Other Flemish painters after Jan Van Eyck. Hugo van der Goes, Hans Memling and Quentin Matsys.

Hugo van der Goes (ca. 1430/1440 – Auderghem 1482) personified other generation and a different artistic style. Van der Goes was likely born in Ghent or in the vicinity of Ghent (current Belgium) around the year 1440. It was in this city that he obtained the title of master from the painters’ guild of Ghent in 1467. Ten years later in 1477 at the peak of his career, he suddenly decided to close down his workshop in Ghent and entered the monastic community of the Rood Klooster (the Red Convent) near Auderghem (now in Brussels) in order to become a lay brother. While in the monastery, he fell into an acute depression and declared himself to be damned. Unsuccessfully, he later tried to commit suicide but after a short recovery he died in the Rood Klooster. His stay in this monastery is known through the chronicle of the monk Gaspar Ofhuys written up in Latin some time between 1509 and 1513. According to this chronicle, van der Goes at first tried to continue painting and received visits from friends. In 1482 after a visit to Cologne he believed himself doomed and wanted to commit suicide. The prior calmed him by making him listen to music while he painted in the intervals of his crises of anxiety. He died mad no long thereafter in 1482. Throughout his career, Hugo van der Goes left some masterful portraits, but was best known for the work that is considered as his masterpiece, the great triptych of the “Adoration of the Shepherds” also known as the “Portinari Altarpiece“.

The Portinari Altarpiece or Portinari Triptych, ca. 1475, oil on wood, by Hugo van der Goes (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy). It represents the Adoration of the Shepherds.

It was painted ca. 1475 and now kept in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. This painting was commissioned by the Italian banker Tommaso Portinari for the church of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, where it was sent in 1483 when van der Goes had already died. Although this triptych excels for its technique and the preciousness in which details were executed as well as for the intensity with which angels and shepherds participate in the scene, this painting lacks some of the spiritual vibration that presided over the old and perhaps quieter creations of Jan van Eyck and Van der Weyden. This fact can also be noticed in other Van der Goes’ “Adoration of the Kings” also known as the “Monforte Altarpiece” (ca. 1470, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).

The Monforte Altarpiece, ca. 1470, oil on oak wood, by Hugo van der Goes (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). This painting was originally the central panel of a triptych with movable wings that are now lost, also, this panel has been reduced in size at the top. This painting takes its name from a convent in Monforte de Lemos (northern Spain), where it is presumed the painting arrived in the early 16th century. It depicts Mary with the Child, subject of the adoration of the three Magi. One Magi wearing a deep red mantle, kneels in front of Mary; his crown with fur edges lies on the ground next to him, alongside a container full of gold coins. Joseph, behind Mary, is perhaps pointing at them with an amazed expression. Behind the first king are another one, also kneeling and aged wearing a crown on a red velvet beret, and a younger one standing, with black skin. The Magi are accompanied by servants. In the background are several shepherds, including a bearded one with a fur hat decorated with a feather, who could be the artist’s self-portrait. Symbolic details scattered in the picture include an iris flower to the left and a small still life with a bowl, a pot, a wooden spoon and a piece of bread in a wall niche above Mary’s head. At left is a landscape with the procession of the Magi. Another portion of landscape is in the middle part, with two shepherds pointing at something, an aged woman and a child. In the upper part are two pink and yellow drapes. This is what remains of the angels flying towards the comet, and are now lost.

Even so, the “Portinari Altarpiece” is one of the great works of painting that caused stupor in its time, first in Bruges and then in Florence, where after its arrival in 1483 played an important role in the development of realism and the use of color in Italian Renaissance art. Never before had the Virgin been portrayed in Flanders or anywhere else, as a woman with such disconcerting and human form, and at the same time refined and rustic, all throbbing. In front of her the wonderful group of the three shepherds, who pounce in a gesture of adoration, is internally broken up by their distinctive and individualized characterizations. The oldest one smiles with a gesture that softens his face worked by years; the youngest one -incarnation of doubt- denies the gesture of his hands with the cold skepticism of his gaze; while the mature one shows such excitement that borders on madness.

The Fall and Redemption of Man, also known as the Vienna Diptych, second half of the 15th century, by Hugo van der Goes (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The left panel depicts the fall of man and the right panel shows the lamentation of Christ.
The Death of the Virgin, ca 1472–1480, oil on oak panel, by Hugo van der Goes (Groeningemuseum, Bruges). It shows the Virgin Mary on her deathbed surrounded by the Twelve Apostles who crowd around her bed. Peter is dressed in the white robes of a priest and holds a candle which in the then contemporary ritual will be handed to the dying woman. Jesus hovers above her bed inside a halo of light surrounded by angels to accept her soul with his arms wide open. Along with the Monforte and Portinari altarpieces is considered one of van der Goes most important works. This painting marks a break in van der Goes style: line has become more important, the setting is eliminated and the image lacks depth and is tightly contracted with only the bed, door and the body of the Virgin giving spatial indicators. It is renowned for not showing the apostles either in the traditional idealized manner nor as conventional figure types, but instead representing each as a unique individual, displaying their grief through a range of expressions and gestures.
Portrait of a Man at Prayer with Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1475, oil on panel, cut down at top and bottom, by Hugo van der Goes (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland). This panel was originally the right wing of a small diptych altarpiece now lost. The unidentified donor is shown completely absorbed in the vision of the Virgin and Child panel now missing. The man’s deep concentration was wonderfully captured by van der Goes in his raised eyebrow and contracted muscles around the mouth.
Portrait of a Man, ca. 1475, oil on wood, by Hugo van der Goes (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). No known independent portraits by van der Goes have survived, and his works on this genre must be appreciated by donor portraits included in devotional altarpieces. The oval shape of this painting is not original; it was cut down from a rectangular support. The pose of the unknown bourgeois donor, facing to the right in an attitude of prayer, as well as his concentrated gaze suggest that a devotional image, perhaps the Virgin and Child, was once at the right of the portrait. In this donor’s portrait, van der Goes realism excels as he depicted the swarthy tones of the sitter’s face, his emerging beard, and his roughened hands joined in prayer, which enhances the sense of his fervent devotional piety.

From this same generation was Hans Memling (ca. 1430 – 11 August 1494), born around 1430 in Seligenstadt (near Aschaffenburg, middle Rhine region of Germany) and resident in Bruges since around 1446, where he died in 1494. While in the Netherlands, he spent time in the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden in Brussels. His portentous gifts as colorist and the happy inventiveness that he showed up to the end of his life (see for example the scenes full of charm of the oil on panel inserts of the St. Ursula shrine, ca. 1489, with its delicately finished miniatures, the variety of its landscapes and costume, the high quality of its details, etc.), earned him important clients, between them wealthy patrons such as bankers, merchants, politicians, clergymen, and aristocrats.

The Shrine of St. Ursula (pictured above and below), ca. 1489, by Hans Memling (Hans Memling Museum, Old St. John’s Hospital, Bruges, Belgium). It is a carved and gilded wooden reliquary containing oil on panel inserts and was intended to keep Saint Ursula’s relics. The reliquary is in the shape of a Gothic chapel, its “roof” includes three painted tondoes on each side. The two “facades” contain the representations of the Virgin and Child between Two Nuns (the two donors, including the abbess, see picture above), and St. Ursula Protecting the Holy Virgins (see picture below). Both the scenes are embedded within a painted niche which simulates a perspective interior of the shrine. At the sides, under arcades, are six scenes of the life and martyrdom of St. Ursula, which resemble the style of the stained glasses of then contemporary churches.

Close-up of one of the lateral small panels from the St. Ursula shrine by Memling representing the arrival of the saint in Rome.

For some of these patrons, Memling painted enduring masterpieces: for the Old St. John’s Hospital in Bruges (where many of his works are kept), for great bourgeois citizens like Willem Moreel, for Italian bankers like Tommaso Portinari, etc. What is typical of Memling is his absorbed inner world, his somewhat elegiac feeling, sweet, kind, never dramatic, which penetrates the viewer to the deepest. The great period of Memling’s artistic production was around 1480, when he owned three houses in Bruges, and paid his share of the war contribution imposed by Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, as one of the 140 richest bourgeois in the city. To this period belong the fantastic “St. John Altarpiece” (ca. 1479, Old St. John’s Hospital, Bruges), and several extraordinary portraits such as the so-called “Sibylla Sambetha” (1480,  Old St. John’s Hospital, Bruges), and those included in the “St. Christopher Altarpiece” (also known as “Moreel Triptych”, 1484, Groeningemuseum, Bruges) in which the donor, his wife Barbara van Hertsvelde and their children were portrayed.

Open view of the St. John Altarpiece, ca. 1479, oil on oak panel, by Hans Memling (Hans Memling Museum, Old St. John’s Hospital, Bruges, Belgium). This altarpiece was commissioned in the mid-1470s in Bruges for the Old St. John’s Hospital during the building of a new apse. The altarpiece includes five paintings: a central inner panel and two double-sided wings plus the paintings on the reverse of wings which are visible when the shutters are closed (pictured below). The interior central panel shows an enthroned Virgin and Child flanked by saints; the left wing features episodes from the life of John the Baptist with emphasis on his beheading; the right wing shows the apocalypse as recorded by John the Evangelist, pictured writing on the island of Patmos.
Closed view of the St. John Altarpiece, by Hans Memling (Hans Memling Museum, Old St. John’s Hospital, Bruges, Belgium). It shows the kneeling hospital donors flanked by their patron saints. The left panel has St. Anthony Abbot (a saint commonly associated with sickness and healing in the Middle Ages) with his emblematic pig and St. James (identifiable by his attributes of pilgrim’s staff and hat) standing behind two male donors, identified as Anthony Seghers, master of the hospital, and Brother James Ceuninc. The right panel shows St. Agnes (identified by the lamb at her side) and St. Clare (who holds a monstrance) standing behind the female donors, Agnes Casembrood, hospital prioress, and sister Clara van Hulson. Unlike his predecessors Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, who typically painted the saints of the exterior wings in grisaille, here Memling shows the saints in a realistic manner.
The central panel of the St. John Altarpiece, by Hans Memling. This panels is also known as The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, and depicts the Virgin enthroned with Child. She sits on a throne beneath a baldachin covered with a sumptuous brocade. Two seraphim hover directly beneath the canopy, holding her crown. The Christ child sits on his mother’s lap, holding an apple in one hand and slipping the ring on St. Catherine’s finger to signify the mystic marriage with the other hand. St. Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of nuns, sits to the left with her emblems, the broken wheel on which she was tortured and the sword used for her beheading. St. Barbara, patron of soldiers, sits on the right reading a missal in front of her emblem (the tower in which her father held her prisoner), which is shaped as a monstrance meant to hold the sacramental bread. This panel is usually considered as a sacra conversazione. To either side of the Virgin, the two St. Johns stand. On the left is John the Baptist pointing at the Christ Child and holding a staff, with his lamb beside him; John the Evangelist, holding the poisoned chalice, is on the right. An angel dressed plays a portable organ in front of John the Baptist; another angel holding the Book of Wisdom for the Virgin, is in front of John the Evangelist. Behind is a cityscape, and in the far background a landscape. The city is probably 15th-century Bruges and contains contemporary scenes as well as episodes from the lives of the two Johns.
The left wing of the St. John Altarpiece, by Hans Memling. The panel depicts the beheading of St John the Baptist. His headless body lies in the left and seems to reach out of the picture. The executioner stands with his back to the viewer, placing the freshly severed head on Salome’s platter. The executioner, Salome, and three gesticulating bystanders form a circle around John’s headless and lifeless body. The scene is set in a courtyard in front of Herod’s palace; the banquet that preceded the Baptist’s decapitation can be seen in the left-mid ground of the palace. In the far distance is the River Jordan with the Baptism of Jesus as the skies open with the divine Dove, symbol of God the Holy Spirit, descending from heaven.
Detail of the right wing of the St. John Altarpiece which depicts John the Evangelist on the island of Patmos while recording his visions of the apocalypse in a book. In this detail located on the upper left corner of the panel, it is shown the enthroned God within a rainbow surrounded by four multi-winged beasts (the symbols of the Evangelists), the Lamb of God breaking the seven seals, and the 24 elders seated in a semi-circle. Previous versions of John the Evangelist’s apocalyptic visions existed in 12th- and 13th-century illuminated manuscripts and tapestries, though showed each event depicted independently, whereas here Memling presents the visions all on one panel and therein plants the seed of the fantastic forms that will be a trademark feature in the work of Hieronymus Bosch during the late 15th century.
Detail of the right wing of the St. John Altarpiece. Behind the armored angels on land, “stands a colossal figure: the angel described as clothed with a cloud, with a rainbow upon his head, a face like the sun and legs like pillars of fire”, who brings down seven thunders as can be seen in the dark clouds above.
The Sibylla Sambetha, 1480, oil on oak panel, by Hans Memling (Hans Memling museum, Old St. John’s Hospital, Bruges, Belgium). This elegant and well dressed young woman is set against a black background and looks out of the picture as if she is at a window. Her hands are folded and rest on the lower border of the brown marbled frame. The sitter’s identity is lost. The upper left corner of the panel includes an inscription reading SIBYLLA SAMBETHA QUAE / EST PERSICA; associating the woman with the Persian Sibyl.
Open view of the Moreel Triptych, 1484, oil on wood, by Hans Memling (Groeningemuseum, Bruges). This altarpiece was commissioned by the prominent Bruges politician, merchant and banker Willem Moreel and his wife Barbara van Vlaenderberch. It was intended as their epitaph at the chapel of St. James’s Church in Bruges. The center panel shows Saint Christopher (patron saint of travelers) holding the Christ Child, with Saint Maurus to his left and Saint Gills to his right who stands with his attributes, an arrow and a doe. The donor Willem Moreel kneels in prayer and venerating the saints in the left-hand panel with their five sons and is presented by Saint Wilhemus van Maleval. Barbara (the donor’s wife) kneels with eleven of their daughters on the right panel, they are presented by Saint Barbara, patron of the donor’s wife, who is shown standing before the tower, her attribute. The inner panels share a continuous overcast skyline and broad landscape, which contains two city-scapes, cottages and a meadow with a variety of trees, animals and wild strawberries, daisies, daffodils and other recognizable flowers and plants.
Close view of the Moreel Triptych. The exterior panels are probably an early 16th-century addition, and so completed after Moreel’s and Memling’s deaths. As was customary for these altarpieces, they include grisaille representations of the saints, being here John the Baptist with his lamb and staff (left wing) and Saint George in full armor, slaying the dragon with a lance (right wing). The panels are dated ca. 1504 by a number of art historians, and were probably commissioned by two of the donor’s surviving sons (Jan (John) and Jaris (George)), as their final effort to have their parents interred within the chapel space.

Memling’s portraits, in particular, were popular in Italy. His distinctive contribution to portraiture was his use of landscape backgrounds. This style of portrait pioneered by Memling influenced the work of numerous late-15th-century Italian painters, including important masters as Raphael. His works “Scenes from the Passion of Christ” (ca. 1470, Galleria Sabauda, Turin) and “Advent and Triumph of Christ” (ca. 1480, Alte Pinakothek, Munich) are excellent examples of the habit in Flanders art of representing a cycle of subjects on the different planes of a single picture, where a wide expanse of ground is covered with incidents from the Passion in a form common to the Passion plays of those days.

Scenes from the Passion of Christ, ca. 1470, oil on Baltic oak panel, by Hans Memling (Galleria Sabauda, Turin, Italy). The painting shows 23 vignettes of the Life of Christ combined in one narrative composition without a central dominating scene: 19 episodes from the Passion of Christ, the Resurrection, and 3 later appearances of the risen Christ. The painting was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, an Italian banker based in Bruges, who is depicted in a donor portrait kneeling and praying in the lower left corner, with his wife, Maria Baroncelli, in a similar attitude in the lower right corner. The scenes of the Passion start in the distance at the top left with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, passes through the town and out again to the bottom left to the Garden of Gethsemane, through the Passion scenes in the center of the city (judgment of Pilate, the Flagellation of Jesus, Crowning with Thorns, Ecce Homo*), then follows the procession of the cross back out of the city to the bottom right, then up to the top for the crucifixion, and ending in the distance at the top right with the appearances at Emmaus and Galilee. The scenes are distributed in and around an idealized Jerusalem, depicted as a walled medieval city with exotic towers topped by domes. Unusually, for paintings of this period, the lighting across the painting is internal, associated with the rising sun on the far right, and consistent across the painting, with areas to the rear right in the light and areas to the front left in shadow.
Advent and Triumph of Christ, 1480, oil on wood panel, by Hans Memling (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). The painting was commissioned for the altar of the Tanners’ guild in Our Lady’s Church in Bruges. It shows 25 episodes from the Life of Christ combined in one narrative composition without a central dominating scene: including the Annunciation; the Annunciation to the shepherds; the Nativity; the Massacre of the Innocents; the Adoration of the Magi; the Passion; the Resurrection; the Ascension; Pentecost; the Dormition and Assumption of Mary. See a similar composition and narrative style in Memling’s “Scenes from the Passion of Christ” (ca.1470), pictured above.
Portrait of Maria Portinari, ca. 1470–1472, tempera and oil on oak panel, by Hans Memling (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It portrays Maria Maddalena Baroncelli, about whom very little is known. She is about 14 years old in the painting, and depicted shortly before her wedding to the Italian banker Tommaso Portinari. Maria is shown dressed in the style of the late 15th century fashion, with a long black hennin with a transparent veil and an elaborate jewel-studded necklace, and is place against a flat, opaque, dark background, with her hands clasped in prayer. Her headdress is similar and necklace identical to those in her depiction in Hugo van der Goes’s later Portinari Altarpiece (ca. 1475, see picture above). This panel was originally the right wing of a devotional and hinged triptych; the lost central panel was a Virgin and Child, and the left panel depicts Tommaso (also in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).
Portrait of Barbara van Vlaendenbergh, ca. 1480, oil on wood, by Hans Memling (Royal Museums of Fine Arts, Belgium). Memling’s portrayed the sitter in three quarters profile with her hands clasped in prayer, and wearing a small black hennin with a transparent veil. Her hair is tightly pulled back, and shaved above the forehead. Van Vlaendenbergh is positioned before a landscape framed by an open window a trademark of later portraits by Memling in contrast to earlier portraits (see Portrait of Maria Portinari pictured above) in which the sitter was positioned against a flat dark background.
Portrait of a Man with a Roman Medal, ca. 1480, oil on panel, by Hans Memling (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium). The painting portrays a man from a three-quarter point of view, he is wearing a black coat and a hat of the same color. The identity of the subject is unknown. In the left hand, he is showing a Roman medal of emperor Nero, a symbol of his attention to Humanism. In the background is a lake landscape: Memling was one of the first painters to use natural landscapes for backgrounds of portraits (instead of the traditional plain black one), influencing later Renaissance artists such as Sandro Botticelli and Pietro Perugino.
Open view of the Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, ca. 1485, oil on oak panel, by Hans Memling (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg). The theme and form of this triptych were very unusual for the art of the time. Physical examination shows that we are dealing with three small panels, which were painted on both sides but subsequently separated. The central panel features a naked woman flanked by Death (left panel) and the Devil (right panel), each of these with an admonitory banderole. These texts refer to the end of mankind and the way to its salvation. The naked woman looking in a mirror in the central panel represents an erotic Vanitas allegory, a motif that became popular only until the 16th century. The purely erotic character of the nude is indeed exceptional for its time. This is an exceptional example in which the female genitals were shown uncovered. The woman simultaneously represents Vanity and Lust. To her left there is a griffon, a breed of dog that is customarily included in paintings whose subject is marriage or physical love (see the Arnolfini portrait by Jan Van Eyck). The significance of the amorous greyhounds on the right is also clear. The watermill, which constantly alludes in Memling to the Incarnation and which is once again placed prominently in the landscape, might be intended here as a contrast with the sinful ways of the flesh portrayed in the foreground. The woman’s genitals in the Vanity scene correspond with the toad – the demonic creature to be seen over the genitals of Death.
The Last Judgement triptych, ca. late 1460s, by Hans Memling (National Museum, Gdańsk, Poland). It was commissioned by Angelo Tani, an agent at Bruges of the Florentine Medici family. The triptych depicts the Last Judgment during the second coming of Jesus Christ, the central panel showing Jesus sitting in judgment on the world, while St. Michael the Archangel is weighing souls and driving the damned towards Hell (the sinner in St. Michael’s right-hand scale pan is a donor portrait of Tommaso Portinari). The left hand panel shows the saved being guided into heaven by St. Peter and the angels, while the right hand panel shows the damned being dragged to Hell. Compared this triptych in style and composition with Rogier van der Weyden’s Beaune Altarpiece (ca. 1440-1450, see picture below), particularly the central and right hand panels.
Interior view of the Beaune Altarpiece, ca. 1445–1450, oil on oak panel with parts later transferred to canvas, by Rogier van der Weyden (Hospices de Beaune, Beaune, France).

In discussing the art of the last great Flemish masters one cannot speak certainly of fall or decadence, because some essential elements still remained in full force, or even increased in intensity, though its initial activating spiritual principle tended to fade away. The Van Eycks, Campin and Van der Weyden were simultaneously technicians, creators and clairvoyants. Their successors didn’t reach to those heights: they were painters who filled the panels with admirable images, but whose charm was achieved mainly by the skill and perfection with which their works were executed. What was left from the Flemish school was its technical mastery.

Thus was Dieric Bouts (ca. 1415 – 6 May 1475), Dutch painter born in Haarlem, who later, around 1457, moved to Leuven where he married and died in 1475. If in his first paintings it is observed an undeniable decrease of the spiritual intensity that shined in the works of the first great Flemish painters, on the other hand as a compensation, there’s in them a psychological refinement that is patented not only by the fineness of the facial features, but also in the elegant naturalness of attitudes and in the admirable way in which the characters move or rest within the natural environment that surrounds them. Bouts was, as other artists of the time, greatly influenced by Jan van Eyck and by Rogier van der Weyden, under whom he may have studied. Dieric Bouts was among the first northern painters to demonstrate the use of a single vanishing point* (as illustrated in his “Last Supper”, 1464–1467, St. Peter’s Church, Leuven). His figures were usually disproportionately long and angular, but his paintings appeared highly expressive, well designed and rich in color, with particularly good landscapes. These same artistic features were seen in the compositions (sometimes symbolic) of a Dutchman who never left Holland: Geerten tot Sint Jans (ca. 1465 – ca. 1495), or Gerard of the Death of St. Jhon, probably born in Leyden around 1465 and died in Haarlem, apparently, before he was 30 years old.

The Last Supper panel of the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament, 1464–1467, oil on panel, by Dieric Bouts (St. Peter’s Church, Leuven, Belgium).  The Last Supper is the theme of the central panel of the altarpiece, commissioned from Bouts by the Leuven Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament in 1464. All of the orthogonals in this composition display an understanding of linear perspective. The lines lead to a single vanishing point in the center of the mantelpiece above Christ’s head, though outside the room, the small side room has its own vanishing point. In this central panel, Bouts has introduced the idea of a group portrait around a table, a theme known to council members in Haarlem. Christ is depicted larger than life in the role of a priest performing the consecration of the Eucharistic host from the Catholic Mass. The men around him are shown a half-size smaller, and probably are accurate portraits of prominent members of the confraternity. Bouts main contribution to Flemish painting was his introduction of everyday details in the main panel such as the houses on the other side of the market square that can be seen through the windows, and the servants dressed in modern clothing beyond the central scene around the table.
The Glorification of the Virgin, ca. 1490-1495, by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands). This painting was originally part of a diptych. It shows the Virgin Mary holding Jesus and surrounded by three concentric rings of angels which appear to be surrounding a central halo. Within the concentric rings are a variety of musical instruments. In fact, this painting shows some of the oldest pictures of musical instruments known in the Netherlands. In the central depiction of the infant Jesus with the Madonna, the child is depicted as playing a pair of bells, and seems to be playing music as if in response to one of the angels in the outermost concentric ring, holding an identical set of bells and looking directly back at the infant Jesus.
The Nativity at Night, ca. 1490, oil on oak panel, by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (National Gallery, London). The painting shows the Nativity of Jesus, attended by angels, and with the Annunciation to the shepherds on the hillside behind seen through the window in the center of the painting. It is a small painting presumably made for private devotional use. It is Geertgen’s version, with significant changes, of a lost work by Hugo van der Goes of ca. 1470. The painting’s sources of light are the infant Jesus himself, who is the sole source of illumination for the main scene inside the stable, the shepherds’ fire on the hill behind, and the angel who appears to them.
Lamentation of Christ, ca. 1484, oil on oak wood panel, by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). This painting is the inside of the right wing of the former high altar of the Johanniterkirche in Haarlem (Netherlands). After the altar was destroyed during the siege of Haarlem by Spanish troops, the altarpiece was dismantled, finally ended up in Vienna. This panel displays Geertgen’s curious style of painting smooth egg-shaped heads (probably influenced by wood carving). The dead Christ is lamented by his mother Mary and two other women. Among the bystanders probably Nicodemus, the man who got permission to take the body down from the cross. The man in the red robe could be John the Evangelist. Lying next to the body are the crown of thorns and the iron nails. In the background the two criminals crucified together with Jesus are taken from their crosses.

The artistic changes were more evident in the works of the next generation of painters from the Lower Countries, whose activity lasted until the early years (or until the first decades) of the 16th century, such as Gerard David (ca. 1460 – 13 August 1523), also a manuscript illuminator, known for his brilliant use of color, and Quentin Matsys (1466–1530) born in Leuven. Both showed a determined interest in shading expressions and giving their compositions naturalness and monumentality at the same time. Gerard David is, above all, a characteristic painter of homemade Madonnas, evoking a motherhood totally concentrated in raising the little boy.

The central panel of the Altarpiece of St Michael, ca. 1510, oil on oak panel, by Gerard David (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). This central part of a small triptych represents the battle of St. Michael with the Devil. Gerard David was the last major figure of the Bruges school, founded by Jan van Eyck. As Jan, David was also known for the acute observation of details of the natural world and their rendition in glowing, enamel-like oils.
Virgin and Child with Four Angels, ca. 1510–1515, oil on panel, by Gerard David (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It shows the Virgin Mary holding the child Jesus, while she is crowned Queen of Heaven by two angels above her, accompanied by music provided by another two angels placed at either side of her and playing a harp and a lute respectively. The scene takes place below a Gothic arch in a walled garden (Hortus conclusus) —intended to represent Mary’s pureness and virginity—and before a view of contemporary Bruges. Mary is far larger than the angels, which adds to her unnatural, ethereal, heavenly presence. The work is highly symmetrical; the two central figures are balanced by two pairs of angels arranged on either side; Jesus occupies the dead center of the canvas; and the garden is balanced by the lines of the pathway seen on either side of Mary. The placement of a Carthusian monk walking underneath a tree in the garden behind the main figures makes it likely that the work was commissioned by a member of their monastery then located outside Bruges. It is likely that the painting was the central panel of a triptych or small winged altarpiece which was broken up at some point. The painting is heavily influenced by Jan van Eyck’s Virgin with Child at a Fountain, especially in the modeling of the Madonna and child. Modifications introduced by David, though, include the widening of the pictorial space, the placement of two additional angels, and the setting of the scene in a contemporary setting with a view of Bruges in the distance. David also added two more angels to van Eyck’s scene and replaced the cloth of honor held by the angels in the van Eyck by Mary’s golden crown. The figures of Mary and Jesus are near identical in both works, from the vertical folds of Mary’s dress, to the raised knee and arms of Jesus, with one arm reaching over his mother’s shoulder, while the other reaches for her neck.
Madonna and Child with the Milk Soup, ca. 1520, oil on oak panel, by Gerard David (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels). The scene is set in the intimacy of a domestic interior, with the room’s window opened onto a contemporary townscape. A basket and a prayer-book taken out of its cover are lying on a console against the wall. To the left, a cupboard carries an earthenware jug and a small bunch of flowers. As an attentive mother, the Virgin delicately takes the soup for her Son whom she is holding seated on her knees. The Child fed by the Virgin is a metaphor of the believer nourished by his mother the Church and by Christ himself. The bread at the front of the scene and the jug on the cupboard are the Eucharistic symbols of his body and his blood. This painting was intended for private devotion. There are numerous versions of this painting which testify of the painter’s used of a basic layout which could be adapted according to his clients’ wishes. This phenomenon illustrates the development of the art of the Flemish Primitives, who at the end of the 15th century were faced with growing demand from their bourgeois clients.
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, ca. 1515, oil on panel, by Gerard David (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium). This painting can be compared with other works on the same theme also by David and now housed in museums in Madrid, Washington and New York and a Virgin and Child in Rotterdam. David painted this same theme on several occasions using different compositions, possibly not as the result of commissions but simply painted to put on the open market. In all of them David focuses attention on the seated Virgin Mary breastfeeding the Christ Child, enthroned in front of a deep forest landscape background. In the far background there is usually a scene related to either the rest or to the journey to Egypt. The Antwerp version replaces the Prado version’s background scene of the Flight into Egypt with a scene of Joseph and the donkey resting.

Instead, Matsys in some of his works of religious themes emphasized or exaggerated the expressive intention in faces and attitudes. It seemed he sensed the tumult of spiritual concerns that preceded and accompanied the outbreak of the Reformation. It is not surprising that during his residence in Antwerp he related to humanist magistrates, among whom was the humanist Pieter Gillis who put him in contact with Erasmus in 1517. In other works, however, he pointed to a direct influence of Leonardo, whose works he knew (and even copied some) during the trip he made to Italy. His most well known satirical works include “The Ugly Duchess” (ca. 1513-1515, National Gallery, London), A Portrait of an Elderly Man (ca.1513-1515, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris), and “The Money Changer and His Wife” (1514, Louvre, Paris), all of which provide reflections on human nature, individual character, feeling and society in general. Matsys also painted religious altarpieces and triptych panels, the most famous of which was originally built for the Church of Saint Peter in Leuven and that now is kept in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (Antwerp). Matsys’ firmness of outline, clear modelling and thorough finish of detail were influenced by van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Memling and Bouts. Quentin Matsys became a cult figure during the 17th century in Antwerp and is considered as one of the founders of the local school of painting which climaxed with the works of Peter Paul Rubens. 

The Ugly Duchess, also known as “A Grotesque old Woman”, 1513, oil on oak panel, by Quentin Matsys (National Gallery, London). It is a satirical portrait showing a grotesque old woman with wrinkled skin and withered breasts. She wears the aristocratic horned headdress of her youth, out of fashion by the time of the painting, and holds in her right hand a red flower, then a symbol of engagement, indicating that she is trying to attract a suitor. Other scholars interpret it as “a bud that will likely never blossom”. This work is Matsys’ best-known painting. A possible literary influence is Erasmus’s essay “In Praise of Folly” (from 1511), which satirizes women who “still play the coquette”, “cannot tear themselves away from their mirrors” and “do not hesitate to exhibit their repulsive withered breasts”. It was originally half of a diptych, with a “Portrait of an Old Man” (pictured below, now in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris).
The Ugly Duchess painting by Matsys (pictured above) is thought to be a source for John Tenniel’s 1869 illustrations of the Duchess in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Portrait of an Old Man, ca. 1517, oil on oak panel, by Quentin Matsys (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris). This is the other half of the diptych that originally included the “Ugly Duchess” panel pictured above.
The Money Lender and His Wife, 1514, oil on panel, by Quentin Matsys (Louvre, Paris). The painting shows a money-lender or tax collector and his wife. The man weighs jewels and pieces of gold on the table in front of him and sits next to his wife who reads a book of devotion with an illustration of the Virgin and Child. The couple is not dressed as members of nobility, but rather as well-to-do burghers of Antwerp, where the painting was made. At the time, Antwerp had grown with the influx of many southern immigrants fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. Among this international community there was a demand for money-changers and money-lenders, as international commerce was increasing in the port city. The motif of a convex mirror is again used in this painting to suggest and opening of the pictorial space, as it was also seen in works by Jan van Eyck (1434), Robert Campin (1438) and Petrus Christus (1449).
The Joiners’ Guild Altarpiece, ca.1511, by Quentin Matsys (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium). It was commissioned for the eponymous guild in the aftermath of its split from the Coopers’ Guild in 1497. The lateral panels contain scenes of the martyrdoms of John the Baptist (left) and John the Evangelist (right). Both these saints were patrons of carpenters and also appear in grisaille on the outside of the side panels. The central panel shows the Lamentation over the Dead body of Christ.

The Prado Museum has a large landscape painting by Matsys which represents “The Temptations of Saint Anthony”, with the holy hermit subjected to the torture of the cuddly caresses of three beautiful female devils dressed with great luxury and accompanied by a devil disguised as a horribly expressive celestine. The landscape background is majestic, something that denoted a new sensibility in Dutch art. The landscape of this masterpiece wasn’t by Matsys, but a work of an exquisite painter of landscapes and who collaborated with him, the first great landscape artist of the Lower Countries, Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480 – 5 October 1524).

The Temptations of Saint Anthony, 1520-1524, oil on panel, by Quentin Matsys and Joachim Patinir (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The high horizon line allowing for a rendition of a large landscape is generally regarded as the defining characteristics of Patinir’s style. The foreground figures are shown on top of a hill , while on the much lower level of the middle ground, the demons are shown attacking St. Anthony. Devils also appear in the sky, among the menacing clouds which darken the left-hand side of the panel. In the background, earthly activities take place. This work is a collaboration between Patinir and Matsys, who painted the figures in the foreground. The Devil’s figures created in works by Hieronymus Bosch influenced this painting as well as many 16th century painters that would come later. The foreground figures represent three richly dressed young women who try to lure St. Anthony from the path of virtue by inciting him to lust in the presence of an old and ugly procuress. The apple offered to the saint by one of the young ladies, like a modern Eve, alludes to original sin, while the woman behind him who caresses his neck already unfolds her devilish nature in the shape of the train of her robe which resembles the tale of a reptile, and the monkey, a symbol of the devil, pulls at St. Anthony to make him fall to the ground, as his rosary and the shell tied to it already have fallen.

Patinir was a pioneer of landscape as an independent genre and he was the first Flemish painter to regard himself primarily as a landscape painter. He effectively invented the world landscape*, as a distinct style of panoramic northern Renaissance landscapes which represents his important contribution to Western art. Patinir often let his landscapes dwarf his figures. His immense vistas combined observation of naturalistic detail with lyrical fantasy. His landscapes used a high viewpoint with a high horizon. In his paintings of landscapes, Patinir used a consistent and effective color scheme, which was influential on later landscape painting: the foreground was dominated by brownish shades, while “the middle ground was painted a bluish green and the background a pale blue, thus creating an effective sense of recession into the distance.

Landscape with Charon Crossing the Styx, ca. 1515-1524, oil on wood, by Joachim Patinir (Museo del Prado, Madrid). Patinir’s religious paintings incorporate precise observation and naturalism with fantastic landscapes inspired by the works of Hieronymus Bosch. The painting depicts the classical subject related by Virgil in his Aeneid and Dante in the Inferno: the larger figure in the boat is Charon, who transports the souls of the dead to the gates of Hades. The passenger in the boat, too minute to distinguish his expressions, is a human soul deciding between Heaven, to his right (the viewer’s left), or Hell, to his left. The river Styx divides the painting down the center. The Styx was thought to be one of the four rivers of the underworld that passes through the deepest part of hell. On the painting’s left side is the fountain of Paradise, the spring from which the river Lethe flows through Heaven. On the right side of the composition is Patinir’s vision of Hell, clearly influenced by Bosch’s works. In front of the gates of Hell is Cerberus, a three-headed dog, who guards the entrance of the gate and frightens all the potential souls who enter into Hades. The soul in the boat ultimately chooses his destiny by looking toward Hell and ignoring the angel on the river-bank in Paradise that beckons him to the more difficult path to Heaven. Here we can notice the typical three-color scheme composition used by Patinir, moving from brown in the foreground, to bluish-green, to pale blue in the background. This format provides a bird’s-eye view over an expansive landscape. Furthermore, the painting uses color to visibly depict heaven and hell, good and evil. To the viewer’s left is a heavenly place with bright blue skies, crystal blue rivers with a luminous fountain and angels accenting the grassy hills. On the far right of the painting is a dark sky engulfing Hell and the hanged figures on its gate. Fires blaze in the hills. The foreground of the painting consists of brown rocks in Heaven and brown burnt trees in Hell.
Madonna and Child with the lamb, ca. 1513, oil on panel, by Quentin Matsys (National Museum, Poznań, Poland). This painting was clearly inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin and Child with St. Anne (pictured below), with the Virgin, the Child and the Lamb in similar compositions. The landscape was painted by Patinir.
The virgin and Child with Saint Anne, ca. 1503, oil on wood, by Leonardo da Vinci (Louvre, Paris).


Ecce Homo: (From Latin meaning “behold the man”). The Latin words used by Pontius Pilate in the Vulgate translation of the Gospel of John, when he presents a scourged Jesus Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd shortly before his Crucifixion. The scene has been widely depicted in Christian art, where is a standard component of cycles illustrating the Passion and Life of Christ.The usual depiction shows Pilate and Christ, the mocking crowd and parts of the city of Jerusalem. Beginning in the 15th century, devotional paintings began to portray Jesus alone, in half or full figure with a purple robe, loincloth, crown of thorns and torture wounds, especially on his head. Similar subjects but with the wounds of the crucifixion visible (Nail wounds on the limbs, spear wounds on the sides), are termed a Man of Sorrow(s) (also Misericordia).

Hortus conclusus: (From Latin meaning “enclosed garden”). It is both an emblematic attribute and a title of the Virgin Mary in Medieval and Renaissance poetry and art, suddenly appearing in paintings and manuscript illuminations about 1330. Artistically it included one of a number of depictions of the Virgin in the late Middle Ages developed to be more informal and intimate than the traditional hieratic enthroned Virgin adopted from Byzantine icons, or the Coronation of the Virgin theme. Germany and the Netherlands in the 15th century saw the peak popularity of this depiction of the Virgin, usually with Child, and very often a crowd of angels, saints and donors, inside the garden. Often walls, or trellises close off the sides and rear, or it may be shown as open, except for raised banks, to a landscape beyond.

Vanishing point:  A point on an image at which receding parallel lines seem to meet when represented in linear perspective


World Landscape: (Translation of the German Weltlandschaft). A type of composition in Western painting showing an imaginary panoramic landscape seen from an elevated viewpoint that includes mountains and lowlands, water, and buildings. The subject of each painting is usually a Biblical or historical narrative, but the figures comprising this narrative element are dwarfed by their surroundings. The world landscape first appeared in painting in the work of the Early Netherlandish painter Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480–1524). The compositional type was taken up by a number of other Netherlandish artists, most famously Pieter Bruegel the Elder. There was a parallel development by Patinir’s contemporary Albrecht Altdorfer and other artists. Although compositions of this broad type continued to be common until the 18th century and beyond, the term is usually only used to describe works from the Low Countries and Germany produced in the 16th century.