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The Glorious Entry in Jerusalem

The Entry in Jerusalem

Jan van Scorel (1495-1562). Centraal Museum – Utrecht.

Jan van Scorel was a remarkable personality. He was named after the village Schoorl, a village near Alkmaar in the Northern Netherlands, were he was born in 1495. He studied in Amsterdam. The Netherlands artists were in search for their own style, away from International Gothic and away from the Flemish Primitives. Van Scorel was drawn inexorably to Jan Gossaert who was in Utrecht in 1515, when van Scorel was still young and could be influenced. He was drawn to Italian experiences and to classic themes. Gossaert was considered then to be able to show the new direction in painting, resolutely focused as he was on Italy. Van Scorel started to travel. He went to Strasbourg, to Basel and Nuremberg where he met Dürer. He continued to Venice and from there passed even to Palestine, to the Holy Land, to Jerusalem. Van Scorel apparently was in search for fundamental values, in search for his absolute spiritual truths. From Jerusalem he returned to Venice and then to Rome where he became a trusted art counsellor of Pope Adrian VI who also originated from Utrecht and was only too eager to talk and trust another Dutchman. After about two years in Rome, van Scorel returned to Utrecht and worked there until his death in 1562.

Jan Gossaert had remained a halfway painter. He was torn to continue on the one side the Northern Dutch and Flemish tradition of precise detail of all forms, in the use of symbols to add meaning in all religious themes and to the use of pure colours that filled the contours. On the other side he had seen in Italy the marvels of colour that could make appear volumes by themselves and he had seen and admired the architecture of classic antiquity. He had seen the beginning of Mannerism in Italy and been impressed by Michelangelo’s nudes. Like Jan Gossaert, van Scorel was one of the first Flemish/Netherlands painters to represent the human naked body for its own purpose of representation.

Van Scorel applied light and shadow as the most essential elements, especially in his interior scenes. His religious pictures seem to have lost their spirituality and are set sometimes in antique, imposing Italian monumental architectures. These were maybe less maniacally detailed and les over-laden than Jan Gosssaert’s, but still gave the same impression of artificiality. Of van Scorel’s search for inner spirituality - after all he had been to Jerusalem, he had worked for the Pope in the Vatican and become a canon in Utrecht – little can be found in his remaining works. These were the pangs, the convulsions of a Netherlands new art in the making. Van Scorel looked in Jan Gossaert’s direction. Gossaert pointed to Italy and van Scorel followed the superficial ideas, not seeing the profound spirituality of the greatest Italians and of his own tradition. Another Dutch painter of these times, Lucas van Leyden, had shown a tendency to look at the Bible only as to a book of stories to be told in a secularised manner. The same can be said of van Scorel.

Van Scorel excelled in portraiture. He had seen the world, its aristocracy and its misery. So he matured and was a master in the expression of character. His loss of the fifteenth century tradition of profound spirituality in feeling religious scenes was not a detriment to his art of portrait painting. Van Scorel’s influence continued after his death in the Netherlands. Maarten van Heemskerck followed his italianising path and Anthonis Mor his portraiture.

Jan van Scorel’s ‘Entry in Jerusalem’ is a work that epitomises these tendencies. Van Scorel had been to Jerusalem, so it was a theme he mastered.

Luke tells that when close to Jerusalem, Jesus’ disciples found him a tethered colt that no one had ridden yet. They took the colt to Jesus and, throwing their cloaks on its back, they lifted Jesus on it. As he moved off, they spread their cloaks in the road, and now, as he was approaching the downward slope of the Mount of Olives, the whole group of disciples joyfully began to praise God at the top of their voices for all the miracles they had seen. They cried out: “Blessed is he who is coming as King in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens!” G38

Van Scorel shows the town of Jerusalem in the background of his painting. The city remains in vague colours, wrapped in a light fog. The dramatic hard landscape of the hills of the true Jerusalem has made way for a thought, a dream image as remembered a long time after by a Dutchman come home. The left part of the panel shows Jesus and his disciples coming down a hilly path to the valley of Jerusalem. The contrast between these two parts of the picture is striking. For this part contains intricate detail and Jesus and the disciples are Dutch countrymen. They are seemingly on their way to their own private image of a mirage, of a golden town in the heavens, where they will see all their wishes come true. Jerusalem is the end of the journey, the mystical town. The conflict between the two parts of the painting is striking. The left part is in clear forms and hard colours. The right part remains vague. Maybe Jan van Scorel remembered his own arrival in Jerusalem this way. Yet, remark the usage of shadows and darkness in the road, and in the lower figures.

Van Scorel’s painting has nothing to compare to the Roman classic architectures and the monumental settings of Jan Gossaert. It is as if van Scorel was already leaving Gossaert’s influence behind. Lucas van Leyden strove to represent a religious scene as a popular event. Jan van Scorel did the same. In his picture Jesus and the disciples are ordinary Dutch peasants and fishermen walking down a mountain. Every figure is occupied with himself; Jesus is no exception from the other figures. All is nervous movement; gestures go to all sides as also van Leyden painted.

The ‘genre’ feature, the trait to depict intimate scenes of local and mostly interior scenes of local life was a strong feature of Flemish and Netherlands painting. In the late sixteenth century, Flanders’ cities were less rich as before and the wealth was being amassed in Antwerp of Brabant. But Antwerp was a metropolis and its painters more men of the world than ever before. Rubens was an ambassador, and Van Dyck a court painter. These were not men to show simple life of the Flemish countryside nor did they frequented commissioners who would have ordered such pictures. The local streak did not disappear completely however in Brabant, since Jacob Jordaens worked a lot on such scenes. But it developed more in the Netherlands. Van Scorel was a precursor of Dutch genre painting and that would grow to a proper, strong worldly movement in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands port towns.

Jan Gossaert, Lucas van Leyden and Jan van Scorel were the major masters of the early till middle sixteenth century of the Dutch school. They tried to leave a tradition but had not enough inner force, imagination, soul, and spirituality, to create their own mature styles. They left traditional values behind but could not bring entirely something of the same value instead. They lacked individuality and force. The one artists – Gossaert - thought to find a new style in the ornament of Roman antiquity, which would then slip into over-laden, heavy use of decorative elements without soul. The other would seek novelty in genre scenes, mostly applied to religious themes. But they could not rival with the delicate use of such style elements as for instance before them had done a Hugo van der Goes. Others again, like Jan van Scorel, turned to the representation of movement in their pictures. International Gothic was characterised by lack of gestures and motion. Its figures had remained very static and dignified. Jan van Scorel’s figures in the ‘Entry’ are all in movement. But action is uncoordinated; it is present in the picture for action’s sake and not for strength of composition. All these painters had in common was that they sought effect to impress their commissioners and buyers. Van Scorel obtained effect by showing Jerusalem – he could say he had been there -, by the various gestures of his figures shown in detail, which is always a feat in a picture, and by transposing the entry of Jesus to his time.

There is always value in a search. Van Scorel’s picture may have been more a success than another. The overall result of this half-style is disappointing when compared to the artisan skills and talents these painters possessed. The best of these artists delivered excellent work in portraiture and in landscape painting, which would then evolve also to mastership art in the seventeenth century.

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