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The Visitation

The Visitation

The Master of Perea. Museo Nacional del Prado – Madrid. End 15th century.

The Visitation

Master M.S. Magyar Nemzeti Galéria – Budapest. 1506-1510.
The Nativity
Parish Church – Hontszentantal, Slovakia.
The Mount of Olives, Christ carrying the Cross, Crucifixion, Resurrection
Keresztény Museum – Esztergom, Hungary
The Adoration of the Magi
Musée des Beaux-Arts – Lille, France.

The Visitation

Jacques Daret (ca. 1400-1403-1468). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie – Berlin. 1435.

Mary and Elisabeth

When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to conceive, Mary asked how that could be. Luke tells that the angel added then: ‘’And I tell you this too: your cousin Elisabeth also, in her old age, has conceived a son and she whom people called barren is now in her sixth month, for nothing is impossible to God’ G38 .

Luke relates that after the Annunciation Mary went as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah. She went into Zechariah’s house and greeted Elisabeth. Now it happened that as soon as Elisabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, ‘ Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? “Look”, she continued, “the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled”. In Luke’s Gospel then follows one of the most beautiful poems of the New Testament, Mary’s Magnificat. Mary stayed with Elisabeth for some three months and then went home G38 .

Elisabeth’s child would be Saint John the Baptist.

The words of Elisabeth were repeated in the little prayer, called the ‘Hail Mary’ or ‘Ave Maria’, which is recited many times in the rosary. The prayer starts as ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’. This is the most well known and most spoken little prayer of all; the Catholic Church in the Catechism officially defined it. It has been cried, whispered, uttered in the mind in billions of devote humans over so many centuries. The words are recited in Roman catholic Mass as the lecture from the Evangiles on Mary’s feast of her Ascension on August 15.

The Visitation was a welcome theme for Christian painters because it allowed showing two wonderful women, both elegantly pregnant in the beginning stage only, so that pregnancy could be hinted at in all elegant grace. The scene is usually set in marvellous mountain landscapes since Elisabeth lived in hill country. The most beautiful Visitations are of Jacques Daret, a Tournai painter of the times of Van Der Weyden and of Master M.S. who was a German master. Master M.S. made a Visitation that is a marvel of delicate elegance for a modest church of a mining town in hill country that was in the sixteenth century part of Hungary. The Visitation was a very frequent theme so we show also a picture with a more regional representation, an image from Spain.

Master M.S.

Have you ever fallen in love at first sight? Desperately, irremediably, so that you are simply unable to withdraw and are always attracted back to the object of beauty? Well, it is easy to fall in love like that with this ‘Visitation’. This is pure grace and loveliness. A picture natural and humble, pastoral, harmonious, simple and intelligent. A marvel of soft colours to the eye, full of meaning, symbols and details to discover so that one gets ever more interested.

The ‘Visitation’ of Master M.S. shows the moment when Elisabeth feels the trembling baby both in her and in Mary’s womb. With one hand she courteously kisses Mary’s hand in a tender gesture, and thus acknowledges her as a very special person. At the same time she has her hand very softly on Mary’s child and looks at it, drawing also our eyes to it. The pregnancies of both women permitted Master M.S. to paint flowing curves of bodies. Mary’s posture is a pure graceful arc, with the form of her right leg showing through the folds of the light red robe. Elisabeth also bows and curbs in a response to the round lines of Mary. Her hair falls thick and low on her back. Mary wears the classic blue maphorion robe, but in this painting the cloak is almost hidden. The blue cloak is a must for figures of Mary since the beginning of painting, so Master M.S. indeed uses it, but he stressed the idyllic setting instead of the formal. The flow of the figures continues in the curling white shawl of Mary and the folds of Elisabeth’s dress. Thus, the two figures are intertwined in a gracious movement that elevates them out of the landscape into the dimensions of the mind. Whether this is Mary and Elisabeth becomes inconsequential. They are two of the most beautiful creatures of the universe, out of all time.

The flow of the figures continues in the landscape. Behind Elisabeth a road goes from the pastures where the two women are, to a valley beyond. This road seems to come out of a Mantegna painting: he always used these round curves in roads and landscapes, as curves forced by tensile strength between starting and ending point. Such style elements may refer to Italian Renaissance examples.

There are three parts in the landscape. Beneath the two figures are flowers, irises, wild strawberries and peonies. The irises on the left are high and slim; they reflect the blue cloak of Mary. The peonies are the red of Elisabeth’s robe. In between are the red strawberries bearing fruit. These are symbols: the high stemmed iris marks the purity and spiritualism of Mary. The earthy peonies are humbler flowers, linked to Elisabeth. The strawberries are a sign of fertility. Other such natural symbols are to be found in the painting. To the left of Mary is a luxurious green tree out of which comes a dead branch. The branch denotes infertility, death, and destruction. As it points to Mary it is a sign of the future death and passion of Christ.

The three landscapes of earth are brought together in this picture. Mary and Elisabeth are standing, or should we say floating, in a pasture. A hollow road in this soft pastoral green land leads on the right to further views. To the left, rocky mountains rise on which a castle or citadel stands high in the air. These are the mountain lands, maybe a symbol again of spiritualism, but also of isolation, loneliness. It is no coincidence that the mountains are drawn on Mary’s side. To the right are bluish mountains, which continue the colours of the lake or sea out of which they grow. The sea landscape marks the third geography of earth, thus bringing Mary and Elisabeth in front and out of the universe. The castles and houses built in the mountains constructed out of the waters or on poles in the lake all need a bridge to lead into their interiors. The image of a bridge leading into other worlds has been a powerful image at all times of history. To emphasise the passage to another world, two small figures to Elisabeth’s right are seen passing under a gate, going with heavy sacks on a pilgrimage through life. These passages both indicate the near birth of Jesus and the passage of worldly affairs into the spiritual realm.

In 1997, a major exhibition staged by the Hungarian National Gallery brought together in the Royal Palace of Budapest all the panels of the winged altar-piece of which the Visitation was a part. The exhibition was called ‘Magnificat anima mea Dominum’ H3 , the words of the ‘Ave Maria’. Four panels of the altarpiece are kept in the Christian Museum of Esztergom, one panel is in the parish church of Hontszentantal, another panel is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Lille in France, and then there is the panel of the ‘Visitation’ in Budapest. That makes seven panels. Originally there must have been eight. The upper row of the altarpiece would have held the ‘Annunciation’, the ‘Visitation’, the ‘Nativity’ and the ‘Adoration of the Magi’. These are all scenes of Jesus’s early life. The ‘Annunciation’ is lost or has not yet been found. The lower line of panels would then represent scenes from the passion of Christ: the’ Mount of Olives’, the ‘Carrying of the Cross’, ‘Crucifixion’ and ‘Resurrection’. The exhibition in Budapest was centred on the newly restored ‘Visitation’ and showed not just all seven panels, but also many other paintings and engravings that could shed light on influences and origins of the paintings. Hungarian scholars who had studied the paintings made contributions: Mojzer Miklós, Peter Menrath and Szilvia Hernády who had worked on the restoration, Zsuzsa Urbach, Török Gyöngyi, Poszler Györgyi, János Végh, Sándor Tóth, and Mikó Arpád H3 .

According to these Hungarian scholars, many stylistic details lead to the Nuremberg School of Albrecht Dürer and to German artists such as Veit Stoss, as well as the Alsace painter Martin Schongauer. Dürer painted similar iris flowers, landscapes with lakes and mills, engraved figures with flowing shawls similar to the ones in the ‘Visitation’ of Master M.S., similar mountain landscapes. Schongauer painted similar peonies, figures kissing hands in the same way. An engraver M.Z. bears also similitudes to the work of master M.S. Who exactly Master M.S. was remains a mystery, speculations abound but the enigma remains unsolved. The German influences are clear. It seems now accepted that a German or Hungarian-Slovakian artist worked in Nuremberg, maybe in the school of Dürer, or had good connections to the painters of that town, or knew very well the German paintings. The inspiration of the M.S. panels, especially the other panels besides the Visitation, is certainly German. The loveliness of the Visitation shows us however that maybe some of the more southern gentleness and grace of the Danube has found its influence in the painting. Dürer himself was of Hungarian origins; his father was a goldsmith who had immigrated to Germany. We are in frontier-country with these panels.

The ‘Visitation’ panel was found more than a hundred years ago by a craftsman in the attic of a church at Topatak H3 , pawned but unreclaimed. The Hungarian National Gallery could buy the ‘Visitation’ in 1902. The Koháry-Coburg family of Hontszentantal owned three other panels; they landed in the Christian Museum of Esztergom. One remained in the church of Hontszentantal. An antique arts merchant who worked out of Köln gave the Lille panel to the Museum there. The complete winged altar stood in the Church of the Virgin Mary of the town of Selmecbánya in the district of Hont. Selmecbánya was Hungarian before 1918, had an early Saxon minority and was also called Schemnitz or Schebnicz in German. It is now in Slovakia and its name is Banska Stiavnica. A town with three names indicates a history as complex as the Carpathians.

Why would a marvellous painting, a masterpiece of the early sixteenth century come to the Hont? Winged Virgin Mary altarpieces are common in Hungary. Hungary covered then a much larger territory than now. The Hungarian National Gallery guards many of these huge panelled works. The altarpieces were very large because they had to be seen from far, by the people in the churches. They consisted of sculptures, usually at least a sculpture of the Virgin in a middle niche, around which painted panels were placed. The painted panels would be so installed that on the reverse side also reliefs could be fixed. When the panels were closed, as they would be outside the hours of Mass, the panels showed scenes of the life of Christ. During High Mass the panels would be opened so that the polychrome sculptures could be seen in all their splendour of colours: bright red, blue and gold. The Isenheim altarpiece of Matthias Grünewald is similar to that tradition. The Visitation was not an uncommon scene, as it can be found for instance on the winged altarpieces of the churches of Nagyszalok and Srepeshely, also now shown in the Hungarian National Gallery altarpieces, which date from 1483 and 1480 respectively. It was common in the end of the fifteenth century in Hungary to have these altarpieces as the major works of art and piety in the churches.

Selmecbánya was not just any small town of Hungary. It was one of the three most thriving mining towns of the land. Especially silver and gold were found. The silver and gold mines attracted both Hungarian investors, such as János Thurzó H3 who would be appointed by Queen Anne to the Chief Chancellery Count of Körmöcbanya, the highest royal office in the jurisdiction of the mining towns of the Carpathians. Körmöcbanya is quite near Selmecbánya and was the place where the Mint was established. This chancellery had the monopoly on precious metals in the region. János Thurzó was an astute businessman. He secured as many mines as he could get, helped by Jakob Fugger of Augsburg. The Fugger family formed one of the most important banking houses of Europe. Emperor Charles V could only be chosen Emperor because Fugger lent him the money to win the German Electors. Thurzo gained enough power to appoint himself the dignitaries of Selmecbánya and thus to control the region. Through the Fugger family the German connection and link with the arts school of Nuremberg is made.

It should not astonish us anymore that the wealthy burghers of a rich silver and gold mining town with Thurzó-Fugger commercial links to German merchants and bankers would call in a craftsman from Germany, maybe even an Hungarian who studied in Nuremberg, to paint a winged altar for their church. Selmecbánya would remain for a long time a gold mining town. It was even here that the first mining academy in the world was established in 1721. But the rich lodes near the surface were exhausted already in the sixteenth century; the gold and silver had to be dug from ever deeper down. This made it possible only for somebody like Thurzó who had access to capital, to invest in newer techniques.

Let’s look at the other panels.

The ‘Nativity’ is again an idyllic picture. Mary and Joseph are looking at their baby Jesus. Their eyes direct us to Jesus who points back at them, thus forming the diagonal that divides the panel in two. Beneath the diagonal are Mary, Jesus and Joseph. Above are a landscape and a Gothic interior. This interior is opened however, the columns cut, as was not uncommon in Renaissance paintings. In the upper left corner we find a landscape similar to that of the ‘Visitation’, with blue mountains afar. Two shepherds kneel down. Here we feel indeed that this is a German picture, or with heavy German influence. We see it in the shepherds, in the head of Saint Joseph. The Master M.S. shows his art in the marvellous robes around Mary.

The ‘Adoration of the Magi’ could have been painted by a Venetian artist of the sixteenth century. It has the same soft charm of a Giovanni Bellini. The landscape has made place for a town view here, but this indeed is much more a scene of Venice than of a Hungarian mining town. The small scene with horses on the upper right could have been imagined by Mantegna. In this panel also a line goes over Mary, Jesus and the knelt Magus. He might be the donour H3 , but that is conjecture. Gold is amply used in this panel, and gold dust certainly was to be found easy in Selmecbánya. The gold and the skill of the artist in painting the robes, gifts and jewels, make this panel a fantastic display of wealth. The people going to the church of the Holy Virgin in the small town castle must have marvelled at the riches of their burghers. The old knelt King offers a vase filled with jewels and precious stones to Jesus. Jesus seems to hold one – a piece of gold ore? - and shows it questioningly to his Mother. Master M.S. always keeps the idyllic, poetic tone.

Hungarian, Polish, Czech pictorial art has been largely forgotten by Western European books. Yet, it deserves a much better place. And Hungary of the fifteenth and sixteenth century certainly was not a godforsaken land, but a country whose wealth – at least at its royal courts and at the courts of its barons - was considerable, its culture refined.

Let us go back somewhat in time before the date of the painting of the Visitation.

János Hunyadi was a warrior-general of Eastern Hungary, parts of Transylvania now in Rumania G22 . He amassed a fortune in lands and spent his income fighting the Turks. His Christian army won in 1456 a decisive victory against the Turks before Belgrade, which would curb the Ottoman threat for almost a century. He died that same year however. His oldest son László was killed by the Habsburg King Ladislas V who had been chosen as his successor. We have a painting made by Viktor Madarász on ‘The mourning of László Hunyadi’ made in 1859, now in the Hungarian National Gallery of Budapest, a painting that has become one of the national emblems of Hungary.

János Hunyadi’s younger son, Matthias, who had been taken captive by Ladislas, was chosen as the next King in 1458. This Matthias Hunyadi called ‘Corvinus’ the Raven, subdued the other Hungarian nobles from out of his Transylvanian lands in Eastern Hungary. He continued to link Hungary to Italian Renaissance and to the culture of the rest of Europe. Continued but not created, because many years before, in the beginning of the fourteenth century, the throne of Hungary had been presented and occupied by members of the Anjou branch of the French royal family, just as the Kingdom of Naples had gone to that branch earlier. The first Anjou King was Charles Robert, grandson of Charles II, King of Naples and Sicily. Thus links with Western Europe were firmly established early. Charles Robert was King from 1301 to 1342. He particularly developed the mining and metallurgy industry around Selmecbánya and he founded Körmöcbánya, where the Mint was.

Matthias Corvinus became King of Hungary in 1458. He married a Neapolitan princess, Beatrice of Aragon, who brought with her all the connections and culture of her native country. Italian Renaissance fully reached Hungary then, to the same splendour as in Western Europe. Matthias Corvinus himself had been brought up by the archbishop of Várad Janos Vitez, a humanist. Soon, Buda would have a library that was the envy of Europe: the ‘Bibliotheca Corviniana’. Humanists flocked to the Hungarian court. Literature and the pictorial arts flourished. Janus Pannonius was a poet, raised in Italy. He became later the bishop of Pecs, remained at the court of Buda and at the royal palace of Visegrád. Michele Pannonio was of Hungarian descent, and he painted in the 1450’s in Ferrara in Italy.

Corvinus managed even to capture Vienna and wanted to establish an Austrian-Hungarian base, but the Habsburgs soon took Vienna back. Matthias Corvinus died in 1490. The son of Corvinus was more a scholar than a warrior, so the Hungarian nobles that had already rebelled against Corvinus before, chose a Jagiellon from Poland-Lithuania as King. But the tradition of cultural links with the West was continued. After the fall of Hungary in 1526 to the Turks the imposing library of Corvinus was scattered, some brought to Brussels by Mary of Hungary, the sister of Emperor Charles V.

The Hungarian royal court was resolutely directed towards Renaissance thinking. It had an Italian Queen, and many links with Northern Italy. Italian painters were well known in Hungary and from early times on. For instance, the Florentine painter Masolino da Panicale who worked around 1425 on the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, probably stopped this work to paint at the Hungarian court from 1425 to 1427. The North-Hungarian mining towns with their connections to German Fugger capital and intense industrial investments were wealthy. These elements explain how a masterpiece such as the M.S. altarpiece came in these parts of Europe. Many splendours of the court of Matthias Corvinus must have been destroyed during the Turkish occupation and the chaos that resulted in the parts of Hungary that remained unoccupied. Queen Mary of Hungary put the treasures of the court of Buda on a boat when the Buda citadel was lost to the Turks, and brought the riches to the West. But we can imagine that the best paintings were lost. The ones that survived destructions were in small churches of towns or villages like Selmecbánya.

The Passion series of the winged altarpiece of master M.S. starts with the ‘Mount of Olives’. The apostles are sleeping, Jesus knows the drama that is coming and has a moment of despair. Judas already enters through the gates with the soldiers to take him. Jesus’s gesture of appeal to the heavens again forms an oblique line that divides the panel in two. Beneath the line Saint John, in red dress, and Saint Peter are dozing. Peter sleeps next to the sword with which he will cut at the ear of a soldier. John seems already an angel. Jesus remains serene and determined, the moment of despair has passed, and he has given himself over to the design of God. Above Jesus we find the same blue mountains as in previous panels, the lush green bushes and the dead branches symbolising the coming death of Christ. The soldiers have to pass a bridge over a small river so that their dices are thrown. The pasture landscape also is of the same style as in the Visitation. Judas and the soldiers look like monsters. The flowing banners that they hold can be found in many German paintings, here they seem to hold all the emblems of the devil: an animal with horns and the half moon of Islam. Let us not forget that the Hungarians fought desperately and relentlessly against the Turks. A decade after the time when this painting was made Lajos II, or Louis II, King of Hungary, would be slain at the battlefield of Mohacs and half of Hungary, a triangle part just under the Carpathians comprising Budapest, would be occupied by the Muslim Turks for a hundred and fifty years.

‘Christ carrying the Cross’ is the most German panel of all. The figures seem to come straight out of a Schongauer or Dürer picture. Jesus is crushed, but not just under the cross, also under the weight of the masses of people. The cross is crudely made out of tree trunks. The soldiers pushing the cross bring black hammers and nails. They are hideous, not hiding their cruelty. In a small upper left scene, in a corner formed by the ladder and the trunk of the cross, stands Mary supported by Saint John. A rope held by the soldier on the right creeps around like a snake and ends at Golgotha where two crosses already stand. Criminals are led there on a sinuous path. Jesus looks worn out, tortured. The soldier tears at his hair. We are far from the poetic scene of the Visitation. But life in the Hungarian and German regions was like that in the sixteenth century: a pastoral nature, ever different, in which noble ladies and wealthy young men could meet, with on the other side all the cruelty of ever-lasting wars without mercy.

In the ‘Crucifixion’ we find a terribly agonising Christ on the crude cross. His face has really become emaciated, almost a naked cranium where the flesh is drawn tightly over. Two groups of people are around and beneath Jesus. To the left are Mary, John and Mary Magdalene. Mary is now completely covered in her classic blue cloak. Finished are the joyful images with the lovely white and bright red robes: Mary has become the Saint that will go through history in this attire. On the right are the soldiers who nailed Jesus on the cross. These are Turkish soldiers; Longinus is not a Roman Centurion anymore. Turkish hats, swords and shields are shown. The devil’s banner is held: the horned head of a bull and the half moon of Turkey. We again see the dead trees in the background, before landscapes that are very similar to the Visitation panel: rocky mountains with citadels, blue mountains to the right. The same kind of castles is drawn, even also wooden structures on poles in water. Christ wears a loincloth that is flowing white around him as in a German painting of Dürer of the Crucifixion.

The ‘Resurrection’ shows a triumphant young Jesus rising from the open tomb. Instead of the apostles, the soldiers are sleeping here. Jesus wears red robes of victory and a glorious banner. This flag wears the red and white bands of the early Magyar Arpad kings. Does a triumphant Christ sign victory over Turkish armies? To the left are scenes of the ‘Lowering of the Cross’, to the right Mary and Mary Magdalen are seen ready to anoint Jesus. The blue mountain range is always present, but there are no dead trees anymore and the fortresses have made place for splendid high palaces.

Blue mountains is how a painter’s eye may see far away hills in clear sunshine that brings close figures in full light and makes a haze of remote landscapes. Master M.S. will have noticed the effect. He was not alone. Many other painters used this effect. The young Raphael made an ‘Allegory’ that is now in the London National Gallery. That painting also shows in the background blue mountains before a large lake. Astonishingly, a wooden structure advances in the lake also. And to the left of the lake can be seen a castle on rocks, just as in the Visitation. But Master M.S.’s Visitation is richer in the background, and more detailed. More wild also, more rough. The setting of the figures in Raphael’s ‘Allegory’ is similar to the Visitation: a meadow in front of hills and rocks. The similarities are probably a coincidence, but it is wonderful to see how a Visitation by a relatively unknown master like M.S. can favourably compare to an Allegory of the so famous Raphael in a painting of almost the same period of history.

Why distant mountains look blue puzzled artists and naturalists for centuries. Aristotle noticed the effect and already attributed it to the air between our eyes and the mountains. Leonardo da Vinci spoke of the effect in his ‘Trattato della Pittura’ and later, in the nineteenth century also Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his ‘Theory of Colours’. The effect can be illustrated by an experiment that also Goethe made. When one looks at a gas to a black background and with a source of light throwing light from behind the viewer, then the gas shows a beautiful blue hue. The colour comes from the gas particles that deflect and reflect light and the nature of the colour depends on the number and the size of the suspended particles of or in the gas. The effect explains why we see clouds white or grey to black in the skies. It explains why far mountains are seen in blue and also why the sun at dawn or sunset is seen red. Indeed, when the source of light in the experiment of Goethe is set behind the gas, the particles absorb the blue colour and change the light to a bright red.

The winged altarpiece of the mysterious, almost anonymous painter Mester S. thus contains many masterpieces. The panels stand out against the background of other paintings of the same period in Hungary and even in Germany by its grace, loveliness, lyrical breadth and intelligence. These are paintings we would have liked more German masters to paint and to continue in this style. We do have almost only these panels of Master M.S. and would have liked his complete works to be saved. Instead of such a complete oeuvre, we have only these panels to admire as symbols of a world that was on the brink of destruction. Because a decade after these paintings were made, the old culture of Hungary was brought almost to extinction. This knowledge and the genius of the painting make it one of the most valuable works of pictorial art in European history.

The Master of Perea

The Master of Perea worked in Spanish Valencia around the end of the fifteenth century. Few pictures of Spain have come to us from that early period in oil painting, yet we should not be surprised to find a ‘Visitation’. The ‘Visitation’ of the Master of Perea is a work in the Northern Gothic, Flemish Primitives style. It is in very realistic detail, with the rocky landscape in the background. The master of Perea has magnificently painted the brocaded dresses of Mary and Elisabeth. In the landscape is also painted a small scene of the flight to Egypt, with figures clothed in the style of the period. Mary and Elisabeth are holy women, so they are dressed with long cloaks as nuns and they have the golden halo of saints. The Spanish element is certainly the face of Zechariah or Zachary, who is depicted as a rough Spanish shepherd. The Master of Perea must have been a master who knew Flemish paintings well. He also uses perspective as can be seen in the lines of the building to the right. This building has Spanish features, and a Moorish element can be seen in the side windows. It is a beautiful ‘Visitation’.

The painting lacks maybe the grace and lyrics of the ‘Visitation’ of Master MS, but the Spanish rougher element makes it an interesting example of a blend of local and international ways of looking at the scene. Mary and Elisabeth are static, do not touch. Yet, movement is indicated by the play of the hands. Both women draw the attention of the viewer to each other by this movement. Elements of intimate genre images are added, which give the painting even more a local tone: there is a maidservant in a doorway, somebody is looking down a window. A little dog is playing next to the maidservant, maybe a symbol of marital fidelity. These may be scenes of the life of the Virgin. Symbols of love and prosperity are also shown in the picture at the feet of Mary and Elisabeth: a pigeon, a small bag of money and a dove as a sign of fidelity again, since doves were thought never to change companions. These small genre elements of common households introduce definitely a tangible human touch.

One may wonder how a painting with local influences and of local inspiration, but as sophisticated in representation and corresponding to the conventions and symbols of international art could be made in a Spain that was obviously still engaged in a murderous war with the Moors over supremacy of the country, since Granada fell only in 1492. Granada in fact was only the last small enclave of Iberia that had been largely conquered already for about two hundred years.

The kings of Galicia, Asturias and Aragon led the reconquest of Spain. Around 900 the only territory dominated by the Christians was Galicia-Asturia in the north west. The Aragonese had not yet taken foot in Iberia and operated from beyond the Pyrenees, from parts of what is now France. In the middle of the eleventh century almost one fifth of Spain was conquered in the north, among which the towns of Barcelona and Leon. The kingdom of Leon and Castile then slowly but victoriously swept to the south. A century later the advance was more marked with half of Spain and Portugal occupied. The towns of Madrid, Lisbon, Toledo, Zaragoza and Tortosa were Christian. In the middle of the thirteenth century almost all of Spain was conquered. Valencia was taken in 1238. The only part that remained in Moorish hands was the Emirate of Granada in the south tip. Here the Muslims would be able to oppose the pressure of the Christian armies until 1492.

In 1492 Aragon, with Valencia where the Master of Perea worked, was a much smaller part of Spain than was Castile. Its main territory was Catalonia, but it covered most of Spain’s coastline of the western Mediterranean, as low as Valencia and Denia. The lower region between Aragon and Granada, the region of Murcia, had been left to Castile. The Aragonese kings were frankly more interested in their overseas territories than in fighting the few remaining Moors. Aragon gradually became a sea power that dominated the western Mediterranean. It had acquired the islands Minorca and Majorca in the thirteenth century. Sicily fell to Aragon after the local inhabitants had expelled the French and called on Aragon to govern them. Sardinia was taken from Genoa in 1326. Southern Italy with its pearl, the city of Naples, was gained on the French Angevin rulers in 1442. Naples was then the largest city of Europe.

Ferdinand V of Aragon reigned from 1479 to 1516 over this economic, maritime empire in the Mediterranean. And there was more.

The Kings of Aragon and of Castile had long been rivals but arranged their disputes by alliances and marriages. King John II, the king of Castile, had died without sons so that his daughter Isabelle inherited the throne. Isabella married Ferdinand of Aragon. Castile remained to Isabella however; Ferdinand had no legal claim on Castile. Ferdinand was more inclined to enforce his presence in France and he was embroiled in several wars in Italy with the French. At the peace of Barcelona he would indeed acquire the Rousillon area of South France and still later he would also gobble up the small enclave of Navarra in Spain. Naples had been given by his uncle, King Alphonso V, to one of this king’s bastard sons. Ferdinand could bring Naples back to his own crown in 1504, after a treaty with the French king Charles VIII - who had taken Naples – whereby Milan remained under French influence.

Isabella of Castile urged Ferdinand to war with the Moors. Ferdinand’s general Gonsalvo de Cordoba brought Emir Boabdil to surrender Granada after nine years of war. Ferdinand obtained from Pope Alexander VI – the Borgia Pope – the title of ‘His Catholic Majesty’. But that title had better be granted to his wife Isabella.

Isabella remained queen of Castile, by far the largest and central part of Spain. Two cardinals governed Castile in her name. First Don Pedro Gonzalez de Mendoza and after this cardinal’s death, cardinal Jimenes de Cisneros. Gonzalez de Mendoza expelled all Jews from Spain in 1492. More than two hundred thousand Jews left Spain, to start the Sephardic Diaspora. Gonzales de Mendoza gave full power to the Inquisition to purify the faithful and the converts. These were the times of the cruel Grand-Inquisitor Torquemada. Gonzales de Mendoza urged Isabella to win Granada. Mendoza had given Jimenes de Cisneros as father confessor to Isabella and this later cardinal continued Gonzalez de Mendoza’s work. In 1502 all non-baptised, that is all non-Christians had to leave Castile. These people had to sell all their lands in Spain but they were forbidden to export gold and could only take Spanish goods on their journey out of the country. This time the Pragmatic was directed at the Moors, of whom many converted in order to stay in Spain. They would become some of the first victims of the Inquisition. Gonzalez de Mendoza and Jimenes de Cisneros enjoyed the full confidence of Queen Isabella of Castile.

Spain’s wealth grew in this period. Castile exported wools to Flanders. Spain’s colonies expanded in the Americas that the Genoese Cristoforo Colombo had discovered for Ferdinand and Isabella, also in 1492. Castile and Aragon were virtually joined and Aragon reigned over a multi-cultural maritime empire.

Thus, it is no wonder that the pictorial arts thrived in Aragon and in one of its main ports to the Mediterranean, Valencia. Ferdinand Callejo (active 1466-1507) and Bartolomé Bermejo (active 1474-1495) though both from outside Aragon, worked in the Aragonese part of Spain. Flemish masters, who have mostly remained anonymous, also painted here. Remember the trade in wools with Bruges in Flanders; Spanish ships were of the most frequent to enter Bruges. The school of Valencia in the southernmost point of Aragon became ever more important for the province. Rodrigo de Osona (active 1505-1530), Juan de Flandes (1465-1519) – who was probably Flemish of origin – and especially Juan Masip called Juan de Juanes (1523-1579) worked in Valencia. Also worked here Fernando Yanez de la Almedina (1501-1531), the Italian Paolo de San Leocadia (active 1472-1514) and still later Alonso Sanchez Coello (1531/1532-1588).

Isabella of Castile died in 1504. Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragon recognised Philip of Burgundy as king of Castile. Philip was married to Ferdinand’s daughter Juana la Loca. But Ferdinand secured for himself the title of Regent of Castile and continued to govern Castile as if it was his own, helped therein by cardinal Jimenes de Cisneros. Ferdinand ruled in his own name over Aragon, Sicily, Sardinia, Naples and the south of Italy.

Juana and Philip of Burgundy had two sons, Charles and Ferdinand. Charles was the elder son. Duke Philip of Burgundy was the son of Mary of Burgundy and of Maximilian of Habsburg, the German Emperor, who had thus also combined several territories. Juana of Aragon was neurasthenic and in the end, at the death of her husband, would become truly insane. Charles, born in Gent of Flanders, was raised by his aunt Margaret of Austria in Mechelen in Brabant. Charles’ brother, Ferdinand, was raised with his namesake grandfather in Aragon. Charles spoke French, Ferdinand mainly Spanish. When Philip of Burgundy and Ferdinand the Catholic of Aragon died, Charles V could reign over an enormous territory on the European mainland. He inherited Castile, Aragon, Sicily and Sardinia, Naples, parts of Burgundy, Flanders and the Northern Low Countries with its rich Dutch towns and thus the Seventeen Provinces. With money of Jacob Fugger of Augsburg Charles was chosen by the Prince-Electors of Germany to succeed his grandfather Maximilian as Holy Roman Emperor of the German Nation. The young Ferdinand, Charles V’s brother, would be archduke of Austria. By marriage he also became king of Bohemia (Czechia) and of Hungary. And Spain’s colonies were vaster still.

Ferdinand and Isabella had founded the greatest empire that Europe had ever seen. Ferdinand the Catholic wanted to secure the Mediterranean and thus the core of Christianity from attacks of the Turks. One of his expeditions was to take Oran on the African coast, but Spain at first did not hold ground in Africa. Charles V, who had also contained the Turks before Vienna, sent an army again to these parts to fight the Muslim pirates of the Mediterranean and won Tunisia. Charles’ empire thus also contained regions of Africa.

When Charles V abdicated as Emperor in 1555 he split his enormous empire in two parts. To his own son Philip he gave Spain and the Netherlands. His brother Ferdinand succeeded him as German Emperor.

This is the historical background of the work of the Master of Perea and also of the many links between the kingdom of Naples. Jusepe de Ribera of Toledo would found a school of painting in Naples that was continued by Luca Giordano. Spanish influence in Italy was important. The Master of Perea was one of the masters who were in the line of the Spanish-Neapolitan tradition.

Jacques Daret

Jacques Daret was born in Tournai probably between 1400 and 1405, and he died there in 1468. He came from a family of wood and stone sculptors. He worked first in Tournai, mainly in the workshop of the painter Robert Campin. He had lost his mother young and he was already with Campin in 1418. From 1427 to 1432 he was still in Campin’s workshop, together with Rogier van der Weyden. Working with a master so late may have been required by the guild of Tournai before Daret and van der Weyden (called de le Pasture in Tournai) were allowed to be independent painters. Later Daret also worked in different places not so far from his hometown: Bruges, Lille, and Arras. In 1433 Daret was installed in Arras, where he worked on paintings for the Benedictine abbey of Saint Vaast. He probably also kept his workshop in Tournai. Nicolas Froment may have worked with Daret on cartons for tapestries of the life of Saint Peter for the cathedral of Beauvais, also a centre of tapestry weaving industry F20 . The ‘Visitation’ is a panel of an altarpiece that Jacques Daret made for the abbey of Arras. In the Tournai and Bruges archives he is also known as a decorator of festivities. And in Arras he made cartons for tapestries. Daret probably also worked at medieval religious books.

The ‘Visitation’ by Jacques Daret is the first panel of the paintings of an altarpiece D1 . The abbot of Saint Vaast, Jean du Clercq, ordered the altarpiece for the chapel dedicated to the Virgin of the abbey church that du Clercq was finishing. Du Clercq was a very dynamic and well-known personality in Artois. He was abbot from 1428 to 1462. He embellished his abbey and his abbey church. He had masons and artists work at the nave and on interior and exterior decorations of the church from 1429 to 1462. The church does not exist anymore. In 1747 the Gothic church was demolished and a new one built. The altarpiece for the chapel of the Virgin was a vast wooden box for which du Clercq first bought fourteen statues in Germany, representing the twelve apostles, Jesus Christ on a throne and the Coronation of Mary. The statues, now lost, were put next to each other in the large un-deep box made by Collard de Hordain F20 . The statues of Jesus and Mary were put higher than the other statues. Daret also gilded and brought paint on the statues. Then panels were made to close like doors on the statues. There were four panels to close on the statues of the apostles and two panels to close on Jesus and Mary. These last two panels, representing an Annunciation, are lost. The four panels that closed on the main body of the statues represent the ‘Nativity of Jesus’s, the ‘Adoration of the Kings’, the ‘Visitation’ and the ‘Presentation in the Temple’ or the Circumcision. The panels are preserved in different museums: the ‘Visitation’ and the ‘Adoration’ are in Berlin, the ‘Nativity’ is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection of Madrid, and the ‘Presentation in the Temple’ is in the Musée du Petit-Palais in Paris. Jacques Daret worked for many years for Abbot Jean du Clercq. He started a series of the sixty abbots of Saint Vaast abbey in 1435. He made cartons for a tapestry of the Resurrection which also featured du Clercq ant as late as 1453 he made for the same abbot an altarpiece of the Holy Spirit F20 .

Jacques Daret’s ‘Visitation’ shows, as the other pictures we have seen, exactly the moment when Elisabeth feels the trembling baby both in her and in Mary’s womb. She has her hand on Mary’s child. The kneeling figure on the left is Jean du Clercq, the abbot of Saint Vaast D1 . He wears the staff and the tiara of an abbot-bishop and his shield with his weapons hang next to him on a tree. In this painting also, everything is presented in the finest detail. Look at the magnificent golden-lined robes of Mary and Elisabeth, the locks of Mary, the white lace headdress of Elisabeth. Daret could lavishly apply gold in his painting. Flanders and Artois were rich of the weaving and tapestry industry and as we compare the robes and cloaks of Daret’s painting with those of Master M.S., we can note the difference. Daret showed the opulence of the dresses and the cloths made in Artois by the thriving first economy of the region.

Dark blue and deep red robes contrast with the green landscape. One can see trees, fields, flowers all around and the small country roads. Daret painted a very high horizon, to make the scene more intimate and he gave a magnificent landscape view in the left part of the picture. This landscape is painted in intricate detail of high trees, winding paths and a far river. Mary looks fulfilled. She has a nice somewhat broad, country face. Elisabeth is older, compassionate and saying: yes, indeed, this is a miracle and a wonder. Mary and Elisabeth look into each other’s eyes, locked in the mystery of the knowledge of their pregnancy. Elisabeth blesses Mary with the short Magnificat poem that is now so well known.

The abbot Jean du Clercq looks respectfully to Mary and Elisabeth. He has a wise face, wrinkled by the worries of life and of his responsibilities. He seems intelligent, austere, very present, and very attentive as can be expected of a manager of the vast abbey of Saint Vaast. Du Clercq is humbly dressed in the dark robes of his monastery. He is dressed as a pious monk. But next to him is the headdress of a bishop and that is covered with jewels, a sign of the wealth of the abbot and of the richness of medieval Arras.

Jacques Daret’s painting was made just before the Conference of Arras, which took place in the abbey. Saint Vaast was not just any abbey. It was one of the most prosperous, glorious abbeys of northern France. Not only important because of its industry, its numbers of monks, the spiritual radiance for the region. The abbey was the scene of one of the most important peace talks of the Hundred Year War between ambassadors of the King of France, the King of England and the Duke of Burgundy. The bishop of Arras was a counsellor and frequent ambassador of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. The bishop and Philip the Good organised the peace conference.

Arras was a city in the County of Artois, in the North of France, not so far from Tournai. Arras had a thriving economic activity of cloth, of tapestry weaving and of goldsmiths. About thirteen to seventeen thousand people lived in the town. Arras had eleven churches, six monasteries within its walls and seven outside, and fourteen hospices or hospitals. There were about seventy tapestry artisans working in the town, over twenty goldsmiths, and six painters F20 . The town walls of Arras had been built from 1354 to 1373 to defend the town during the Hundred-Year War. The last Count of Artois, Philippe de Rouvres, had died in 1361. His widow was Margaretha van Male of Flanders, a daughter of the Count of Flanders. She remarried to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in 1369 so that the County of Artois came to belong to the Dukes of Burgundy.

The conference of Arras of 1435 drew together ambassadors of emperor Sigismund of Germany, of the Kings of Castile and Aragon, of Portugal, Navarra, Naples, Sicily, Poland and Denmark, of the Dukes of Milan and French Britanny G19 . There were delegates and doctors of the universities of Paris and Bologna. Delegates of many cities and bishops of France, England, Flanders, Hainaut, and Holland. The bishop of Ličge came with a magnificent court that rode 200 white horses. The embassy of England was formed equally of 200 lords and knights among which the Archbishop of York and the Count of Suffolk, later also the Cardinal of Winchester and the Count of Huntington. The Duke of Burgundy came with many knights and 300 archers. The envoy of Charles VII, King of France, was especially rich with the Duke of Bourbon, the Count Vendôme, the chancellor Christophe de Harcourt and many others. There were gathered more than 500 knights in Arras and Saint Vaast. Each knight was accompanied by at least twenty persons of his following.

These knights of course held duels and tilts to divert the audience. The first one opposed the Spanish knight Juan de Merlo to Pierre de Beaufremont, sire of Charny G19 . It lasted two days; the first day was fought on horse, the second on foot. Magnificent feasts were held. All delegations made solemn entries into Arras showing all the splendour of armour, flying colours, wealth and power.

The discussions were held in the great halls of Saint Vaast. But peace between France and England was far away: both parties remained on their positions. After all, the English held vast territories of France among which Paris and they knew Charles VII was a weak King whose funds were diminishing. Joan of Arc had been burnt publicly in Rouen and was no threat anymore. Soon, the English refused all proposals of the French and left. The real importance of the conference lay in the relations between Charles VII, King of France, and Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy.

Philip the Good was an ally of the English. He was bound to England by an official treaty. Added to that, the Duke of Bedford, the main army leader of the English and Governor of the English possessions in France had been married to Philip’s sister Anne. During the conference there was a remarkable speech made by Louis de Gari, doctor of the University of Bologna, who stated that Philip was not bound anymore to his treaty with England: it had been merely a personal treaty with a King now deadG19. And during the conference the Duke of Bedford died. Philip had no ties anymore with England and he had grown uneasy with the dangerous, too important English influence in France. But Charles VII had, when still the Dauphin, killed Philip’s father traitorously on the bridge before the castle of Montereau. Such a murder and offence could not be forgotten.

Charles VII now made a proposal in 29 articles in which he stated that he regretted the murder, which –he said - was forced upon him as a very young man by his nobles. After all, Charles was still only ten years old when the assassination had taken place. He proposed to give many riches, lands, towns to Philip the Good and he declared that Philip would not be under the sovereignty of the King of France anymore (but his successors would remain so, and also even Philip in the event that Charles would die). The articles stated explicitly however that the town of Tournai, though surrounded by Burgund territory, would remain to the King of France. Tournai, the town of the great painters Robert Campin, Jacques Daret and Rogier Van Der Weyden, was too wealthy to be abandoned by a King always in search of new money. Philip accepted. To the great anger of England, he would now be an ally to the King of France and soon also attack the English at Calais.

The conference of Saint Vaast at Arras thus was of the utmost importance. In time, it threw the English back over the Channel, ended the Hundred Year War and enabled the Kings of France to end feudal medieval France. Bye and bye, a King of France - Charles’ son Louis XI - would also end the Duchy of Burgundy. But that was in the far future in this year of 1435 when the conferencing knights and ambassadors admired Jacques Daret’s altarpiece. Jean du Clercq proudly presented the altarpiece to the ambassadors. Both the Duke of Burgundy ‘s chancellor and the Papal legate, Nicollň Albegati wrote having seen and admired the paintings and the statues F20 .

Jacques Daret painted the abbey of Saint Vaast on the ‘Visitation’. The fortified abbey rises out of the green landscape as a dream, with white walls and turrets. The Gothic cathedral grows slim and elegantly above the abbey, its blue roofs resemble the skies. We also can see the bell tower and the main entrance gate.


We have looked at three ‘Visitation’ pictures. One painting was from Spain, the others from Hungary and Flanders – all regions that lay thousands of kilometres apart. Pictures have to be placed in their historical context in order to be fully understood. Modest themes like the ‘Visitation’ were painted with major historical events in the background.

Catholic Spain was just completely recovered from the Moors at the end of the fifteenth century. Moorish Spain had known a splendid culture, but Christian Spain was emerging from its darker ages. The Master of Perea was one of the Spanish painters who started an artistic tradition in that land.

Master M.S. was called to a rich gold mining town in a region that had strong links with the Italian Renaissance. Hungary’s Christian art would practically disappear after 1526 in hundred and fifty years of Turkish domination.

The town of Tournai in the Hainaut region engendered a generation of important Walloon masters of the school of the Flemish Primitives. One of these, Jacques Daret, made an altarpiece for the occasion of the most important peace conference of his century.

The Master of Perea lived and worked in Aragon and his King Ferdinand gave Spain, Aragon and Castile joined, to the man who married his daughter. That was Duke Philip le Bel of Burgundy. This Philip was a descendent of the Philip the Good of Burgundy who was the lord of Artois for which Jacques Daret made his painting. Philip le Bel’s son, Charles V, inherited the territories of Burgundy and Spain and would become the German Emperor. Charles’ sister Mary married Lajos, the last King of Hungary before the Turks overran the country. Lajos was defeated by the Turks and Mary of Hungary fled from Budapest and governed in the name of her brother Charles his provinces of Flanders. European history had linked Spain, Hungary and Flanders and Artois.

In view of such events, pictures gain an additional dimension and a grandeur that one would not suspect.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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