Jan Provoost came to Bruges in 1494: the year in which Hans Memling died. He was one of the many artists to be attracted to the rich artistic climate of the 15th-century city. Provoost assumed a prominent position in the Saint Luke’s Guild, the organisation in which Bruges-based artists and saddlers joined forces. Just like many other artists, he was probably also a member of a chamber of rhetoric, an association of amateur poets.
All of this is reflected in his art, which is characterised by many iconographic innovations, such as in Death and the Miser, a painting whose meaning is still obscure. Unprecedented compositions feature regularly in his oeuvre. For example, it is unusual to depict Christ’s crucifixion in a horizontal format.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, many artists travelled back and forth between Northern and Southern Europe. One of these was Frey Carlos, a Flemish friar who lived and worked in the Jeronimos Monastery in Évora (Portugal). The diagonal that divides the picture plane sucks our gaze to the right. This suggests that this narrow work was once the left-hand panel of a lost triptych with a Crucifixion in the centre.
During a celebration of mass by Pope Gregory, one of his bishops had doubts about transubstantiation, the transformation of the bread and the wine into the body and blood of Christ. To convince the unbeliever, Christ appeared on the altar as the Man of Sorrows, with his stigmata and the Instruments of the Passion. The scene was painted by an anonymous master from Brussels after an engraving by Israhel van Meckenem. It affords us an insight into how altarpieces were deployed in the liturgy in the late Middle Ages.
Catherine of Alexandria is one of the most popular medieval saints. She is often depicted with the broken wheel spiked with nails to which she was lashed. When a flash of lightening destroyed the instrument of torture, the decision was taken to behead her. Provoost based his composition on a woodcut by Dürer. This panel was originally part of a triptych, of which the Crucifixion now on display beside it was the middle panel, while the left-hand panel is held by the Museum Boijmans-Van Beuningen in Rotterdam.
Provoost probably made this Crucifixion for the Jerusalem Chapel in Bruges. This was the meeting place of the Brotherhood of the Jerusalem Pilgrims, of which the painter himself was a member. While his contemporaries would generally have painted Jerusalem from their imaginations, it is highly probable that Provoost had seen the city with his own eyes. His depiction to the left is based on his personal observations. Conversely, Constantinople, which is seen to the right, is far less accurately portrayed.
There are two moments from the life of Christ that have undoubtedly been depicted more than any others in historical paintings: his birth and his death on the cross. This teeming, theatrical crucifixion is by the Bruges-based painter Jan Provoost. It takes a little while to make sense of the melee.
In the background of such a crucifixion scene, it was common to show Jerusalem, the city in which the event took place. The striking thing is that Provoost’s Jerusalem, which can be seen on the left, was not painted from the imagination, as was generally the case during his era. He had almost certainly visited the city before painting this work, which he created sometime after 1505. This is no coincidence: Provoost was a member of the Brotherhood of Jerusalem Pilgrims. He probably painted this crucifixion for their Jerusalem Chapel in Bruges.
Let us begin on the left-hand side in the foreground. Here we see the grieving Mary, Jesus’ mother, and his pupil, John, exiting the scene, together with the two sorrowful Marys. On the far right, unsavoury, bickering soldiers are playing dice for Christ’s clothes. In the centre, Mary Magdalene is clasping the wood of the cross and weeping tears over Jesus’ feet. The horseman to her left is the blind Roman soldier, Longinus. He is piercing Jesus’ side with his lance to check whether he is dead. A drop of blood falls into Longinus’ eye and he perceives that Jesus is God. As this happens, Longinus suddenly regains his sight – according to a medieval legend, that is. In the background, the crowd of spectators is making its way back towards Jerusalem. At the top right, we see Constantinople, painted with a vivid imagination beneath a threatening blanket of clouds.
Jan Provoost was one of Bruges’ most important 16th-century artists. He received numerous commissions from the city and ecclesiastical institutions. Such as for this Crucifixion, which was probably the central panel of a triptych.
These are the closed panels of a triptych. At some point, the side panels were sawn in two. The inner sides are also held by the Groeningemuseum and can be seen on the other side of this plinth. The middle panel of the triptych has been lost. The import of this scene — a transaction between a moneychanger and a skeleton — raises many questions. It probably fits into the 16th-century tradition of moralising scenes that warn about transience.
These intriguing panels belong together. You are looking at the interior and exterior wings of a triptych. The large central panel has been lost and the two side panels have been sawn through the middle at some point. As a result, we now see the interior and the exterior at the same time. The painter is a newcomer to Bruges, Jan Provoost.
We recognise the scene on the two interior panels: the donors at prayer, whose names are unknown, with their patron saints. Beside the woman is Saint Godelieve of Gistel, wearing the cloth with which she was strangled around her neck. This is the scene that you can see in the background. Standing beside the man is Bishop Nicholas of Myra, while one of the miracles he performed is depicted in the background: the miraculous replenishment of the grain stocks in his famine-gripped city of Myra. The city in the background is Antwerp, with the dockside crane with which we are familiar from cityscapes, and the cathedral tower, which is nearing completion. From this we can date the triptych to between 1515 and 1521.
But what do the exterior wings represent? On the left, a money changer, seen in his office, points to his accounts book. He holds out a slip of paper to a skeleton and receives a few pennies in exchange. The skeleton represents death and some kind of transaction is being concluded. The letter is a debtor’s note, or IOU. We do not know the exact meaning of this, but the tone is clear: this is a warning about the transience of life. Paintings with this kind of message were common in the 16th century. The admonishing man on the far right is possibly a self-portrait of Jan Provoost.
Depicted on the inside of the panels portraying death and the miser were the commissioners of the triptych. They are kneeling and flanked by their patron saints. Although we do not know who the donors were, we do recognise the saints: Nicholas of Myra for the City of Antwerp, and Godelieve of Gistel wearing the scarf with which she was strangled.
This Last Judgement adorned the aldermen’s chamber of Bruges Town Hall. Provoost emphasises Christ’s role as a saviour by having him point to his stab wound, the symbol of his sacrifice. An interesting detail is that clerics not only appear at the gates of heaven, but also at the mouth of hell. This was painted over by Pieter Pourbus in 1550, after Charles V forbade criticism of the clergy. The overpainting was almost completely removed in 1956.
On 15 August 1551, the painter Pieter Pourbus delivers this Last Judgement painting. He then receives his final payment, and for his magnificent achievement the satisfied client gives him an additional tip. This customer is, in fact, the aldermen of the Liberty of Bruges, a large administrative area surrounding the city. This monumental work by Pourbus was intended for their courtroom. The Last Judgement served as a permanent reminder to the aldermen, who were also judges, of the moment at which God – the supreme judge – would decide their fate. With this in mind, they would be well advised to deliver fair judgements…
What do we see? A traditional yet innovative presentation of the Last Judgement. At the top, the dynamic figure of Christ is surrounded by saints. He delivers his judgement, ushering pious believers into heaven with his right hand, whilst sending sinners to the fires of hell with his left. The result is immediately visible on earth: graves open up and, to the right, chaos and panic ensue. To the left, the lucky ones ascend to heaven, helped by angels. To the right, devils are at work. Pourbus drew inspiration from figures such as Jan Provoost, who twenty-six years earlier had also painted a Last Judgement for the town hall of Bruges. This earlier work is also part of the museum’s collection.
We have described the depiction as traditional yet innovative. Yet anyone familiar with Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel will probably recognise the grand gestures and sturdy, muscular figures at the bottom, such as the man who climbs out of his grave by placing one foot on the ground. In 1551, Michelangelo’s work was just ten years old. Pourbus would probably have been familiar with the monumental Roman fresco from prints.
This justice panel is a copy loosely based on Jan Provoost’s Last Judgement, which is displayed nearby. Van den Coornhuse painted it more than fifty years later at the behest of the Provostry of St. Donatian, which was based in Bruges. The mouth of hell in Provoost’s painting was censured at the time, which is why this part differentiates the most. Amongst the saints in heaven we recognise, for example, Peter with his key on the left and David with his harp on the right.
In the background we see King David in his palace furtively watching Bathsheba bathing. His interest has been aroused and he calls her to him and assaults her. The real name of the Master of 1518 is not (yet) known. He was active in Antwerp at the beginning of the 16th century and is considered a member of the Antwerp Mannerists, who are recognisable by, amongst other things, their colourful and expressive style. This panel was part of a larger altarpiece depicting several biblical scenes.