Artists of Northern Europe, Flemish primitives, Illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance

The Events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday through the eyes of the Northern European Masters

Maundy Thursday marked the beginning of the most solemn part of the Easter festival for the Christian Church and is also the festival of Passover in the Judaic faith. Services would normally take place in churches and synagogues, but in these days of Covid-19 the sacred places remain shut in order to contain the spread of this deadly virus. Thanks to technology, it is possible for Christians to join virtual services of worship, and for many of the Jewish faith to join family and friends via Zoom and Skype for the Seder meal on Wednesday evening that marked the beginning of the festival of Passover.

The story of Christ’s last hours has led to the creation of some of the most exquisite works of art and tell the story up . This post will introduce you to the works of the 15th and 16th century Northern European masters who are not as well known as their Italian counterparts. Through their eyes we see how they related the story of Christ’s life to their everyday lives and I am using the story as told by St Luke as he is the patron saint of painters.

Holy Thursday

The Last Supper, by Deiric Bouts (1420-1475) shows Christ and his disciples in a 15th century Flemish room. Christ blesses the bread and looks directly out at us. He is surrounded by his apostles, and there are several other onlookers including two who are framed in the opening of a hatch. The chandelier is an homage to van Eyck, but equally could be in the room that Bouts knew – perhaps it is both. Either way, there are no lit candles on it, just as there is no fire burning in the fireplace. Judas is seated with his back towards us and has one hand behind his back. No one is wearing sandals or form of shoe as Christ has just washed their feet.

The Last Supper. Deiric Bouts (1420-1475). St Peter’s Church Leuven.
Height: 180 cm (70.8 in); Width: 150 cm (59 in)

This is the central panel of a triptych in St Peter’s Church, Leuven.

At about 8 o’clock that evening, Christ, together with his disciples, to the Garden of Gethsemane. “And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. and when he came to the place he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” (St Luke 22;39-40)

About an hour later, Christ is betrayed by Judas and arrested.

But Jesus said unto him, Judas, betrayest thou the Son of man with a kiss? (St Luke 22: 48)

The kiss that betrayed Christ and his subsequent arrest has been painted by many. That it took place at night has given rise to many artists finding it difficult to create images, but that did not flummox Jean Bourdichon (1457/9 – 1521) when he painted the scene in this book of hours for Anne, Duchess of Brittany and Queen of France. Like his contemporary, Simon Bening (1483-1561), Bourdichon was a supreme master of illumination and in this night scene uses two lamps to light the moment of betrayal. The scene is given added depth from what we have to assume are similar lamps being carried by people in the middle distance walking toward Jerusalem, and there are patches of light within the city walls. The crescent moon and starlit sky just about illuminate the far hills. .

Folio 227 v. Les Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne. (300 x 190 mm. 11.8 x 7.4 inches)
BnF Departement de Manuscrits 9474

Bourdichon was official painter of the French court through the reigns of Louis XI, Charles VIII, Louis XII – Anne’s husband and Francis I. The image is taken from Les Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, which is one of the national treasures of France.

The great Albrecht Durer’s woodcut is thought to have inspired Caravaggio’s Betrayal of Christ, now in Dublin.

Betrayal of Christ. Albrecht Durer (1471 -1529)
Source Wikipedia

I know I said I wasn’t going to show you any of the Italian master’s, but Caravaggio’s 1602 painting, which I have seen in the ‘flesh’, is incredibly dramatic and you do not need to know the story in order to understand what is happening here. The look of acceptance of the inevitable on Christ’s face is enough. The drama is heightened by the intense use of light and shadow and the tension Caravaggio has created through his use of colour and chiaroscuro shows just what a master of the dramatic he was. Comparing this with Durer’s woodcut, it is very apparent he has taken inspiration from Durer’s composition. The two artists were born exactly one hundred years apart.

Betrayal of Christ. 1602. Caravaggio (1571 – 1610)
National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin

Painting at the same time as Durer and Bourdichon, the illuminator Simon Bening shows the moment of arrest in this page of the da Costa Hours now in the Morgan Library, New York. Measuring 17.5 x 12.5mm (6.7 x 4.9 inches) this small book of hours was produced for the aristocratic Portuguese da Costa family some time around 1515. A member of the da Costa family was on the voyage with Vasco da Gama in 1498 that rounded the Cape of Good Hope and opened up the sea route to the Spice Islands. The spice trade had been dominated by the Arab traders since Roman times, and possibly earlier.

The arrest of Christ: Hours of the Passion f15v. da Costa Hours. Simon Bening (1483-85 – 1561).
Morgan Library & Museum, New York

Good Friday

On the Thursday evening he had been taken to the former High Priest, Annas, then to Caiaphas, the current encumbent, who throws him to spend the night in a dungeon. At six the following morning Jesus appeared in front of the Sanhedrin, the council of rabbis in Jerusalem,

Christ before Caiaphas. c1630s. Mattais Stom (1615-1649)
Milwaukee Art Museum, USA.

Here the Dutch artist, Mattais Stom portrays the resigned Christ facing the High Priest, Caiaphas. The High priest is lit realistically by the single candle that stands centrally dividing the painting in two. The lighting of Christ is heightened and his white shirt has two functions; one is to reflect the light of the candle, but also white is the colour of hope. The candle divides the Old Testament as represented by the High Priest, and the New Testament being the teachings of Christ, yet to be written by his followers.

When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people gathered together, both chief priests and scribes; and they led him away to their council. (St Luke 22: 66)

7.00 a.m. The Council send him to Pontius Pilate (26/27 BC – 36/37AD), the Roman governor of Judea.

Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this man. . . . and when Pilate learned the he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he [Pilate] sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. (St Luke 23:4 & 7)

8.00 a.m. Jesus was sent to Herod Antipas, who hoped that Jesus would perform miracles for him. In the 1969 Lloyd Weber libretto of the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, in the title song ‘Superstar’, Herod sings, “Jesus Christ if you’re so cool, walk across my swimming pool“, whether you approved of the musical or not, the mocking tones of Herod are very clear. Christ remains quiet and St Luke tells us that Herod takes it one step further and robes Christ in ‘gorgeous apparel’ and returns him to Pilate. In many portrayals of the mocking of Christ, this robe is purple, the colour associated with emperors and kings in a cruel mockery of the claim (by others) that Jesus was King of the Jews. This purple coloured robe is, to some extent, the 15th century visual equivalent of Lloyd Weber’s words.

The Mocking of Christ f58 da Costa Hours. 1515. Simon Bening
Ms M 399 Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

Deep in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is a stained glass window by Jan Rambouts (1475 -1535) who, like Bening, also came from the southern Netherlands. The window dates from 1529 and Christ’s robe is a deep magenta colour. Unlike in the various paintings, the colour of Christ’s robe has retained its deep colour. The Met’s website does not provide us with a clue as to which church this window once came from, but their collection houses various other windows by Jan Rambouts showing scenes from the life of Christ.

The Mocking of Christ. 1529. Jan Rambouts (1475-1535)
stained glass. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

8.30 a.m. Sometimes the purple colour of Christ’s robe is no longer purple as in the Master of Cappenberg panel painting showing Pontius Pilate symbolically washing his hands as a gesture that he wants nothing to do with what happens to Jesus.

Photo credit. National Gallery, London.

This originally came from an altarpiece that was on the high altar of the Benedictine abbey in Leisborn, Westphalia. Scene showing the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion had been added to the altarpiece in 1517 and I assume this was one of them. Originally the altarpiece had consisted of a central panel showing the crucifixion and was flanked by two panels showing scenes from his childhood. We do not know the identity of the Master of Cappenberg, but the London National Gallery think it may be Jan Baegert (1465-1527) who was the son of an artist, but little of his work has survived.

9.00 a.m. – 10.00 a.m. Pilate could find no merit in the charges brought against Jesus. St Luke goes on to tell us that Pilate’s decision was to ‘chastise him and release him.” (St Luke 23:22)

The paintings of the flagellation of Christ are another of those scenes originally created for meditation, but over the centuries have become merely admired for the artist’s skill. Perhaps we should put ourselves in the mindset of our medieval ancestors and think about the pain endured and why the artists have captured the zeal of the flagellators, rather than admire their artistry.

The Bening image (again from the Da Costa Hours) has rosaries decorating the margins of this full page illumination as a reminder to the reader to contemplate why this is happening. A small portrait miniature of Christ hangs from rosary down in the bottom left hand corner of the page. The way this scene is framed and the red rosary threads over the bottom rail of the inner frame it is as if we are looking through a small window and are bearing live witness to this punishment. The robe of imperial purple lies discarded on the floor and soldiers crowd in through the far door to witness the beating with the scourge and the bundles of sharp twigs.

The Flagellation of Christ. 1515. Simon Bening
the Da Costa Hours. Morgan Museum & Library, New York.

On a technical note, some of you may have notices black dots on the rosary beads. When this book was first created these dots would have glittered in the candle light as they are tiny dots of silver leaf put there to resemble the highlights of light on the beads themselves as they were passed through the fingers of the devout. Over time the silver has oxidised to these black dots.

After enduring this beating, Jesus is then presented to the rabble. Forgive me for using Bening images again, but because illuminated books of hours are kept closed the colours are almost as fresh as the day the image was painted.

Ecce Homo: Behold the Man.
da Costa Hours, 1515. Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

Christ has now been crowned with thorns and the ugly faces of the crowd are clearly baying for his blood.

The long road to Calvary lies before him and this has produced some of the most creative images of Christ’s passion. The nineteen year old Albrecht Durer’s Ecce Homo, now in Karlsruhe for instance, where the Son of God looks out at us from a rocky niche (a tomb perhaps) where he stops the bundle of twigs and the scourge from falling out over the worked stone parapet (or is it the top of a stone slab?), and he leans forward and resting his elbow of the other hand he rests his head on his right hand. Durer’s painting measures only 300 x 190 cms and was clearly painted for private devotional purposes.

Ecce Homo. 1490. Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)
Oil on Panel. Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe

in November 2018 the Getty Museum in Los Angeles acquired this panel painting of Christ as the Man of Sorrows by Quentin Massijs painted between 1520 and 1530. It was a previously unknown 16th century masterpiece having been in the possession of one family for centuries until acquired by the museum in a private sale. It has since been conserved and when this pandemic has passed, the museum will open its doors again so we can go and view it as it is the first time it has ever been exhibited for the public gaze.

Christ as the Man of Sorrows (pre-conservation) 1520-1530. Quentin Massijs (b1465/55)
J P Getty Museum, Los Angeles, USA.

12.00 – 3.00 p.m. And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (St Luke 23:33-34)

The Calvary Triptych. 1468. Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482) (source Wikiart)

3.00 p.m. It was now about the sixth hour and there was darkness of the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my Spirit!? And having said this he breathed his last. (St Luke 23: 44-46)
The Crucifixion. 1470. Hugo van der Goes
Museo Correr, Venice, Italy.

Because the following day was the Sabbath, Jesus’s relatives had to get the body down before sunset. There are many images of the Deposition of the Dead Christ, but in my opinion the greatest of these is by Rogier Van der Weyden. This altarpiece, originally created for the Archers Guild in Louvain, now hangs in the Prado having come into the Spanish royal collection during the reign of Philip II.

The Deposition. 1435. Rogier van der Weyden (1399 – 1464). The Prado, Madrid.

And, behold, there was a man named Joseph, a counsellor; and he was a good man, and a just: (the same had not consented to the counsel and deed of them;) he was of Arimathaea, a city of the Jews: who also himself waited for the kingdom of God. This man went unto Pilate and begged the body of Jesus. And he took it down, and wrapped it in linen and laid it in a sepulchre that was hewn in stone, wherein never man before was laid. And that day was the preparation and the sabbath drew on. And the women also, which came with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulchre, and how his body was laid. And they returned and prepared spices and ointments; and rested the sabbath day according to the commandment. (St Luke 23: 50-56)

The Lamentation. 1460 – 1463. Rogier van der Weyden.
Uffizzi Gallery, Florence, Italy.

Sources for the illuminated manuscripts.

The links will take you to the complete manuscripts of both the da Costa Hours and Les Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne.

Morgan Library, New York: Da Costa Hours

Biblioteque Nationale de France: Les Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne.

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