SIMON BENING (1483/84-1561): THE VIRGIN AND CHILD IN A GARDEN between THE NATIVITY and CHRIST AMONG THE DOCTORS, ILLUMINATED TRIPTYCH ON VELLUM ON WOODEN PANELS
[Bruges, 1540s]Dimensions at outer edges of fictive framing: centre 158 x 113mm, each wing 158 x 44mm; dimensions of vellum and panels: centre 160 x 117mm, each wing 161 x 47mm (some wear in sky and small paint losses to Virgin's robe and by right angel in central scene, and to fictive framing in all three scenes). The three panels mounted together under glass, gilt frame. Provenance: Artemis Fine Arts Ltd, Master Prints and Drawings: 15th to 20th Centuries, 1990, no 3.
Simon Bening was the last of the great Netherlandish illuminators and the most famous of them all. His work was appreciated throughout Europe, mostly within illuminated books like lot 46. Presumably trained in Ghent by his father, the illuminator Sanders Bening, Simon accumulated a stock of patterns that preserved many of the best inventions of both predecessors and older contemporaries. From this base he developed his own style and compositions, bringing a new humanity to the the divine narrative and a new naturalism to landscape.
THIS TRIPTYCH IS ONE OF THE EXTREMELY RARE SURVIVORS OF AN ALMOST VANISHED ART FORM, that of illumination outside books (see C. Reynolds, 'Illuminators and the Painters' Guilds', pp.15-31 in Kren and McKendrick). Diptychs, triptychs or polyptychs of illumination appealed to the greatest patrons in the 14th and 15th centuries, while both religious and secular literature of the 14th century shows that illuminated portraits of the Beloved were already an accepted genre. When Bening painted this triptych, or his self-portrait at the age of 75 (Victoria and Albert Museum), he was not taking advantage of new art forms, the independent illumination or portrait miniature, but developing a longstanding tradition to maintain illumination's validity in the age of printing.
While the pictorial power of Bening's miniatures within books encouraged their removal and mounting for show, very few of his paintings certainly intended for independent display survive. Both the Stein Quadriptych in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, and the Penitent St Jerome in the Escorial are in permanent collections; the triptych in the Houston Museum of Fine Arts is attributed to his workshop. A triptych of the Seven Joys of the Virgin (private collection) and two small wings (Groeningemuseum, Bruges) have been attributed to his circle, more for their form than for close proximity in style (exh. cat. Bruges and the Renaissance, Groeningemuseum, 1998, nos 68 and 69).
The repetition of the fictive framing shows that these three scenes formed an independent work, originally with a hinged frame so that the wings could close over the centre. The format allowed Bening to exploit the contrast between the cramped interiors of the narrow wings and the spacious landscape of the centre, where he adapted an earlier pattern of the Virgin and Child before a cloth of honour with little, or no, space behind the angels, as in the Hours of Queen Isabella of Castile (Kren and McKendrick, no 105). Instead, he opens up a magnificent landscape, stretching from the detailed plants in the foreground to the enclosed gardens of the mid-ground to the rolling countryside of wooded hills extending to the blue horizon. The dating in the 1540s from the flecked technique typical of Bening's later style was confirmed when the triptych was exhibited with comparable works in Illuminating the Renaissance, at the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and the Royal Academy, London, in 2003.
Despite the beguiling details of the central scene that lead the eye into the distance, Bening succeeded in distributing interest across all three sections. The tender image of the Virgin and Child is flanked by the second of the Virgin's Seven Joys, the Nativity, and the second of her Seven Sorrows, the anguish that preceded Christ's discovery in the Temple. The three figures of the Christ Child are placed on a rising diagonal, as he progresses from helpless infant to child prodigy, while the uncritical adoration of the shepherd and angels leads to the astonished wonder of the doctors in the Temple. The triptych would have stimulated spiritual meditation from the devout as well as delighted admiration from the art collector.
This superb example of a genre that has practically disappeared shows Bening's genius for landscape and expressive figures and also his compositional mastery that welds a tripartite form into a whole of absorbing beauty.
BIBLIOGRAPHY FOR THIS TRIPTYCH:
T. Kren and S.McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance, 2003, no 157.