The Southern Netherlandish artist Pieter Coecke van Aelst excelled as a painter, sculptor, architect, designer of stained glass, prints and tapestries, and enjoyed a stellar reputation during his lifetime as well as throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. He served as court painter to both Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Mary of Hungary, and his designs were avidly collected by the most important patrons of his day, including King Henry VIII of England and King François I of France. Recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an outstanding exhibition – the first devoted exclusively to Coecke's art – explored the artist’s career in a thorough and meaningful way. In the catalogue, Elizabeth Cleland notes that Coecke was lauded by contemporary artists, theorists, and writers: “Lodovico Guicciardini called him 'great';...Georg Braun described him as 'most excellent'; [and] in 1604 Karel van Mander celebrated him as 'ingenious and knowledgeable'” (E. Cleland, Grand Design: Pieter Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, exh. cat., New York, 2014, p. 2). Coecke’s extensive travels helped shape his artistic identity; in 1533–1534 he went to Constantinople, possibly to persuade the Turkish sultan to give him tapestry commissions, a project that never came to fruition. His magnificent 15-foot-long print, entitled Customs and Fashions of the Turks, was likely a result of this voyage, however. On his return, Coecke is thought to have visited Rome, where he would have studied the ancient monuments and sculptures (ibid., pp. 12-13). A skilled linguist, Coecke translated Vitruvius’ De architectura into Flemish (Antwerp, 1539), and the multi-volume architectural treatise of Sebastiano Serlio into High German, Flemish and French (Antwerp, 1539–1553).
As George Marlier pointed out in his monograph (loc. cit.), Pieter Coecke drew upon a model invented by his uncle and presumed teacher, Jan Mertens van Dornicke, for the composition of this highly-refined and exceedingly well-preserved panel (op. cit., pp. 128-136, fig. 61). The present work adopts many of the key elements of the central panel from Jan van Dornicke’s triptych, including the exotic costumes and dispositions of the principal figures in the foreground. The essential structure of the architecture is also preserved, with its distinctive quadruple columns supporting ruined classical arches. Yet Coecke infuses all of these elements with his personal, Antwerp Mannerist style, combining traditional Flemish naturalism with exuberant decorative touches and capricious architectural inventions, often Italianate in accent. The Virgin, for instance, humbly seated directly on the ground, possesses a rounder face with fuller cheeks and a more emphatically parted coiffure, while the Christ Child’s significantly more muscular torso is twisted to such an extreme degree that he appears to be a contortionist. Coecke’s mastery of perspective can be fully appreciated in the tour-de-force rendering of Christ’s foreshortened head in lost profile, as he reaches back for the gold box presented to him by the elder Magus. Other details, such as the animated drapery folds, the still-life elements in the foreground, the distant landscape, as well as myriad ornamental embellishments to the architecture are more radical departures from his source. Overall, there is a heightened sense of movement throughout, and Coecke’s bold and vibrant color choices further distinguish this panel from his uncle’s composition. The variegated marble columns at center, with their gilt capitals and brilliant red, purple and blue shafts, lend an exotic air to the composition. Similar luxurious features are found in Coecke’s tapestry of Saint Paul Seized at the Temple of Jerusalem of c. 1529-1530 (KBC Bank Collection, Leuven; see E. Cleland et al., Grand Design: Pietre Coecke van Aelst and Renaissance Tapestry, exhibition catalogue, 2014, no. 38).
The Adoration of the Magi was the single most popular subject for triptychs produced in Antwerp in the period 1505-1530, and one which Pieter Coecke van Aelst treated on numerous occasions. To meet this intense demand, Coecke would often relegate some passages in his compositions to members of his workshop, as may well be the case for the present lot. Marlier identified no less than seven examples of this specific composition painted by Pieter Coecke and his workshop, whether as standalone panels such as the present work, or as the central panel of a triptych, such as the completely autograph example in the Prado, Madrid. The popularity of this subject must have had a special significance, and Dan Ewing has convincingly argued that the Three Magi -- travelers bearing dazzling gifts from distant lands -- held a deep resonance for the prosperous merchant traders of Antwerp, the mainstay of its economic ascendancy and perhaps the most important group of art patrons in the city (see D. Ewing, 'An Antwerp Triptych': Three Examples of the Artistic and Economic Impact of the Early Antwerp Art Market', in Antwerp: Artworks and Audiences, Northampton, 1994; and D. Ewing, Magi and Merchants: Civic Iconography and Local Culture in Antwerp Adorations, 1505-1609', Mobile, 2002).