At the end of April 2019, Musea Brugge were able to add a stunning acquisition to their core collection of Flemish Primitives. The panel painting is now undergoing further examination in the run-up to ‘Jan van Eyck in Bruges’, a major exhibition in the Groeningemuseum in the spring of 2020.
The panel painting depicts an enthroned Madonna and Child in an interior. The anonymous painter was inspired by various different works of Jan van Eyck for this composition, leading us to conclude that he had access to the workshop drawings of the Bruges master and may even have spent some time in his workshop in Bruges.
Examinations of the panel
Dendrochronological analysis of the oak panel suggests that the oldest tree growth ring dates from 1387. The panel may have been painted from the second decade of the fifteenth century onwards, during van Eyck’s lifetime or shortly after his death in 1441.
An unmistakable similarity to van Eyck’s work
Analyses have confirmed the close relationship between the new addition and Jan van Eyck’s works. The Child’s placement and the drapery of the Virgin’s mantle are similar to the original composition of the centre panel of Jan van Eyck’s Dresden Triptych, 1437. The romantic painter Eduard Bendemann overpainted areas to fill lacunas in the original paint, circa 1850. The original poses of the two figures – which thus correspond to the new addition – are known to us from a fifteenth-century silverpoint drawing from Leipzig.
The Virgin’s throne, which refers to King Solomon’s throne with the two lion statuettes on either arm, meanwhile, is similar to that in the Lucca Madonna, which van Eyck painted in approximately 1435. The position of the Madonna’s head, her golden locks and the blue robe under the red mantle as well as the pattern on the brocaded baldachin behind her are inspired by the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele in the Groeningemuseum, which Jan van Eyck painted around 1434-1436.
The panel shares several features with works that are attributed to the workshop or peers of Jan van Eyck: the stool with the metal platter and copper vessel on it, the books and vessels in the niche to the right of the Virgin or the landscape. This is the Ince Hall Madonna (Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria) or the Virgin and Child Reading (Covarrubias (Burgos), Museo de la ex colegiata San Cosme y Damián).
Moreover, material-technical examination, which was carried out earlier this year by Musea Brugge, has revealed that the underdrawing of the Virgin and Child is stylistically very similar to the fine hatching strokes that Jan van Eyck used in the underdrawing of the figures in his painting of the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, to render their three-dimensional relief.
In addition to the fine “Eyckian” underdrawing with a brush, the underdrawing under the landscape on the left and under the books on the right side of the panel is also very skilfully rendered.
Several changes (or pentimenti) in the underdrawing reveal how the anonymous artist altered his composition while painting, changing the position of Jesus’ head among others. The Virgin’s eyes, nose and mouth were originally positioned more left off centre.
The typology of the Virgin’s face and certain landscape details are reminiscent of South German painters. In all likelihood, this anonymous painter was originally born in Germany, moved to Bruges and was admitted to Jan van Eyck’s workshop in the late 1440s or possibly even after the master’s death.
Function and owners of this panel painting
The panel’s original owner is unknown and we have no idea what it was originally intended for. It was probably part of a small altarpiece for a private patron. The earliest-known owner was Lucien Bonaparte. In 1816, Napoleon’s brother sold it as a painting by Lucas van Leyden. A historical print in the auction catalogue documents the panel’s condition at the time, which had been partly overpainted by a later artist.
This condition is also documented in an early twentieth-century photo that is preserved at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA). In 1909, the British art historian William Henry James Weale, who lived and worked in Bruges and specialised in the art of the Flemish Primitives, first discussed the panel in the Burlington Magazine, attributing it to a collaborator or follower of Jan van Eyck.
Based on the reproduction of the painting in Weale’s article, we can conclude that the sixteenth-century overpainting had already been removed and that the top layers of the Virgin’s original head were damaged in the process. The painting was already in possession of the London family at the time, from whom Musea Brugge recently acquired it.