This small devotional panel, which would either have been intended for private prayer, or use in a small chapel, was executed by the Master of the Plump-Cheeked Madonnas, so called because of the characteristic rounded faces of his figures, an artist active in Bruges in the first half of the sixteenth century. Bruges had long been established as one of the leading artistic centres in Europe and works associated with the Master show the influence of key artistic figures active in the city, most notably Gerard David.
The foundational oeuvre of this anonymous Master, which was first established by Didier Martens in 2000, centres on a Virgin and Child with Saints in a private collection (fig. 1; Christie’s, New York, 29 January 2014, lot 105). This panel of the Holy Family displays all the hallmarks of the Master’s distinctive style and is likely to date to the artist’s maturity. Dendrochronological testing suggests that the Baltic panel support dates from circa 1479 to 1511. Martens (op. cit., 2000) noted that the Virgin in this painting recalls that in the Master of the Plump-Cheeked Madonnas’ Holy Family in the Musée de l’Hôtel Sandelin at Saint-Omer, and that Saint Joseph shares several characteristics with the Saint Dominic in the Virgin and Child with Saints (see fig. 1). This Holy Family is set in an ornate architectural interior, with the Virgin and Child seated on a throne, flanked at the left by Saint Catharine, identifiable by the sword of her martyrdom and the small wheels on her coronet, and with Saint Barbara seated on the floor with the tower of her legend adorning the front of her elaborate headdress.
The composition reoccurs across a small group of works all of which seem to have shared a common model. Most notable among this group is the so-called Virgen de la mosca now in the Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor in Toro, Spain, so named because of the illusionistic fly resting on the Virgin’s knee (fig. 2). A further significant work in the group is a panel first published by Greindl in 1966 by a Follower of Jan Gossaert (in which Saint Joseph is replaced with an additional female saint), which was later sold at Sotheby’s, London (14 December 1977, lot 63). Other works in the group largely replicate these two distinct types, often changing or rearranging the saints positioned around the central Virgin and Child. While this Holy Family is very close in terms of composition to the Toro panel, the iconography and setting are quite distinct, with the Toro painting set in a verdant landscape and the female saints replaced with the Magdalene (standing at the left) and Saint Catherine (seated at the right). The representation of the Christ Child is also subtly different, since in the Toro panel He is shown with His head turned slightly in three-quarter view, while here He is shown in profile. In many respects, the present Holy Family bears close resemblance with the panel attributed to a Follower of Jan Gossaert, in which the seated female saint wears a correspondingly simple dress, the Christ Child is depicted with His face in profile, and the Virgin’s head is similarly covered. Greindl hypothesised that the panel she published was based on a lost prototype by Jan Gossaert, either a painting, or a drawing by the master, which circulated amongst various workshops (‘Une composition inédite de Jean Gossart: La Vierge et l'Enfant, accompagnés de trois Saintes’, Revue belge d'Archéologie et d'Histoire de l'Art, 35, 1966, pp. 17-25). The movement of the figures and the complex architecture of the Virgin’s throne are certainly elements which suggest a knowledge of Gossaert’s work.
Gerard David, who was active in Bruges, is also likely to have had a formative influence on the design of this painting. Martens discussed the similarities shared between this Holy Family and the work of David, citing, for example, the ‘speaking’ headdresses of the two female saints (decorated with their attributes), which find parallels in pictures by David like the Virgo inter Virgines in Rouen (Musée des Beaux-Arts), and the Virgin and Child with Saints and a Donor in London (National Gallery). He also emphasised the similarity of the figure of Saint Barbara with the Saint Agnes in the Virgo inter Virgines panel in Munich, now attributed to Adriaen Isenbrant, himself a follower of David, especially in the style and colour of her dress.
Aside from presenting a form of Sacra Conversazione (a gathering of saints around the Virgin and Child), this panel is also symbolically rich. Saints Catherine and Barbara were frequently depicted together in Netherlandish art, and especially in Bruges, during the late Middle Ages. Venerated as virgin saints, they symbolised the two ideal modes of Christian living: the vita contemplativa (Saint Catherine) and the vita activa (Saint Barbara). Portrayed here together, and in fact mirroring each other’s virtue - the normally contemplative Saint Catherine standing and engaging with the Virgin and Child, and the usually active Saint Barbara seated in quiet contemplation - they would have encouraged the faithful to balance these two ways of living. The pear held prominently by the Virgin was a commonly used symbol of Christ’s love for mankind. The symbolic significance of this becomes more pertinent when considered in the context of other details in the picture. Saint Barbara’s Book of Hours, luxuriously bound with an intricately tooled fore-edge, is open at the beginning of the Penitential Psalms, believed to have been written by King David after he had committed a Deadly sin. The richly illuminated miniature on the right folio shows King David in penitent prayer, surrounded by a 'strewn border' of the type popularised in Bruges and Ghent manuscript painting during the late-fifteenth century. The significance of this small, but important detail, is heightened by the saint’s gesture, as she points to the illumination and looks up towards Christ. In combination with the pear, the Penitential Psalms encourage repentance and confession through contemplation of David’s example and Christ’s love.
We are grateful to Till-Holger Borchert, Director of the Musea Brugge, Bruges, Belgium, for his advice in the preparation of this catalogue entry.
Alfred and Gertrude Sommerguth amassed an eclectic art collection of Dutch and Italian Renaissance masterpieces, as well as works by various French Impressionists, to which they added the present picture after acquiring it at the auction of Joseph Spiridon’s collection in Berlin in 1929. While many of these works were spoliated by the Nazis in a forced sale in 1939, the Sommerguths were able to ship 22 of their best works, including this one, to Switzerland, where they deposited it at the Art Museum St Gallen for safe keeping from April 1940 until at least April 1946.