This picture provides fascinating new insights into the creative process and workshop practice in the studio of Joos van Cleve. Called the ‘Leonardo of the North’ in a recent exhibition (Aachen, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Leonardo des Nordens: Joos van Cleve, March-June 2011), Joos van Cleve was, along with Jan Gossaert and Bernard van Orley, the foremost Northern painter of his day. Active in the thriving city of Antwerp where he is first documented in 1511, he developed a distinctive and highly successful style, combining technical accomplishment in oil, inherited from the early-Netherlandish painting tradition, as well as a rich palette indebted to northern Italian, especially Venetian models. It is his prowess as a ‘colourist’ that is especially praised in the accounts of his life by the great early biographers Lodovico Guicciardini (1567), Giorgio Vasari (1568) and Karel van Mander (1604). His art met with resounding success throughout Europe, from his native Netherlands to the courts of Francis I and Henry VIII. Much in demand, the artist produced monumental altarpieces destined for places as diverse as Cologne, the Baltic, Portugal and Italy, and he therefore employed a large and industrious workshop who, despite this prodigious output, managed to maintain the highest standards in quality.
Joos developed a fruitful relationship with the city of Genoa and its affluent mercantile citizens, many of whom resided in Antwerp, painting three major altarpieces for its churches: the Adoration of the Magi (now Dresden, Gemäldegalerie), the San Donato Altarpiece (Genoa, Chiesa di San Domato), and the Santa Maria della Pace Altarpiece commissioned around 1524 by the Genoese patrician Niccolò Bellogio for his chapel in the Franciscan church of Santa Maria della Pace in Genoa (now Paris, Musée du Louvre; see fig. 1). It is to the central panel of this seminal altarpiece from Joos’s maturity that the present picture closely relates: discarding the donors, their patron saints and an attending holy woman, the picture focuses on the dramatic group of mourners – the Virgin, Saint John and the expressive Magdalene – who surround Christ’s beautifully foreshortened dead body. Apart from the figures’ faces, hands and some of their attire, the composition, the colour scheme and the detail is identical to the Louvre panel.
A recent technical analysis of the present work has shed new light on the nature of this apparent replica and its relationship to the Louvre prototype. Infra-red reflectography reveals that beneath the visible paint layer lies an earlier version whose design corresponds exactly to the Louvre picture: the ghostly shape of the Virgin’s upright oval face can be seen clearly beneath the surface; the Magdalene’s headdress and extravagantly lavish bodice, embroidered with pearls and tassels, is also made visible. Like the Virgin, her small elegant head corresponds precisely to that in the Louvre panel. Finally, Saint John returns to the more mature and emaciated figure who features in Joos’s Genoese altarpiece. The underpainting reveals that the present work also corresponds exactly to the Louvre Lamentation in its details: for example, the locks framing John’s face, the button of his shirt, and the same pattern of the Magdalene’s brocaded dress.
The identical scale of the figures in the two works (the height of the two panels is the same), suggest that the original preparatory cartoon for the Louvre panel may have been used for the present work. Yet the Louvre underdrawing is very free and does not show signs of mechanical transfer, thus making it more likely that once the painting was finished, Joos entrusted an assistant to trace its design by placing oiled paper onto the dried panel. This cartoon would then have been used to lay out the composition of the present picture. The fact that it relates in so many details to the original, including in the colours, suggests that it was probably executed immediately after the completion of the Santa Maria della Pace Altarpiece and before its despatch to Genoa.
The technical evidence unequivocally places this panel in Joos van Cleve’s studio in the mid-1520s. The master was then running one of the most efficient workshops in Antwerp, employing a team of highly skilled assistants, each specialising in different areas: drapery, landscape, brocade, etc., while the master himself would focus on original designs, figures and finishing touches. The high quality of the original passages in the present work such as the still life in the foreground and the landscape in the background – some elements of which recur in other paintings by Joos and in a number of anonymous drawings (Berlin, Kupfertichkabinet; Brussels, Bibliothèque Royale; and Paris, Fondation Custodia) – are on a par with original works emanating from his studio. As in many of his large-scale paintings, Joos may have been responsible for this panel’s original faces, whose quality may only be appreciated today with the aid of the infra-red reflectogram.
The question remains as to why, when, and by whom this panel was subsequently adapted. The figures that are now visible display a more mannerist style, datable to the mid-sixteenth century, if not later, and close to the work of Joos van Cleve’s son Cornelis, to whom the picture has traditionally been attributed. It is usually believed that Cornelis van Cleve became a master in the Antwerp painter’s guild following the death of his father around 1440, in order to continue his studio practice. Cornelis would have been just a boy when this panel was painted, but he could conceivably have inherited it with the studio, perhaps as an unsold work or a commission that was never paid for. He, or perhaps one of his associates, may then have wished to assert their own character on the picture through the repainting of its principal figures, in order to pass it off as their own work. This may have occurred as Cornelis was trying to cement his own independent reputation, or possibly around 1546, when he was struck by financial difficulties. In any case, both the genesis and the afterlife of this painting, make it a key witness to the fascinating complexity of artistic practices in Antwerp during the Northern Renaissance.
We are grateful to Peter van den Brink for his kind assistance in cataloguing this lot.