oil on panel
support: h 137.2 cm × w 105.8 cm
oil on panel
support: h 137.2 cm × w 105.8 cm
The support consists of four vertically grained oak planks (26.5, 26.5, 28.8 and 24 cm), 1.2 cm thick. X-radiographs show that the planks were butt joined with dowels. The sides of the panel were thinned on the reverse in order to fit it into its original frame, which has not survived. Dendrochronology has shown that the four planks come from the same tree. The youngest heartwood ring was formed in 1475. The panel could have been ready for use by 1486, but a date in or after 1500 is more likely. The white ground was applied within the original frame. There are unpainted edges approx. 1.0 cm wide on all sides, and the partial remains of a barbe. Only a partial underdrawing done with the brush in a wet medium could be detected with infrared reflectography (fig. a). The outlines for the drapery folds show up better than the outer contours of the faces. There are distinctive long, flowing contour lines in the pink gown of Mary Cleophas, with a few short parallel hatchings to indicate the shadows. In other areas, such as the white shirts of Christ and John the Baptist, the underdrawn outer contours are more watery and less distinct as a result. It is only where the underdrawing was not followed in the painted surface that some of it can be detected. For example, the oval indicating the Virgin’s face seems to be in a different position. In the underdrawing her face was tilted to the left a little. The folds in Elizabeth’s white shawl and the lancet arches on the left of the composition were altered relative to the underdrawing. The central arch was lower and further to the left. The vault was changed twice in the painting stage compared to the underdrawing. It was evidently considered important to depict the space as correctly as possible in a single-point perspective. The pattern of the tiled floor was also prepared, and was scratched in with fine lines that stop where the figures were planned. The figures were drawn first, in other words, and then the floor. Microscopic analysis of the paint samples revealed that a thin white isolation layer was applied on top of the underdrawing. Most of the paint layers were applied thinly. Only the red garments, such as Mary Cleophas’s gown, were built up with several layers of glaze. A paint cross-section taken from the Virgin’s blue gown revealed a dark underpaint.
Fair. Approximately 12% of the paint surface has been lost due to water damage, mainly in the lower part of the picture.
…; dealer, Pieter Joseph Thijs (1749-1825), Brussels, 1797;1 from whom, fl. 60, to Gerrit van der Pot van Groeneveld (1732-1807), Rotterdam, September 1799, as Hubert and Jan van Eyck (‘Een antiecq stuk, verbeeldende de heilige familie, Joseph, Joachim, Maria, Martha, Elisabeth, Anna, Simon, Joannes etc, in een tempel’);2 his sale, Rotterdam (Gebr. Van Rijp), 6 June 1808 sqq., no. 36, as Hubert and Jan van Eyck (‘In een Gotischen tempel vertoont zich een op het oude en nieuwe verbond zinspelend tafereel [...]’), fl. 210, to Van Lennep for the museum;3 on loan to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 2004-10
Object number: SK-A-500
Copyright: Public domain
Geertgen tot Sint Jans (Leiden or Haarlem c. 1455/65 - Haarlem c. 1485/95), workshop of
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.4 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.5 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
All of the people gathered together in this church are relatives of Christ. The foreground is dominated by the women. Seated at bottom left is St Anne, the Virgin’s mother, and to the right of her is Mary with the Christ Child on her lap. Their husbands stand behind them. On the right are Elizabeth, the Virgin’s cousin, with her son John the Baptist, Mary Cleophas (in profile), with Mary Salome standing behind Elizabeth. The three boys in the middle of the church can be identified from their attributes as Simon Zelotes with the saw (the son of Mary Cleophas and Alpheus), St John the Evangelist with the chalice, and James the Greater with the tiny barrel of wine - the latter two being the sons of Mary Salome and Zebedee. The other figures may be the other three sons of Maria Cleophas and Alpheus, James the Less, Jude Thaddeus and Joseph the Just, and Cleophas (St Anne’s second husband), Alpheus, Salomas (St Anne’s third husband) and Zebedee (Mary Salome’s husband).6
The Eucharist and John the Baptist’s recognition of Christ as the Saviour are the main subjects of the scene.7 An important position has been reserved for the altar in the middle of the composition, on which there is a sculpture of the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham as a prefiguration of Christ’s Crucifixion. The scenes of The Temptation and The Expulsion from Paradise on the choir screen, and the sculpted scenes on the capitals of the columns, which include The Adoration of the Magi, The Massacre of the Innocents and The Entry into Jerusalem, are also allusions to Christ’s future sacrifice.8
The prominent position of Elizabeth and John the Baptist might indicate that the painting was commissioned by the Knights of St John in Haarlem, for the archives show that both of them had an important place in the religious traditions of that branch of the order. This is evident from the fact that there was an altar dedicated to the Virgin, John the Baptist and Elizabeth in the City’s St John’s Hospital.9
The Rijksmuseum bought the panel in 1808 as a painting by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. It was first listed as a work by Geertgen tot Sint Jans in the museum’s catalogue of 1885, but there has been discussion about its autograph nature and iconography ever since. Davies rejected the attribution, as did Oettinger.10 In 1980 Châtelet also removed it from Geertgen’s oeuvre.11 According to him, The Holy Kinship was the work that gave its name to a group of paintings which he assigned to an artist he christened the Master of the Amsterdam Kinship. His group also included The Adoration of the Magi in Winterthur, a fragment with St Bavo in St Petersburg, and the so-called Hollitscher Madonna in Berlin.12
As regards the types of figure (most notably the oval heads of the women) and painting technique, The Holy Kinship has marked similarities to The Lamentation and The Burning of the Bones of St John the Baptist in Vienna, which are both key works in Geertgen’s oeuvre.13 However, there are also differences in the execution and the nature of the underdrawing.14 The underdrawing of The Holy Kinship was applied with a brush in a wet medium, and was only partly revealed by infrared reflectography (fig. a). Despite similar elements, such as the use of long schematic contour lines for the drapery folds and the almost total lack of an underdrawing in the faces in both The Holy Kinship and the two Vienna paintings, there is minimal hatching in the foreground figures in Amsterdam. The hatchings in the Vienna panels, as well as a few corrections made with a dry medium, seem to indicate that there were two underdrawing stages. This is a feature that has also been noted in Geertgen’s Triptych with the Adoration of the Magi in Prague.15 There is no second underdrawn stage in the Amsterdam panel. However, this could perhaps be explained by the use of workshop models, as suggested by Murphy.16 Another similarity between the core works in Vienna and The Holy Kinship is a dark underpaint beneath the blue passages.17 Although this practice is seen in other works, especially those by early 16th-century painters, it is characteristic of Geertgen’s working method in combination with other technical aspects relating to the underdrawing.
An additional problem with the attribution of The Holy Kinship is the condition of the painting.18 Water seriously damaged the paint surface, particularly at the bottom, where large paint losses resulted.19 In addition, the remaining original paint is quite strongly abraded in the upper modelling layers and bereft of a dark green glaze on Anne’s cloak, and suffers strongly bleached out pinks due to natural aging. The passages that have remained in a good state of preservation, however, display a touch that is not as subtle as that in the core works.
Depending on the assumed date of Geertgen’s death (between 1485 and 1495) and the interpretation of the dendrochronology, it is possible that The Holy Kinship was painted after the artist had died.20 The stylistic, physical and technical aspects of The Holy Kinship are, however, closely related to those of the paintings in Vienna. On that evidence it could be assumed that Geertgen’s workshop was still in operation after his death, and that one of the painters working there, a former pupil or assistant of the master, executed the work around 1495. Since this cannot be said for certain, though, the Rijksmuseum has decided to retain the traditional attribution to Geertgen tot Sint Jans.
Alberdingk Thijm 1881, p. 21; Balet 1910, pp. 37-53; Friedländer V, 1927, p. 29, no. 10; Davies 1937, p. 91 (as workshop of Geertgen); Hoogewerff II, 1937, pp. 165-70; Oettinger 1938, p. 66; Panofsky 1953, I, pp. 327, 495-96, note 1; Masseron 1957, pp. 61-73; Snyder 1957, pp. 85, 92-94; Amsterdam 1958, pp. 48-49, no. 15; Snyder 1960, pp. 128-29; Boon 1967a, p. 8; ENP V, 1969, pp. 20-21; Schabacker 1975; Châtelet 1981, pp. 122-24, no. 81, p. 222; Van Os in Van Os et al. 2000, pp. 70-71; Wallert et al. 2001; Murphy 2003, pp. 126-37; Van Os 2003, pp. 120-25; Kemperdick/Sander 2007, pp. 48-55 (as follower of Geertgen); Leeflang in Rotterdam 2008a, pp. 110-13, no. 11, with earlier literature
1809, p. 21, no. 88 (as Hubert and Jan van Eyck); 1843, p. 19, no. 88 (as Hubert and Jan van Eyck; ‘the panel damaged and glued’); 1853, p. 10, no. 80 (as Hubert and Jan van Eyck; fl. 5,000); 1858, p. 173, no. 382 (as Anonymous, 14th and 15th century, 'A Gothic church'); 1880, pp. 362-63, no. 428 (as Anonymous, 15th century, 'Allegory of the peace offering of the new covenant'); 1887, p. 48, no. 382 (as Geertgen); 1903, p. 102, no. 950; 1934, p. 104, no. 950; 1960, p. 107, no. 950; 1976, p. 236, no. A 500