Early this year, I had the great pleasure to see a unique early 15th century triptych in the wonderful “Road to van Eyck” exhibition at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. It had only recently been discovered in an Italian private collection. Yesterday, the museum announced that they have managed to acquire it, it is their most expensive acquistion since 1958. I can well believe it. What makes it so unique?
Extensive research places the triptych’s origin in Bruges around 1410 and this makes it one of only 20 to 30 paintings from that period that have survived. Many were lost in wars, natural disasters, fell victim to the iconoclasm in the 16th century or were simply discarded when they fell out of fashion and favour. So from the point of sheer rarity, the triptych is unique.
Another element that makes it unique is the rare depiction of the embalming of Christ in the central panel. The scene is described in John 19:39:
“And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.”
The painting follows the imagery commonly used in scenes of the entombment of the period. The body of Christ has been placed on a slab, perhaps the lid of his tomb. He is embraced by his grief-stricken mother who is supported by St John. A sorrowful Mary Magdalene kisses his hand. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and two other men are using spatulas to annoint the body. Jars and pouches hold the fragrant herbs and the man sitting in front with his back turned towards us, reaches into a bag with what appear to be cloves.
The landscape shows a rock formation with a skull, bones and lizards, the latter visual reminders of that barren and destitute landscape and together symbolising Golgotha. In the distance, we can see the contours of Jerusalem. Below on the right appears to be the entrance of a cave: perhaps the cave where Christ will be laid to rest. A small white column that looks broken sits on the hill on the right, possibly a pagan symbol.
Why does this scene represent the embalming of Christ?
Nothing is certain, but a possible clue might be in the representation of St Anthony hermit on the left wing panel. Anthony is appealed to against infectious diseases, particularly skin diseases and various medieval hospitals were dedicated to him. One could imagine that a triptych showing ointment being applied, which is a soothing act of nursing and perhaps the only treatment the hospital doctors had to alleviate the sufferers’ pain, might appeal to patients: in Christ’s suffering, they would recognise their own. A telling sign is that although the triptych is overall in excellent condition for its age, the only place where there is significant wear is in the Christ figure. This may have been caused by countless people touching it to guide their prayers and to come closer to Christ.
Artistically, the triptych is of a very high quality. The depiction of St John the Baptist on the right wing panel is perhaps one of the finest in surviving works of the period. There is a convincing chiaroscuro and his gesture, pointing at the dead Christ and thereby engaging the viewer, as well as his posture with his foot elegantly stretched out, are as eloquent as is his facial expression. His tattered clothes are arranged in beautifully painted folds, particularly in the depiction of the hair cloth. The landscape as well as the architectural structure with its sculptured canopy and painted church-like vault are rendered with subtleness and finess. His attribute, the Lamb of God, leaps up to him.
In spite of its overall good condition, the triptych hasn’t survived the ages unscathed: the original frame has not survived and the panels have been reduced on all sides, though presumably only slightly. Only the back of the central panel still shows the remains of a gold layer as well as some greenish and reddish paint; the backs of the wings are completly abraded. But that is a mere trifle as there is still so much to enjoy in this unique little triptych.
- I am indebted to the catalogue of the “Road to Van Eyck” exhibition for information on the condition of the triptych.
- For the museum press release see: http://www.boijmans.nl/en/10/press/pressitem/405.