oil on panel
support: h 91.6 cm × w 71.8 cm
painted surface: h 89.2 cm × w 69.2 cm
oil on panel
support: h 91.6 cm × w 71.8 cm
painted surface: h 89.2 cm × w 69.2 cm
The support consists of three vertically grained oak planks (20.6, 25.3 and 25.9 cm). The two joins (without pins) are chamfered, and each would have also continued with a short vertical section toward the back of the panel. This section was almost entirely removed during a restoration process of thinning the panel. The reverse of the panel was planed down horizontally. Small blocks of wood and dovetails were applied to the reverse to strengthen the joins. Dendrochronology has shown that the youngest heartwood ring was formed in 1454. The panel could have been ready for use by 1465, but a date in or after 1479 is more likely. During a later intervention or interventions, the reverse of the panel was planed down to different thicknesses in three broad horizontal bands, a dovetail was applied to the reverse to strengthen a join, and a thin vertical strip of wood measuring 37 x 1.0 cm was inserted in the front of the panel to the left of the right-hand join at the height of the Virgin’s face. The white ground, which is visible along the edges and through translucent paint layers, was applied within the original frame. There are unpainted edges 1-1.5 cm wide on all sides, and partial remnants of a barbe (painted surface: 89.2 x 69.2 cm). Infrared reflectography reveals a difference between the manner of underdrawing in the foreground and the background. That discrepancy is reinforced by the media used (see Entry). A paint sample taken from the Virgin’s blue cloak shows that it was underpainted with grey. The red passages were built up with several layers of glaze placed on top of each other to heighten the shaded effects.
Fair. The paint layer is abraded. There are several worn passages, among them the faces of the Virgin and Caspar. The paint layers around the central group of horsemen and hill in the background have been scraped off right down to the ground, as has most of a large brown rock in the centre foreground (the current rock is a restoration).
…; sale, Willem Hekking Jr (1825-1904, Amsterdam), Amsterdam (L. Gijselman), 20 April 1904, no. 7, fl. 3,000;1 …; purchased by the museum, fl. 3,920, July 1904; on loan to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 2004-10
Object number: SK-A-2150
Copyright: Public domain
Geertgen tot Sint Jans (Leiden or Haarlem c. 1455/65 - Haarlem c. 1485/95)
According to Van Mander, Gerrit Gerritsz, better known as Geertgen tot Sint Jans, lived with the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (‘Sint Jansheeren’) in their Commandery in Haarlem, from which he took his name. The Liber memoriarum of the priesthood of the order of St John mentions that he died in July and was buried ‘by the bell door in the ambulatory’, but the year of his death is not given. Van Mander reports that he died at the age of 28. Based on Van Mander’s information, Geertgen’s years of birth and death can only be estimated with a wide margin of error. Van Mander’s main source, the painter Albert Simonsz, claimed in 1604 that he became an apprentice (‘discipel’) of Jan Jansz Mostaert 60 years before, i.e. in 1544, and that Mostaert was about 70 years old at the time. Mostaert would thus have been born around 1474. According to Van Mander, Mostaert was apprenticed to the painter Jacob van Haerlem, probably Jacob Jansz, at an early age, possibly when he was 10-12 years old (c. 1485). Since Albert Simonsz claimed that Mostaert told him that he never knew Geertgen tot Sint Jans in Haarlem, the year of Geertgen’s death is put around 1485, before Mostaert’s apprenticeship there. If Van Mander is correct about Geertgen dying at the age of 28, he could have been born around 1457. Since all of this information is rather speculative, Geertgen’s year of birth is placed between 1455 and 1465, and the year of his death between 1485 and 1495.
Although Van Mander claims that Geertgen was born in Haarlem, an inscription on an early 17th-century print by Theodor Matham (Haarlem, before 1606 - Amsterdam 1676) of Geertgen’s Lamentation states that the painter was originally from Leiden (‘Gerardus Leydanus Pictor’). According to Van Mander, Geertgen was trained by Albert van Ouwater in Haarlem, whose only known work, The Raising of Lazarus, is now in Berlin.2 It has been suggested that Geertgen tot Sint Jans might be identified with a ‘Geerkin de Hollandere’ who was registered in 1475-76 as an apprentice of Jan Guillebert, who was a member of the Bruges guild of illuminators, calligraphers and bookbinders. Since Guillebert was a bookbinder, this seems highly unlikely.
Geertgen painted at least one large triptych with The Crucifixion (probably shortly after 1484) for the high altar of the Knights of St John in Haarlem. The two remaining panels, which originally formed the front and back of the right wing, are now both in Vienna.3 These panels, depicting The Lamentation and The Burning of the Bones of St John the Baptist, are the only surviving documented works by the artist, and are therefore considered to be key works in the study of his oeuvre.
Because of the high quality of Geertgen’s paintings, along with the innocent charm of his figures - particularly his slender, doll-like women with smooth, rather oval heads - and his sensitivity to light and colour, the artist is considered to be the founder of northern Netherlandish painting. Geertgen’s year and place of birth, apprenticeship, career, and even the number and chronology of the works attributed to him and his workshop are still under discussion. Besides the two wings in Vienna, Friedländer attributed 15 paintings to the artist on stylistic grounds. Many experts have attributed The Tree of Jesse (SK-A-3901) to Geertgen as well, though Friedländer considered it to be an early work by Jan Mostaert. Taken together, the group of paintings show stylistic similarities as well as differences in painting technique and quality, comprising as they do not only altarpieces but also small devotional works. As a result, beginning with Davies in 1937, scholars have doubted that all of these works could be by Geertgen. In 1980, Châtelet divided the oeuvre into four separate hands. Most recently (2008), Lammertse put forward good arguments for restricting the painter’s oeuvre to a core group of seven to nine paintings. On the basis of Geertgen’s supposed date of death and information from the dendrochronology, it can be postulated that several of the paintings associated with Geertgen, such as The Holy Kinship (SK-A-500), were completed after his death. There is also little doubt that Geertgen headed a workshop that was continued by one or more of his assistants after he had died. The three Rijksmuseum paintings attributed to Geertgen show, as will be argued, sufficient stylistic similarities for them to be linked to Geertgen tot Sint Jans or his workshop. Since there is too little certainty at present about their attribution to Geertgen and the involvement of a possible workshop, it was decided to retain the traditional attribution to Geertgen here.
Van Mander 1604, fol. 206r; Friedländer 1903a; Durand-Gréville 1904; Balet 1910; Friedländer in Thieme/Becker XIII, 1920, pp. 328-30; Friedländer V, 1927, pp. 11-64; Kessler 1930; Davies 1937; Hoogewerff II, 1937, pp. 138-91; Vogelsang (1942); Amsterdam 1958, pp. 47-62; Snyder 1960, pp. 113-32; Boon 1967a; ENP V, 1969, pp. 11-30; Châtelet 1981, pp. 91-117, 218-22; Van Bueren 1993, pp. 373-90; Miedema I, 1994, pp. 82-83, II, 1995, pp. 263-69; Snyder in Turner XII, 1996, pp. 230-33; Ekkart in Saur L, 2006, pp. 546-47; Van Thiel Stroman 2006, pp. 155-56; Lammertse in Rotterdam 2008a, pp. 76-81, with earlier literature
Four of the paintings attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans are of The Adoration of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12). In addition to the Amsterdam panel it is the subject of the centre panel of a triptych in Prague and of two other works in Cleveland and Winterthur.4 All four scenes are derived to some extent from Hugo van der Goes’s Monforte Altarpiece of c. 1470 in Berlin (fig. a). The Amsterdam panel is the only one to reverse the scene from left to right. However, Melchior’s pose and the small figure holding a chalice behind him are convincingly similar to their counterparts in the Monforte Altarpiece. When the Amsterdam painting was last restored in 2007-08 it was found that Caspar’s bonnet originally leaned against an object which had been completely scratched off, apart from minute scattered remnants of brown paint. That element, most probably a rock, also seems to have been based on the putative model by Van der Goes. The figure of Joseph beside the Virgin and Child on the right may have been borrowed from another composition by Van der Goes that is now lost.5
The three kings presenting their gifts occupy the foreground of the Amsterdam Adoration. The Christ Child, seated on the Virgin’s lap, is extending his arm towards the kneeling, oldest king, Caspar, who is offering him a goblet filled with gold coins. The identification and ages of the three kings are not always consistent, particularly in the German literature.6 The names used here are based on the inscriptions identifying the kings in an Adoration of the Magi by Jan Gossaert and two others by Joos van Cleve.7 The age differences between the kings are sometimes difficult to make out. In general it is assumed that Balthazar is the youngest, followed by Melchior, with Caspar as the oldest.8 The two other kings stand behind Caspar in the Amsterdam panel. Melchior, with long dark hair and a beard, is holding a gold chalice in his right hand, while the black King Balthazar has a crystal goblet. Starting in the late middle ages, the three kings were associated with the continents known at the time, with Melchior representing Asia, Balthazar Africa and Caspar Europe.9 The belief that the kings came from different parts of the world is underscored in the background by the three directions from which they are arriving with their retinues. Matching the kings’ positions in the foreground, there is Africa on the left, Asia in the middle and Europe on the right. Oddly, though, Caspar is riding a dromedary, which is usually associated with Africa.
The Rijksmuseum bought this painting as an autograph Geertgen tot Sint Jans in 1904. However, by 1909 Balet was already questioning this attribution on the basis of the lesser quality of the work, and several other scholars also expressed their doubts.10 In 1937, Davies classified it as a workshop product.11 In 1980, Châtelet followed Oettinger by giving it to the Master of the Brunswick Diptych, whom some identify with Jacob Jansz.12 However, it can be concluded that the panel with The Adoration of the Magi did indeed come from Geertgen’s workshop from the findings of the technical examination. As in the core works by Geertgen in Vienna, the underdrawing was made with both dry and wet media. He corrected the first, wet underdrawing in the Vienna paintings with chalk.13 In the Amsterdam Adoration he appears to have used the two media in a different way. The religious scene in the foreground was prepared with the brush in a wet medium, while a dry medium was used for the background, which was sketchily defined with contours and hatchings (fig. b). The artist was clearly still searching for the correct positions for the small figures and houses. Comparison of the underdrawing with the painted surface reveals all sorts of modifications. The most striking one is that the dromedary was prepared as a horse in the underdrawing, which the artist decided to change into a more exotic animal in the painted stage.
The underdrawing of the three kings, Joseph and the Virgin and Child was applied with the brush, and could only partly be revealed with infrared reflectography. In this respect it is closer to the underdrawing of smaller works in Geertgen’s oeuvre, such as The Man of Sorrows in Utrecht and The Adoration of the Magi in Cleveland.14 The dark blue cloaks of Melchior and the Virgin in the Amsterdam panel were impenetrable to infrared reflectography, which suggests that they were underpainted with grey or black. This undermodelling was found in paint samples from other works in the Geertgen group, and appears to be typical of the artist.15 The clothing of Caspar and Joseph was transparent to infrared reflectography. The underdrawing of the folds of these red cloaks consists of schematic and rather thick contour lines (fig. c). The bottom of Caspar’s cloak and the white part of the dress by the Virgin’s feet were prepared with Geertgen’s distinctive jagged lines.16 In a few places, such as the bottom part of Joseph’s cloak, the artist added a few short hatchings to suggest shadows. Little if any underdrawing could be found beneath the faces, as is the case with other works by the master, such as the triptych in Prague and the panels in Vienna. The modifications on the surface relative to the underdrawing are limited to a few minor shifts of position. The almost total absence of modifications in the underdrawing itself, and between the underdrawing and the painted surface in the foreground scene, points to the use of a model.17 This is made even more likely considering the similarities in the figure types, poses and arrangement on the picture surface with the three other Adorations by the artist.
The detailing that can still be seen in Joseph’s face has been lost in large parts of the composition over the course of time. That being said, the results of the examination with infrared reflectography and the study of the painting technique and the paint structure show that the Amsterdam Adoration of the Magi is closely related to other autograph works in Geertgen’s oeuvre, such as the Vienna panels (c. 1484), the Prague triptych and The Man of Sorrows in Utrecht. This makes it likely that the panel was executed in Geertgen’s workshop under his supervision, or by the master himself, around 1480-85. That is consistent with the dendrochronology, which suggests a date no earlier than 1479. Since nothing is known about the workshop or possible assistants, the Rijksmuseum has decided to retain the traditional attribution to Geertgen tot Sint Jans.
Durand-Gréville 1904, p. 379; Balet 1910, p. 32 (as school of Geertgen); Baldass 1920, p. 24; Friedländer V, 1927, pp. 32-35, 131, no. 2; Kessler 1930, p. 28; Davies 1937, p. 91 (as workshop of Geertgen); Hoogewerff II, 1937, p. 170; Oettinger 1938, p. 68 (as Master of the Brunswick Diptych); Panofsky 1953, I, p. 329; Amsterdam 1958, p. 49, no. 16; Snyder 1960, pp. 120-21; ENP V, 1969, pp. 21-22, no. 2; Châtelet 1981, pp. 125-26, no. 86, p. 224 (as Master of the Brunswick Diptych); Van Asperen de Boer 1988, pp. 49-53; Duwe 1994, pp. 125-32; Van Os in Van Os et al. 2000, pp. 68-70, no. 12; Kemperdick/Sander 2007, pp. 37-41; Wintherthur 2007, p. 88, no. 1; Leeflang in Rotterdam 2008a, pp. 102-05, with earlier literature
1907, p. 360, no. 950a; 1934, p. 104, no. 950a; 1960, p. 107, no. 950 A1; 1976, p. 237, no. A 2150