A tranquil atmosphere suffuses this moving painting by Jan Provoost, Bruges’ leading artist in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. Amid a charming landscape boasting a cloudless sky, the Virgin and Child bask in soft light while attended by angels, one of whom plays sweet music on his recorder as he looks lovingly upon the divine pair. Swathed in luxurious fabric, Mary’s majestic, pyramidal form dominates the composition as she gazes solemnly at the viewer, her tender expression tinged with sorrow that speaks of her awareness of her son’s fate. Several references to the Virgin’s perfection and regal status pepper the composition, such as the enclosed garden, or hortus conclusus – which symbolizes her purity – and her seat in the form of a cushion on the ground, which signifies her humility. As plush as the pillow’s velvet, a thick carpet of vegetation covers the soil in a manner evocative of millefleurs tapestries, thus adding yet another sumptuous detail to the painting.
Evidence of Jan Provoost’s presumed training in the workshop of the celebrated manuscript illuminator Simon Marmion may be found in such delicately rendered, courtly touches as the lush foliage, the gold embroidery on the Virgin’s cloak and the figures’ refined features. A native of Mons in the Southern Netherlands, Provoost received his initial training from his father, Jan Provoost the Elder, before he is believed to have made the journey to Valenciennes to work with Marmion. Following the illuminator’s death in 1489, Provoost married his widow, Johanna de Quarube. In 1493, Provoost joined the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp and then became a citizen of Bruges, which enabled the artist to have access to the Netherlands’ two most important markets for painting. Provoost’s prestigious career was punctuated by several honors, including presiding over the Bruges painters guild in 1519 and 1525, and supervising the city’s decorative program for Charles V’s Triumphal Entry in 1520. In that same year, Albrecht Dürer traveled to the Netherlands and had occasion to befriend Provoost, of whom the famed German artist made two drawn portraits.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, for whom repeating the same compositions was standard for practical and economic reasons, Jan Provoost preferred to strive for inventiveness. In this instance, the artist began by choosing a less common theme: the Holy Family attended by angels, a subject that appears, for example, in an anonymous German panel of the Nativity (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) as well as in the central panel of Albrecht Dürer’s Dresden Altarpiece (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden). He then also elected to portray the Virgin as though poised to pass the Christ Child to one of the angels, who in turn points to the infant in a gesture that announces his role as Savior. This seemingly unprecedented iconographic arrangement enabled Provoost to create a captivating play of hands, while enhancing the panel’s intimate mood. At the same time that Provoost introduced this novel element, he was also careful to refer to an older, much revered work of art: Jan van Eyck’s 1436 Virgin and Child with Saints Donatian and George and Canon Joris van der Paele (fig. 1), then in the Collegiate Church of Saint Donatian in Bruges and now in the Groeningemuseum. In particular, Christ’s pose echoes that of the infant in van Eyck’s painting, and the Virgin’s soft face and wavy, golden tresses are likewise reminiscent of those of her Eyckian counterpart. Rather than a precise copy, Provoost took inspiration from van Eyck’s masterpiece to create a new vision, whose deft allusions to the past would have been noticed and appreciated by his audience.
Intended for private devotion, the present painting may have formed the central panel of a now-dispersed triptych, and in fact once incorporated wings by an unknown later artist (sold Christie’s, London, 3 December 2014, lot 106). We are grateful to Professor Ron Spronk from Queen’s University, Ontario, author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on Jan Provoost, for identifying this panel as a fully autograph work by the artist, on the basis of both photograph and infrared images. He further pointed out this panel's similarities with another treatment of the theme by the artist now in the National Gallery, London, and with The Virgin and Child in Glory in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. The free and economical underdrawing (fig. 2), which shows numerous changes to the original composition, is consistent with underdrawing found in other works by the artist (for comparison, see R. Spronk, ‘Jan Provoost’, Bruges et la Renaissance: de Memling à Pourbus, Paris, 1998, pp. 31-48, nos. 19-28).