oil on panel
support: height 101 cm × width 54 cm × width 55.5 cm
frame: height 119.1 cm × width 469.5 cm × thickness 4 cm
oil on panel
support: height 101 cm × width 54 cm × width 55.5 cm
frame: height 119.1 cm × width 469.5 cm × thickness 4 cm
See the individual panels.
See individual panels
The seven vertical panels are mounted in a large medieval oak frame. A cross-section of the profile shows a wide tenia, a jump, a jump, a scotia, a bead, a fillet and a jump at the sight edge (fig. a). The six vertical inside members have the same profile on either side with a tenia in the middle (fig. b). The sill has a bevel at the sight edge (fig. c). The lintel and the sill are each made out of one piece of wood. The twelve inside connections are constructed with stub mortise and tenon joints, secured with dowels (fig. d). The construction of the four outside corners was probably similar, but they have been replaced. The frame is stripped, but there are some traces of gilding and polychromy, indicating that at least part of the moulded section along the sight edges was originally gilded. There are also traces of light blue and white paint. There are faint Gothic letters in light blue on the tenia of the sill, which relate as ghost images to a clearly visible black Gothic text. The black inscription was applied in wax.
? Commissioned by the regents of the Holy Spirit Almshouse, Alkmaar, and installed there, or placed in the St Laurenskerk, Alkmaar;1 ? transferred to the St Laurenskerk after the closure of the Holy Spirit Almshouse, 1575;2 recorded in the St Laurenskerk, Alkmaar, 24 June 1582 (‘[…] en hebben de Schildery van de zeven werken van Barmhertigheden, hangende agter in de grote kerk, tegen het Doopvond by het groot Orgel deerlyk bedorven met een quast met zwarte verve’);3 from the churchwardens of the Nederlands Hervormde Gemeente, Alkmaar, fl. 50,000, to the museum, with support from the Vereniging Rembrandt, 1918; on loan to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, 2004-10
Object number: SK-A-2815
Credit line: Purchased with the support of the Vereniging Rembrandt and the Commissie voor Fotoverkoop
Copyright: Public domain
Master of Alkmaar (active in Haarlem and Alkmaar c. 1490-1510)
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.4 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)
For four centuries this colourful polyptych, which is dated 1504, called on the faithful, in both Catholic and Protestant times, to be charitable to people in need. The seven panels are still in their original framing, the inscriptions on which make it clear that those who help their fellow men with the works of charity will be richly rewarded in the next world.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Christ explains that people will have to answer for their deeds at the Last Judgement. He then lists six works of charity, saying ‘Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’. Damnation awaits those who fail to do so, while eternal life is the reward for those who have come to the aid of others. This explains why Christ is depicted among the needy in the polyptych, usually inconspicuously in the background. The seventh work of charity, burying the dead, is derived from the book of Tobit 1:17, and was only officially added to the six mentioned in Matthew at the beginning of the 13th century.5 It is depicted on Burying the Dead (SK-A-2815-4) with Christ enthroned on a globe in the sky as the judge of the Last Judgement, accompanied by the Virgin and John the Baptist.
The scenes of the seven good works in this polyptych present a vivacious picture of life in a late-medieval city. The needy, beggars, invalids and lepers are depicted almost as caricatures, while the well-dressed benefactors are fairly stereotype. The colourful groups of figures are a little stiff and emphatic. The brightly coloured buildings look more like stage scenery due to the lack of a convincing perspective. Despite these bits of clumsiness, though, the scenes leave nothing to be desired as regards clarity, with the lessons being driven home by the inscriptions.6
A combination of The Seven Works of Charity with a Last Judgement in a single work of art was often found in almshouses in the 15th and 16th centuries.7 One such painting, which was attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans, hung in the Holy Spirit Almshouse in Haarlem until the 18th century.8
It is assumed that the Rijksmuseum polyptych was commissioned by the regents of the Holy Spirit Almshouse in Alkmaar. They could be the three men posing prominently with Christ in the right foreground of Visiting the Sick (SK-A-2815-6), whose faces have the look of portraits. It is not known whether the work was originally installed in the Holy Spirit Almshouse, which closed in 1575, or whether it was immediately hung in the St Laurenskerk, where it is certainly recorded in 1582. A chronicle written by the churchwarden Jacob Dircsz Wijncoper states that on 24 June of that year some miscreants forced their way into the church and smeared the scenes on the pulpit and The Seven Works of Charity with black paint.9 It was removed soon afterwards, but in the course of 20th-century restorations of the polyptych it was discovered that during one of the earlier iconoclasms, in 1566 or 1572, it had been seriously damaged with a knife, with parts of the paint layer being hacked off, mainly in the faces. During the most recent restoration in the 1970s it was decided to leave the damaged areas visible, mainly in Burying the Dead (SK-A-2815-4).10 Not only can traces of the iconoclasms be seen, but also the areas of water damage around the edges of the panels, where the paint has been lost right down to the oak support. That, combined with the stripping of the oak frames in the 20th century, has destroyed much of the spatial illusion. The framing probably had a uniform colour or was marbled, and possibly sparsely gilded. When the layers of paint and ground were removed from the framing, care was taken to preserve the inscriptions done in black paint, which look reliable.
As noted, the polyptych hung in Alkmaar’s Laurenskerk from the late 16th to the early 20th century, behind the font and below the main organ. After the Reformation it must have continued to serve in the now Protestant church as an encouragement to visitors to leave alms for the poor. There was probably a collection box close by.11 It was also one of the sights in the church. In 1913, the churchwardens lent it out for the first exhibition of early northern Netherlandish painting and sculpture in Utrecht. They sold it to the Rijksmuseum in 1918 for the then considerable sum of 50,000 guilders in order to raise funds for the restoration of the church.12 After the museum had acquired it with the aid of the Vereniging Rembrandt, there were lengthy discussions as to how it should be restored. This was finally done in 1930, when the seven panels were cradled and the framework was stripped.13
The work was being associated with Geertgen tot Sint Jans as early as the 18th century, until it was discovered in the 19th century that the date 1504 on Refreshing the Thirsty and the frame of Burying the Dead (SK-A-2815-2 and SK-A-2815-4) ruled that out, given the date of Geertgen’s death in c. 1485/95.14 The close ties with the Haarlem school of painting have always been noted. The relationship to Geertgen’s work lies not so much in the formal vocabulary as in the light palette and the lighting effects. In 1914, Valentiner gave the maker the ad hoc name of the Master of Alkmaar, and attributed several other paintings to the same hand. None of the many attempts to identify the artist is satisfactory,15 nor has any explanation been found for the mark ‘AA’ on Feeding the Hungry (SK-A-2815-1).
One possible clue for an attribution is provided by the very extensive underdrawing, probably executed with the brush, which infrared reflectography revealed on all the panels. Most of the forms were prepared with contour lines, with the drapery folds, shadows and architecture being indicated with a wide range of hatchings. The latter are not just parallel, but also criss-cross in the deeper shadows, when they are often very densely packed (SK-A-2815-5). Regularly, too, there are parallel lines across the fingers, sometimes over the first phalanxes and sometimes over the last ones. The very varied underdrawing has the same characteristics in all seven panels, and is undoubtedly by the same hand. No underdrawing of this kind has been found in any of the other paintings attributed to the Master of Alkmaar. The paint layer is quite thin and was applied flowingly. The details in the faces were applied in a draughtsman-like way with a combination of red and brown paint and white highlights. The detailed underdrawing, the thin technique and the light palette are features of a tradition followed by various northern Netherlandish painters in this period, so it is likely that the artist worked in Alkmaar, Haarlem or Amsterdam.
(J.P. Filedt Kok)
Boomkamp 1747, p. 387; Dülberg 1899a, p. 24; Utrecht 1913, pp. 60-65, no. 56; Valentiner 1914, pp. 76-77, 201; Hirschmann 1919, pp. 88-91; Van Kalcken/Six II, 1919 (as Jan Joest van Kalkar); Van Gelder-Schrijver 1930, pp. 102-06; Friedländer X, 1932, pp. 33-36, 126, no. 55; Hoogewerff II, 1937, pp. 347-59; Amsterdam 1958, pp. 89-90, no. 87; ENP V, 1967, p. 96, X, 1973, pp. 24-29, 74, no. 55; De Bruyn Kops 1975; Knevel 1996; Van Bühren 1998, pp. 53-54, 79, 171, 322-23, no. 67; Bangs 1999, pp. 82-83 (as Mourijn Simonsz and Claas Simonsz van Waterlant); Kloek in Van Os et al. 2000, pp. 82-83, no. 19; Filedt Kok in Rotterdam 2008a, pp. 152-56, no. 21
1918, inserted leaf at p. 7, no. 46a (as Dutch school, beginning 16th century); 1934, p. 6, no. 46a (as ‘Meester der Barmhartigheden’); 1960, p. 193, no. 1538 B1; 1976, pp. 627-28, no. A 2815, with earlier literature
J.P. Filedt Kok, 2008, 'Meester van Alkmaar, Polyptych with the Seven Works of Charity, 1504', in J.P. Filedt Kok (ed.), Early Netherlandish Paintings, online coll. cat. Amsterdam: hdl.handle.net/10934/RM0001.COLLECT.9048(accessed 4 December 2023 12:05:24).