The biography of Antwerp painter Quinten Massys is based more on legend than on fact. He was successful, wealthy and famous within his lifetime and was revered almost to cult status by following generations. His innate genius and protean talent were celebrated in a famous poem cited by Lampsonius and repeated by van Mander. In it, Massys is said to have been a blacksmith who taught himself to paint when he feared that he would lose his beloved who was being courted by a painter and made clear her preference for the 'silent play of brushes' over the 'thundering blows on the anvil' (L. Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys 1984, p. 1). His homes were considered Antwerp landmarks within his lifetime, one in the Huidenvetterstraat, which Dürer visited in 1520, and another in the Schuttershofstraat, known for its walls elaborately decorated with Italianate ornament: grotesques, garlands, and putti painted in grisaille. Massys received commissions from patrons in Portugal and Germany and, in addition to many sitters from the wealthy merchant classes, he painted portraits of notable contemporaries including Christian II of Denmark, Cosimo de'Medici, and Erasmus.
Perhaps more than any other painting, the Madonna of the Cherries, one of his last works painted around 1529, played a significant role in established Massys' legendary reputation as the founder of the Antwerp school of painting and the city's most beloved son. It is no mistake that it was an image of the Virgin and Child that catapulted him to this exalted status--Antwerp had a particular fondness for the Virgin. As the official protector of the city, the cathedral was devoted to her, guilds were named for her various aspects, and every year on Assumption Day the lavish procession known as the ommegang carried her image to every corner of the city.
In 1629, the first centennial of Massys' death, a ceremony was held in the city and a plaque commemorating him was installed on the façade of the Antwerp cathedral. The plaque was paid for by the Antwerp collector Cornelis van der Gheest, who owned the original Madonna of the Cherries. It was recorded in Willem van Haecht's Picture Gallery of Cornelis van der Gheest (Rubenshuis, Antwerp; fig. 1), a painting that commemorates a visit to van der Gheest's collection in 1615 by Archdukes Albert and Isabella (referred to in the plural by their contemporaries). Among the mythologies and landscapes painted by artists such as Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder, van der Gheest considered the Madonna of the Cherries to be the jewel of his collection and is shown presenting it as such to the Archdukes. Albert and Isabella were so enamoured of Massys' painting that they offered to buy it on the spot, but van der Gheest would not sell and it remained in his collection until his death. The present location of van der Gheest's adonna of the Cherries is unknown, but a number of versions and copies exist, of which this painting is one.
The Madonna of the Cherries that appears in van Haecht's painting is almost certainly a faithful copy of Massys' original painting, with the Virgin and Child sitting on an elaborate throne next to a window that reveals an extensive landscape view. The Virgin holds the infant Christ close and kisses him on the mouth as he wraps his arms around her neck, an intimate type known as the Eleüsa in Byzantine icons painted in the Netherlands by artists such as Dirk Bouts and Gerard David. The fruit on the ledge in the foreground and the cherries prominently held by the Virgin have symbolic significance - cherries are a celestial fruit, the apple represents original sin, and the grapes signal eucharistic sacrifice.
Of the versions associated with Massys, there are two types: one represented in van Haecht's painting and preserved in copies in the Ringling Museum, Sarasota and in the Darey Collection, Paris; and another represented by a painting in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (on loan to the Mauritshuis, The Hague) and the painting offered here. The most obvious difference between the two types is the appearance of the throne. The Virgin's throne in the van der Gheest painting (as recorded by van Haecht and preserved in the Ringling copy) is simpler than that in our painting. In place of the brocade and half shell decoration at the back of the throne is the bare marbleized surface. A sculpted figure appears above the one visible column of the throne and foliate tracery continues along its back and side. Both the version in van Haecht's painting and the copy at the Ringling show only the left-hand column, the column closest to the viewer hidden by the heavy drape at the right. The drape is pulled further back in our painting and the Hague version, revealing the second column and the more elaborate decoration of the throne.
In contrast to the elaborateness of the throne, the Virgin in both versions is dressed modestly. In place of a crown she wears a simple jeweled headband and her dress and mantle are unadorned, unlike the brocaded and jewelled dresses that appear in earlier icons. The van der Gheest version her dress is a greyish plum color covered with a darker mantle while the dress in our painting is dark blue and the mantle a deep red. The still life elements on the ledge in the foreground are also different in each of the versions. In the van der Gheest painting the apple appears to the left of the grapes, while in this and the Hague version, the apple appears to the right of the grapes.
These changes are minor but deliberate and may relate to the popularity of the composition. Massys could have conceived the second, more elaborate version of adonna of the Cherries as a separate, original work for another patron.
Indeed, the number of versions of the Madonna of the Cherries indicates the enormous popularity of the image and the great demand for it on the market both within Massys' lifetime and after his death. The authorship of the various versions is yet to be determined but studio practice in the sixteenth century allowed for the production of paintings that are attributed to the artist in degrees. As did Rubens in the seventeenth century, artists priced works according to the level of studio assistance involved in their creation and patrons, as long as they knew the status of the work, had no problem with purchasing them. Silver cites examples of works by Massys but of lesser quality made for the export market (op cit., p. 60, no. 28). Far from the discerning eye of the Antwerp connoisseur and those who knew Massys' work well, a studio painting could pass easily as a work by the master.
The lack of information about Massys' studio exacerbates the problem of sorting out which of the versions of Madonna of the Cherries were painted by Massys himself, which were collaborations between Massys and his assistants, and which were painted entirely by pupils. Only four apprentices are recorded very early in his career and, apart from his two sons Jan and Cornelis, none of his late studio assistants are known by name. The paintings not fully attributed to Massys have yet to be classified by hand and versions of the Madonna of the Cherries could have been painted after his death.
The quality of this version of adonna of the Cherries suggests that it could be, if not by Massys himself, a collaboration between Massys and a member of his studio. His sons, Jan and Cornelis, both enrolled as masters in the St. Luke's Guild in 1531, one year after their father's death, and would have been apprentices in the studio during the last years of his life. Recent scholarship has revealed a number of collaborative works from the studio: copies of Quinten's paintings by Jan, paintings begun by Quinten and finished by Jan, and works that appear to have been true collaborations between father and son. Massys was accostomed to providing paintings for a demanding market and works attributed to Jan such as The Holy Family with Saints Elizabeth and John (The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh) prove that he was more than capable of producing them. As more work is done on Quinten Massys and his studio, this exquisite version of the Madonna of the Cherries will no doubt find its place within his oeuvre.