Gillis Congnet, the son of a goldsmith, was trained in Antwerp and became a master in the Guild of St Luke in 1561. Probably in the same year, he travelled to Italy where he worked in Naples, Sicily, Terni and Florence, where he even registered as a member of the Accademia. By 1570, he had returned to his native Antwerp, his name once again appearing in the register of the Guild of St Luke, of which he later became Dean in 1585. His career subsequently took him to him to Amsterdam and Hamburg.
This intriguing picture, painted on copper, demonstrates Congnet’s synthesis of both Italian and Flemish styles. The rapid brush strokes and dynamic composition display the influence of Titian, an artist Congnet is known to have admired. At the same time, the elongated figures, cityscape and the lighting of the painting clearly link the artist back to Flanders and the Antwerp Mannerist style. The ‘darkness [which] came over the whole land’ at the moment of Christ’s death is expertly reproduced by the dramatic, billowing clouds which silhouette His body. Indeed, Karel van Mander, who published his Schilder-boeck (Book of Painters) in 1604, noted Congnet’s distinction at painting nocturnal scenes.
The scene Congnet paints does not follow the narrative related in the Bible. Christ’s side has yet to be pierced, but Golgotha is empty of Roman soldiers, spectators or the crosses bearing the body of the two thieves. Instead, the painting reduces the number of figures as a means of heightening the painting’s visual and spiritual intensity, a common choice with painters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Each of the figures beneath the Cross expresses their grief individually. The Virgin, dressed in a pink dress and deep blue mantle, gazes quietly up at the body of her Son, her hands crossed across her breast in a gesture of mourning and humility. Saint John the Evangelist throws out his arms; while the Magdalene, notable in her extraordinary gold dress and red cloth-of-gold mantle, has fallen to her knees, grasping the cross in one hand.
We are grateful to Jan de Maere for proposing the attribution on the basis of photographs.