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Netherlandish and Spanish Altarpieces in the Late 1400s and Early 1500s


All of the paintings on this tour were commissioned for Spanish churches or convents during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabel. The king and queen, famous for their patronage of Christopher Columbus in 1492, also unified Spain and forged strong cultural ties with the Netherlands, roughly present-day Holland and Belgium.

The painters, although employed by the Spanish court, were either born and trained in the Netherlands or had been influenced by styles and techniques from the Low Countries. As court artists, they worked anonymously to glorify the monarchy and the Church. Until research can establish the identity of an artist, he is referred to as "The Master" of his best-known painting.

Juan de Flandes, Hispano-Flemish, active 1496 - 1519, The Annunciation, c. 1508/1519, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.22

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Juan de Flandes ("Jan of Flanders") came from the north—and possibly trained in Ghent—but his entire reputation is based on work painted in Spain, where he served as court artist to Queen Isabella. The Nativity, The Adoration of the Magi, The Annunciation, and The Baptism of Christ, along with four in Madrid and probably others now lost, were once part of a single large altarpiece in the church of San Lázaro in Palencia. All would originally have been mounted in an elaborate wooden structure that rose high above the altar, filling the space around it—a Spanish style different from what Juan would have seen in the north. The primary figures are pressed close to the front of the picture plane and the recession of the landscape is simplified to increase legibility from a distance. Repetition of round mandorlas in several scenes gives rhythm and geometry to the overall surface, and vibrant colors intensify the luminous effect of the whole.

The backgrounds in paintings by Juan de Flandes are often enlivened with charming narrative vignettes, characteristic of works from the Netherlandish city of Ghent. Here, a young shepherd is struck with awe and wonder as an angel appears in a brilliant globe of light to announce the birth of Christ, while his older companion continues to doze. In the manger an ox and ass eat from a straw-filled trough, an allusion to a passage in the Book of Isaiah in which Isaiah prophesized even livestock would recognize the infant Jesus as their master. An owl perched on the crumbling stable—the deteriorated state representing a transition to a new world order—may refer to the darkness dispelled by Christ's birth.

Juan de Flandes, Hispano-Flemish, active 1496 - 1519, The Nativity, c. 1508/1519, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.23

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References in the Gospel of Matthew to the wise men who followed a miraculous star to the infant Jesus are minimal, but by the seventh century churchmen in the West had made them kings, set their number at three, and given them names—Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior. Juan de Flandes portrayed them as representatives of the three known continents—Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The Bible does specify their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and these were often invested with various meanings. The chest of gold, which the kneeling magus offers, was traditionally given to kings. A second magus, richly dressed, gestures toward an incense burner in the form of a tower; frankincense, used to purify the temple, might symbolize Christ's divinity. The African magus holds the final gift: a bottle of myrrh. As an ointment used to anoint the dead, myrrh could refer to the sacrifice the divine infant would eventually make. Note the kings' attendants in the distance, another of Juan de Flandes' lively vignettes.

Juan de Flandes, Hispano-Flemish, active 1496 - 1519, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1508/1519, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.24

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The Gospels relate that when Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan, he saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend toward him like a dove. God the Father then spoke, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Both appear within the round mandorlas that Juan de Flandes painted in many of the surviving panels of his original altarpiece.

Juan de Flandes, Hispano-Flemish, active 1496 - 1519, The Baptism of Christ, c. 1508/1519, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.25

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Ferdinand and Isabel became known as the "Catholic Kings" because of their religious zeal, offering the Jews and Moors the choice of converting to Catholicism or being expelled from Spain. Two paintings in the National Gallery, which depict coats of arms of Ferdinand and Isabel, must have been commissioned by or for the monarchs. Along with six pictures now in other museums, they formed parts of an altarpiece probably painted for a church or convent in Valladolid in north central Spain. The high quality of the altarpiece and its probable royal patronage have given the painter the name Master of the Catholic Kings.

The last incident of Jesus' childhood recorded in the Bible derives from Luke (2:41-52). Leaving Jerusalem after celebrating the Passover feast, Joseph and Mary discovered that Jesus was not in the caravan. Returning and searching for three days, they found the boy in scholarly dispute in the temple. Christ among the Doctors shows Joseph and Mary entering the synagogue at the right, while Jesus sits on a dais and thoughtfully places one forefinger on the other. The gesture, also used by the doctor in the foreground at the right, probably implies pointing out stages in a debate.

Deep space is skillfully indicated by contrasting the large scale of the foreground figures with the distant view of a town glimpsed through the door behind Joseph and Mary. The stained-glass windows bear the heraldry of Ferdinard and Isabel as well as of Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire. The Spanish monarchs' daughter and son were married to the son and daughter respectively of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1496 and 1497. Thus the altarpiece may have commemorated these dynastic weddings.

Master of the Catholic Kings, Spanish, active c. 1485/1500, Christ among the Doctors, c. 1495/1497, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.43

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Christ's first miracle, the transformation of water into wine, is described in John (2:1-12). Invited to a wedding in Galilee, Mary told her son that the family was too poor to afford wine. At the wedding table, Jesus raises his right hand in benediction, while Mary prays in recognition of the miracle. The governor of the feast looks skeptically into his cup, but the bride and groom lower their eyes in reverent acceptance of the divine gift.

The banqueting hall combines elements from Netherlandish and Spanish culture. The trumpeters in the gallery, the wedding bed, the servants in the distant kitchen, and the northern European town seen through the door and window show a Flemish concern for documenting daily life. The harsh, angular features of some male figures, the rich brown and red tonalities, and the costumes and serving vessels, however, are more typical of Castile. Hanging from the rafters, shields bear coats of arms suggesting that this scene may be an allegory on the marriage in 1497 of Juan of Castile, son of the Catholic Kings, to Margaret of Austria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor.

Master of the Catholic Kings, Spanish, active c. 1485/1500, The Marriage at Cana, c. 1495/1497, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.5.42

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The Master of the Saint Lucy Legend is named after an altarpiece—dated 1480 and in a church in Bruges—that depicts episodes from the life of Saint Lucy. The Flemish city of Bruges often appears as the setting for the master's paintings. His style is characterized by extraordinarily brilliant colors, intricately detailed textures and patterns, compressed space, and figures with oval faces that are restrained in expression. Several of his paintings have been found in Castile, suggesting that the Netherlandish artist may have spent part of his career in Spain.

This unusually large painting depicts a mystic glorification of the Virgin. Hovering angels, garbed in silks and brocades of every conceivable hue, attend a central image of Mary and surround a smaller, upper vision of her heavenly throne. On either side of the Virgin's head, singing angels hold musical scores of Ave Regina Celorum, a hymn beginning with the words "Hail, Queen of the Heavens." This splendid picture comes from the convent of Santa Clara near Burgos in north central Spain. Records suggest that the work was commissioned by an aristocratic constable of Castile whose daughter was abbess of the convent.

With a fusion of subjects, Mary, Queen of Heaven combines three sacred events from the legend of the Virgin. The Immaculate Conception, representing Mary's freedom from Original Sin, traditionally shows a "woman arrayed with the sun, and a moon under her feet" (Revelation 12:1). In this painting, sunbeams rendered in gold leaf blaze behind Mary's head and feet, and a crescent moon supports her.

Three days after Mary's death, seraphim bore her to heaven. The Assumption of the Virgin theme usually displays an open sarcophagus, but it is absent here. In place of the coffin is a serene and peaceful landscape that may refer to a commonly held idea that at the Assumption the world was cleansed by the Virgin's purity.

The third subject is the Coronation of the Virgin. Above her head the clouds roll back to reveal heaven, with God the Father and Christ the Son holding a crown, above which hovers the dove of the Holy Spirit. Mary's coronation is only implied here, since she has not yet risen to join the Trinity. With its overlapping symbolism, spectacular flurry of ecclesiastical robes, and flutter of iridescent wings, Mary, Queen of Heaven is the Master of Saint Lucy's Legend's most sumptuous and ambitious achievement.

Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, Netherlandish, active c. 1480 - c. 1510, Mary, Queen of Heaven, c. 1485/1500, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.13

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Renaissance Music

In addition to its radiant beauty and complicated theology, Mary, Queen of Heaven is an exceptionally important document in the history of music. The painting portrays Renaissance instruments with great accuracy, as they would have been played during fifteenth-century performances. In actual church services, however, so many instruments and choirs would seldom have been used simultaneously. In the group of angels surrounding the Virgin "loud" instruments such as horns and woodwinds would have overpowered the voices.

On the left side, starting in the top corner, an angel in white blows a tenor or alto shawm, a precursor of the English horn. Beside him, an angel in wine red robes strums a Gothic harp. A brass trumpet is held by the figure in lilac blue, partially hidden behind the angel caressing Mary's shoulder. Dressed in pure yellow, another celestial musician pumps the bellows of a portative organ.

In the top corner of the right side, an angel bows a vielle, an early form of violin. Next to him is a figure playing a soprano or treble shawm, a distant forerunner of the oboe. Halfway down the right side, an angel in cherry red plucks a lute, while, behind him, another shawm or woodwind is partly concealed behind olive green wings.

The vocal quartet serenading Mary holds music with legible scores. The sheet to the left, which gives the painting its title, appears to be a variation on a motet, Hail, Queen of the Heavens, by Walter Frye (died 1474/1475), an English composer whose works were popular on the Continent. The sheet music to the right bears the word Tenor, which would be the voice that carries the melody.

The gathering of musicians among the clouds most likely corresponds to fifteenth-century musical performances. The orchestra at the right comprises the "soft" instruments: three recorders, a lute, a dulcimer being struck by a light hammer, and a harp. To the left of the Trinity are two choruses. Each group has one music book, suggesting that their singing is antiphonal and polyphonic. The upper choir, composed of winged angels in white robes, may represent a children's chorus.

Master of the Saint Lucy Legend, Netherlandish, active c. 1480 - c. 1510, Mary, Queen of Heaven, c. 1485/1500, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.13

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