration of the clothing, especially on the front, is extremely detailed with small highlights. Gilding was used in Christ’s halo and in the cloth of honour. In the latter, a red glaze was applied on top of the gold.
Fair. There is some raised paint in the lower right corner on the reverse of the panel. The very old and very thick varnish is heavily discoloured and matte in the retouched areas.
…; sale, Dirk Margarethus Alewijn (1816-85, Hoorn and Medemblik), Amsterdam (C.F. Roos), 16 December 1885, nos. 44 and 45, as Hans Memling, fl. 520, to the dealer F. Muller;1 from whom, fl. 598, to the museum, 1885
Object number: SK-A-1307
Copyright: Public domain
Master of Alkmaar (active in Haarlem and Alkmaar c. 1490-1510), attributed to
The Master of Alkmaar takes his name from the Polyptych with the Seven Works of Charity dated 1504 (SK-A-2815; date on SK-A-2815-4), which remained in its original location in Alkmaar’s Laurenskerk until 1918. The mark on the first of the seven scenes, Feeding the Hungry, is probably that of the artist. Valentiner, followed by Van Gelder-Schrijver, Friedländer and Hoogewerff, attributed several rather heterogeneous paintings to this master. In addition to a few smaller pictures, they include two wings with donor’s portraits from an epitaph for the Van Soutelande family of Haarlem (SK-A-1188-A, SK-A-1188-B), and two wings of an altarpiece in the Rijksmuseum (SK-A-1307 and SK-A-1308). The provenance of The Seven Works of Charity and the donors of the epitaph have resulted in the artist being placed in the northern part of the province of Holland, most likely in Haarlem and/or Alkmaar.
Valentiner identified him with the Haarlem painter Cornelis Willemsz. Bruyn published a series of archival data and convincingly rejected that identification. Friedländer, Hoogewerff and others suggested the possibility that the Master of Alkmaar was the brother of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, Cornelis Buys I, who is said to have been active as a painter in Alkmaar until his death in 1524. One argument against this is the mark on Polyptych with the Seven Works of Charity, which does not resemble the family mark of his son, Cornelis Buys II (c. 1500-45/46), which is identical to that of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen.2 The suggestion put forward in 1958 that the Master of Alkmaar was Pieter Gerritsz, a Haarlem painter who died in 1540 and who worked regularly in Egmond Abbey between 1515 and 1529, as well as for the St Laurenskerk in Alkmaar, is less plausible. Bruyn and Van Regteren Altena’s theory that the Master of Alkmaar was actually two brothers from Haarlem, Mourijn Simonsz (c. 1440/50-1509) and Claas Simonsz van Waterlant (c. 1440/50-1533), has been explored further in a recent study by Bangs, in which the master’s entire oeuvre has been allocated to them. The exceptionally rich trove of archival data shows that the brothers carried out a series of commissions between 1464 and 1505, which they often worked on together, and received payments for gilding and paintings, such as the work they did for the high altar of the St Bavokerk in 1485 and 1487, when they were expressly instructed to leave the portraits to another artist. This hypothesis, which lacks convincing corroboration, would mean that the Master of Alkmaar belonged to the same generation as Geertgen tot Sint Jans.
The master’s oeuvre, which was assembled in the early decades of the 20th century and described at length by Friedländer in 1932, is rather heterogeneous in style, and has hardly been subtracted from of added to by recent research. This is clear from the core works, the polyptych from which he takes his name and the fragmentary works in the Rijksmuseum. He had a remarkable talent for portraiture, as can be seen from the donors’ portraits of the Van Soutelande family of Haarlem (SK-A-1188-A, SK-A-1188-B). His figured pieces reveal him to have been an amiable, rather naive narrator whose works are of a craftsman-like nature but lack the quality of Haarlem predecessors or contemporaries like Geertgen tot Sint Jans and Jan Mostaert. The work of these two artists must have been a model for the master. His work can be dated between c. 1490 and c. 1510 on stylistic grounds.
Valentiner 1914, pp. 76-77, 201; Hirschmann 1919, pp. 88-91; Van Gelder-Schrijver 1930; Van Gelder-Schrijver 1931; Friedländer X, 1932, pp. 33-44, 125-26; Hoogewerff, II, 1937, pp. 347-87; Amsterdam 1958, pp. 89, 92; Bruyn 1966, pp. 197-217; ENP X, 1973, pp. 24-29, 73-75, 86, 90-91; Van Regteren Altena 1974; Snyder 1985, pp. 446-48; Bangs 1999
(J.P. Filedt Kok)
This wing and another one (SK-A-1308) with scenes from the life of Christ originally belonged to a large altarpiece. The fronts of both wings show events from Christ’s youth. The first has The Circumcision (Luke 2:21), with Jesus being held by Joseph and Mary as he is circumcised by a priest.3 This scene, in which Christ’s blood flows for the first time, is a prefiguration of the Passion.4 This wing (SK-A-1307) shows Jesus Disputing with the Doctors in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52) at the moment when he is rediscovered by his parents after they had lost him when leaving Jerusalem.5 Both scenes are set in contemporary church interiors framed by a painted, vaulted stone entrance. Each of these framing devices has two painted reliefs in grisaille of Old Testament scenes that foreshadow events in the New Testament. Typological combinations of this kind had their origin in the visual arts in the so-called Biblia paupera, block-books in which the main scenes from the New Testament were associated on the same page with their prefigurations from the Old Testament, often accompanied by pronouncements of the prophets.6 The painter of these wings appears to be alluding to these bibles for the poor with his compositional scheme of placing two Old Testament scenes on either side of one from the New Testament.
The grisailles in The Circumcision are of The Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) and The Brazen Serpent (Numbers 21:4-9).7 Both foreshadow the Crucifixion and accord well with the Circumcision as a prefiguration of the Passion.8 The grisailles of The Fall of Man (Genesis 3:1-7) and The Killing of Abel (Genesis 4:3-16) in the other panel represent original sin, from which mankind was redeemed by the coming and death of Christ.9 They are probably related to the central scene of Jesus disputing in the Temple by the fact that he is explaining the scriptures to the doctors and telling the story of salvation.10
The outsides of both wings depict events surrounding the Passion. On the back of The Circumcision is The Resurrection, in which Christ emerges from the tomb holding a cross stave in his left hand.11 Two of the four guards are sleeping, while the others have been blinded by the apparition. Although Christ’s tomb is usually depicted as a sarcophagus in western art, the artist chose instead to depict one hewn out of the rock, possibly inspired by examples by Hans Memling and Gerard David.12 Christ Appearing to His Mother on the outside of this wing is also rarely found in Netherlandish painting.13 It shows Christ appearing to the Virgin one last time after his return from descending into Limbo, greeting her and showing her his wounds. He is accompanied by two angels, liberated Old Testament patriarchs, and Adam and Eve. Not found in the Bible, this subject was given wider circulation through a description in the Meditationes vitae Christi by the 13th-century Pseudo-Bonaventura.14 In that account, Christ visited his mother without any companions. The expanded version of the story as depicted in this panel is a type that is first found in art and literature in Spain in the 14th and early 15th century. The description in the Vita Christi by Isabel de Villena, abbess of the Convent of the Holy Trinity in Valencia, which was published in 1497, seven years after her death, appears to have played an important part in spreading the iconography of the subject throughout Europe.15 Isabel relates how Christ visited his mother in her room followed by a host of figures from Limbo, with the angel Gabriel at their head. Adam and Eve kneel in front of the Virgin, full of joy at the promised redemption.16 The only other example known in the northern Netherlands that is based on that Spanish source is a diptych by Jan Mostaert, which is now divided between the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in Enschede and the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.17
At the top of both outer wings there are fragments of scenes visible with both the naked eye and infrared reflectography which have been overpainted with a thin, slightly transparent layer of green paint.18 These fragments show that both panels have been shortened considerably at the top. The one with The Resurrection shows the lower bodies of a group of figures moving to the left (fig. a). All are wearing long garments, and the figure second from the left is barefoot. On the right is a figure bending over, possibly a woman. On the other panel there is a complete female figure seen from the back (fig. b). The jar of ointment in her right hand identifies her as Mary Magdalen. The other figures in the background are only partly visible. Although there are hardly any examples to be found in Netherlandish art, the figure group above The Resurrection could be a depiction of Christ Carried to the Tomb (Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42).19 The presence of Mary Magdalen at the top of the other panel might indicate that this scene was The Holy Women at the Tomb (Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-8).20 Both subjects certainly fit within the depicted sequence of events that took place after the Crucifixion.
The precise shape of the complete altarpiece is difficult to reconstruct. The direction in which the figures are facing on the outer wings could indicate that both were the left wings of a polyptych. However, in view of the compositions on the outsides and the position of the overpainted Mary Magdalen relative to the architecture, the wings could originally have been brace-shaped at the top and fitted together when closed. This means that when the altarpiece was opened they were on the outside. The cropped tops of the inner wings could have been filled with architectonic decoration.
Since each scene represents one of the sorrows or joys of the Virgin, it certainly seems that both wings were part of a polyptych with that as its theme.21 Although such programmes could include a variety of scenes, it seems likely that there would have been a Crucifixion on the outside of the polyptych. If so, the altarpiece must have had at least one more pair of wings. There are several candidates for the centre panel: a Nativity, an adoration of the Magi or, although less common, an Annunciation - all of them joys of the Virgin.
The size of the original altarpiece and the clearly complex iconography indicate that this must have been a major commission for the artist. In the 19th century it was already being associated with the Master of Alkmaar, the name given to the anonymous painter of the Polyptych with the Seven Works of Charity (SK-A-2815).22 The scenes do indeed have the same naive narrative manner as the Charity panels, as well as the same varied palette, and the style is also closely related. The stiff, rough execution of the wings makes them considerably inferior to that core work of 1504. It is not inconceivable, as Friedländer suggested, that the wings can be regarded as late works painted with the aid of assistants.23 The dendrochronology seems to confirm a late date, which makes workshop participation more likely. Given our limited knowledge of the artist and of any workshop he may have had, we have cautiously retained the qualification ‘attributed to’.
There has been a great deal of speculation but few convincing findings about the provenance of these wings. At the top of the painted framing element around The Circumcision there is a coat of arms with an abstract orb surrounded by the three letters ‘y i r’ or a numeral and two letters ‘4 i r’. Although it was suggested in the past that this is the house mark of a potential patron, it is also very possible that the device is indeed an orb and refers to Christ as the ‘Salvator mundi’. The catalogue of the Alewijn auction in 1885 states that the wings were from the Convent of St Agatha in Haarlem, but no such convent ever existed. It has been suggested that this was a mistake for the convents of St Agnes or St Ursula, but there is nothing to support that hypothesis.24 Snyder cited an inventory of 1573 of St John’s Monastery in Haarlem in support of his theory that the wings came from the Blinken friary in Heiloo.25 That friary was demolished in 1571, whereupon Commander Philips van Hogesteyn from St John’s bought a number of objects, including altarpieces. However, Van Bueren has convincingly demonstrated that the descriptions in the inventory cited by Snyder do not relate to the wings in the Rijksmuseum.26