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The Sacred and the Sensual

Jan Gossart was equally adept at religious pictures and envelope-pushing scenes of sin.
By Paul Jeromack

Few Old Masters are as popular as the Early Netherlandish painters. Visit any major European or American art museum, and the corridors and rooms featuring the gentle works of Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling and Gerard David are filled with hushed, reverent admirers, faces as close to the protective glass as the guards will allow, drawn into a placid, cozy late-Gothic world. But moving along to the early 16th century, the paintings of Jan Gossart tend to give fans of the Flemings something of a jolt. When did Madonnas get so sexy, with plump cherry-red lips, sparkling eyes, cascading curls and ample bosoms? And when did naked Netherlanders get so buff and beefy? Gossart proudly proclaims that the Renaissance has arrived. Inspired and transformed by an early trip to Italy, Gossart revolutionized Flemish painting, imbuing his works with a muscular monumentality and tantalizing sensuality rendered with the traditional Northern technique of jewel-like, pellucid surfaces.

Gossart enjoyed considerable fame in his day and for several centuries afterward, but prudish resistance to his smooth eroticism caused his reputation to dip somewhat in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and American art lovers are largely unfamiliar with his work. That situation is sure to be eradicated by the Metropolitan Museum’s revelatory exhibition “Man, Myth and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance” (through January 17), curated and organized by Maryan Ainsworth, the Met’s curator of Early Northern paintings.

This is the first exhibition devoted to the artist since a small show at the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam and the Groeningemuseum in Bruges in 1965, and by contrast with these, the Met’s is one of the most complete Old Master shows ever mounted, featuring 54 of Gossart’s 60-odd paintings and, save for two or three, all his known drawings. “The last few years have seen a tremendous amount of new scholarly interest in the artist and his patrons,” says Ainsworth, “and scientific examinations of his painting has let to some remarkable, unexpected discoveries. It was the right time to give him a show he deserved.” Not one to do anything by half measures, she has written a new Gossart catalogue raisonné (the first in English since 1972) in conjunction with the show.

Despite recent research, little is known of Gossart’s earliest years. We know he was born in Maubeuge around 1475–80, and adopted the nickname “Mabuse,” after his home town, and set up shop in Antwerp in 1503. None of his paintings from this period have been identified, but the young artist must have made quite an impression, because his talents attracted the attention of the learned and pleasure-loving Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, who invited Gossart to accompany him on a diplomatic trip to visit the Pope in Rome in 1508. He tasked the artist with sketching and documenting the monuments of classical antiquity along the way.

Like most of his Flemish contemporaries, Gossart was aware of the modern Italian style through prints, particularly those by his German contemporary Albrecht Dürer, but it was only by direct exposure to Italian art that Gossart fully embraced the magisterial manner of the early High Renaissance. Upon his return to the Netherlands, he joined Philip’s court, which was characterized at same time by a learned and liberal humanism and by behavior that was, to say the least, counter to strict Catholic morality. Even after being named Bishop of Utrecht, Philip ran his court as if it were the Playboy Mansion, becoming as famous for his sexual prowess as for his exceptional erudition. Surrounding himself with beautiful young mistresses, the new bishop shocked the clergy with his cheerful diatribes against the “sin of chastity” while filling his living quarters with erotic paintings supplied by Gossart. Several of these are featured at the Met, including a Venus Admiring Herself in a Mirror, a panel of a seated Hercules and Denairia—their legs entwined in carnal eagerness—and a small Venus and Cupid with its original and unique two-part frame. The outer frame, bearing a moralistic admonition against lust, was on view when Philip received his more conservative guests, only to be detached once they had gone!

While Gossart was famed for his erotic pictures, the majority of his works are religious in nature. His regal, luxurious Madonnas feature the same juicy physicality as his Venuses, and often the curly-haired infant Christ behaves more like the infant Hercules strangling serpents as he sprawls fidgeting in his mother’s arms and sometimes gets tangled in her veil. Occasionally Gossart crosses the line between sacred and profane: A luscious Mary Magdalen with her Ointment Jar (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), seems to depict the saint prior to her repentance. Clad in velvet and jeweled ornaments while beguiling the spectator with a come-hither smile, she seems less Mary Magdalen than Mae West. The artist seems to have been temperamentally unsuited for large multi-figure religious compositions; when Dürer saw a huge (now lost) Passion altarpiece by Gossart during his visit to the Netherlands, he tersely noted that it was “superior in execution to design.” And yet Gossart was capable of devotional pictures of great dramatic power. His moonlit Agony in the Garden (Gemaldegalerie, Berlin) is suffused with a sense of oncoming dread, and Christ on the Cold Stone (Valencia, Colegio del Patriciaca) writhes in emotional torment. Here Gossart demonstrates what he learned in Rome—Christ’s muscular torso derives from the 1st-century marble “Belvedere” torso so beloved by Michelangelo.

Gossart was free to undertake commissions from other patrons, both noble and bourgeois, many of whom preferred pictures that were up-to-date yet with a somewhat conservative flavor. Gossart had no problem see-sawing back and forth between styles, going so far as to trace the heads of Christ, the Virgin and Saint John the Baptist from Jan Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece for a painting commissioned by Margaret of Austria for her own tomb.

Yet it appears even such a swaggering sophisticate as Gossart used a little help now and then. Aided by infrared examination of preliminary underdrawings, Ainsworth has identified several pictures that were long considered masterpieces by Gossart alone as collaborations with his exact opposite, the esteemed and conservative Gerard David of Bruges, whose sweet, demure Madonnas were popular with clients across Europe. The most notable example of this partnership, the “Malvaga” triptych (Galleria Nazionale, Palermo) features a Madonna and female saints by David with mischievous angels and outrageously elaborate late-Gothic canopies hovering above them by Gossart.

While Gossart’s erotic and provocative paintings, both secular and sacred, have unnerved several critics, no such reservations are attached to his portraits, which are as sensitively observed as those of his contemporaries Dürer and Hans Holbein. Ainsworth has gathered nearly all of them here, among them two depicting Bishop Jean Charondelet, one in a diptych from the Louvre, seen in almost trance-like prayer between an unusually tender Virgin and a wide-eyed, inquisitive Christ, the other as a serious, stout and finely-clad cleric. Ainsworth notes that surprisingly few of Gossart’s others sitters can be identified—apparently none survive of the libidinous Philip—and opinion is divided over whether two portraits of handsome bearded men depict the artist himself.

Two of the most captivating mysteries are lent from the National Gallery in London (where the exhibition travels after closing at the Met). A Young Princess with expressive, intelligent eyes holds a small armillary sphere. Lavishly attired with a snood and bodice outlined in pearls, she is probably no more than 10 and smart beyond her years. She is sharply contrasted by what some hold to be Gossart’s greatest (and perhaps most unexpected) painting, a double-portrait of an elderly man and his wife. He’s well-to-do in warm fur and robe, but his wife wears a dark robe, her head covered in a long white wimple. They are probably the grumpiest couple ever painted, their faces wizened and dour with no desire to crack even half a smile. One wonders both who they were and how they came to sit for Gossart. Indeed, they don’t look too happy about it—the missus, with small beady eyes and a slight turn to her head, almost seems to be muttering to her oblivious husband, “Why’d you hire this guy? I’ve heard he specializes in filthy pictures.”

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: November 2010

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