This is one of a group of panels that must originally have formed parts of a polyptych depicting stories of the life and miracles of Saint James the Greater. Walter Gibson, in his 1977 monograph on Cornelis Engebrechtsz., recorded three paintings as part of the series: The Pilgrim and the Devil in the Stedelijk Museum de Lakenhal, Leiden; the present panel; and a Saint James the Greater and Christ in a landscape formerly with P. de Boer, Amsterdam, 1940, and subsequently sold, Amsterdam, 23 March 1949, lot 12, and then in the Michailoff collection, Paris. Since the publication of Gibson's thesis, another panel from the polyptych - depicting The Farewell of the Pilgrim - was sold, Galerie Koller, Zurich, 31 October 1980, lot 5056, as by Lucas Cornelisz.; more recently still, Professor Dr. Jan Piet Filedt Kok (private communication) suggested a fifth panel, Saint James resurrecting a couple, formerly in the collection at Ince Blundell Hall, Merseyside, and subsequently by descent to Col. Joseph Weld, Lulworth Castle, Dorset (exhibited, Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery, Pictures from Ince Blundell Hall, 1960, no. 48, and Manchester, City Art Gallery, Works of Art of Private Collections, 1960, pp. 7-8, no. 7); the latter picture was, however, on canvas, and although it may have been transferred from panel, has not been universally accepted as a part of the same altarpiece.
The details of the commission of the polyptych are unknown, but the very rare subject matter of the panels does suggest a patron or destination with a more than usual knowledge of and concentration on Saint James and specifically his role as the patron of pilgrims. As such, it is very intriguing, although sadly entirely hypothetical as far as the commission is concerned, to note the existence in Leiden at the time of the St. Jacobs Gasthuis: a hospice (of which the subsequently-reconsecrated Lodewijks Kerk was the chapel) founded in the fifteenth century and run by the St. Jacobs Broederschap, consisting of people who had returned from a pilgrimage to Santiago, and of which the present St. Jacobsgasthuis Chapel was finished in 1538.
The attribution of the group remains as yet unproven despite the evident quality of their execution. That is largely due to the lack of secure identification of the hands known to have been active in the northern Netherlands at that period, rather than to any qualitative calculation. Although Friedländer gave the Lakenthal panel to the Leiden-born Jan Wellens de Cock, the group were widely reattributed to Cornelis Engebrechtsz.'s son, Cornelis Cornesliz., called Kunst, although the present picture has also been given to the latter's brother, Pieter Cornelisz. In his 1969 thesis on Engebrechtsz. (published in 1977, op. cit.), Walter Gibson associated the group with a Lamentation in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and on that basis provisionally named the anonymous artist The Master of the Vienna Lamentation, suggesting that he may originally have been from Antwerp and had then moved to Leiden, where he was influenced by Engebrechtsz. He also identifed a number of other works by the same hand: a Temptation of Saint Anthony in the Musée d'Art, Geneva; a Christ taking Leave of His Mother in the Museum Boijmans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam; a Circumcision in the Mauritshuis, The Hague; a Christ carrying the Cross in the Yale University Art Gallery; a Lot and his Daughters in the Art Institute, Detroit; and a Crucifixion triptych in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.
The stylistic parallels with the work of the Leiden school securely place the panels within that sphere, and more specifically close to Engebrechtsz. (bearing in mind of course the links between the latter and de Cock), and the evident quality of the execution make that understandable. Unfortunately, however, little is known of or survives from that school, and all attributions to three of the primary artists within it, Engebrechtsz.'s sons, are wholly presumptive, as no work by any of them has to date been securely identified as such, either by signature or by identifiable commission. For some time Pieter Cornelisz.'s hand was thought to have been secured through a group of drawings of circa 1517-37 signed 'PC', many of which served as preliminary designs for window paintings (a field in which Pieter is known to have operated). That hypothesis was, however, rejected by Jeremy Bangs ('The Leiden Monogrammist PC and other Artists Enigmatic Fire-buckets', Notes in the History of Art, 1981, pp. 12-5), and although Bangs's opinion has itself been challenged (K.G. Boon, The Netherlandish and German Drawings of the XVth and XVIth Centuries of the Frits Lugt Collection, Paris, 1992, I, pp. 235-7), the study of the school of the generation of Lucas van Leyden remains extremely speculative, and the present work is therefore offered under its conservative attribution.
The unusual subject matter illustrates an episode from a miracle of Saint James recounted in Voragine's Golden Legend amongst other sources: on his way to Santiago de Compostela a pilgrim was greeted by the devil disguised as Saint James. The latter convinced him fallaciously that he would achieve everlasting salvation by killing himself; the young man did so and thereby committed a mortal sin, facing damnation as a suicide, but was saved from that fate by the intervention of Saint James, who also restored him to life. The present scene shows, on the right, the resurrected pilgrim rejoining his companions in an inn and, on the left, him recounting the story of his experience at their dinner.
We are grateful to Prof. Dr. Jan Piet Filedt Kok, Drs. Christiaan Vogelaar and Drs. Wouter Kloek for their help in cataloguing this lot.