JAN GOSSAERT
gen. Mabuse
Antwerp 1478 – 1532 Antwerp
Perimeter Flemish

1st half 16th century
Oil on oak panel
57 x 42 cm, with frame 68 x 54.5 cm

This museum-quality painting depicts Mary, the Mother of God, in a contemplative pose together with the playful baby Jesus sitting on a table in front of her. The scene is located in an interior room. Mary looks diagonally down to the left, while the child is depicted looking to the right. With the index finger of the right hand it points in the same direction, while the back of its left hand touches that of the mother. This intimate posture illustrates the intimate relationship between mother and child. Furthermore, the different viewing directions typically indicate the role of the Virgin as an intercessor, who usually turns towards the viewers. Here, the humanity of the child is particularly emphasized, who is depicted naked and has barely thrown on the enclosed cloth. The little feet of the child seem to kick merrily, whereby this clarifies the human-child aspect of Christ. Mary, however, is shown extremely thoughtful and introspective, probably already referring to the future passion of her son. She wears a luxurious gown with gold trim, as well as a velvety heavy overgarment draped intricately over her shoulders and arms.

The composition is probably a variation of the important late work of the Dutch Renaissance painter Jan Gossaert, called Mabuse (Antwerp 1478 – 1532 ibid), although the artistic execution, location and coloring are entirely different. The panel painting from 1531 can be seen today in the Cleveland Museum of Art (inv. no. 1972.47). Through research it is known that this composition, on the one hand, has strong similarities with two works of Albrecht Dürer (1471 Nuremberg – 1528 ibid.): with the drawing of the 93-year-old man from 1521 (Graphische Sammlung Albertina, Inv.-Nr. 3167) and with the painting of “Mary and Child” with the pear from 1512 (Gemäldegalerie Kunsthistorisches Museum, Inv.-Nr. 848). Furthermore, Mary’s veil draped naturalistically over her head is particularly striking here and may definitely be based on Gossaert’s work.

Unlike Gossaert, however, an interior with particularly concise shading is shown here with light coming in from the upper left. Furthermore, the coloring and modeling of the skin and fabric are different; these are particularly strong, bright colors that are further emphasized by bold contrasts of light and dark. This combination of dark undergarment with gold trim and red cloak can also be seen in other depictions of the Madonna by Gossaert. In addition, the image is characterized by sharp facial contours as well as blackened outlines of the textile. Interesting divergent aspects are also the child’s face, which is modeled less childlike and more kindly, as well as Mary’s looking down, turned away from the child, while Gossaert depicts his Mary looking at her child. This is a shift of meaning in the overall expression: both the changed direction of view and the location in an interior space make the scene immediately tangible, as if one were looking through a window into a house and finding the group of figures there.

These features – bright coloration and black outlines – are particularly typical of an artist whose name is unknown and who was given the emergency name “Master of Female Half-Figures”. The latter was active in the south of the Netherlands and in Antwerp between 1525 and 1550. His numerous unsigned paintings mostly show female, half-figure single portraits, whereby he enjoyed the favor of both ecclesiastical and secular patrons and thus oriented himself to various compositional schemes; most likely also to a picture type after which Gossaert also produced his work. This is therefore an important work by a master painter who was in the circle of Gossaert.