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.