When Goltzius was only a year old, according to his friend and earliest biographer Karel van Mander (1548-1606), he fell headfirst into the fireplace and burned both his hands on the red-hot coals. His mother tried to heal his hands with splints and ointments, but he remained in constant pain; and then an officious neighbour, claiming she could do better, removed the splints and bound the child’s right hand in a cloth instead. As a result, the tendons of that hand fused and, for the rest of Goltzius’s life, he was unable to open it properly (K. van Mander, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters… with an introduction and translation, ed. H. Miedema, Doornspijk, 1994-99, I, p. 386).
Some thirty years after that childhood accident, Goltzius executed the present drawing of a hand, depicted larger than life-size with monumental grandeur. It has sometimes been suggested that he drew inspiration from the hand of Michelangelo's Giuliano de' Medici in the Sagrestia Nuova at San Lorenzo in Florence, which Goltzius may have known through a cast (Turner, Hendrix and Plazzotta, op. cit.). Alternatively it has been argued that the hand could show signs of Dupuytren's disease: a fixed flexion of the hand where the fingers bend towards the palm of the hand and cannot be fully extended. However, when the curators of the 2003 Goltzius exhibition showed the drawing to the plastic surgeon Dr Frits Groenevelt, without giving him any contextual information, he noted that the deformities were characteristic of burns injuries:
‘The distortions and abnormalities displayed by this deformed hand can be ascribed to burns. The upward angle and bending of the index finger may be the result of a deep burn to the back of the finger and particularly of the skin over the first phalange – the “collar-button phenomenon”. The deformation of the nail bed of the middle finger is also striking, and a sign of a deep burn there. The abnormal position is caused by the excessive traction of scar tissue at the base of this finger. The unnaturally bent position of the little finger and to a lesser extent of the ring finger may be the consequence of a deep burn on the inner side of his hand. The little finger is twisted slightly inwards, and it is also possible (not visible) that the tip of his finger has been amputated by the total carbonization of the tip. The thumb appears to be totally unaffected, allowing us to formulate a hypothesis as to what happened in the accident. The person in question probably fell into the fire with the side of the hand striking the coals, after which the hand was twisted outwards so that the back of the fingers was also burned. Treating the burned hand of a year-old child with splints cannot have had much practical effect on the eventual abnormal position of the hand.’
(New York, 2003-4, op. cit., p. 245).
There is an almost identical version of this drawing in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem, and that sheet is signed and dated 1588 (New York, 2003-4, op. cit., no. 85; Fig. 1). It was cleaned in 1983 and at an earlier date had been trimmed and the four corners cut: although it now measures 9 x 12 ¾ in. (23 x 32.2 cm.), it would originally have been of the same dimensions as the present work. When the two drawings were examined side-by-side at the Teylers Museum in February 2014, no significant differences could be discerned in the hatching and the pen work of the two versions. The dimensions and proportions of the hand itself are the same in both sheets and it is virtually impossible to determine which was executed first. While it has often been stated that the Haarlem drawing came first, on the basis of its signature and date, it is equally possible that it may have been a presentation copy of a pre-existing drawing made specifically for an important patron who commissioned his own signed version of the composition. The existence of different versions is far from unusual in Goltzius’s work: other drawings which had particular personal significance for the artist also exist in several versions, such as the artist’s emblem bearing the motto ‘Eer boven Golt’, of which four autograph versions are known (see Reznicek, op. cit., nos. 195-97 and New York, 2003-04, op. cit., no. 4).
The existence of more than one autograph version of this remarkable drawing is documented from a very early date. In his diary from May 1622, the antiquarian and humanist Arnoldus Buchelius (1565-1641) described two visits he made on a trip to Leiden: first, to the house of the engraver and calligrapher Cornelis Boissens (1569-circa 1635), who was also a collector; and then afterwards to a lawyer named ‘Backer’, who can be identified with Jeronimus de Backere (1585-before 1678). Among the works Buchelius saw in Backere’s house was ‘Goltzius’s hand done with the pen [which] is very pleasingly done, and is also with Boissens. Believe my copy to be after it’. In a forthcoming article, reviewing the documented history of the drawings, Ilja Veldman notes that:
‘the sheet in the collection of Boissens had been bought by him on 31 August 1612 from the estate of Claes Rauwaert in Amsterdam. That sale was of the art collection of Jacob Rauwaert, a good friend of Goltzius to whom he had dedicated his first print in 1588. Goltzius’s authorship is not mentioned in the sale catalogue, which merely states “1 hant mette pen gedaen” (“1 hand done with the pen”), which argues for its identification with the unsigned sheet from the van Regteren Altena collection.'
('The history of Queen Christina’s album of Goltzius drawings and the myth of Rudolph II as their first owner', to be published in Simiolus, XXXVII, 2013-14, no. 2)
Dr Veldman therefore argues that the drawing Buchelius saw in Backere’s collection can be identified with the signed version now in Haarlem. It subsequently became part of the great collection of drawings by Goltzius in the possession of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) in whose inventory it is clearly described (A. Stolzenburg, 'An inventory of Goltzius Drawings from the Collection of Queen Christina', Master Drawings, XXXVIII, no. 4, Winter 2000, pp. 427-8 and p. 435, no. 96).
As noted in an old inscription on the present sheet, Goltzius used the drawing as the basis for the hand of the apostle Saint Jude in an engraving which is part of a series of the Twelve Apostles (Hollstein 45), published in 1589, the year following the date of the sheet in Haarlem (Fig. 2). Goltzius also drew four right hands in different positions, using black and red chalks, in a drawing executed around 1588-89 now in the Städel Museum, Frankfurt (New York, 2003-04, op. cit., no. 86; Fig. 3). The position and shape of the thumb and fingers of the upper and lower hands are particularly like those in the present drawing, except that in the Frankfurt sheet the hand, although very similar, appears undamaged and the fingers are elegantly shaped. The motif of this hand was also re-used by several artists in Goltzius’s circle, which attests to the renown which the two drawings in the van Regteren Altena collection and the Teylers must have enjoyed. For example, in Jan Muller’s (1571-1628) famous print of Belshazzar’s Feast (circa 1598; Bartsch 1, Hollstein 1), the hand of the king is a faithful copy of Goltzius’s Hand and can be interpreted as homage to the renowned master. Cornelis van Haarlem (1562-1638) also used the hand in A monk and a nun, dated 1591, now in the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem (P.J.J. van Thiel, Cornelis Cornelisz. van Haarlem, Doornspijk, 1999, no. 112, pl. 68).
The popularity of the motif testifies to the importance of Goltzius’s hand in his own personal myth. His accident with the fire and the subsequent deformity of his hand became such well-known stories precisely because art-historical writers at this date celebrated the artist’s hand as the vessel through which marvellous art was created with pen and burin. Goltzius’s hand became so celebrated across Europe, in fact, that he was forced to conceal it during his 1590 visit to Italy, in order to move incognito among his admiring fellow artists. Van Mander reports a moment of revelation almost like that of Christ at Emmaus, in which Goltzius announced his identity to his travelling companions, Jan Matthysz. and Philips van Winghen, by showing them his monogrammed handkerchief and unveiling his distinctive hand. His hand was therefore not only the means by which his art came into being, but also a uniquely personal signifier.
Executed around 1588, these drawings of hands are amongst the earliest of the so-called Federkunstücke or Penwerken, in which Goltzius imitated in pen and ink on paper the style of his engravings. He subsequently executed works of this type on vellum, as well as on prepared canvases. The technique of the present work, with its curving strokes of hatching punctuated with fine flecks of pen, is very comparable to that in another of these Federkunstücke: a drawing of a Muscular torso seen from behind in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (Bruegel, Rubens et leurs contemporains, exhib. cat., Florence, Uffizi and Paris, Fondation Custodia, 2008, no. 30). While earlier engravers, including the Wierix brothers, had produced works of comparable type, Goltzius became especially renowned in this field, owing to the particular skill with which he worked and the ambitious scale of many of his drawings. His Sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus, for example, which dates from circa 1606 and is now one of the great treasures of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, measures 85 ¼ x 64 ¼ in. (219 x 163 cm.). Van Mander described the enthusiastic response to these works among collectors at the time, and the admiration evidently remained unabated when Buchelius mentioned seeing the two drawings of hands in 1622. With their technical perfection in depicting the artist’s deformed hand, the drawings appear to be Goltzius’s affirmation of his own genius: an extremely personal form of signature, and a vivid demonstration that despite his deformity he was capable of exceptional virtuosity, and one of the greatest draftsmen of his time.
We are grateful to Dr Ilja Veldman for sharing a draft of her forthcoming article which discusses her suggested revised early provenance for the drawing.