Jan Sanders van Hemessen
Christ as triumphant Redeemer
Oak, 77 X 58,5 cm
Provenance: Private collection
When this hitherto unpublished picture surfaced fairly recently, it had a rather different outlook (fig. 1). After some tests, however, it became clear that the original surface had been overpainted completely. After removal of the unusual amount of overpaint a different Christ emerged (figs. 2-3). And not only that, the original paint layer turned out to be in excellent condition, apart from some tiny losses around Christ’s mouth and along the seam between the first two boards on the left. The powerful rendition of the painted figure, its monumentality and wall power and the extremely convincing portrayal of Christ’s naked body points in one direction only. The picture was painted by Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1490/1510 – 1556/1579).1 Unlike many of his fellow painters in Antwerp, Hemessen was especially outstanding with nude figures on a larger scale, no doubt influenced by Italian contemporary painting he must have studied during a trip to Italy in the 1520s. Painters like Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto or Raphael must have had an enormous impact on the young artist, who, more than any other painter in the north, was able to transform his Italian models into a new northern vocabulary. A good example is the Last Judgement Altarpiece, dating from the late 1530s and painted for the Chapel of Adriaen Rockox in the Church of Saint James in Antwerp, where this spectacular triptych can still be seen today (fig. 4-4d).2 The large powerful nudes in the foreground on the center panel must have been groundbreaking at the time, so fundamentally different from Van Hemessens contemporaries, such as Bernard van
1 On Hemessen, Burr Wallen, Jan van Hemessen. An Antwerp Painter between Reform and Counter-Reform, Ann Arbor 1983.
2 Ibid., pp. 292-294, no. 17, figs. 71-74, 80.
Orley’s Last Judgement Altarpiece, finished in the mid-1520s for a chapel in Our Lady’s Cathedral in the same city, and now in the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Arts.3 The smaller figures in his large paintings, as in the Last Judgement Altarpiece, were not painted by Jan van Hemessen, however, but by an anonymous collaborator, known as the Master of Paul and Barnabas.4
Hemessen focused on the monumental, powerful nudes, often playing with exaggerated poses, taken from the great mannerist painters in Italy and Fontaineblau, such as Giulio Romano, Primaticcio and especially Rosso Fiorentino, as can be judged from Hemessen’s downright spectacular Judith with the Head of Holofernes in the Art Institute in Chicago (fig. 5) that is based directly on a model by Rosso.5 Dated by Burr Wallen to c. 1550, Martha Wolff recently discussed the possibility to match the Art Institute’s picture with the signed and 1540 dated Man of Sorrows in the Oberösterreichisches Landesmuseum in Linz, Austria (fig. 6) and therefore placing the Art Institute’s painting 10 years earlier.6 According to Wolff the two pictures, which are of similar size and have horizontally aligned boards, might have been part of the same series, including David as Christ’s Old Testament forerunner and a heroic Virgin, like the type on the reverse of the Last Judgement Altarpiece in the Church of St. James (fig. 4d).7 In addition, Wallen mentions a copy after the Linz painting in the Kunsthalle in Kiel, whereas Wolff refers to a second version of the Judith in the Bremen Kunsthalle.8
Neither Wallen nor Wolff was familiar with this recently discovered painting that was transformed so miraculously from a caterpillar into a colorful butterfly. The overpaint came off well, displaying a surface that must have been protected for more than a century and therefore in a pristine condition, apart from the fact that the original surface must have been slightly larger, especially towards the right and bottom edge, less so on the left, whereas the upper edge may actually be original. Our painting is most certainly not a copy after the Linz picture, although there are several parallels. A
3 Inv. no. 741-745.
4 Named after the key piece Saints Paul and Barnabas in Lystra, in the Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest, inv. no. 4315.
5 Inv. no. 1956.1109. See Wallen 1983, pp. 2, 107-108, 309-310, no. 36, fig. 121; Martha Wolff, Northern European and Spanish Paintings before 1600 in the Art Institute of Chicago, New Haven/London 2008, pp. 232-236, color image. With regard to the Rosso model, Wolff, ibid., pp. 235-236, fig. 2.
6 Wallen 1983, p. 299, no. 23, fig. 100; Wolff 2008, pp. 234-235, fig. 2.
7 On this iconography, ibid., p. 235.
8 Wallen 1983, p. 299, no. 23a; Wolff 2008, p. 236, note 17.
better indication of the original composition is given by a second version, no doubt a later copy, in the 1970s in a private collection in Paris (fig. 7). The size of that copy, 109 x 86 cm, may well have been the original size of our newly discovered Jan van Hemessen. The panel was recently examined by Prof. Dr. Peter Klein and the dendrochronological analysis of the oak boards points out that the picture was painted after 1541, later than the Linz picture, but more likely around 1547.9 That in itself is not really a surprise. Close observation of Christ’s right hand indicates that in the original lay-out the fingers were planned to be somewhat longer, as in Christ’s right hand in the painting in Linz. There can be little doubt that the correction is a great improvement, but it puts our picture most certainly after the 1540 dated Christ in Linz. A date around 1545 seems to fit the picture best.
Our painting was examined and documented with the aid of infrared reflectography (fig. 8). The IRR mosaic does not display a powerful underdrawing, but Van Hemessen never prepared his composition on panel that way. As could be seen during examination of the Last Judgement Altarpiece in 199510, Jan van Hemessen carefully applied the contours of his main characters with thin, hardly visible, contour lines, followed by the application of a layer of light-grey paint, the so-called “doodverf” stage, before painting out the composition in full. The same procedure seems to have been followed in our painting. It is highly likely that Van Hemessen made use of model drawings, although none of these have survived. It is fascinating that his collaborator for the Last Judgement Altarpiece, the so-called Master of Paul and Barnabas, prepared his smaller figures in an altogether different way, fully detailed, in black chalk.
Christ is not portrayed here as the Man of Sorrows. His self-assured upright pose, the presentation of his wounds a demonstration of His triumph over death and the heavenly light above him marks Christ as the Redeemer of the World.11 In all probability Jan van Hemessen’s portrayal of Christ as Saviour must be seen as powerful reference to the upcoming Counter-Reformation, already visible in the
9 See the report by Prof. Dr. Peter Klein of January 22, 2018.
10 The altarpiece was examined by Margreet Wolters and Peter van den Brink, assisted by four students, on May 18, 1995.
11 There are certainly other pictures where a comparable supernatural light has been used, as in the Salvator Mundi by the anonymous Master of the Mansi Magdalen, an artist active in the studio of Quentin Massys, now in the Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum in Aachen.
artist’s work ten years earlier, when he finished his masterpiece, the Last Judgement Altarpiece for burgomaster Adriaen Rockox in 1536-37 (figs. 4-4d).12
In conclusion, this recently discovered painting by Jan Sanders van Hemessen shows Christ the Redeemer. It must have been painted when Van Hemessen was at the zenith of his powers around 1545. Not much is known about the picture’s function, but it may have functioned as a counterpart of the Virgin Mary, a painting that is no longer known. Although the painting seems to have been cut on three sides, its pristine condition and superb craftsmanship do not allow to question its authorship to Jan van Hemessen.
Peter van den Brink
18 February 2018
12 Wallen 1983, pp. 84-88.