Geertgen tot Sint Jans, The Glorification of the Virgin, about 1490-95. Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam.
I have a new favourite artist (those of you who follow me on Instagram might have noticed), although sadly a dozen of his works seem to have survived, maybe a couple more or less. This does mean that I can look at all of them when I offer Some Light for the Solstice this Tuesday, 21 December – the Solstice itself. That will be the last talk this year, and I’ll start again with Laura Knight on Monday, 10 January. That week, on the Thursday, I will also talk about Dürer and the Art of the Garden for my friends at Art History Abroad. As ever, as well as these links, details are (or in this case, will be shortly) in the diary. For those at the Dürer talk last week I said I’d come up with some book suggestions. Have a look at those listed on this UK Bookshop link – I’d recommend the book edited by Christof Metzger (the one with the big, coloured wing) and Jeffrey Chipps Smith’s volume in the Phaidon Art & Ideas series (white, with a Hare).
My new hero is none other than Geertgen tot Sint Jans, an artist whose name, which seems unpronounceable (unless you are Dutch, of course), must have contributed to his relative lack of fame. Well that, and the fact that so few of his works have survived, of course. We know almost nothing about him, but what there is I will go into on Tuesday. For anyone who has joined me recently after my talk for Members of the National Gallery, first of all: welcome! And then, yes, this is more or less the same talk, but somewhat edited, with extra added paintings – but you have heard most of it before! The focus for the talk will be the National Gallery’s Nativity at Night, but today I’d like to have a close look at what may be a small painting (it measures 24.5 x 20.5 cm, smaller than an A4 sheet of paper – or for that matter, smaller than US letter size, if you’re over there), but it is, nevertheless, one of the noisiest I know.
The painting is a Madonna and Child, a common-enough subject, but it is unlike any other I have seen, even if it does draw on familiar elements. Mary, dressed almost entirely in red, as she often is in the North of Europe, holds the Christ Child in her arms as they both look down to our left. They are surrounded by a brilliant glow of light which gradually diminishes in a series of concentric oval forms, leaving the corners of the painting in deepest darkness. Jesus truly is, in the words of Simeon during the Presentation at the Temple, ‘A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel,’ (Luke 2:32). Neither the light nor dark is uninhabited, though – imagery is spread across the surface. Mary is poised on a crescent moon, although we cannot see how (this is a vision, after all) – it could be that she stands behind it, with her legs disappearing in the celestial effulgence. Her red robes fall over the moon, with a creature clinging on underneath. We are seeing how the Virgin Mary was associated with the Woman of the Apocalypse, ‘a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars,’ (Revelation 12:1), the description which would be used to furnish the iconography for images of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (for a full explanation, if you still need one, see Picture Of The Day 71 and POTD 72). This was a doctrine particularly associated with the Franciscans (in the 15th Century at least, when this painting was made), although elsewhere in the painting there is evidence that it might be better associated with the Dominicans.
Mary does not wear a ‘crown of twelve stars’ though (this was interpreted as referring to the twelve apostles – or for that matter, the twelve tribes of Israel, between them representatives of the ‘gentiles’ and ‘thy people Israel’), but a very elegant, filigree, medieval crown which, in essence, is very similar to the Crown of an English Queen in the Munich Residenz. It rests on a garland of roses – a single red one at the front is then flanked by a number of white (five, maybe?) before another red, and so on, to form a ring – not unlike a rosary. Now, as it happens (though not by coincidence), to the left and right of the holy couple, in the middle, orange/red ‘sphere’, we can see an angel on either side who is holding a rosary. These are made of a number of red beads separated by larger white beads: the connection to Mary’s garland is made clear by the use of identical – if inverted – colours. There was a ‘Confraternity of the Rosary’ in Haarlem, the city in which Geertgen worked. He painted an altarpiece for them which is now lost, although the composition is known through copies: I may have time to look at those on Tuesday. Today’s painting could be another commission associated with that Confraternity, or with one of its members. We simply don’t know where it was until the middle of the 20th Century when it ‘appeared’ on the market in the States. However, the rosary was an aid to prayer specifically associated with the Dominicans. Indeed, Dominican belief was that that Mary herself had introduced the founder of the order to the concept, and paintings regularly show her – or Jesus – handing the rosary to St Dominic. These are all clues which could help us to work out the origins of this jewel-like piece, although, as yet, we don’t have the full story.
In the central ‘sphere’, yellow/gold angels place the crown on Mary’s head, and below them on either side their fellows – cherubim and seraphim – continue the eternal tasking of praying and praising, with their arms raised or hands joined in prayer. Immediately above the crown the orange/red angels hold banners saying ‘laus’ – Latin for ‘praise’ – although each iteration of the word has a line above it, the implication being that these are abbreviations. In this case the full word would be ‘laudamus’, or ‘let us praise’. It works with either reading, or, most probably, with both. Below them are the two angels holding the rosaries, and then two more holding two of the ‘instruments of the passion’ – the ‘tools’ used to torture Christ before and during his crucifixion. Easter is never very far away from Christmas. On the left we see the cross itself, and on the right, the column to which Jesus was tied for the flagellation. In the top left and right of this detail, we see the edges of the third ‘sphere’ with ethereal angelic forms in a deep violet lit with yellow. If you thought it was quiet in heaven, the angel at the top right holds a set of bagpipes. Now, I do love the bagpipes but (and here I must apologise to my Scottish friends) I love them more the further away they are. I live in Durham now, and I prefer the (slightly more local) Northumberland pipes. Opposite the bagpiper the angel plays a fife and drum – more stirring, almost military music, it would seem.
However, this is not an overall ‘theme’, which, in terms of music if nothing else, is inclusivity. Every possible instrument is shown. At the top we see a large shawm (although without its protective cylinder, apparently) and a lute. Going down to the left from these is a vielle (an early form of violin) and a ‘flat hand bell struck by a beater’ and then the ‘long pipe and snare drum’ which earlier I called the fife and drum – I’m quoting from an article by Emanuel Winternitz in the Musical Quarterly of October 1963. In the top left corner is an organ, with the organist joined by another angel who is pumping the bellows. At the top right is another keyboard instrument which Winternitz identifies as – possibly – a clavicytherium (whatever that is…). Next to this are an angel with a number of small bells hung from a string and another playing a harp. The bagpipes are below, and further down there is a curved trumpet.
Continuing down from here, on the left are a hurdy gurdy, an angel with a pair of claw bells and another with a ‘small clapper’, while going up on the right we can see ‘large clappers’, and a triangle hung with metal rings. The orange/red angels on the left hold the cross – we saw the top of it before – and, below that, the spear which pierced Christ’s side. On the right is the sponge with which Jesus was given vinegar during the crucifixion, and above this is the full length of the column. Clinging to the underside of the crescent moon we see the grotesque form of some sort of lizard, its mouth open hissing, its long, thin tongue flicking over the edge of the Virgin’s robes. As God says to the serpent in Genesis (3:15), ‘And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel’. Mary is seen as ‘the woman’, and Jesus ‘her seed’: perhaps he has lifted his heel out of the way. But this creature is referred to again as the dragon over which St Michael and the angels were victorious: ‘And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world’ (Revelation 12:9). A similar form clings to the underside of the rosary with which Veit Stoss frames The Annunciation in Nuremberg which I discussed back in May last year (Picture Of The Day 70).
At the bottom in the middle sphere are the crown of thorns (on the left), and, on the right, the three nails which were driven through Jesus’ hands (one nail each) and feet (one for both feet), together with the hammer used to commit this barbaric act. Below this, an angel holds two hand bells, but must be deafened by the coiled trumpets on either side. In the bottom left corner one figure plays the clavichord, while another kind soul (quite literally in this case) holds the music. The focus required to play the dulcimer – a stringed instruments struck by ‘hammers’ – is evident in the bottom right corner from the angel’s downturned face. Nearby was can also see a double shawm and a ‘pot’. I don’t know how this works, but it looks like the angel is jangling cymbals over a small cauldron, presumably a version of a kettle drum. In the centre, flying up from below, the last musician blows a cromorne, which Wikipedia defines as ‘a French woodwind reed instrument of uncertain identity’. It certainly requires a lot of puff: look at his cheeks!
Notice how, for the outer sphere of angels, the music continues all around, and for the inner sphere there is a similar continuity of prayer and praising. For the middle sphere, though, there is a difference between top and bottom, a division between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The top four angels hold the banners saying ‘praise’ and/or ‘let us praise’, with a threshold marked by the pair holding the rosaries. Below them are the instruments of the passion, curving down beneath the moon into the zone of the dragon. The way to heaven is through prayer, assisted by the rosary, and this leads us upwards towards praising.
At the centre of it all, Jesus is also part of the music. He has a claw bell in each hand, holding them delicately between thumb and forefinger, each one shining with a silvery light reflected from above. He may be lifting his heel away from the ‘old serpent’, but he could equally be dancing for joy – one leg kicked up, arms swinging from side to side, wriggling with delight. He and his mother, as I have said, look down to our left, but why down there? Well, surely they are looking towards the angel who returns their gaze, the angel who is also playing claw bells. Jesus is leading the way, encouraging the music, conducting even, the source of all the joy and light, the origin of the harmony of the spheres, and all this for the glorification of his own mother. Similar bells can be seen hanging from a cradle in the collection of the Musée Cluny in Paris, dated to the beginning of the 16th century, no more than two decades after this beautiful image was painted.
Bells were used as talismen, as it was believed that their ringing would keep infants safe from evil spirits, as well as imitating the music of the angels at the Nativity. But this is no normal cradle – it is called a Berceau: repos de Jésus, and is neither the cradle of a normal, human baby nor a toy. It is a sacred object, a sculpture, probably made for a nun, to encourage her devotion. Writings recommend that the owner should think of the cradle as their heart, a place where Jesus should safely repose, with the pillars that support it on either side representing the Old and New Testaments. As you rock the Christ Child in his cradle (sadly, if there was an ‘original’ figure, it has gone) the bells would ring. The angels look down from above, the child is safe, and so are our hearts. In the painting, however, it is Jesus himself who rings these bells – and leads the heavenly host in making the most astonishing sound, music like you have never heard. These instruments would never have been played together, the rough and ready with the more refined. As a whole, this must be a remarkable cacophony, but a positive one, a fulfilment of the invocation in the first verse of Psalm 100: ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands,’ with the operative word being ‘noise’!
Whatever your beliefs – and I, for one, put my faith firmly in art – I wish you a very happy Christmas, and look forward to the light on the other side of the solstice. For more of this artist’s delicate, detailed, and delightful paintings, please do join me this Tuesday.