oil on panel
support: height 89.8 cm × width 60.6 cm
oil on panel
support: height 89.8 cm × width 60.6 cm
The support consists of two vertically grained oak planks (30 and 29 cm), planed down to a thickness of 0.8 cm and cradled. Dendrochronology has shown that the youngest heartwood ring was formed in 1469. The panel could have been ready for use by 1480, but a date in or after 1494 is more likely. The white ground was probably applied in the frame; the unpainted edges on all four sides were probably trimmed when the painting was cradled. Wooden strips have been added on all four sides (original size: 89 x 59 cm). Parts of the barbe are preserved at the bottom and on the left and right sides of the panel. The lines of an underdrawing, probably applied with a brush in a wet medium, are visible in the red and white areas with infrared reflectography (fig. b) and in part with the naked eye. Construction lines of the wall are visible in the nun’s wimple and the contours of her habit. The contours were underdrawn in the reclining figure of Jesse, and there is some parallel hatching in the shadowed area. Minor changes were made in the folds of the clothing and other details. In the underdrawing, the lines of the wall extend past the prophet and under the nun’s wimple. Infrared reflectography did not reveal much more of the underdrawing in the other areas. The figures, the tree and the building were reserved. Only occasionally did he paint details that go slightly over the borders of the reserve. The peacock was painted without a reserve. Impasto was used in ornamental details and highlights. Glazes are present in the costumes. The flower patterns on the costumes were not really painted to correspond with the folds and form of the cloth. Brocade was indicated using lots of small dots and stripes in lead white in a characteristic manner. Some of the drapery folds are highlighted with long lines of these small dots. For the crowns of the kings and the Virgin gilding was added on top of an already detailed paint layer, in other places only lead-tin yellow and ochre is used to imitate gold.
...; ? Wittevrouwenklooster, Haarlem;1 ? inventory, Commandery of St John, 1572, the small office (‘Tauoreel vanden boom van Iesse’), or in the salon (‘Tauoreel gechiert vanden boom van Iesse’);2 ? inventory, Commandery of St John, Adriaensdoelen, Haarlem, 1573, the upper room with wainscotting (‘Tauoreel sonder deuren vanden boom van Iesse’);3 …; Kvovinsky, St Petersburg, c. 1850;4 ...; Demidoff, St Petersburg [possibly Paul Demidoff (1839-85)];5 …; sale, Chevalier F. Meazza (Milan), sold on the premises (Riblet), 15 (21) April 1884 sqq., no. 200, as Quinten Massijs; ...; Count Grégoire S. Stroganoff (? -1910), Palazzo Stroganoff, Rome, as Geertgen, 1907;6 from whom purchased by the dealer Charles Albert de Burlet, c. 1923-24;7 from whom purchased by Catalina von Pannwitz (1876-1959), De Hartekamp, Heemstede, as Jan Mostaert, 1926;8 from whom, as Geertgen, through the dealer S. Rosenberg, New York, $ 58,000 (approx. fl. 211,000) to the museum, with support from the Vereniging Rembrandt, 1956
Object number: SK-A-3901
Credit line: Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt
Copyright: Public domain
Geertgen tot Sint Jans (Leiden or Haarlem c. 1455/65 - Haarlem c. 1485/95), attributed to
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.9 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.10 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
The tree of Jesse, quite a popular subject in the middle ages, was inspired by Isaiah 11:1-3: ‘And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD’.
Jesse, the father of David, lies sleeping on the grass in a walled courtyard. A tree growing out of his side is populated with Christ’s ancestors and is crowned with the Virgin and Child. At the beginning of his gospel, Matthew describes how Jesus was descended from the house of David, and then lists his 27 forebears (Matthew 1:6-16). From the 14th century onwards it was customary to regard those ancestors as being the twelve kings of Judah, from David to Manasses. David, the first descendant of Jesse is seated on the lowest branch of the tree, playing his harp. Beside the half-kneeling Solomon on the next branch, the second in the line of descent, his grandson King Abia is hoisting his aged father Roboam up onto a branch within easy reach on which Abia’s son Asa is seated with his legs dangling. The other kings in the same row are Ozias (with the book), Josaphat (with the hawk), Joram and Joatham. Grouped around the Virgin on the highest branch are the godless Achaz (with the sceptre), the pious Ezechias and the small Manasses (with the crown and sceptre), who turned away from idolatry and embraced God.11
The third king, Abia, who is seen from the back, is wearing both a crown and a garland of roses on his head, and another rose garland like a sash over his shoulder. Josaphat is wearing prayer beads around his neck, just as the kneeling donatrix at bottom left has a rosary dangling from her forearm. This places the painting in the context of the rosary, a systematised cycle of prayers and meditation in honour of the Virgin. The Mariological interpretation of the tree of Jesse was already a thousand years old by Geertgen’s day. When St Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the 5th century, and rendered the Hebrew word for twig or rod in Isaiah’s prophecy as virgo, he added: ‘virga est virgo’, the twig is the Virgin.12 The first Netherlandish confraternity of the rosary was founded in Haarlem in 1478. This and three other paintings by Geertgen or his workshop are explicitly connected with the veneration of the Virgin through the rosary.13
Compared to all the other scenes of the tree of Jesse, this one is exceptional for its setting. Jesse is sleeping in a walled courtyard, a hortus conclusus, which is a reference to Mary’s virginity - a metaphor derived from the Song of Solomon. In the background are the outlines of a monastic church. At one stage the brick wall on the left extended even further forward to a gate that gave access to the courtyard (fig. a). However, restoration in 1932 revealed the kneeling nun underneath it.14 She has a rosary around her right arm. Her white habit may indicate that she belonged to the Haarlem Convent of St Mary Magdalen, also known as the Whiteladies Convent (‘Wittevrouwenklooster’).15 The man behind her (the prophet Isaiah, perhaps), who is as richly clad as the kings in the tree, has a pilgrim’s scrip hanging from his belt and is leaning on a staff. On the right, standing in an opening in the wall around the courtyard, is a distinguished-looking man in an ermine-lined cloak whose face, unlike the others, is highly individualised. His contemporary dress suggests that he was the rector of an ecclesiastical or charitable institution, possibly the convent to which the nun belonged. He is looking up from the book he was reading. The painter depicted the writing on the page in capitals, from which it can be seen that he is holding the book upside down so that the viewer can read it. Perhaps the rector, her spiritual adviser, was reading Isaiah’s prophecy to the kneeling nun.16 Beside him there is a fairly prominent peacock which, like the cranes in the background, was an ornamental feature of many gardens at the time, and is quite often found in a hortus conclusus.17 Among other things it was a symbol of eternal life and of the Virgin as the queen of heaven.18
According to Van Os, the nun is praying before the tree that symbolises earthly salvation, making this a rare document of inner growth and of the underlying hope of salvation.19 The tree of Jesse served as a stimulus for meditating on Christ’s birth to the Virgin Mary and on the indivisible unity of his divine and human nature.20
The tree of Jesse was particularly popular in 15th and early 16th-century German art.21 This depiction, however, is unique in Netherlandish panel painting, and has no direct model.
Although Burckhardt first mentioned the painting in his Cicerone of 1898 as a work by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Friedländer was already expressing his doubts in 1903. In his Von Van Eyck bis Bruegel of 1916 he gave it to Jan Jansz Mostaert, and that attribution was adopted by many specialists, although Geertgen’s name was regularly resurrected. After the Rijksmuseum bought the painting as a work by Geertgen tot Sint Jans in 1956, both the director-general, Arthur van Schendel, and James Snyder argued for that attribution. In 1966, Boon again described it as youthful work by Jan Jansz Mostaert, while in 1980 Châtelet attributed it to his teacher Jacob Jansz (who is also identified with the Master of the Brunswick Diptych). It is very doubtful that it should be regarded as a youthful work by Mostaert. It would be more logical to label several rather clumsy, smaller paintings like both versions of Christ before Pilate in St Louis and New York22 as early works by Mostaert rather than The Tree of Jesse, which is technically and spatially so much better.
In style and the use of colour it is closer to the paintings attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans. The rather cursory brushed underdrawing, which could only be revealed by infrared reflectography in some parts of the painting, consists of contours in a wet medium, but it offers few real clues. As far as the refined technique and the excellent state of preservation are concerned, The Tree of Jesse is superior in quality and better preserved than the two other paintings attributed to Geertgen in the Rijksmuseum (SK-A-2150 and SK-A-500). The abundant ornamental details do recall those in The Holy Kinship (SK-A-500), but in that painting the handling of the paint is broader and the palette more saturated, as they are in the Vienna panels by Geertgen tot Sint Jans.23 The coloration of The Tree of Jesse is vaguely reminiscent of that of the Brunswick diptych, and the figures recall that of St Bavo on the outside of it.24 Because of these similarities, Châtelet has assigned a group of paintings of very variable quality, including the paintings by the Master of the Brunswick Diptych, The Tree of Jesse and The Adoration of the Magi (SK-A-2150)25 to Jan Jansz Mostaert’s teacher Jacob Jansz.26 However, most of the paintings in the group, including the Brunswick diptych itself, do not approach the pictorial qualities of The Tree of Jesse.
(Jan Piet Filedt Kok)
Friedländer 1903c, p. 66 (as Geertgen); Dülberg III, 1907, pp. 8-9 (as school of Geertgen); Friedländer 1916, pp. 147-48, 189 (as Jan Jansz Mostaert, c. 1500); coll. cat. Von Pannwitz 1926, I, pp. II, XIII-IV, 3, no. 14 (as Jan Jansz Mostaert, c. 1500); London 1929, p. 13, no. 14; Steinbart in Thieme/Becker XXV, 1931, p. 191 (as not an early Jan Jansz Mostaert, close to Geertgen); Friedländer X, 1932, pp. 28, 122, no. 23 (as Jan Jansz Mostaert, c. 1500); Rotterdam 1936, pp. 26-27, no. 40 (as Jan Jansz Mostaert); Davies 1937, p. 89 (as workshop of Geertgen); Hoogewerff II, 1937, pp. 456-58 (as Jan Jansz Mostaert); Van Luttervelt 1948, pp. 265-70; Van Schendel 1957 (as Geertgen); Snyder 1957 (as Geertgen); Amsterdam 1958, pp. 54-55, no. 24 (as Geertgen); Winkler 1959, pp. 179-83 (as Jan Jansz Mostaert, c. 1500-05); Snyder 1960, p. 129, note 70 (as Geertgen); Boon 1966, pp. 61-62 (as Jan Jansz Mostaert); Van Thiel 1967 (as Jan Jansz Mostaert); Snyder 1971, pp. 445, 453-54, 456-58 (as Geertgen); ENP X, 1973, pp. 20, 71, no. 23 (as Jan Jansz Mostaert); Châtelet 1981, pp. 127-30, 225, no. 93 (as Jacob Jansz); Van Bueren 1993, pp. 186, 394-95, no. D 1; Ridderbos 1994; Snyder in Turner 1996, XII, p. 232, XXII, p. 199 (as Geertgen); Van Os in Van Os et al. 2000, pp. 72-74, no. 14 (as circle of Geertgen); Filedt Kok in Rotterdam 2008a, pp. 117-20, no. 13
1960, pp. 107-08, no. 950 A2 (as Geertgen or a contemporary from his immediate circle); 1976, p. 401, A 3901 (as attributed to Jan Jansz Mostaert)