We are grateful to Peter van den Brink for proposing the attribution on the basis of photographs, noting the similarity of this triptych to one in the Palazzo Durazzo Pallavicini, Genoa (M.J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish painting, XII: Jan van Scorel and Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 1975, p. 90, no. 6, pl. 5). The central panel of the Genoa triptych is of almost exactly the same composition, showing Saint Francis of Assisi in veneration of the Virgin and Child, his face painted with an expression of introspective reverie. The pose of the Virgin and Child is identical, with the Virgin holding a pink and the Christ-Child raising His hand in benediction, and may be derived from a prototype by Rogier van der Weyden, appearing in a smaller version in an engraving by the Master of the Banderoles (circa 1480). In the Genoa tripotych, however, Saint Francis is shown with his hands together, receiving the stigmata from a vision of Christ in the distance, with the white dove of the Holy Spirit at upper centre; while in the present work Saint Francis's hands are raised in the orant gesture, and the sky is instead populated with a number of playfully painted birds. The landscape background in the Genoa triptych is occupied by a group of buildings, while that in the present work shows a procession of men and a camel wending its way through a rocky pass, probably intended to represent the Three Magi coming to venerate the newborn Christ--a motif often encountered in the backgrounds of altarpieces by the Antwerp Mannerists, contemporaries of the Magdalene Legend Master.
The side panels are also close in composition to those in Genoa, with a male and a female donor in the bottom register of the left and right wings, respectively. The saints behind them are different, and it is likely that they indicate the names of the donors or of other members of their families, a practice which Friedländer also finds in the Master's name piece, a now dispersed altarpiece (op. cit., p. 13). We are grateful to Philippe Palasi for identifying the arms on the versi as those of the Canizares family of Asturias; Jan van Helmont notes that the bordure chargé de flanchis is a blason typical of Spanish heraldry. These identifications indicate that the triptych was painted expressly for the Spanish market, as was the case with so much Flemish painting of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries--or, indeed, it may have been painted primarily in Flanders and completed in Spain. The word which appears underneath the oil gilding at lower centre and under the trompe-l'oeil marbling at upper centre of each verso of the triptych frame has been transcribed as 'guarnsair', and is an archaic version of the Spanish verb guarnecer, meaning 'to garnish, adorn, embelish, beautify, decorate, furbish, dress, deck array, trim, edge, border, plaster'. This would seem to be a rare survival of an instruction from an artist overseeing the design of the triptych to his workshop assistants, reminding them to embellish the frame. The fact that it is in Spanish may serve as evidence for the presence of Spanish craftsmen in the Low Countries, or more likely of the triptych having been sent partly finished to Spain, where local craftsmen may have completed the decoration of the frame and added the coats-of-arms.
This triptych is an an exceptional state of preservation, retaining its original hinges and providing an excellent opportunity for the study of the Master's underdrawing. Although such visibility of the underdrawing is usually an effect of the increased transparency of the pigments over time, it has also been noted that artists may not have taken particular pains to consider this artefact of the creative process, and that it may also have been intended to show through. The date 1533 at the lower centre of the central panel also appears to be original, and would extend the period of the Master's known activity by several years.