(Amsterdam c. 1508-1575)
oil on panel
126 x 149 cm
Sotheby’s London, 13 July 1983, lot 20
Christie’s London, 9 July 2008, lot 135
Private collection, Europe
Lempertz Cologne, 17 November 2018, lot 1519
This recently rediscovered painting by Pieter Aertsen represents an important addition to the artist’s Amsterdam oeuvre.
Until about ten years ago, the painting was only known through word-of-mouth and a reversed black and white reproduction in an old auction sale catalogue (1983). The work itself turned out to be a well-preserved history piece. According to the dendrochronological dating of the panel it was painted around 1560, when Pieter Aertsen was active in Amsterdam.
The painting depicts the Final Judgement, in which Christ returns to Earth to judge the living and the dead. The Second Coming of Christ was predicted by John the Evangelist in the biblical book of Revelation. Saint John had a vision in which the Kingdom of God comes to Earth. From the 12th century on, many art objects featured representations of the Last Judgement which were based on the prophecy. This painting by Aertsen depicts a majestic Christ enthroned at the upper right of the composition. Presented to Him are a lily and a sword, symbols of Mercy and Justice. Below Christ, the Dead rise from their graves to be judged. The Archangel Michael can be seen weighing their souls on a scale. The fortunate ones are permitted to enter heaven at the left. The damned go to hell, represented here by a burning city. Mary and John plead with Christ for the mercy of damned. This particular theme was widespread during the sixteenth century, both in churches and in town halls.
For this composition, Aertsen applied a setup that was very popular with the artists of the time.
After the Iconoclasm of 1566, the subject of the Last Judgement remained prevalent for paintings in post-Catholic North-Netherlands. Such works no longer appeared in churches, of course, but were ever more so featured in town halls where the aldermen issued rulings of justice. The Last Judgement was regarded as an allegory to the aldermen who were obliged to adhere to impartial justice. Their souls, too, would later be weighed on Judgement Day. This work was probably also ordered for an aldermen’s chamber or a city tribunal. It has been suggested that Saint John's prominent position could be a reference to the city the panel was commissioned for. To date, no further research has been conducted on this matter.
Aert Pietersz, The Last Judgement, Panel 200 x 200 cm 1611, Rijkmuseum Amsterdam, inv.no. SK-A-2538
Pieter Aertsen was born in Amsterdam around 1508. His father, Aert Pietersz was a hosier. Because of his height, Pieter Aertsen was nicknamed Lange Pier (Tall Pieter) or Pietro il Lungo. Presumably he moved South at around the age of 17. He probably did not go directly to Antwerp but initially spent some time in the Maas area. In 1535, Aertsen was registered at the Lucas Guild in Antwerp. He wed Cathalyne van den Beuckelaer in 1542. Through this marriage he became uncle to the painter Joachim Beuckelaer, who was his apprentice.
Aertsen was acquainted with various other painters in Antwerp. It is clear that he occasionally borrowed elements and motifs from paintings by his contemporaries. Some of his work shows the influence of the now anonymous Brunswick Monogrammist, for example. For this particular piece, Aertsen may have found inspiration in Jan Sanders van Hemessen’s Last Judgement from 1536/37 for Adriaen Rockox, who was a ‘celebrity’ in Antwerp at the time. Not only the composition but also the color palette and several of the figures clearly correspond. In his 1604 publication, Karel van Mander mentioned that Aertsen was acquainted with Jan Mandijn and Jan van Amstel during his Antwerp years. He probably worked for Jan Sanders van Hemessen, who was one of the leading masters in the city at the time. Aertsen also produced independent work, although little is known about the artist in his early period of activity. The first major work known to us is the Triptych with Calvary, commissioned by Jan van der Biest in 1546. Aertsen painted a small number of extraordinary pieces depicting scenes from everyday life around 1550. Fine examples are the Peasant Feast (1550) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and the 1552 Egg Dance in the Rijksmuseum.
During the mid-1550s, Pieter Aertsen left Antwerp and moved to Amsterdam, where he presumably established a new studio with assistants. Aertsen, who had had considerable competition of other figurative painters in Antwerp, had developed strongly in the early 1650s as a painter of scenes with a prominent role for the still life and genre-like scenes featuring merry companies of peasants. By moving to Amsterdam, he apparently seized the opportunity to produce important, large-scale altarpieces. Unfortunately, our present knowledge of this particular category of artworks is very limited, since much of the work from this period was lost through the test of time or as a result of deliberate destruction during the Iconoclasm of the Northern Netherlands.
This Last Judgment was created around 1560. It is surprising that the painting originated during this period considering its composition, its color-scheme and the manner in which the figures are depicted in the cloud-filled sky. One would rather expect the work to date from the end of the 1540s or the early 1550s, soon after the 1546 Cavalry Triptych mentioned above. Around this time, Aertsen’s religious work often featured a multitude of small figures in the composition. However, our painting is also reminiscent of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen’s Worship of the Statue of Nebuchadnezzar, which was executed in the 1560s as well. Perhaps the patrons for these pieces were familiar with the artist’s early work and preferred that style. Or, Aertsen may have considered this manner of representation and composition more suitable for the themes at hand, despite the fact that his kitchen pieces already displayed larger figures at the time.
In 1611, Aert Pietersz’s son, also named Aert Pietersz, made a remarkable painting that is now kept at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Curator Wouter Kloek once described this Last Judgement, a composition within a circle, as downright old-fashioned for the 1600s. However, when we consider his father’s work, it suddenly makes perfect sense that his son would emulate such a style. Undoubtedly this painting, of which we have little information regarding the provenance, would have been produced for a Dutch city tribunal.
The theme and the setup of the composition coincide with Pieter Aertsen Senior’s painting. It is remarkable how closely the details correspond. For example, the motif of the female figure pulled by her hair on the right was apparently copied with much precision.
A panel with the same subject, sold at auction under lot 64 at Dorotheum in Vienna (23/24 June, 1992) as Studio of Pieter Aertsen's, makes it evident that the painting or its preliminary drawings for Pieter Aertsen’s workshop were known. Not only the woman pulled by her hair is depicted in the same pose here, the figure of John also corresponds in the rendition of his red robe and his pose. The figures of Mary at Christ’s left and the angel in green holding a sword at the right of the composition clearly emulate those in our painting as well.