This majestic image of Christ as Salvator Mundi was executed by Ambrosius Benson, who moved from Lombardy to Bruges in circa 1515 where he was apprenticed to Gerard David before becoming an independent master. This highly distinctive representation has its origins in the central blessing figure in the upper most register of van Eyck’s celebrated Ghent Altarpiece (fig. 1; Ghent, Sint Baafskathedraal), which inspired numerous other treatments of the subject during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including works by Hans Memling (Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten), Gerard David (Paris, Musée du Louvre) and Jan Gossaert (Madrid, Museo del Prado). This panel, which was in Madrid by the mid-nineteenth century, may in fact have been originally commissioned in Spain, where Benson’s work was highly sought after, with local artists emulating his style.
Christ’s pronounced downward gaze in this painting suggests that the panel was designed to be viewed from below, indicating that it was originally part of a larger work, most likely surmounting an altarpiece. This elevated positioning would have further heightened the figure’s statuesque monumentality and emphasised details like the elaborate sculpted cope morse, which is shaped like a small tabernacle, or reliquary, ornamented with gold statues of the Virgin and Child, flanked by saints and is comparable with examples dating to the late-fifteenth century. The identification of the figure remains deliberately obscure: while He holds the globe and raises His right hand in blessing, indicating His status as Salvator Mundi, He also wears the papal tiara of God the Father. The figure can perhaps best be understood through reference to the Book of Revelations (21:5), which describes: ‘He that sat on the throne’ on the day of Judgement. Thus, like the figure in van Eyck’s painting, Benson’s figure purposefully eludes certain identification as the Father, or the Son. Infra-red reflectography of the panel reveals carefully executed under-drawing of the composition, to which Benson made numerous small adjustments, for instance shortening the fingers of Christ’s blessing hand and reducing the voluminous folds of His left sleeve (fig. 2). Other parts show more rapid, sketchy draughtsmanship with areas of shadow in the drapery defined by rapid diagonal strokes.
While suggestions that Benson worked for a period in Spain, or established a workshop there have been refuted, he certainly had close contacts with the Iberian Peninsula, and more specifically with the wealthy Spanish mercantile colony in Bruges. His workshop was located near the Bruges Exchange (facilitating easy access for an international clientele) and in 1533 the painter even purchased a house from the Spanish merchant Lucas de Castro (half of which he paid for with eight paintings). The numerous works by Benson in Spain, especially those in relatively public locations, including Segovia Cathedral, the Church of Saint John in Castrojertiz and the Dominican abbey church of Santa Cruz in Segovia, had a strong impact on vernacular painting. So strong was the desire to create works in Benson’s idiom, that the present picture was in fact believed to be a work by the Valencian master, Vicente Macip, in the nineteenth century.
Works in the van Eyck idiom continued to appeal to Spanish patrons throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Spanish painters and patrons had been aware of van Eyck’s great altarpiece from almost immediately after its completion in 1432. The court painter of Alfonso V of Aragon, Lluis Dalmau was sent in 1431 (returning before 1436) to Flanders to study Netherlandish painting. Alfonso was well-acquainted with van Eyck’s oeuvre, owning several works by the painter and even possibly meeting him in 1426 when van Eyck is believed to have travelled to the Kingdom of Aragon for a ‘secret journey’ undertaken at the request of his patron, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (B. Fransen, ‘Van Eyck in Valencia’, Van Eyck Studies, C. Currie, et. al. Leuven, 2017, p. 470). Given these connections, and the amicable relationship between Alfonso and Philip, it is possible that Dalmau spent time in van Eyck’s workshop, and he certainly appears to have gained first-hand access to Eyckian models: his 1443-5 Virgin of the Consellers (Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Arte de Catalunya) includes exact scale copies of groups of musical angels and of the figure of Saint John the Baptist (changed to represent Saint Andrew) from the Ghent Altarpiece. Memling’s aforementioned Christ in Majesty with musical angels (Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp) was painted for a Spanish patron and originally surmounted a monumental high-altar retable depicting the Assumption of the Virgin from the monastic church of Santa María la Real in Nájera. In 1557, Michiel Coxcie was commissioned by Philip II of Spain to make a full copy of the Ghent Altarpiece (though elements like the portraits of the donors Jodocus Vijd and Elisabeth Borluut were removed), after his attempt to buy the altarpiece was refused by the Chapter of Saint Bavo’s Cathedral.
The triptych is recorded in the possession of Enrique Traumann in Madrid by 1952. The Traumann collection had been established in the early-twentieth century by Ricardo Traumann and comprised a number of important early Netherlandish paintings, including a Virgin and Child attributed to Simon Bening (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), Hans Memling's Virgin and Child (private collection; Christie's, New York, 25 January 2012, lot 23) and Gerard David's Virgin and Child with the Milk Soup (New York, Aurora Trust).