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Saint Luke painting the Madonna

Jan Gossaert (1478-1532). Kunsthistorisches Museum – Vienna.

The Evangelist Luke was a Greek doctor as is said in a letter of Saint Paul. He probably came from the town of Antioch. Luke wrote the third Gospel and also the Acts of the Apostles. It is believed that the Evangelists questioned Mary about all the events that had happened to Jesus, so the ‘Golden Legend’ says that the gospel of Luke was disclosed to him by the Virgin Mary G49 . Luke accompanied Paul on the first conversion missions. Pictures feature him as writing his Gospels, but mostly as painting the Virgin. Luke has become the patron saint of doctors and surgeons as well as of painters. Especially in Flanders and Brabant most painters’ guilds, medieval professional associations of painters were called ‘Saint Lucas Guilds’. This was the case in Bruges, Antwerp and Louvain.

The theme of Saint Luke painting the Virgin was a popular one in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. These pictures were often made for the painters' guilds. Legends tell that Luke made a picture of the Madonna and some of these pictures allegedly turned up by miracle in medieval times. The Saint Mark church of Jerusalem claims to hold this most ancient icon, which is today shown proudly to its tourists.

Jan Gossaert’s picture of ‘Saint Luke painting the Madonna’ gives the immediate impression of being overloaded. The setting is in a Roman palace, in which even the walls and its columns are filled with bas-relief carvings or trompe-l’oeil drawings. Notice the sculpture of Moses on an elaborate round niche behind Luke and the Angel. Jan Gossaert liked Renaissance forms and elements and used them in profusion in his major panels.

Luke is shown painting and he uses the Virgin’s writing desk as easel. Her book is still beneath. Luke is more drawing with a pen than painting, which is in line with the use of the writing desk. Luke is clad in a luxurious robe, the folds of which are painted meticulously. An Angel holds his hand, thereby underscoring the Godly or heavenly inspiration and origin of Mary’s picture. The Angel also is magnificent, shown in flamboyant pure colours. Especially the Angel’s hair is curled in a way quite uncommon in Flanders. The Angel definitely looks like a girl with its hair done so elaborately.

The Madonna is not posing for the picture during her lifetime. She appears to Luke in a vision, in a dream. Many baby Angels or putti hover around Mary. The Virgin is floating in a mandorla, an almond shaped frame (mandorla means almond). The mandorla were the clouds in which Jesus and Mary ascended to heaven. The mandorla in Gossaert’s painting is very elaborate, fully surrounded by clouds and filled with little angels who hold the crown above Mary’s head.

Jan Gossaert was born around 1470 to 1480 in Maubeuge, a town that is now in Northern France. Hence his nickname of Mabuse. He became a master painter in Antwerp however. He built up a huge reputation, travelled a lot and conversed with many other painters thus influencing them with his ideas of new art. He worked for the court of the Dukes of Burgundy, painting for the Dukes and his courtiers. In 1508 he accompanied Duke Philip of Burgundy to Rome G9 . There he learnt the Antique Ideal, beauty in nudity and in sculpture. Gossaert also worked for the King of Denmark, Christian II. Adolph of Burgundy kept him a while in Zealand, in the Netherlands, in the residence of Middelburg. And Gossaert also worked in Brussels, Bruges, and Mechelen. He was the first northern painter to bring the antique nude image from Italy to Flanders.

Gossaert’s paintings were ambitious in their decoration and theme. But the man Gossaert lacked soul and originality. He tried to compensate these disadvantages by stunning the viewer, just as in the ‘Luke painting the Madonna’. Gossaert had the skills of a master draftsman and the wealth of colours is harmonious in his pictures. He painted well and easily and knew it. Gossaert lacked however in force, expression and interior spirituality. He lacked the intelligence of innovative and original vision to make a powerful composition. Gossaert’s language of forms was sculptural and very mannered and artificial. He was deeply impressed by the Renaissance’s ornamental splendour and by the erudition of the Italians. But instead of judiciously absorbing what he had learnt and then render his own feelings and vision, he overloaded the viewer with the erudition and seemed to suppress his own intuition.

Gossaert’s ‘Luke painting the Madonna’ has undeniable qualities, however mannered, cool and artificial the whole may look. The composition of the scene is strong and Gossaert certainly knew how to picture intricate detail. He lacked in this scene the power to express the spirituality of the moment, as well as the warm intimacy of a painter and his model. Jan Gossaert was a transition painter between the Flemish Primitives and the later Flemish Baroque period. We feel Baroque exuberance is being born here. Exuberance has been freed, restraint abandoned. Gossaert was a master artisan but he lacked the individuality and power of a great personal character.

Jan Gossaert is a fine example of a painter gifted with the aptitude to draw and to paint to perfection, but he was not gifted enough to imagine impressive scenes. He tried to make up for his deficiencies by adding elaborate decoration and detail, that is by showing off with his skills to the extreme. The result is often pedantic, artificial, cold and superficial. Gossaert was at his best in pictures of nudes. But even in his portraits, he usually set the figures against overloaded backgrounds. Yet, this kind of pictures may have well pleased the courts at which Gossaert worked. The pictures added to the monumental grandeur of the palaces. Although Gossaert has left us marvellous portraits, his other paintings are less attractive to our more humble tastes.

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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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