Jacob van Utrecht's biography straddles three different arenas of the Northern Renaissance. Born in Utrecht in the Northern Netherlands, he signed 'Jacobus Traiectensis', emphasising his origin in the city called Traiectum in Latin; trained in Antwerp in the Southern Netherlands, he absorbed the influence of Joos van Cleve and the Masters of 1518 and of Frankfurt; and from 1519 until at least 1530 he was the major artist in Lübeck in Germany, one of the most prosperous and important ports of the age, founding city of the Hanseatic League - a trading federation which had stretched from London to Novgorod in Russia.
Jacob must have had his initial artistic training in Utrecht, and was in Antwerp by 1506, when he was made a master of the Guild of Saint Luke; amongst his pupils were Jasper de Vos (recorded in 1511) and Heynken Francx (1512). His earliest known work, painted in Antwerp in 1513, is a many-figured triptych of the Descent from the Cross (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie; see R. Grosshans and J. Müller-Hauck, op. cit.). Curiously, during his time in Antwerp Jacob painted in a distinctive style for which there are no close parallels amongst contemporary or earlier Antwerp artists, and it is only later, in certain works of the Lübeck period, that the influence of the aforementioned Antwerp masters becomes aparent. Before arriving in Lübeck, Jacob was active in another Hanseatic city, Cologne, where he painted two altarpiece wings for the abbey of Gross-Saint Martin (Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum; and Berchtesgarden, Schlossmuseum), which quote passages of works by Jan van Eyck. In Lübeck Jakob initially resided with the patrician Bruskow family, and was a member of the merchant society the Leonhard Brotherhood, which would seem to imply that he may also have been active as a picture dealer. As the most significant artist based in Lübeck, he painted a number of portraits of wealthy merchants and patricians, and received commissions for religious works such as his Virgin and Child with Donors of 1520, still in Lübeck today (Saint Annen-Museum), and the present work, dated to circa 1525. Even in his later paintings, Jacob continued to make reference to his native Utrecht, placing the stately Gothic spired cathedral of that city in the background of his subject pictures.
Jacob van Utrecht's authorship of the present work, catalogued as Cranach in the eighteenth-century and subsequenty simply as North Netherlandish school, was rediscovered by Francis Beckett in the late 1920s (loc. cit.). It depicts, as donors, the Lübeck Councillor (Ratsherr) Herman Plönnies and his first wife Ida Greverade. As Councillor, Plönnies would have been one of the most important figures of Lübeck government; he was to be ennobled by Charles V in 1532 for his support of Gustav Vasa, King of Sweden. Ida Greverade, on the other hand, belonged to the same patrician Lübeck family as the brothers Heinrich and Adolf Grevenrade, who had commissioned a polytpych altarpiece from Hans Memling for their family chapel (now Lübeck, Saint-Annen Museum).
We are grateful to Jan van Helmont of Leuven for confirming that the arms on the inside wings are those of Plönnies, together with those of Herman's maternal grandfather's, and Grevenrade, with the arms of Ida's maternal grandfather, Lüdeke Bere, an earlier Councillor of Lübeck. The arms on the outside wings are those of Plönnies and his second wife Anna Witte, daughter of Councillor Heinrich Witte of Lübeck (see E.F. Fehling, Lübecker Ratslinie von den Anfängen der Stadt bis auf der Gegenwart, 1925, reprinted 1978, no. 623, pp. 91-2). These would have been added to the outside wings after Ida's death and Herman's remarriage, and, with the grisailles, may be by a different hand.
The distinctive costume worn by Ida Grevenrade, a conical headdress and an ermine-trimmed, pleated red mantle, is repeated in another pair of donor portraits by Jacob, those of the Brömbse triptych (Lübeck, Saint James), and must reflect a practice local to Lübeck, perhaps as a sign of distinction for prominent ladies or the wives or daughters of Councillors. The beautifully painted central panel depicting the Annunciation derives its composition from a German source, Albrecht Dürer's woodcut of the subject for the Small Passion series (circa 1509-1511, Bartsch 19). As in the side panels, Jacob takes delight in adorning the picture with distinctive details that lend the triptych great visual interest, such as the peacock feathers on the outsides of the Archangel's wings, the curling banderole with some of its inscription read backwords through the semi-transparent parchment, the crowded ring of angels supporting the nimbus of the Holy Spirit and the ships docked in the background, evocative of what must have been a familiar sight in the busy trading port of Lübeck, if not in landlocked Jerusalem. Several Italianate or classicising details reflect Jacob's interest, shared by so many artists of the Northern Renaissance, in developments south of the alps. These are the classicist ornamentation of the loggia-like setting, perhaps derived from ornamental stock prints by artists such as Georg Pencz (early 1520s); the architectural backdrop, which departs from Jacob's sometime practice of using the Gothic skyline of Utrecht as a setting for Biblical events in favour of a piazza with buildings reminiscent of fifteenth-century Italian civic architecture; and, at lower right, the vase holding the lily symbolic of the Virgin's purity, which seems to be based on an Italian maiolica original of 1520-1530, possibly Deruta ware. The depiction of maiolica in Northern painting of the period is rare (one other example is an Annunciation by the Master of Flemalle, after 1500; Cassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister), but Italian pottery was much traded along the Hanseatic routes. The inclusion of such up-to-date details as the most recent pottery and fashionable classical ornament illustrate Jacob's keen awareness of the international currents in Renaissance art, and the desire of his patrons to claim indicate their allegiance to the new artistic and intellectual movement. The wings are also rich with engaging, playful or inventive details, many of them Flemish rather than Italianate in character. Saint Catherine, whose smiling, attractive face is one of the only two--with that of Saint Matthew--to gaze directly at the viewer, is dressed in a gown of rich brocade cloth, holding a manuscript book accurately painted to show the ruled lines blocking off a section of text; behind her, the watermill with a grain storage tower alludes both to the wheel which was the failed instrument of her martyrdom and, perhaps, to the grain warehouse which were a familiar site in many Hanseatic cities, and possibly one source of the family's wealth. The grasses at the feet of the saints and donors in both wings are painted with clear differntiation; Müller-Hauck has discussed the symbolism of certain plants in Jacob's work, as transmitted to us by sixteenth-century illustrated botanical books (op. cit., p. 101).
By 1785 the triptych was in Denmark, where it belonged to Count Otto Thott. Thott had formed the largest Danish art collections of its time, numbering over 3,000 pictures at his palace in Copenhagen (now the French embassy) and his country house on Gaunø island, which he had restored and rebuilt in 1755 partly to accomodate the paintings he had collected since his youth. Although partly dispersed in a posthumous sale in 1787, a core of the collection, including the triptych, remained at Gaunø until a notable sale in the Rooms on 2 July 1976, including works by Cornelisz. van Haarlem, Willem Claesz. Heda, Jacob van Ruisdael, Snyders, Bartholomeus van der Helst, Jacob Backer, Pieter Wtewael, Watteau and others. Thott was a remarkable figure of the Danish Enlightenment; in addition to his public career as minister of state and his collecting of pictures, he achieved distinction as a bibliophile, becoming one of the greatest Danish private book collectors of his time. Having acquired most of the books of Edward Harley, 2nd Earl of Oxford, Count Otto amassed a library of 138,000 volumes by the time of his death in 1785; 4,154 manuscripts and 6,159 early printed books, including 1,500 volumes of incunabula, were given to the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen.