With his Judgement of Cambyses, Gerard David created the most gripping work in the Musea Brugge collection. He painted it for the Town Hall, where it was designed to serve as an exemplum iustitiae and to warn the aldermen – who were also judges – against unfair rulings. The diptych will certainly have fulfilled its role, as it remains seared onto the brain of every viewer to this day.
David and his contemporaries continued to be inspired by their predecessors, the Flemish Primitives, and remained faithful to their detailed and realistic style. Interest in the landscape grew, as is apparent in the Baptism of Christ.
Ambrosius Benson, who came to Bruges from Lombardy, first settled in David’s studio, and later became an independent master. Following on from the painting school of Leonardo da Vinci, he brought a style to Bruges in which powerful contrasts between light and dark – known as chiaroscuro –was much emulated. The gradual transition from light to dark is known as sfumato. This technique was employed by Adriaen Isenbrant and Pieter Claeissens I, amongst others.
This work shows the talent of Isenbrant as a portrait painter. Unfortunately, the subject of the portrait, depicted at prayer, is unknown. The saints would often provide a point of reference in the background. Here, these are Paul with a sword and Peter with a book and key: the commissioner’s patron saints. This is the right-hand wing of a triptych. The left-hand wing probably depicted Mary.
Alongside the year 1518, we can also read the name and age of the sitter: Paulus de Nigro, thirty-six. He was a Genoese maritime insurer living in the international trading city of Bruges. This was probably the left wing of a triptych, with a religious scene in the centre and Paul’s wife or a saint on the right.
Mary and Jesus are sitting on a sumptuous throne with Renaissance ornaments that reflect the latest fashion. The medallions depict scenes from the life of Mary, which are based on prints by Dürer. To the right is the Visitation, the Annunciation, and the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. To the left is the apparition of Jesus to Mary and her Ascension. On the pilasters, the Adoration of the Magi (left) and of the Shepherds (right) are depicted. The figures of Mary and the Child are based on a lost panel by Hugo van der Goes.
David was commissioned by the Bruges aldermen, who in that era were also judges, to paint this monumental diptych depicting the corrupt judge Sisamnes. To the left, he accepts a bribe and is arrested by King Cambyses. To the right is the punishment: Sisamnes is flayed alive. His skin is used to upholster the chair of his son, who succeeds him as a judge. As a warning to the judges to act fairly, this was certainly hard-hitting! Justice panels such as these adorned many a Flemish town hall where judgements were passed. David framed this ancient story in a contemporary setting, so that viewers could better identify with the scene.
Scene one is being played out at the top left in the doorway, where a judge is secretly being handed a pouch of money. He is corrupt! This leads to scene two, in the foreground, where the judge is being arrested. The man at whom the unhappy fellow is gazing is a king, as you can see from his splendid garments. The other characters are also wearing 15th-century clothing. Scene three, in the right-hand painting, depicts the judge’s horrific punishment, once again in the presence of the king. We see the final scene in the top right-hand corner of the right-hand painting: here the judge’s son sits on the seat of justice, he is the successor to his father. The chair is covered with his father’s skin.
The story that Gerard David painted was set in ancient Persia. It was known from Greek and Latin sources. The judge is called Sisamnes, the king is Cambyses. But the painter has located the scene in Bruges! We see the Burghers’ Lodge to the left and the town hall to the right. In early paintings, we often see ancient tales depicted in a contemporary setting. But here the location creates additional meaning, because this precious work once hung in the courtroom of Bruges town hall. The city commissioned the painting from Gerard David. Sisamnes’ horrible fate served as a permanent reminder to Bruges’ gentlemen judges as to what was expected of them: incorruptibility!
John baptises Christ in the River Jordan. At the same moment, the heavens burst open and God appears, saying: ‘This is my son’. In the background, we see the same John in two other scenes, preaching and introducing Christ. The beautiful landscape is a milestone in the history of Flemish landscape painting. David was commissioned to paint this triptych by the Bruges notary Jan de Trompes and his first wife, Elisabeth van der Meersch, both depicted on the side panels. On the outer wings we also see Jan’s second wife, Magdalena Cordier, with their daughter.
We are slowly moving away from the Flemish Primitives. By the early 1500s, the creator of this triptych, Gerard David, is one of their last representatives in Bruges. You will recognise the detailed realism in the expansive landscape of rocks and trees that unfolds across the panels, for example. You have already had the opportunity to see an example of a group portrait, with the donors and their family depicted on the side panels. And we have come to realise that many of these works depict religious subjects.
Here we see Christ, who is being baptised in the River Jordan by the man who announced his coming: John the Baptist. To their left, an angel is holding Jesus’ garment in readiness. Note the angel’s richly embellished robe. In the background, John is preaching and presenting Jesus to the onlookers with the words: “Behold the Lamb of God”. Above Jesus we see a dove – the Holy Ghost – and above that, God the Father. Together these make up the so-called Holy Trinity, one god in three persons.
Gerard David was commissioned to create this work by the man on the left and the woman on the right: Jan de Trompes was a leading Bruges politician, and Elisabeth van der Meersch was his first wife. They are accompanied by their patron saints: John the Evangelist to the left beside Jan, and Elisabeth of Hungary to the right beside Elisabeth. The couple had one son and four daughters. On the exterior wings we see Jan’s second wife, Magdalena Cordier, and their daughter. Mary Magdalene is presenting them to Mary and Jesus.
Enjoy the astonishing realism of the Flemish Primitives one last time, and the details of the trees, plants and flowers. Ultimately, the natural world was God’s creation, and therefore deserved to be depicted in all its glory. Gerard David’s triptych also represents a milestone in the history of landscape art.
The oeuvre of Ambrosius Benson is difficult to assess since just two paintings are signed with the monogram AB. Here, this can be seen on the stone to the bottom left, beside the date 1527. Jesus is accompanied by his parents and his nephew John. The dusky sfumato style of Mary’s face, the dark shadows and the sculptural figures betray his Italian heritage.
First, take a look at the bottom left-hand corner of the painting. On the stone are the letters AB and the year 1527. This enables us to determine the date and the painter of this panel: Ambrosius Benson, who along with Jan Provoost, is one of Bruges’ most important painters from the first half of the 16th century. The North Italian Benson settled in Bruges in 1518 and a year later became an independent master with his own studio.
Benson worked for both the city authorities and the open market. A painting like this, which depicts a much-loved theme, could be repeated multiple times. We see Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus and his slightly older nephew John, who announced Jesus’ coming.
Look at Mary’s face, which Benson painted in a shrouded, sfumato style. We are familiar with this from his famous predecessor, Leonardo da Vinci, amongst others. Benson came from Lombardy, where Leonardo also lived and worked for most of his life… The dark shadowy zones, the southern colours, the baby Jesus, the almost sculptural modelling of the figures, not to mention the composition, are all strikingly Italian.
Let us return to the stone in the bottom left-hand corner. There are only two paintings by Ambrosius Benson that bear the monogram AB, of which this is one. This work is therefore of vital importance to art historians, as it allows them to pinpoint the dating of his entire oeuvre and that of his studio.
We recognise Mary Magdelene from the jar containing the oil with which she anointed Christ’s feet. She was a prostitute, but Jesus defended her and forgave her sins. The Northern Italian Benson painted this popular saint some twenty times, sometimes with a jar and sometimes with a book. The marked contrast between light and dark is characteristic of his style.
This intimate scene painted in close-up responded to the growing demand from believers for human depictions of the Holy Family. Jesus wraps his arm around his mother’s neck and is taking a walnut from a bowl that Joseph is holding out to him. With charming panels of this kind, the studio of Benson, who hailed from Lombardy, garnered great success in 16th-century Bruges.
The subject of this painting, the Glorification of the Virgin, was often selected in Bruges during this era. Angels dispel the clouds, so that the Virgin and Child appear in an aureole of light above three prophets and two Sybils, with prophecies and predictions on banderoles. Benson regularly repeated compositions and motifs, such as the Sybils, which reappear in his work in different contexts.