The subtitle of the current Van Oostsanen exhibitions is: “the first Dutch Master”. He was not: artists such as Geertgen tot Sint Jans and anonymous Masters preceded him. Perhaps it depends on one’s definition of “Master”? Certainly Jacob Cornelisz was the first painter working in Amsterdam who is known by name and who left a substantial oeuvre consisting not only of paintings, but also of woodcuts, church vault paintings and designs for liturgical vestments and stained glass.
There is very little archival evidence regarding Jacob Cornelisz’ life. Our main source is Karel van Mander’s Schilder-boeck (1604), but even that tireless art historian (and painter in his own right) has to confess that he does not know when Jacob Cornelisz was born or when he died, although he remarks that the painter died “at a great age”. Jacob’s son, the painter Dirck Jacobsz, is better known to Van Mander. Dirck, he writes, died in 1567 at the age of approximately seventy. Coupled with the fact that he also notes that Jan van Scorel (1495-1562) became Jacob Cornelisz’ pupil in 1512 when the Master had a daughter aged twelve, it is assumed that Jacob Cornelisz was born around 1475.
Jacob and his wife Anna had four children: two daughters and two sons. The boys both followed in their father’s footsteps and became painters, although no works by the youngest, Cornelis Jacobsz have survived. Not much is known about the daughters although it is not inconceivable that one or both assisted in the workshop. We know from a document that Anna was a widow in October 1533. Taking into account the intriguing portrait of the painter which is dated 1533 (Fig. 1) and was presumably based on a lost earlier self-portrait, it has been assumed that he died in or shortly before that year. In that case the portrait would have been painted as a tribute by someone in his workshop, perhaps by his oldest son, the portrait specialist Dirck Jacobsz.
Karel van Mander informs us that Jacob Cornelisz was “of peasant stock” and wonders how Jacob and his brother, being of such humble origin, managed to become painters. Possibly the parents sent the talented boys to Amsterdam, Alkmaar or Haarlem to be trained. Haarlem seems to be the most likely candidate since it had an active painting school and indeed Jacob Cornelisz’ style is somewhat reminiscent of that of the Haarlem painter Geertgen tot Sint Jans (Fig. 3) in its abundant attention to detail and the stereotypical female egg-shaped heads.
He could also have studied under the mysterious Master of the Figdor Deposition who worked in Amsterdam or Haarlem or both, to whom today only three works have been attributed. Their compositions are similar as is the consistent use of dark contours (Fig. 2). It has even been suggested that the works of the Figdor Master are early works by Jacob Cornelisz which is a reasonable assumption because Jacob Cornelisz emerged seemingly from the mists of history in the year 1500 when he bought his first house in Amsterdam. Although, as we have seen, he may have been active in that city earlier, no works by him prior to that time are known with certainty, but to be able to afford a house on the prestigious Kalverstraat meant that the peasant boy from Oostzaan was already doing very well.
A recognisable style
Jacob Cornelisz’ style of painting is immediately recognisable: his paintings are filled with abundant architectural detail and ornamentation (Fig. 4). While his female figures show rather flat, stereotypical faces, his male figures are rustic with much attention to character. His paints are applied with a rather thick impasto so that the painted surfaces almost become tangible. It is possible that he used tempera as a binding agent and indeed the tangibility of his paint is reminiscent of the tempera technique, which is a fast drying medium. His meticulousness and obvious joy in abundant minute detail, particularly in his rich brocades of garments (Fig. 5) and architectural decorations, could point to his having been trained as a miniaturist, but there is no evidence of this. His underdrawings are precise and detailed, indicative of his work as a printmaker which is also evident in the careful delineations of his figures; rather as if he were drawing in paint. From 1523 his painting style changed radically: he dismissed superfluous details, economised his compositions and his earlier subdued, even murky palette with saturated reds and bright green patches became much brighter.
The Master’s earliest painting known to us, a Noli Me Tangere (Fig. 6) dated 1507 on Mary Magdalene’s ointment jar, presents a problem because it is stylistically unlike any of Jacob Cornelisz’ surviving paintings. At the same time, however, the treatment of the brocades on Mary Magdalene’s gown is very characteristic of Jacob Cornelisz’ work. A clear indication that the painting was executed by Jacob and his workshop is the presence of a large plantain in the bottom right corner; the same plant returns on the bottom left of another early, but undisputed, painting: David and Abigail (Fig. 7). It is possible that the Master at this stage in his career was capable of responding to exceptional commissions by producing a highly attractive and competent painting, the style of which would, however, not be repeated in any of his later surviving paintings.
David and Abigail (Fig. 7; circa 1507-10) is a highly unusual painting, not so much for its style as for its subject. It tells the Old Testament story of David who, as pretender to the crown, had to flee for King Saul. When David and his troops crossed the desert, he sent to Nabal, a rich man, requesting to supply him and his troops with food and drink (seen top left). Nabal refused and David decided to wage war on him, but Nabal’s sensible wife Abigail set out to meet David, bringing him food supplies and gifts (shown in the main scene) and so preventing the impending conflict.
It is possible that Jacob Cornelisz derived the subject from an engraving by Lucas van Leyden (Fig. 8), but he gave it a whole new dimension by focusing on the interaction between David and Abigail. Both David and Abigail were role models at the time: David because of his courage and Abigail because of her female wisdom and determination. This and the high quality of the work, shown, for instance, in the reflection of David on horseback in the soldier’s cuirass (Fig. 9) seems to suggest that the painting was a private commission.
Jacob Cornelisz and the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altar
Several paintings by Jacob Cornelisz and his workshop point to the religious cult of the Eucharist that became important in Amsterdam following the Miracle of the Host that took place in 1345 (see previous post).
The small exquisite triptych of the Man of Sorrows (Fig. 10) that was shown at TEFAF this year has been lent to the exhibition. Last recorded in possession of a German art dealer in 1985-6 and recently rediscovered, it is as yet unpublished. The triptych is tentatively dated between 1507 and 1510 due to its similarity in treatment to, for instance, a Crucifixion in an American private collection. The Man of Sorrows triptych seems indebted to the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altar, a mysterious Master thought to have originated from Utrecht, who was active in Cologne circa 1475/1510. This is particularly evident in the central panel’s remarkable golden background with its subtly painted architectural decorations which almost literally recur in paintings by the Bartholomew Master, but also in the colour scheme. The triptych’s wings with their landscaped backgrounds correspond with the Bartholomew Master’s large Crucifixion in Cologne (Fig. 11) while the figures of the Virgin and St John on that triptych’s main panel are almost literal quotations from the Bartholomew Master‘s Deposition (Fig. 12) in the Louvre.
Some scholars suggest that the Bartholomew Master may have been Jacob Cornelisz’ teacher. The Bartholomew Master is thought to have settled in Cologne around 1480, but his earliest works, miniatures in the Book of Hours of Sophia Bylant (Fig. 13; firmly dated 1475 on one of its pages) showing the same sumptuous architectural scrolls as his paintings would, was executed in the Netherlands. This, however, would have been too early if we assume that Jacob Cornelisz was born around 1475. It is an intriguing thought though that Jacob Cornelisz might have trained in Cologne under this ingenious Master.
Both the small triptych and a penetrating small Man of Sorrows panel now in Antwerp (Fig. 14) are known as Andachtsbilder: small religious works used in private devotional practice as guidance in prayer and meditation on Christ’s suffering. Both were in all likelihood private commissions: paintings as small as the Antwerp Man of Sorrows were hung, for instance, by pious citizens on the inside of a fourposter bed, or by monks and nuns in their cells. We have already seen in Part 1 that Amsterdam was not short of monasteries and convents in Jacob Cornelisz’ time.
Wealthy Amsterdam patrons
We know that a small tondo of the Holy Family (Fig. 15; circa 1505-10) was bought, presumably direct from Jacob Cornelisz’ workshop, by Pompeius Occo (1482-1537) who lived diagonally across from Jacob on Kalverstraat, because (barely visible) the Occo coat of arms, a slightly later addition, can be seen hanging from a branch next to St Joseph’s head. The painter presumably had the tondo in stock and when Occo purchased it from the shop he had his coat of arms added. The rare motif of Joseph seen fast asleep is also found on Dürer’s woodcut of the Holy Family with the Dragonfly (Fig. 16) of ca. 1495. Both tondo and print show the episode where Joseph dreams that an angel warns him that he and his family should flee to Egypt to escape the impending Massacre of the Innocents.
Occo, whose large town mansion was called “The Paradise”, grew up in Augsburg and settled in Amsterdam as a representative of the Fugger banking house and business firm of Augsburg. An avid collector and patron of the arts, it is likely that Jacob Cornelisz became acquainted with Dürer’s woodcuts through Occo. Perhaps (though this is speculation on my part) Occo persuaded the painter to travel to Cologne, known at the time as Sancta Colonia, a major center for the arts, where he became acquainted with the Bartholomew Master‘s work.
Occo returned to the workshop several times: in circa 1515 he commissioned a triptych of the Virgin and Child with portraits of him and his wife Gerberich Claesdr with patron saints on its wings (Fig. 17). It is the most monumental commission Jacob Cornelisz executed for Occo and evidence of the special relationship between the artist and the humanist. Rather unusually the couple’s three children that had been born at this time are not included. In spite of its considerable size, the triptych was used as a home altar. It was bequeathed to the couple’s oldest son Sybrant in Occo’s will of 1532, where it is described as “his best picture of Adam and Eve”, which gives a clue to the iconography of the triptych. On the reverse of the wings Adam and Eve are shown and theologically the theme of the Fall of Man precedes that of the Redemption depicted on the center panel. The figure of Eve (Fig. 18) (and presumably the now illegible Adam) is quite literally copied from Dürer’s print of the Fall of 1504 (Fig. 19) which is further proof that Occo may have been responsible for introducing Jacob Cornelisz to the German Master’s work.
Jacob Cornelisz’ son Dirck, who came to specialise as a portrait painter when church commissions were waning and the new-found self-consciousness of burghers sought other ways of asserting their status, painted a portrait of Pompeius Occo in 1531 (Fig. 20), some sixteen years after the triptych. In it Occo places his hand on a skull, thus alluding to the transience of earthly existence. In his other hand he holds a red carnation symbolising the hope of eternal life.
The Heereman family
Jacob Cornelisz painted an exquisite small triptych of the Adoration of the Magi (Fig. 21; dated 1517 on the cornice) intended for private devotion and commissioned by the wealthy Heereman family. Which family members are depicted on the wings is not known: their coats of arms shown above their heads were overpainted with those of a later descendant. Possibly they are Peter Ghijsbertsz Heereman and his first wife. When the wings were painted the couple had six sons and seven daughters who are visible behind their parents. Two of the children, a boy and a girl, had died young judging from the white shrouds they are wearing. The husband and wife are accompanied by Saint Catherine, recognisable by her sword, and Saint Jerome with his lion.
Unusual for Jacob Cornelisz is that the architecture in the central panel is not continued on the wings which could mean that the latter were commissioned slightly later. It was quite usual for patrons to select an already existing panel with a popular theme from the workshop’s stock and commission wings with their portraits and patron saints at a later date; sometimes these would be painted by portrait specialists such as Jacob Cornelisz’ son Dirck, but in this case the stylistic characteristics and the underdrawing point to Jacob himself as author.
An undisputed highlight in Jacob Cornelisz’ oeuvre is the large panel depicting the Adoration of the Child with the Boelen Family (Fig. 22) now in Naples, dated “Anno domini 1512 facta”. Unique for this period is the sea view (or perhaps a view of the wide expanse of the IJ River, so important for Amsterdam’s economy) visible in the distance; an iconographic anomaly since Bethlehem, Christ’s birthplace, was not situated on the coast. The sea view refers to the destination of the altarpiece: the Amsterdam Carthusian monastery of Saint Andrew in Safe Haven. A record of the donation has survived in the monastic records: “Margriet Boelen gave us a painted scene with the depiction of Our Lord and Saviour in Bethlehem, worth 50 florins.” Two of Margriet’s brothers were monks in this monastery; they are depicted on the left wearing white habits and pointed caps.
The panel is an exuberant celebration of the Redeemer’s birth. The tiny, slightly startled-looking infant Christ lies on a wheatsheaf, a reference to the Eucharist where bread is the symbol Christ’s body. Everywhere we see a virtual feast of little music playing angels (Figs. 23 and 24), a hallmark of Jacob Cornelisz’ workshop, but here in a jubilant exuberance and painted with an obvious delight almost unparalleled in his other works. The little angel holding up a music score is displaying existing music: a Gloria in Excelsis. The composition has been identified and has recently been recorded.
Margriet Boelen (Fig. 25), the donor, is not, as one would expect, the woman seated immediately to Joseph’s right: she is the woman in black kneeling behind her. Hers is a realistic portrait, as is that of her then only surviving brother Vechter Dirk Boelensz, here kneeling on the left with Saint Andrew behind him. The prominent man and woman kneeling in the position generally reserved for donors are their parents: Margriet Claes Heijnensdr and Dirk Boel Heinricksz. Both had been dead over fifty years when the altarpiece was commissioned. It was intended as a “memorial altar” (memorietafel), a testimony to their memory and an incentive for the monks of the monastery to pray for their eternal salvation. For their portraits, and that of Margriet and Vechter’s deceased brothers and sisters, the painter made use of model drawings which were kept in each painter’s workshop. Usually these were not original designs but copies after paintings or other drawings, such as the Three women kneeling in prayer (Fig. 26), a drawing from Jacob Cornelisz’ workshop.
Quality and repetition
Judging from their painterly quality and artistic brilliance, the Master executed the most important commissions himself. Popular themes or admired works were repeated as accurate copies or free variations by workshop assistants of various talent and would be produced in different sizes and formats, according to a patron’s wishes. One of the most popular themes was undoubtedly that of the Virgin and Child with music making Angels of which many variations survive today, such as a version of the Adoration in the Boelen Adoration altarpiece (Fig. 27; circa 1512-15). In spite of several near contemporary overpaintings, this particular version is of such high quality that it is likely to have been painted by Jacob Cornelisz himself.
Two other examples illustrate how the workshop produced free copies after one of the Master’s “prototypes” (Fig. 28) of the same theme (see also the Occo triptych, fig. 17). A panel now in Rotterdam (Fig. 29) once formed part of a triptych that was dismantled after 1902. Infrared Reflectography revealed a gridwork in the underdrawing which was used to faithfully copy paintings while making it possible to enlarge or reduce the copy’s scale.
A triptych in Uden (Fig. 30) is very similar but more crudely executed and there is an even stronger difference in quality between the center panel and the wings. The donors depicted could be identified by their coat of arms as a couple from the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch: Joris Sampson and Engelke Coolen. The latter is shown with six daughters, three of which were deceased. The small son seen behind Sampson was also dead at the time of the wings were painted: a small red crucifix is painted above his head. Sampson must have bought the central panel on the free market and later commissioned the wings from a local, far less competent painter.
Two major non-private commissions that have survived are not included in the exhibitions: the All Saints triptych (Fig. 32) now in Kassel and the Saint Jerome polyptich (Fig. 31) in Vienna. The latter, dated 1511, made for an unknown couple, is without a doubt Jacob Cornelisz’ most ambitious work and exceptional for the Northern Netherlands in its scope. When closed, it depicts the Mass of Saint Gregory. The first set of inner wings show eight Saints, while the second set depicts three Fathers of the Church and three Apostles.
In the center panel an unknown couple is kneeling before Saint Jerome with their two daughters. One of the daughters wears a white shroud meaning that she died before 1511. Intriguingly, the polyptich is documented as being located in St Mary’s Church in Stendal, Germany, from 1541 to 1627. Could it have been commissioned by a wealthy German couple, perhaps through the intervention of Pompeius Occo? This seems illogical since the couple’s dress is typical of the Northern Netherlands. The Alteration of 1578 banned Catholic influential families from Amsterdam and many fled to Germany, but this polyptich was clearly transported there much earlier. Perhaps then it was made for a Dutch couple that had settled in Germany and again it is tempting to think of Occo as the intermediary for the commission.
Recent research has shown that the brocade pattern on St Jerome’s throne is almost identical to that painted on a pillar in Amsterdam’s Old Church, Jacob Cornelisz’ parish church where he and his family were eventually buried, but perhaps this is purely coincidental since the workshop made frequent use of pattern books and too little of the Old Church’s medieval decorations has survived to be able to tell with any certainty.
The All Saints Triptych (Fig. 32; 1523) is the earliest painting signed with the painter’s monogram. A prestigious commission, but unfortunately neither patron nor destination are known. It may have been commissioned for the high altar of the Old Church which was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, but this so far is speculative. The crowded composition with its bright colours seems inspired by Dürer’s Landauer Altarpiece (Fig. 33) depicting the Adoration of the Holy Trinity (1511), which was located in Nuremberg at the time; another intriguing indication that Jacob Cornelisz may have had more ties with Germany than has so far been assumed.
The All Saints triptych marks a dramatic change in Jacob Cornelisz’ style. From 1523 onwards, he economises his compositions and eliminates the abundant details so characteristic of his earlier work. In addition there is a distinct tendency towards a lighter palette and a more refined and delicate application of transparent glazes. The change may have been influenced by the presence of Italian Renaissance art in Amsterdam and by the return to the Netherlands of painters such as Jan van Scorel (his former pupil) who had spent several years in Italy soaking up its art and culture. It is also from 1523 that he signed his paintings with the monogram he had been using on his prints from 1507.
An example of Jacob Cornelisz’ late style is the intriguing Salome with the Head of John the Baptist (Fig. 34; 1524), dated and signed on the banderole above Salome’s head. Here, the otherwise ever-present architectural setting with its elaborate decorations has been abandoned and Salome wears a rather sober gown and a simple cap instead of a rich brocade garment. Research has shown that Salome originally would have had the same luscious long golden curly hair as so many other protagonists in Jacob Cornelisz’ paintings, but the painter opted for a more sober look during the painting process, thus emphasising the rather gruesome head of the Baptist, presented to the viewer in all its lugubriousness. It is tempting to think that Jan van Scorel, just back from his Italian sojourn, happened to stop by his former Master’s workshop while Jacob Cornelisz was working on the painting and that is was he who suggested the changes.
In later years, Jacob Cornelisz delegated the portrait business to his son Dirck, but there are two portraits we can attribute with certainty to the Master. A small portrait of the high-ranking lawyer and fiscal attorney Jacob Pijnssen (Fig. 35), portrayed at the age of 59 in 1512, was copied at least once judging from a near contemporary version recently auctioned in Paris (Fig. 36). It looks as if the copyist (who was a talented artist given the high quality of his copy), did not quite understand the intent of the composition. By placing Pijnssen rather tightly within the frame the Master achieved a subtle trompe l’oeil effect. The real frame and the painted frame within it seem like a window connecting the sitter with the viewer while at the same time creating a three-dimensional effect. By placing the sitter in front of the painted frame, the copyist spoils this effect.
Jacob Cornelisz’ portrait of the wealthy Alkmaar citizen Jan Gerritsz van Egmond van de Nijenburg (Fig. 37) exists in no less than four surviving copies. Thought to have been commissioned by Van Egmond around 1518, the surviving repetitions most likely date from around 1523 (Fig. 38), the year of the sitter’s death, and were presumably commissioned for (some of) his seventeen children. In all portraits the sitter is shown wearing a black beret and a gown lined with fur. In his right hand he holds what looks like a prayer nut (Figs. 39 and 40) which would have delicately carved minute religious scenes on the inside. Extremely costly, they were meant for private devotion.
Including a prayer nut in the portrait had a dual function: Van Egmond shows his wealth and status as well as his piety. Innovative in this portrait are the bridge and two houses in the background when other Netherlandish portraits of the period usually show a monochrome background.
The four copies are undated but it is presumed that the Rijksmuseum version, the most richly decorated, was the original and painted by Jacob Cornelisz himself. Here, the arch above the sitter is decorated with elaborate Renaissance grotesques while other versions show simplified decorations which are also found in the surviving sketchbook from Jacob Cornelisz’ workshop. They were presumably standard patterns used in the workshop.
The last great commission
Certainly one of the most prestigious last commissions was a large altarpiece for Saint Adelbert’s Abbey of Egmond (Fig. 41), dedicated to the 8th century local Saint Adelbert who was buried under the high altar of the abbey church. Founded in the 10th century, it was the largest and wealthiest monastery in the county of Holland in Jacob Cornelisz’ time. The abbey was destroyed in 1573 and the altar lost. It must have been elaborate: the surviving abbey archives tell us that in 1526, 1527 and 1528 a total amount of 225 guilders was paid for it which is almost as much as the amount paid for Lucas van Leyden’s Last Judgement triptych. Possibly, but not conclusively proven, the panel of the Temptation of Christ (Fig. 42; circa 1525-30) once formed part of this prestigious altarpiece (here shown before restoration).
A unique and bizarre painting
Completely unique in the Master’s oeuvre is the painting of Saul and the Witch of Endor (Fig. 43; signed and dated 29 November 1526). By that time Jacob Cornelisz’ was working in his new, Renaissance inspired style. The commission may have come from humanist quarters since it is doubtful that the painter devised its complex iconography by himself.
The Old Testament story tells how Saul, Israel’s first king, feeling abandoned by God on the eve of his battle against the Philistines, consults a medium in Endor who, at Saul’s request, conjures up the deceased prophet Samuel so that Saul can ask for his guidance. Samuel, his eternal rest disturbed, predicts a catastrophic outcome: Saul nor his sons will survive the battle. Shown on the left in the painting Saul can be seen consulting the Witch of Endor and under the arch of the ruin Samuel is rising from his grave. Behind him, Samuel and Saul are seen in consultation. In the distant background the battle against the Philistines is depicted. As the Witch predicted, Saul loses the battle and commits suicide.
While the Biblical story is the actual subject of the painting, the main scene shows a Witches’ Sabbath: the Witch of Endor, partly naked and surrounded by strange, Bosch-like creatures and satyrs, sits on a throne of owls (creatures of the night and therefore symbols of the devil) (Fig. 44) in a magic circle. She wields a candle as if it were a magic wand while she reads from a magic book held up by a satyr (Fig. 46). Above her a naked woman flies through the air sitting on an animal skull pulled by two cockerels.
At the beginning of the 16th century, that turbulent time between the old medieval order and the new humanism and Protestantism, the debate concerning witchcraft was topical and often depicted in prints. Jacob Cornelisz may have used prints by Dürer (Fig. 45) and Schongauer for his witch scene and possibly the forbidden book Clavicula Salomonis (Key of Solomon) (Fig. 46) since the texts displayed in the book held by the satyr are identical to texts in the Clavicula. The Clavicula Salomonis was a magician’s handbook the text of which, apart from Latin copies, has only been preserved in one Dutch 15th century manuscript. It has recently been suggested that this book may have been in Pompeius Occo’s extensive library and that the painting may have been commissioned, and its iconography devised, by him. With Occo being a church warden of the Miracle Chapel not far from his house as well as the patron of the beautiful Occo Codex with liturgical music to be performed in that chapel, it is evident that it was not witchcraft but the Christian moral message that was the real theme of the painting. As explicitly stated on the top banderole on the left: “Read Kings 1 [where it is] written [how] Saul surrendered to witchcraft. By disturbing Samuel in his death sleep he himself perished.”
While this is an extensive overview of the paintings by Jacob Cornelisz and his workshop it is by no means an exhaustive one. I nevertheless hope to have given a fair taste of the painted oeuvre of a late medieval Dutch artist on the brink of a new era who, while mostly conservative in his subjects, nevertheless offers a great deal to enjoy. If you will bear with me, we will turn to the prints, ceiling paintings, embroideries and stained glass designs in the next post.
The RKD database (the Netherlands Institute for Art History) contains several paintings by Jacob Cornelisz that were last seen just before or during the Second World War such as what looks to be a glorious Salvator Mundi (Fig. 47) in a black-and-white image from the Friedländer archive. I can only hope that, like the small Man of Sorrows triptych, it and others will one day turn up in private collections or at auction.
- All paintings are by Jacob Cornelisz (van Oostsanen) unless otherwise stated.
- The exhibitions on Jacob Cornelisz Van Oostsanen in the Amsterdam Museum and the Municipal Museum Alkmaar end on 29 June.
- A note on contemporary names: the addition of a “(s)z” (as in Dirck Jacobsz) means “son of”; the addition of “dr” (as in Claesdr) means “daughter of”.
- Literature: see previous post.