We were talking about anachronism just a couple of days ago (Lent 23), and if it seemed unlikely that the Via Crucis would skirt around a church, it is even less likely that it would pass someone who looks like a monk, as they came even later. He’s not a monk, as it happens, but we would be hard pressed to tell the difference these days. He kneels, in prayer, his hands joined in front of his waist, the thumbs rather charmingly crossed. Below the flared white sleeves is his white belt, with the end that has been fastened through the buckle wrapped around the main length to form a knot. It loosely gathers his long white robe, which is covered by an equally long white hooded cloak, parted at his chest by the praying hands. It lies over his right forearm, the subtle modulation of light and slightly-less-light revealing the precise position of his arm, then falls to the ground in elaborate folds.
He is not a monk, as he does not live a life of seclusion: he is a Premonstratensian canon, an order founded in Prémontré, near Laon, in 1120. His duties would have been to preach and carry out pastoral ministry in parishes not far from his abbey. In England they were known as the White Canons, and you can see why. But why would a Premonstratensian canon be kneeling in our painting? What role does he play? Well, if you look carefully, and consider the direction of his gaze, he is not playing a role at all.
When founded, the order was one of great austerity, imposing additional statutes to the Rule of St Augustine, which was strict enough already. We could have guessed as much from this portrait. He has a rather pinched face, with hollow cheeks, a long, thin, slightly hooked nose, and hollow eyes. The skin appears tight across the temples. He has been enjoying great austerity, I would say. The ragged haircut – possibly tonsured on top – shows his humility in the face of human vanity, and his look is one of total concentration on his devotions. Both his face and his torso are angled towards us ever so slightly, so that we can see him better, and as a result we can tell that he is looking straight ahead, focussed on something in the distance – or into the middle distance, as he focusses on his own contemplation.
All of this means that he is not involved in the action of the painting – he is not looking towards it, but rather, out, and away. He is thinking about it, even praying about it, but it is almost as if he is not there. Or even, as if the action of the painting is one big thought bubble. This is the portrait of a man thinking about, meditating upon, the passion of Christ. It is, of course, a donor portrait: this is the man who gave, or donated, money (hence ‘donor’) to have it painted. In other words, he is the patron of the painting. For many years there was no real idea as to who he might have been, but recently, I believe, it has been suggested that he could be Herman van Rossum, who was the provost of a convent in Koningsveld, near Delft, at the beginning of the 16th Century. Our painting would originally have been housed there, but, since the convent was all but destroyed in 1572 – presumably in the war with Spain – you will not be able to visit today. Below is a print which shows what the ruins looked like in 1680. As far as I can tell, it was just outside the city walls, not far from the position from which Vermeer painted his View of Delft (Lent 23), its place now taken by a 20th Century (?) housing estate.
This portrait of Herman van Rossum has offered us a moment of contemplation, a pause before we too contemplate the rest of the story. But his attitude tells us one way of responding to these events: the attitudes and behaviours of those present will also tell us how to respond, as we shall see in the next few days.
The origins of portraiture in Western art lie in images of donors, like the one we have seen today. They showed appearance, yes, character, sometimes, and in this case, belief. From this point onwards portraiture found many new forms, and rapidly left its sacred setting to find an increasing number of secular spaces. I will be talking about some truly wonderful examples from the 19th Century – created by some fabulous masters of the colour white, as it happens – this coming Wednesday, 17 March at 6pm GMT. If you are interested, and available, you can book via this link to the Art History Abroad website: Painting in Parallel – Sargent, Sorolla and Zorn.