Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (c. 1475-c. 1533) – (3) Prints, vaults, designs

A riddle

If his estimated year of birth is correct, Jacob Cornelisz was twenty-five or thirty when he purchased his house on Amsterdam’s prestigious Kalverstraat in 1500. Yet the first surviving prints and paintings from his studio are dated 1507. What had made the artist so affluent and apparently so successful in spite of any lack of extant work prior to this date?

A clue could lie in the extraordinary accomplished ornamental and architectural borders on his prints (see e.g. fig. 1). While in paintings the artist’s handling remained fairly conservative throughout his career, it was in his prints that he became a pioneer, abandoning the late Gothic style for innovative elaborate Renaissance frames fairly early on. Their sculptural handling, incised into the woodblock, may point to carvings on choir stalls or sculptural altarpieces.

Frame from a "Biblia Pauperum",  (1518-22), 21×36.2cm, Rijksmuseum

1. Frame from a “Biblia Pauperum” (1518-22), 21×36.2cm, Rijksmuseum

Apart from the main parochial churches, the Old and New Church and the Miracle Chapel, one should not forget that late medieval Amsterdam was home to no less than twenty-one religious establishments as well as a number of religious guesthouses for pilgrims, each with their own chapel requiring decorations. Today, practically none of these survive and if they do they have been so much altered over time that hardly any of their original decorations survive.

Choir stall reredos, Amsterdam Old Church, c. 1500

2. Choir stall reredos, Amsterdam Old Church, c. 1500

The choirs stalls of the Old Church (fig. 2), Jacob Cornelisz’ parish church, date from around the year 1500 and the surviving reredos, though mostly damaged, give an impression of what these carvings would have looked like. Because tools used in woodcarving and woodblock cutting are the same (chisels, gouges and knives), it is not inconceivable that Jacob Cornelisz started his career as a three-dimensional woodcarver or even that, like his more famous contemporaries Dürer and Lucas van Leyden, had been trained as a metal worker. While he did not sign any of his paintings prior to 1523, his woodcuts – just like the prints by Van Leyden and Dürer – consistently bear his mark, a practice most likely adopted from the world of precious metals (for an explanation of the mark, see here).

Innovative printmaker

While Dürer and Van Leyden worked both in woodcuts and in the relatively new technique of engraving, Jacob Cornelisz stuck to woodcuts throughout his career but within that genre he is unique in his production of series of large multi-block prints consisting of several smaller sheets of woodcuts. His first surviving printed series, the Life of the Virgin Mary (1507) (fig. 3), for instance, was made from seven woodblocks, the sections of which were pasted together to form a frieze stretching almost two metres in width.

Life of the Virgin plate 1: Gothic ornamental framework inset with two arched scenes below and two roundels above; lower left, Christ among the doctors; lower right, Wedding of Canaan; top left, Joachim's sacrifice being refused; top right, the angel of the Annunciation appearing to Joachim, 35x24.8 cm, British Museum

3. Life of the Virgin plate 1: Gothic ornamental framework inset with two arched scenes below and two roundels above; lower left, Christ among the doctors; lower right, Wedding of Canaan; top left, Joachim’s sacrifice being refused; top right, the angel of the Annunciation appearing to Joachim, 35×24.8 cm, British Museum

Series like these were made to adorn the walls of town houses, monasteries and convents, fraternities, hospitals and perhaps schools and would be hung or pinned onto walls unframed which explains why few have survived: after a number of years they would have been worn and torn and simply thrown out.

From the outset of his printing career, Jacob Cornelisz as well as his slightly younger Leiden colleague Lucas van Leyden, appear to have competed artistically with the most influential printmaker of the day: Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg in Germany, yet their approaches were very different as illustrated, for instance, in their renditions of the Betrayal of Judas (figs. 4 and 5).

While Jacob Cornelisz’ version (from his Large Round Passion series, ca. 1511-14) is based on Van Leyden’s Round Passion of 1509 in which the latter’s characteristic delicate handling and serenity prevail, Jacob Cornelisz depicts a dramatic and lively scene in a rather compressed, crowded composition, at the same time demonstrating his great love for characteristic heads also apparent in his paintings.

A fruitful collaboration

A number of the woodblocks for the Life of the Virgin of 1507 were reused in 1513 by the Amsterdam printer and publisher Doen Pietersz (ca. 1480-after 1536). Earlier scenes were cut from the woodblocks and expanded by Jacob Cornelisz to form a series of The Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary, complete with newly cut elaborate renaissance-style borders printed from a separate woodblock. We do not know when exactly the collaboration between publisher and artist began but they were to work intensively together throughout their careers.

Address of the publisher Doen Pietersz ("Dodo Petrus") and monogram from the "Credo", 1520, 15×12.5 cm, Rijksmuseum

6. Address and monogram of publisher Doen Pietersz (“Dodo Petrus”) from the “Credo”, 1520, 15×12.5 cm, Rijksmuseum

Jacob Cornelisz’ prominent and consistent mark on the woodcuts, however, probably means that he played a dominant role in the production process and guaranteed the quality of the prints. Pietersz would have been responsible for the administrative side of things: applying for privileges, contracts and arranging distribution. In 1516 Pietersz obtained the imperial privilege, intended to protect his books and prints from copyists, a privilege mentioned on Jacob Cornelisz’ reissued Round Passion of 1517 and the series of the Counts and Countesses of Holland (fig. 8). For the latter series, Jacob Cornelisz devised imaginary portraits such as he would have known from the wooden statues adorning the Tribunal of Amsterdam’s Old City Hall close to his home and workshop (fig. 7).

On 30 April 1520 Pieterz agreed a contract with the representative of the Archbishop of the Danish city of Drontheim to print a “prayer book of the passion of our Lord” in an edition of 1200 copies. Interestingly, Jacob Cornelisz appears as witness together with Pompeius Occo, the merchant and humanist we encountered in the previous post. Because of the untimely death of the Danish representative the book never materialised, but the event proves that Pietersz operated on an international scale and was also well acquainted with the influential Amsterdam intellectual elite of his day. Never one to waste good material, Pietersz went on to publish what may have been Jacob Cornelisz’ series for the aborted Danish prayerbook supplemented with a series of the Twelve Sybils by Lucas van Leyden in 1521-23 (fig. 9).

Sheet 6 from Scenes from the Life of Christ, Sybils, Virtues and Vices, by Jacob Cornelisz and Lucas van Leyden, 1521-23, 37.5x26cm, Rijksmuseum

9. Sheet 6 from Scenes from the Life of Christ, Sybils, Virtues and Vices, by Jacob Cornelisz and Lucas van Leyden, 1521-23, 37.5x26cm, Rijksmuseum

In addition, in 1523 Jacob Cornelisz’ Small Passion appeared in book form under the title Passio Domini Nostri, originally consisting of sixty-two woodcuts, later expanded with eighteen more. The book was commissioned by Pompeius Occo and contained Latin texts written by the scholar Alardus van Amsterdam: a fine example of the close relationships between a small circle of intellectuals in Amsterdam. Indeed, Occo’s house on Kalverstraat, not far from Jacob Cornelisz’ workshop, contained a considerable library and was a regular meeting place for humanists such as Alardus van Amsterdam. It is not unthinkable that Jacob Cornelisz and his publisher Doen Pietersz were frequent guests there too. Some of the woodcuts, such as Christ on Mount Olive in the Passio Domini Nostri (fig. 11) are of an exceptional artistic quality. For Alardus van Amsterdam Doen Pietersz also published the pamphlet Ritus Egendi Paschalis Agni for which Jacob Cornelisz supplied three woodcuts (fig. 10).

Workshop participation

Although there is no documentary evidence, it appears from discrepancies in the quality of the woodcuts that Jacob Cornelisz did not personally carve them all. While, for instance, in the Carrying of the Cross from the Life of the Virgin series (fig. 12) the draperies and the plants in the foreground have been beautifully cut, those in the same scene from the Large Round Passion (fig. 13) seem far more mechanical and less inspired. No doubt the Master entrusted a proportion of the work to collaborators (among whom his two sons and perhaps also his two daughters) in the workshop. The Master’s mark nevertheless guaranteed the quality of the prints.

International recognition

As we have seen, Jacob Cornelisz’ prints were first and foremost utilitarian in character. His large religious and educational ensembles were meant to hang on people’s walls and smaller prints, sold as souvenirs to pilgrims to the Miracle Chapel for instance, have rarely survived, unlike the prints of Lucas van Leyden which were eagerly collected. This does not mean, however, that Jacob Cornelisz’ prints were not internationally appreciated judging from the publication of some of his prints by Brussels publisher Joannes Mommart as early as 1513.

Ferdinand Columbus

14. Ferdinand Columbus

A unique document in this respect is the detailed 16th century inventory of the Spanish print collection of Ferdinand Columbus (1488-1539), second son of the explorer (fig. 14). Ferdinand’s private library in Seville contained 15,000 books and 3,204 prints and was one of the largest in Europe at the time. The print collection is now lost but the inventory tells us that Ferdinand owned a considerable number of Jacob Cornelisz’ prints, although he may not have been aware of the identity of the artist since he only knew him by his enigmatic monogram. The document is extremely useful for the reconstruction of print series that have not survived or survived incomplete such as the impressive series of the Holy Knights (1510) (fig. 15). Of this series Ferdinand possessed both the individual prints and copies mounted on scrolls which, the inventory states, originally comprising seven prints of which today only five survive.

The most impressive of the Holy Knights on Horseback: the Archangel Michael defeating a dragon. Also note the fine caligrapy and the Master's mark on the left, 1510, 38.2×25 cm, Rijksmuseum

15. The most impressive of the Holy Knights: the Archangel Michael defeating a dragon. Also note the fine caligraphy and the Master’s mark on the rock on the left, 1510, 38.2×25 cm, Rijksmuseum

Floris "the Fat" (detail), British Museum

16. Floris “the Fat” (detail), British Museum

Ferdinand’s collection, the inventory tells us, also contained the complete series of Fourteen Prophets from the Old Testament, produced as an extension of a Credo series published by Pietersz in 1520 (fig. 6). The Credo has only survived in a few fragments and of the fourteen Prophets today only five survive with their borders incomplete, but what a delightful series it is! While the ornate ornamental borders demonstrate Jacob Cornelisz’ inventiveness as a designer, the imaginary Prophets themselves are even more attractive, demonstrating the artist’s love of characteristic heads to its full advantage. The corpulent Prophet Hosea (fig. 17), in profile, reminds of the (also imaginary) portrait of Count Floris II, nicknamed “the Fat”, from the Counts and Countesses of Holland series (fig. 16) while the African Prophet Amos (fig. 18) testifies to the early presence of foreign visitors in Amsterdam. But undoubtedly the most appealing portrait is that of cross-eyed Joel with his wild hair, tall hat and almost cartoon-like wrinkled face (fig. 19).


20. The Last Judgment, Alkmaar, St Lawrence Church, painting on wooden choir vault, ca. 1516-19. Photo: Hans Verbeek

20. The Last Judgment, Alkmaar, St Lawrence Church, painting on wooden choir vault, ca. 1516-19. Photo: Hans Verbeek

The gigantic Last Judgment high up in the wooden vault of St Lawrence Church in Alkmaar (figs 20-22) consist of nine compartments. The paintings in the choir vault bear the date 1518; they were part of an extensive refurbishment of the church which had begun in 1470 and was completed in 1519. While a payment to Jacob Cornelsz’ brother, the painter Cornelis Buys, who lived close to the church, survives in the Alkmaar archives, the recent restoration of the paintings has confirmed the authorship of Jacob Cornelis. Obviously, he could not have carried out such an extensive and ambitious project on his own: his brother and both workshops would have been assisted.

The Last Judgment, detail, Alkmaar, St Lawrence Church, ca. 1516-19

21. The Last Judgment, detail: Christ in Majesty, Alkmaar, St Lawrence Church, ca. 1516-19

23. Alkmaar vault, detail

22. Alkmaar vault, detail: a soul rising from the grave

In the nearby village of Warmenhuizen (fig. 23) a similar vault, also depicting the Last Judgment has survived, thought to have been executed circa 1525. A third vault, in the North Holland city of Hoorn, was overpainted in 1771 and finally perished in an 1838 fire.

Towards the end of the 19th century the vaults in Warmenhuizen and Alkmaar were dismantled because of their deplorable condition and transported to the Rijksmuseum where they underwent invasive restorations. According to then prevailing restoration ethics, much was overpainted in the style and taste of that time. Eventually they were moved back to their original locations: the Alkmaar vault in 1925 (but due to lack of funds the vault could only be placed back in 1941) and the vault in Warmenhuizen in the 1960s. As late as 1999 the Alkmaar transept paintings, deemed lost, were discovered by chance in the Rijksmuseum depots. All have since been restored, the most invasive 19th century overpaintings removed, and can now be admired once again in situ.

24. The Last Judgment, ca. 1525, St Ursula Church, Warmenhuizen, detail: an angel conducts the blessed souls to heaven

23. The Last Judgment, ca. 1525, St Ursula Church, Warmenhuizen, detail: an angel conducts the blessed souls to heaven

Another surviving ensemble are the choir vault paintings in Naarden’s Great Church (presumably finished in 1518) (fig. 24) which were not executed by Jacob Cornelisz and his workshop but were based, in part, on his prints, in particular on his Large Round Passion of circa 1511-1514, reissued in 1517. For example, Naarden’s Betrayal of Christ is based on the same scene in the Large Round Passion series (see fig. 5).

25. Betrayal of Christ, Great Church, Naarden, 1518 (see fig. ....)

24. Betrayal of Christ (top), Great Church, Naarden, 1518 (see also fig. 5)

Designs for liturgical vestments and stained glass


Small round stained glass windows (roundels) form an important part of the art of the Northern and Southern Netherlands at the end of the 15th and start of the 16th centuries. Set in a larger, clear rectangular pane they functioned as decorations in convents, public buildings and the homes of wealthy citizens and Jacob Cornelisz and must have supplied designs for quite a number of them although due to their fragility not many have survived. A rare design by Jacob Cornelisz in the British Museum illustrates the accomplished and expressive style of the Master’s draughtsmanship (fig. 25).

26. Design for a roundel,  A messenger kneeling and telling Abraham of the capture of Lot and the meeting of Abraham and Melchisedek,; with camels, horses and figures in the landscape beyond,  pen and brown ink,   1487-1533, 22.5 cm (circular)

25. Design for a roundel: a messenger kneeling and telling Abraham of the capture of Lot and the meeting of Abraham and Melchisedek; with camels, horses and figures in the landscape beyond, pen and brown ink, 1487-1533, 22.5 cm (circular)

One of the surviving small roundels, perhaps not after an original design but a reworking of a scene from a print from the Large Round Passion shows the Resurrection (fig. 26 and 27). Jacob Cornelisz’ woodcut is characteristically crowded and full of dynamic movement. The accomplished glass artist simplified the composition so that more daylight would filter through the glass, enlarged the city in the distance and gave the three Maries a more prominent position. There is no proof of this but it might be conceivable that Jacob Cornelisz supplied the glass painter with his design for the woodcut


Designs and prints by Jacob Cornelisz’ and his workshop were also used for embroideries on liturgical vestments. Traditionally these were made of silk, velvet or gold brocade and could be extremely expensive, especially when imported Italian gold brocade was used and gold thread was used for the embroideries themselves.

30. Baptism of Christ, (1520-30), 11x8 cm, Rijksmuseum

30. Baptism of Christ, Rijksmuseum

Specialist embroiderers, known as acupictores, would work from patterns, often based on prints or existing embroideries. For prestigious commissions renowned artists would be asked to design special patterns. Often a chasuble, dalmatic and cope are all made from the same material to form an ensemble, such as a surviving set originally from Hoorn (fig. 28) where Jacob Cornelisz also executed paintings on a church vault. On these vestment, the embroidered scenes, particularly that of the Baptism of Christ (fig. 29), greatly resembles the same scene in reverse in the woodcut from the Small Passion print series (fig. 30). Possibly Jacob Cornelisz received the commission for the embroidery designs around the same time as the commission for the now lost church vault paintings.

The final mystery

The exhibitions on Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen in Amsterdam and Alkmaar afforded a unique opportunity to gain more knowledge about a period in history that has been largely overshadowed by the art that was produced in the Golden Age a century later. In three accompanying posts I have attempted to sketch a more or less comprehensive overview of the work of this late medieval, virtually unknown and versatile, artist, his environment, the production process of his workshop and his relationships with some of his patrons and collaborators, however cursorily (see the entire series here). I hope you’ll bear with me if I return to this Master some time in the future.

For now, let me leave you with the intriguing lost painting of the Salvator Mundi (see also previous post) which has – understandably – not been given any attention in the exhbition catalogue. While the Salvator is only found on one surviving print by the Master as a half-length figure, he does appear in a posture and architectual setting eerily similar to the painting on an exquisite orphrey or decorative band from a liturgical vestment, one of a set of five double orphreys based on designs by Jacob Cornelisz (fig. 32). Would it not be wonderful if this intriguing painting, lost during the Second World War, one day resurfaced?


  1. All works by Jacob Cornelisz (and workshop) unless indicated otherwise.
  2. For selected literature, see first post in this series; in addition: C. Möller, Jacob van Oostsanen und Doen Pietersz. Studien zur Zusammenarbeit zwischen Holtzschneider und Druker im Amsterdam des Frühen 16. Jahrhunderts (Niederlande-Studien XXXIV), 2005.

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (c. 1475-c. 1533) – (2) the painter and his workshop

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.

Portrait of Jacob Cornelisz, signed with his monogram and the date 1533, 37.8x29.4cm,  workshop, Rijksmuseum (Photo MD)

1. Portrait of Jacob Cornelisz, signed with his monogram and the date 1533, 37.8×29.4cm, workshop, Rijksmuseum (Photo MD)

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


4. Abundant architectural decorations (detail from the Heereman triptych, see below). Rijksmuseum

Detail from Heereman triptych, Rijksmuseum

5. Brocade: detail from Heereman triptych, Rijksmuseum

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.

Early paintings

"Noli Me Tangere", 1507, 54.5x39cm, Gemäldegalerie, Kassel

6. “Noli Me Tangere”, 1507, 54.5x39cm, Gemäldegalerie, Kassel

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, ca. 1507-8, 87x67.5cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Kopenhagen

7. David and Abigail, ca. 1507-8, 87×67.5cm, Statens Museum for Kunst, Kopenhagen

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).

Man of Sorrows Triptych, c. 1507-9, central panel 35x28cm, Bamberg Senger Kunsthandel

10. Man of Sorrows Triptych, c. 1507-9, central panel 35x28cm, wings 35×14.5cm, Bamberg Senger Kunsthandel

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.

Bartholomew Master, Book of Hours of Sophia ..., 1475, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

13. Bartholomew Master, Book of Hours of Sophia  Bylant, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne

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.

Man of Sorrows, 23.7x15.9 cm. KMSKA Antwerp

14. Man of Sorrows, KMSKA Antwerp, photo MD

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

Pompeius Occo

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.

Virgin and Child with Pompeius Occo and Gerbrich Claesdr, c. 1515, 107x30cm, KMSKA Antwerp

17. Virgin and Child with Pompeius Occo and Gerbrich Claesdr, c. 1515, 107x30cm, KMSKA Antwerp

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.

Pompeius Occo by Dirck Jacobsz, c. 1531, 66.5x55.1cm, Rijksmuseum

20. Pompeius Occo by Dirck Jacobsz, c. 1531,
66.5×55.1cm, Rijksmuseum

The Heereman family

Adoration of the Magi with members of the Heereman family, 1517, Rijksmuseum

21. Adoration of the Magi with members of the Heereman family, 1517, center panel 84.1×55.2 m, wings 82.2×23.6cm, Rijksmuseum

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.

Margriet Boelen

The Birth of Christ with the Boelen family, 1512, 128x177cm, Museo e Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, Napels

22. The Adoration of the Child with the Boelen family, 1512, 128x177cm, Museo e Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, Napels

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.

The donor, Margriet Boelen. Photo MD

25. The donor, Margriet Boelen. Photo MD

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.

Three women kneeling in prayer, pen and brown ink with highlights, 19.9x11.4cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

26. Three women kneeling in prayer, pen and brown ink, white highlights, 19.9×11.4cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam

Quality and repetition

Adoration of the Christ Child, workshop variant of the "Boelen Adoration", 1512, Art Institute Chicago

27. Adoration of the Christ Child, workshop variation of the “Boelen Adoration”, 1512, Art Institute Chicago

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.

Virgin and Child with music-making angels, "prototype", c. 1512-13, private collection, US

28. Virgin and Child with music-making angels, “prototype”, c. 1512-13, 79×53.4cm, private collection, US (photo MD)

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.

Major altarpieces

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.

Saint Jerome Polyptich, central panel, 176x113cm

31. Saint Jerome Polyptich, center panel, 1511, 176x113cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

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.

All Saints Triptych, 1523, 88x55cm (center panel), 88x36cm (wings), Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Museums-landschafts-Hessen, Kassel

32. All Saints Triptych, 1523, 88x55cm (center panel), 88x36cm (wings), Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Museums-landschafts-Hessen, Kassel

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.

Albrecht Dürere, The Adoration of the Trinity (Landauer Altar), 1511, 135 × 123.4cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

33. Albrecht Dürer, The Adoration of the Trinity (Landauer Altar), 1511, 135 × 123.4cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Stylistic changes

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.

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, 1524, 71.8×53.6cm, Rijksmuseum

Fig. 34. Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, 1524, 71.8×53.6cm, Rijksmuseum

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

The Abbey at Egmond in 1638 by Claes Jacobsz. van der Heck, 1638, Rijksmuseum

41. The Abbey at Egmond in 1638 by Claes Jacobsz. van der Heck, 1638, Rijksmuseum

The Temptation of Christ, here shown before restoration, c. 1525-30, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum

42. The Temptation of Christ, here shown before restoration, c. 1525-30, Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum

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.

Saul and the Witch of Endor, dated 29 November 1526, 85.5x122.8cm, Rijksmuseum

43. Saul and the Witch of Endor, dated 29 November 1526, 85.5×122.8cm, Rijksmuseum

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.

Detail of the witch's owl chair and Bosch-like creature

44. Detail of the witch’s owl thrown and Bosch-like creature (Photo MD)

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.

46. Albrecht Dürer, Witches' Sabbath, 1498-1502, Rijksmuseum

45. Albrecht Dürer, the Witch, 1498-1502, Rijksmuseum

Satyr holding witchraft book and detail of owl chair

46. Satyr holding witchraft book and detail of owl chair

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.”

Final remarks

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.

Salvator Mundi, in the Goudstikker Collection in Amsterdam and exhibited, last noted in posession of one "Otto", 1941. Image RKD

47. Salvator Mundi, in the Goudstikker Collection in Amsterdam and exhibited by him in 1930, last noted in posession of one “Otto” (Friedländer notation), 1941. Image RKD


  1. All paintings are by Jacob Cornelisz (van Oostsanen) unless otherwise stated.
  2. The exhibitions on Jacob Cornelisz Van Oostsanen in the Amsterdam Museum and the Municipal Museum Alkmaar end on 29 June.
  3. 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”.
  4. Literature: see previous post.

Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (c. 1475-c. 1533) – (1) The other Amsterdam

There are currently two major exhibitions about Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen (c. 1474 – c. 1533), late medieval painter, one in the Amsterdam Museum and one in the Municipal Museum in Alkmaar. Countless art works from collections all over the world are on view, several have been restored for the occasion. In this secular age it is quite ambitious to stage exhibitions around a medieval artist whose repertoire consists almost entirely of religious works. What makes Van Oostsanen so interesting is that, although not essentially innovative, his work is representative of an Amsterdam forever lost to us: a catholic miracle city heading towards humanism and the Reformation, a city in a time of change.

Jacob War or Jacob van Oostsanen?

Karel van Mander, the invaluable “Dutch Vasari” describes the few facts he knew about a painter called “Jacob Cornelisz” (Jacob, son (zoon) of Cornelis) in his 1604 Schilder-boeck. Jacob and his brother, the Alkmaar painter Cornelis Buys, were born “of peasant stock” in the small village of Oostzaan north of Amsterdam.

Jacob War monogram

Jacob War monogram

"Jacob Waer van Ossanen"

“Jacob Waer van Ossanen”

Only in 1832 the connection was made between Van Mander’s Jacob Cornelisz and an artist who signed paintings and woodcuts with an innovative monogram: I WV A, whereby “I” stands for “Jacob” and “WVA” for “War van Amsterdam”. Unique in this monogram is that the W is inverted. The name “War” (Waer van Ossanen) occurs on a contemporary although not autograph label on a drawing by Jacob Cornelisz  which proves that he was a painter called Jacob War, originally from the village Oostzaan. Why then was his brother’s surname Buys? Although in the 16th century surnames were not widely used, children, especially those born in rural communities, were sometimes given important family members’ surnames. This would occur at random so that it was not unusual for two brothers to be given different surnames which were then indiscriminately passed on to the next generations. Jacob Cornelisz War, for instance, had a son whose last name was Buys. To keep things simple I will use Jacob Cornelisz instead of “War” or “Van Oostsanen”. The latter, after all, is a surname he would not have recognised.

Amsterdam in the late Middle Ages

The prevailing view we have of Amsterdam is that of the stately canals and imposing 17th century canal houses then inhabited by prosperous protestant merchants. At  the turn of the 16th century, however, it was an entirely different city, far more compact and dotted with churches and convents.

Birds-eye view of Amsterdam, Cornelis Anthonisz., 1538, Amsterdam Museum. The north, showing the IJ River harbour (where today Central Station is located) is below. In the center Dam Square. The conspicuous churches are the Old Church (below) and the New Church (to he right of Dam Square)

Bird’s-eye view of Amsterdam, Cornelis Anthonisz, 1538, Amsterdam Museum. The north, showing the IJ River harbour (where today Central Station is located) is below. In the center Dam Square. The conspicuous churches are the Old Church (below) and the New Church (to he right of Dam Square)

The medieval town hall before the tower was pulled down, 1615, City Archive Amsterdam

The medieval town hall before the tower was pulled down in 1615, City Archive Amsterdam

No images of the lost Amsterdam of the late Middle Ages have survived. Invaluable therefore is the bird’s-eye view map commissioned for the town hall from Cornelis Antonisz, grandson of Jacob Cornelisz., in 1538. The map, which is a technological masterpiece for that time, shows a compact city surrounded by a fairly recently built wall (1450) with five gateways giving access to it. At the heart of the city was what today is known as Dam Square, then known as Plaetse (place) where the town hall was located and the main market was held. Ships can be seen moored on the IJ River harbour. They would load their cargo onto smaller boats that would transport produce into the city, much as it is still done in Venice today. At St Anthony’s Gate (the only medieval gate remaining today, now known as the Waag or weighing house) just below the center on the left, sheets of dyed cloth can be seen hanging out to dry. Below it the ship building industry is illustrated and at the extreme bottom right across the river, just visible, we catch a glimpse of Volewijck where the gallows field was. The corpses of people executed on Dam Square were taken there to hang – their decomposing bodies a deterrent for sailors sailing up and down the IJ River.

The miracle city

Andries Boelen, anon. 17th c. copy, Amsterdam Museum

Andries Boelen, anon. 17th c. copy, Amsterdam Museum

When Jacob Cornelisz settled in Amsterdam is unknown but sources mention “Jacob Cornelisz painter’s house” (presumably a painter’s workshop) in the main street, the Kalverstraat, before 1500. Today an overcrowded shopping street with all the mainstream retail shops, in Jacob Cornelisz’ time the calves (kalver) market was held there. One thing that has not changed is that premises on Kalverstraat are still at a premium. It was here that Jacob Cornelisz possibly executed his first commission for the Boelen family: a 17th century anonymous copy of a portrait of Andries Boelen, a high-ranking Amsterdam citizen, may have been copied from a donor’s portrait on a now lost triptych by Jacob Cornelisz for the Old Church since at that time only donors on religious altarpieces were depicted bareheaded. Boelen appeared on a later altarpiece by Jacob Cornelisz as we shall see in the next post.

Jacob Cornelisz, Miracle of Amsterdam, hand-coloured woodcut with prayer, 1518, Rijksmuseum

Jacob Cornelisz, Miracle of Amsterdam, hand-coloured woodcut with prayer, 1518, Rijksmuseum

Fact is that Jacob Cornelisz. bought a large house (today’s no. 62) on Kalverstraat in 1500 where he and his family lived and ran a busy workshop. It was a favourable time for an artist to settle there. Amsterdam had become a center of pilgrimage following a miracle that took place in a house on that same Kalverstraat in the night of 14 to 15 March 1345. A dying man was administered the last rites by a priest but he was so ill that he threw up the host. Caught in a basin, the holy wafer was thrown in the fireplace where it was seen floating above the flames. A woman rescued it, placed it in a casket and sent for the priest of the parish church, the Old Church, who came and took the host back with him. The next day, however, the woman found that the host had returned to her casket. As with all miracles this repeated itself three times before the priest finally realised that God wanted the miracle to be made public and the host was then taken to the Oude Kerk in a solemn procession. This time it stayed. The matter was investigated by city authorities and verified and the following year Utrecht’s bishop declared it to be a genuine miracle.

The 1452 fire, engraving of 1639, City Archive Amsterdam

The 1452 fire, engraving of 1639, City Archive Amsterdam

Within two years a small chapel (Ter Heylighen Stede, In the Holy Place) was built on the very spot where the miracle had taken place. It did not take long for pilgrims to flock to the city in increasing numbers so that the chapel had to be extended. In a city with mostly wooden houses fires broke out frequently and two devastating fires in 1421 and 1452 completely destroyed the chapel which was rebuilt each time, finally growing from a tiny chapel into an imposing Gothic church close to where Jacob Cornelisz had his business. It was not so much the object itself, the host, that was venerated: through it God’s presence had manifested itself in Amsterdam and consequently every miraculous cure or event that occurred in its name showed God’s benificent intervention. The small wafer was a means, not an end.

Miracle Chapel "Ter Heilige Stede", seen from Kalverstraat, 1665, Stadsarchief Amsterdam

Miracle Chapel “Ter Heilige Stede”, seen from Kalverstraat, 1665, City Archive Amsterdam. Sadly the church was demolished in 1908

15th c. pilgrim badge showing the miracle, found during excavations not far from the chapel, Amsterdam Museum

15th c. pilgrim badge found during excavations not far from the chapel, Amsterdam Museum

Pilgrims brought Amsterdam its first economic prosperity: they had to be housed, fed and they bought souvenirs. It was not so much the host itself that was the subject of worship but the manifestation through it of God on earth. All miraculous cures that occurred in its name were regarded as miracles wrought by God himself. The fame of the miracle spread abroad and even illustrious pilgrims such as the Emperors Maximilian I and Charles V came to worship the miracle host (that is to say: a new one since the old one had disintegrated about six months after having survived the fire). The religious processions celebrating the miracle that took place twice a year gradually developed into festive pageants. They would include children dressed as little devils, musicians, actors performing short plays along the route as well as the usual priests and clergy. The processions would pass Jacob Cornelisz house on Kalverstraat, which is possibly why it came to be called Het Lelick Aensight (the ugly sight) since it became customary to hang devil’s masks from houses along the procession route. The name is not documented before 1568 though, over thirty years after Jacob Cornelisz’ death, but it is possible that the house was already known by that name in his time. The year 1500 had been declared a Holy Year and the Pope decreed that people who could not afford a pilgrimage to Rome could visit other designated holy places instead. In 1501 Amsterdam received this privilege, resulting in ever more pilgrims flocking to the city.

Miracle canvases

The "Mirakeldoeken" (detail), Jacob Cornelisz (and workshop?), c. 1515

The “Mirakeldoeken” (detail), Jacob Cornelisz (and workshop?), c. 1515, Amsterdam Museum, tempera on canvas

Detail after recent restauration, Amsterdam Museum

Detail after recent restoration, Amsterdam Museum

For the Miracle Chapel, the Heilige Stede, Jacob Cornelisz produced so-called Mirakeldoeken, miracle canvases. They are today incomplete and in a rather compromised condition, yet they are, because of their uniqueness, considered the greatest treasures of the Amsterdam Museum and indeed one of the greatest cultural treasures of the city. Their fragile condition makes that they are today rarely shown. The remaining eight fragments tell the story of the miracle. Presumably they once were hung in the Miracle Chapel where they may have served as a backdrop for the altar on which the monstrance with the miracle host was displayed. Executed in tempera on canvas it is likely that they were produced in haste and for a special occasion, possibly Emperor Charles V’s visit to the chapel in 1515. It would be safe to assume that the painter, then at the height of his career, would have been involved in decorating the chapel for this extremely important occasion. It is thought that the canvases were removed from the chapel and cut up after the Alteration of 1578. They were not rediscovered until 1845.

A booming business

It was a prosperous and busy time for a painter’s workshop: religious paintings were made on commission or sold directly from the strategically situated workshop to its more prosperous clients while the two major churches, the Old Church and New Church, the Miracle Chapel and the various convents would commission religious works as well as designs for embroideries on liturgical vestments and stained glass. Woodcuts large and small, in series or individually produced, supplied the ready demand for the less wealthy. Jacob Cornelisz’ two sons both became painters as did his grandson (the maker of the bird’s-eye view map). In 1520 we find his son, the painter Cornelis Jacobsz, living in the house next door that was purchased that year by his father.

Convent city

St Lucien's convent, situated on Kalverstraat opposite the Miracle Chapel and close to Jacob Cornelisz. workshop. Later an orphanage, today the Amsterdam Museum, image Amsterdam City Archive

St Lucien’s convent, situated on Kalverstraat opposite the Miracle Chapel and close to Jacob Cornelisz’ workshop. Later an orphanage, today the Amsterdam Museum, image Amsterdam City Archive

Pietà, c. 1440-1460, wilfully damaged during the Iconoclasm or the Alteration, found inside a coffin during excavations in the graveyard of the former St Gertrude's convent

Pietà, c. 1440-1460, wilfully damaged during the Iconoclasm or the Alteration, found in 1884 inside a coffin during excavations in the former graveyard of the former St Gertrude’s convent, Amsterdam Museum

Where there is a miracle there are convents and Amsterdam’s at first prospered. The first convents were founded in the 14th century; others soon followed. But with the population growing at great speed (between 1500 and 1560 it had almost tripled from 10,000 to 27,000), Amsterdam was soon bursting at its seams. The confines of the city walls as yet prevented the city’s expansion and the twenty-one convents and monasteries, which all had orchards and vegetable patches within their walls, occupied as much as one-third of the city. The religious communities enjoyed great privileges: they were exempt from paying municipal taxes and excise duties. They traded too: produce they did not consume themselves was sold, often below guild prices. In addition they were exempt from the County of Holland’s real estate taxes. These were levied on the citizens instead which created increasing resentment. Eventually, since their consecrated ground could not be disowned, the city magistrates resorted to depriving the convents of most of their privileges and their financial burdens were increased. One by one, the once prosperous religious houses fell on bad times. The 1578 Alteration during which the city once and for all reverted to Protestantism dealt them the final blow. Nevertheless, the magistrates were lenient: the nuns, monks and lay religious communities deprived of their homes received a generous stipend for as long as they lived.

A time of change and upheaval

Execution of Anabaptists at Amsterdam's town hall, 1525-1545, drawing after Barend Dircksz, Amsterdam Museum

Execution of Anabaptists at Amsterdam’s town hall, 1525-1545, drawing after Barend Dircksz (?), Amsterdam Museum

Jacob Cornelisz and his sons lived in a time of religious change that would affect the entire structure of Amsterdam society. Through the city’s extensive trading connections with Baltic and German ports, Martin Luther’s pamphlet nailed to the church door at Wittenburg in 1517 soon became known. Although the city was still under the rule of the catholic Emperor Charles V who had declared Luther’s ideas heretical, those who adopted them were still tolerated as long as they kept their practices private. As ever in Amsterdam, the city adopted a practical stance: it felt that religious unrest would only disrupt commerce. It was not until 1535, shortly after Jacob Cornelisz’ death, that a group of Anabaptists forced the issue by marching naked across Dam Square. They were condemned to death. That same year a group of Anabaptists occupied the town hall. Civic guards opened fire and in the skirmishes twenty-eight Anabaptists were killed and twelve were captured, condemned to death and cruelly executed. But although this insurgence was quenched, it was only temporary. The times were rapidly and irrevocably changing.

The other Amsterdam today

The modern silent procession n Kalverstraat

The modern silent procession on Kalverstraat

Did Amsterdam, with the radical turn to Protestantism in 1578, desert the miracle cult that brought the city prosperity in the Middle Ages? Not quite. Although today largely a secular city, the ancient miracle procession was revived in 1881 and has become an annual event attracting pilgrims from all over the country. The music and plays performed along the route in the Middle Ages have gone: today the pilgrims walk in silence. Some of today’s street names, too, still remind us of the miracle city such as St Luciënsteeg (St Lucia’s Alley), after the convent that once stood there, Wijde Kapelsteeg (Wide Chapel Alley), Heiligeweg (Holy Road) and, evocatively, Gebed Zonder End (Prayer Without End), where St Clare’s Convent once stood. And, of course, the art of Jacob Cornelisz which will be discussed in the next post.


Van Oostsanen, de eerste Hollandse Meester at Amsterdam Museum (Amsterdam), d Stedelijk Museum and St Lawrence Church (Alkmaar) until 29 June 2014

Selected literature:

  1. Daantje Meuwissen et al, Van Oostsanen, de Renaissance in Amsterdam en Alkmaar (exhibition catalogue, only available in Dutch), 2014
  2. S.A.C. Dudoc van Heel, “De schilders Jacob Cornelisz. alias Jacob War en Cornelis Buys uit Oostzaan; hun werkplaatsen in Amsterdam en Alkmaar”, De Nederlandsche Leeuw, 2011
  3. A.C. de Kruijff, “Gods mirakel machmen sien. Het Mirakel van Amsterdam in woord en beeld in de veertiende, vijftiende en zestiende eeuw”, Jaarboek Amstelodamum 97, 2005
  4. Kunst voor de Beeldenstorm, Catalogus Rijksmuseum, 1986
  5. I.H. van Eeghen, “Jacob Cornelisz., Cornelis Anthonisz. en hun familierelaties”, Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek, 1986
  6. Carel van Mander, Het Schilder-Boeck, 1604