This exceptionally well-preserved triptych would have been an important commission for the Master of the Antwerp Adoration, an anonymous artist active during the first decades of the 16th century. The master clearly lavished his attention on this large-scale painting, inventing unusual imagery and filling it with opulent details. The artist’s name is taken from a small triptych of The Adoration of the Magi in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting: The Antwerp Mannerists: Adriaen Isenbrandt, XI, Leyden and Brussels, 1974, pp. 26-8, pls. 52-61), which served as the basis upon which Max J. Friedländer first attempted to assemble the painter’s oeuvre. He is associated with a group of largely anonymous artists active in the early 16th century who today are collectively known as the Antwerp Mannerists. These painters combined traditional Flemish naturalism with exuberant decorative details – especially in the form of fantastic costumes – and capricious, often Italianate, architectural inventions. By this time, Antwerp had become Europe’s preeminent financial capital, having replaced Bruges, whose port had silted up at the end of the 15th century. Along with international banking houses, merchants and financiers converged there from all over Europe, Africa and the East to capitalise on the commerce of costly spices, metalwork, finished cloth and other luxurious goods. Bustling with exotic foreigners, valuable wares and other wonders, Antwerp offered a fertile ground for artists in search of inspiration and a lucrative market for their creations.
Exterior panels on sixteenth-century triptychs, in the rare cases when they have not been separated from their original supports, are often in extremely poor condition due to their liturgical use and greater exposure relative to the more protected inner panels. The outer wings of this large altarpiece are not only distinguished by their remarkable state but also by their unusual subject matter. Most frequently, the outer wings of Netherlandish triptychs from this period were decorated with Annunciation scenes, often in grisaille. Here, however, the Master of the Antwerp Adoration has painted an astonishing scene of profound religious significance. At left, Christ and his mother appear in the foreground set against a vast, sweeping landscape that unifies the two panels. The Saviour holds his Cross and kneels on the Column to which he was bound during the Flagellation. A stream of blood from the wound on his side projects across the panel into a fountain on the opposite wing. The Virgin Mary kneels at her son’s side, echoing this action by expressing a stream of milk from her breast. At right, three angels fill golden chalices with the fountain’s holy liquid, which they pour over a group of tortured souls trapped in fiery Hell. Above, God the Father observes from the heavens, sanctifying the entire scene with the Holy Spirit, which descends along a beam of light in the form of a dove. The fountain, with its star-shaped basin, stone and gilt statuary, and extravagant architectural flourishes reminiscent of gothic reliquaries, may be recognised as the Fountain of Life (fons vitae), from which man’s sins are washed away through Baptism. In this case, its purifying powers are fuelled both by the sacrament of the Eucharist (Christ’s blood) and the spiritual nourishment of his mother’s milk. By the 16th century, the association of Christ’s blood with the Fountain of Life was well established, with one of the most famous examples being, as Justus Müller Hofstede notes (op. cit., p. 155), Claus Sluter’s Well of Moses at the Chartreuse de Champmol, Dijon (1395- 1406), which was originally surmounted by a sculpture of Christ Crucified so that as the fountain ran, the Saviour’s blood would appear to pour down over the mourning angels and Old Testament prophets into the hexagonal basin.
On special occasions and feast days, the triptych would be opened to display the poignant Crucifixion scene on its interior. The origin of the Eucharistic imagery encountered on the exterior wings is made explicit in the central panel, where three angels with flamboyant, agitated garments attend to the crucified Christ, gathering his blood in their chalices. Although the kneeling donors in the wings who witness this holy scene have yet to be identified, they were surely well-to-do since they were able to afford such a commission. The coats of arms presented by the angels at upper left and right bear the initials ‘G.C.’, and it is therefore tempting to posit that the donors were from Italy, since Saint James the Greater would be the appropriate patron saint for a gentleman named Giacomo. His wife would therefore be Elisabetta, as she is accompanied by Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, identified by her attributes of a triple crown (for her three states of virgin, wife and widow) and the beggar, waiting to be healed. The mountainous landscape that spans the three panels is populated with minutely rendered vignettes from Christ’s Passion. On the left wing, one finds the Agony in the Garden, with Judas just visible in the distance, dressed in yellow and leading a throng of soldiers to Gethsemane. In the central panel, the magnificent walls of Jerusalem, conceived in cool blue tones used to convey atmospheric perspective, serves as the backdrop for a winding procession, with the episode of Christ carrying the Cross and taunted by his tormentors appearing between the Magdalene and Saint John. The Deposition and the suicide of Judas are portrayed above Saint John’s head, while the Entombment appears behind him. The right wing features events following the Crucifixion, namely the Resurrection and Christ appearing to the Magdalene (Noli me tangere).
Though previously thought to be by the Master of the Von Groote Adoration, another Antwerp Mannerist contemporary to The Master of the Antwerp Adoration, and more recently, by Jan van Dornike (J. Müller Hofstede, op. cit.), Peter van den Brink has endorsed the current attribution on the basis of first-hand observation. He stresses that this work is by the artist’s own hand, without significant workshop participation, as evidenced by the overall high quality of the picture’s execution. Examination of the triptych’s underdrawing confirms this assessment. Overall, the underdrawing is freely applied in a wet medium characteristic of paintings produced in Antwerp at this time. The Master blocked out several passages of the drapery with hatching, but in general these are only used as guidelines. Changes to the composition are visible in several areas, such as the Virgin’s face on the exterior left wing (fig. 1), Saint James’s staff, the crippled beggar’s arm, and the female donor’s face. Yet even more telling are the passages in the underdrawing that are left unresolved or only summarily sketched out, such as the angels’ wings (fig. 2) and God the Father with the clouds parting around him on the exterior panels, as well as the majority of the landscape and architectural details throughout the triptych. These cursorily drafted areas indicate a freedom of design that, together with the overall confidence and masterful handling of their painted execution, indicate that the Master of the Antwerp Adoration painted the triptych in its entirety, for it would be most unusual for him to leave such compositional decisions to his assistants. Van den Brink further remarks that a similar underdrawing to that of the present lot may be seen in the Master of the Antwerp Adoration’s triptych of The Adoration of the Magi in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Notably, as Müller Hofstede observed (op. cit., p. 159), certain elements from the central panel of the present lot appear on other altarpieces from the period, attesting to the Master of the Antwerp Adoration’s compelling compositional inventions. The angel that appears at Christ’s proper right, sporting chalices in each outstretched hand, for instance, as well as the striking figure of Mary Magdalene, who wraps her body around the base of the Cross, appear in a panel attributed to Jan de Beer in Kolumba, the Art Museum of the Archdiocese of Cologne. These same figures appear again in the central panel of a triptych attributed to the Master of 1518, formerly in the Von Ferstal collection, Vienna (sold Sotheby’s, London, 16 December 1999, lot 6). Dendrochronological examination of the central panel of the present painting, which comprises three oak boards of Polish/Baltic origin, suggests a plausible creation date for the painting of 1518 onward (examination by Peter Klein, 15 May 2012).
We are grateful for Peter van den Brink for confirming the attribution to the Master of the Antwerp Adoration after inspection of the original.