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Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata
oil on panel
50 7⁄8 x 27 1⁄2 in. (129.2 x 69.8 cm.)
Private collection, Spain.
Acquired by the present owner in 2018.
P. van den Brink, 'The Stigmatization of Saint Francis by Joos van Cleve: A New Discovery’, in A. Koopstra, C Seidel and J.P. Waterman, eds., Tributes to Maryan W. Ainsworth: Collaborative Spirit: Essays on Northern European Art, 1350-1650, London, 2022, pp. 263-277, fig. 1 (forthcoming).

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Lot Essay

This highly-refined, masterfully-painted panel is an important addition to the corpus of Joos van Cleve. Having languished, unrecognized for generations in a private collection under layers of discolored old varnish, it came to light in a small Spanish auction at the end of 2018. The results of its subsequent cleaning were revelatory – the painting is a remarkable survival, with brilliant colors and a wonderfully intact surface. The painting was spotted in Madrid by Michael Heidelberg and the attribution to Joos van Cleve was proposed by Peter van den Brink, who has generously shared an advanced copy of his essay dedicated to this discovery, from which this catalogue note is derived.

The painting represents a crucial episode in the life of the reformer and founder of the Franciscan order, Saint Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226). According to his hagiographers, in 1224, Francis retreated to La Verna, a mountainside in the Apennines near Arezzo, where he fasted and meditated on the sufferings of Christ. One early morning, before daybreak on the feast of the Exultation of the Cross, Francis saw a vision of a six-winged angel, known as a seraph, on a cross. At that moment, Christ’s Crucifixion wounds were transferred to Francis’s hands, feet and side. Following a well-established iconographical tradition, Joos van Cleve shows the kneeling Saint Francis with his arms raised as he receives the stigmata. He is dressed in the grey habit of the Franciscan order, with a knotted cord around his waist, symbolizing the saint’s vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Oblivious to the miraculous event, Francis’s companion, Brother Leo, rests against a tree stump nearby. In the distance, a large, craggy outcropping, reminiscent of the revolutionary landscapes of Joachim Patinir, rises up to break the horizon. Beyond, a town and seaport extends into the distance with increasingly blue tones.

Joos van Cleve and his workshop painted this subject on at least two other occasions. The best known version is the lunette of the large altarpiece that van Cleve produced before 1525 for the Genoese merchant Niccolò Bellogio’s private chapel in the Church of Santa Maria della Pace in Genoa (fig. 1; Musée du Louvre, Paris). The second is the right inner wing of the altarpiece from the chapel of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves in Agaete, Gran Canaria (fig. 2; dismantled, but in situ), which was commissioned sometime before 1532 by Antón Cerezo, a sugar merchant also from Genoa (perhaps not without coincidence given Saint Francis’s popularity in Italy) and his Canarian wife, Sancha Díaz de Zorita. Two related paintings of this subject were executed on a smaller scale by artists outside of Joos van Cleve’s workshop and are now in the Museum für Angewandte Kunst, Cologne, and the Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco.

Infrared reflectography (fig. 3) of the present panel reveals extensive underdrawing made with a dark, dry material: either black chalk or charcoal. As van den Brink notes, the underdrawing of the figures and landscape is ‘extremely dynamic, furious almost’ (op. cit., p. 266). The rapidly drawn, free sketch appears to have been applied to an intermediate paint layer (imprimatura) in a single session that, according to van den Brink, probably lasted no more than thirty minutes (ibid). The execution is full of confidence, though it is not overly descriptive. Most contours are blocked out rather than fully defined, and many details were left to the painter to work out himself, either from his own inventions or relying on workshop drawings. The quickly-drawn lines and semicircular loops that indicate the basic forms of the village and trees in the landscape, for example, only provided the most superficial indications of what was meant to go there, and these were not always precisely followed. One of the towers at left, for instance, was enlarged, and the birds, small figures and even the ships find no counterparts in the underdrawing. This is entirely consistent with Joos van Cleve’s practice.

Closer attention was paid to the drawing of the book and the central tree stump, which van den Brink considers to ‘show the virtuoso hand of the draughtsman at his best’ (op. cit., p. 269). Notably, the figures of Saint Francis and brother Leo are more worked up than the rest of the composition, using ‘short, powerful strokes’ and parallel hatching to delineate their facial features, and ‘sweeping parallel strokes’ to indicate the drapery folds in a manner consistent to that found in Joos’s two other versions of the composition (op. cit., pp. 272-275). Van den Brink concludes, that the ‘overall impression of the underdrawing of the Stigmatization of Saint Francis is one of bravura, energy, and speed – the work of a confident hand (op. cit., p. 275).

Given the scale of the present panel, van den Brink suggests that it was likely part of a medium-sized altarpiece. Like the Santa Maria della Pace altarpiece, it might have been commissioned by a wealthy merchant from Genoa and intended for one of the many Franciscan churches there. In this case, the conspicuous inclusion of water and seaport in the landscape background could be seen as a deliberate attempt to appeal to his Italian audience. Moreover. the fact that the reverse is unpainted lends further credence to this theory, as Italian polyptychs generally had fixed wings, in contrast to those of their counterparts in the north, which were frequently hinged and double-sided.

Comparing the treatment of the figures of Saint Francis and Brother Leo with those figures in the Louvre lunette, van den Brink concludes that ‘there can hardly be any doubt that Joos van Cleve was responsible for painting them all’ (op. cit., p. 277). Indeed, Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata is distinguished by its consistently high quality. The treatment of Brother Leo’s face, for instance, is more convincingly executed in the present painting than in the Louvre panel. It was not uncommon for Joos van Cleve to employ a specialist to complete the landscape elements of his paintings, especially for important commissions. Such was the case for the Crucifixion triptych at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and for the Lamentation panel from the Santa Maria della Pace altarpiece (op. cit., p. 276). Determining whether or not this was the case for the present painting is challenging, as the refined brushwork used to paint the figures is not easily distinguished from the somewhat freer technique found in the landscape. What remains clear is that the backgrounds of both the present work and the Paris lunette were painted by the same hand.

Dendrochronological analysis of the present panel by Peter Klein (21 October 2019), suggests a creation date of 1522 onward. Moreover, Professor Klein determined that the board came from the same tree that was used for a board from another painting from Joos van Cleve and his workshop, the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). The Baltic oak panel bears a maker’s mark on the reverse of one of its three boards, consisting of a vertical line crossed by two short diagonals. This mark is comparable to those found on other panels that were produced in Antwerp around the first quarter of the sixteenth century, including one at the shrine of Jan Gillis Wrange’s so-called ‘Goldenes Wunder’ altarpiece of 1521 for the Franciscan church in Dortmund (op. cit., p. 265). Taking this into account, van den Brink suggests that the present painting should be dated close to 1525.

We are grateful to Peter van den Brink for sharing his research with us for this catalogue note.

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