This impeccably preserved panel has long been credited by scholars as a key example of late-fifteenth century painting in Bruges, remarkable for the ambition of its design, the finesse of the execution and the extraordinarily lifelike portrayal of the protagonists. Notwithstanding its long critical history, the picture is nevertheless surprisingly little known today, having not been exhibited in public since 1902, and never before having been reproduced in colour.
The appellation by which this panel has been referred to since the mid-nineteenth century--the 'Rapaert Pentecost'--is owed to the three hundred years or more that it spent in the Rapaert de Grass family in Bruges. First documented there at the turn of the sixteenth century in the collection of Pieter Rapaert (1579-1635), a medical doctor, the Pentecost descended through successive generations of his family until its sale in 1931 to the Belgian industrialist Baron Laurent Meeus (1872-1950). It was then bought after Meeus's death by the father of the present owner. Having changed hands only twice in the last four hundred years, the condition of this panel is exceptional, allowing today for an especially vivid appreciation of its qualities.
The critical history of the Rapaert Pentecost is less clear-cut than its provenance and it is only recently that the attribution has been resolved with any degree of certainty. Gaillard first published it in 1860 with an attribution to Hans Memling, the artist to whom so many Bruges paintings of high quality were given in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1902 Georges Hulin de Loo deemed it to be by an unknown hand, but suggested a date, which is still maintained today, around 1490. The sale of the Pentecost in 1931 prompted a more detailed study of the panel in which Pierre Bautier, its author, had to admit to defeat in his effort to 'percer le mystère, provisoire, des origins de ce morceau superbe' (loc. cit.). He could only conclude, like Hulin de Loo, that it was by an as yet unidentified Bruges painter from the end of the fifteenth century.
However, a year later, Max Friedländer tentatively advanced an attribution to Jan Mostaert, suggesting that it was an early work from around 1500. This idea seems to have gained little support and in 1959 Friedrich Winkler voiced the more widely held view, at the time, that this was 'une oeuvre excellente d'un artiste indépendant, qui n'a rien à voir avec Mostaert' (loc. cit.). It was not until 1994 that Dr. Lorne Campbell first proposed an identification of the hand as that of the Master of the Baroncelli Portraits, an attribution that has since gained widespread acceptance and further endorsement from Hélène Mund and Didier Martens, who published the picture in 2003 (loc. cit.). Campbell dates it to around 1490 on the basis of the costume, comparing it with the Virgin and Child with John Sedano, attributed to Gerard David (Paris, Louvre), that can be securely dated on biographical evidence.
This anonymous master is understood to have been active in Bruges in the last decade of the fifteenth century, working under the influence of Petrus Christus and Hans Memling. He owes his name to the double portraits in the Uffizi, Florence, whose sitters were identified by Aby Warburg in 1902 as Pietro Bandini Baroncelli, of the Medici bank in Bruges, and his wife Maria Bonciani. A second work securely given to the same hand is the Saint Catherine of Bologna in the Courtauld Institute, London, in which the donor may be Giacomo di Giovanni d'Antonio Loiani of Bologna, who married a Flemish woman. Campbell's interest in the artist seems to have inspired a number of other attributions to the Baroncelli Master in recent years. Dirk de Vos considered the Marriage Diptych (London, Courtauld Institute), a work by this artist after its appearance in the Memling exhibition in Bruges in 1994 (see D. de Vos, in the catalogue of the exhibition, Hans Memling, Bruges, 1994, no. 83). A Virgin and Child with Angels (Berlin, Bode Museum) has been given to him by Mund, while Martens has suggested that a Madonna Enthroned (Granada, Capilla Real) is also by the same hand.
Martens and Mund's essay in 2003 casts this panel in the context of other depictions of the subject in fifteenth and early sixteenth century Bruges. While in Brussels and Antwerp the Pentecost would commonly appear only in the wings of altarpieces to illustrate the cycle of the Passion, in Bruges the miraculous episode was more often adopted as a central theme in its own right. The story is taken from Acts 2:1-4. Ten days after the Ascension, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the apostles gathered together in a room when 'suddenly there came from the sky a noise like that of a strong driving wind, which filled the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues like flames of fire, dispersed among them and resting on each one, And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to talk in other tongues, as the spirit gave them power of utterance'.
The episode marked a crucial point of departure in the Christian story, and is symbolic of the birth of the Church itself. The Virgin Mary, in the epicentre of the present composition, can be seen to personify the Church and also perhaps her role as the spiritual Mother of the Apostles who are grouped around her. She occupies a 'sacred' space with the Apostles, on a higher level than the 'profane' space in which the donors are kneeling in the foreground. The more intricately patterned floor of the upper level makes clear this differentiation. The spatial arrangement of the room is complex. Far from being a sealed chamber, the room opens out onto a beautifully rendered landscape seen through an open door on the left, balanced by a view into a courtyard visible through an open window on the right. An open door at the back of the room leads the eye into a corridor at the end of which is another door, left ajar, allowing a further glimpse into the outside world.
Only eleven Apostles feature in the present scene, Judas having left their company before his betrayal of Christ. A number of the apostles, remarkable for their portrait-like rendering, can be identified. For example, the youthful figure in red on the extreme right, with a writing case girded to his belt, is most likely Saint John the Evangelist, while the 'P' inscribed on the chemise worn by the figure third from the left of the Virgin, clearly marks him out as Saint Peter. It is possible that he was the name-saint of the male donor who kneels near him.
The episode is set within a contemporary, late fifteenth-century Bruges house, in a deliberate effort by the artist to lend a sense of realism to the narrative and to connect with the contemporary audience. This effect is heightened by closely observed details such as the towel hanging from the back wall, the kettle hanging in a niche, the candle fixed to the wall and the two dogs in the corridor. Above all, however, it is the extraordinarily lifelike portraiture employed for all of the protagonists that creates the overriding impression that this miraculous episode has been observed from life.
The identity of the donors is not known. The roundels above the fireplace that are once thought to have borne coats-of-arms have been erased, removing any clue as to their possible identification. These may have been defaced in the early seventeenth century by Rapaert, the first documented owner of the panel, who commissioned portraits of himself, his wife Margriet de Badts (d. 1647) and their eight children in circa 1630, to hang on either side of the Pentecost in the manner of a triptych. These wings still survive in a private collection.
Recent scholarly evaluation has placed the Pentecost at the heart of the small oeuvre of the Master of the Baroncelli Portraits, whose importance, in the context of late-fifteenth-century Bruges painting, is perhaps only just beginning to be properly understood. Mund and Martens (loc. cit.) have shown that this work must have had a considerable impact in the artistic milieu of the day, for it was influential upon the treatment of this particular subject by subsequent artists in Bruges and by Simon Benning in particular. We are grateful to Dr. Hélèn Mund whose artice, co-written with Didier Martens, has formed the basis of this catalogue entry.