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James Romaine

Jan Gossart

Netherlandish devotional art on the eve of the Reformation.

Netherlandish devotional painting of the 15th and 16th centuries is among the most visually rich and theologically complex developments in the history of art. Artists of the Low Countries, from Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden to Hans Memling and Gerard David, combined the aesthetics of spectacular realism, which only the medium of oil on panel could make possible, with the theology of mystical visions of sacred encounter, encouraged by a religious climate that emphasized the infinite rewards of personal faith. Nevertheless, northern European artists of this period rarely receive acclaim equal to that of their Italian contemporaries. The need for a greater scholarly study of Netherlandish devotional painting is evidenced by the art of Jan Gossart (c. 1478-1532). A contemporary of Albrecht Dürer, who both praised and influenced his work, Gossart represents a compelling example of a painter of devotional works on the eve of the Protestant Reformation.

Although he was acclaimed in his own lifetime, Gossart has largely been relegated to passing references toward the end of Northern Renaissance art surveys. Gossart is best known, to the degree that he is known at all, as a painter of mythological couples, such as Neptune and Amphitrite or Hercules and Deianira. The erotic charge of these paintings delighted Gossart's courtly patron Philip of Burgundy, who—despite being named Bishop of Utrecht—enjoyed a playboy's lifestyle. Since nakedness in Netherlandish art had often been associated with religious shame, the brazen sexuality of some of Gossart's pagan nudes is conspicuous. Nevertheless, an emphasis on the sensuality of his mythological paintings, which only represent about ten percent of his known oeuvre, perpetuates a false portrait of Gossart.

This narrow framing of Gossart's work was apparent, for example, in the 2010 retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled "Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart's Renaissance." This well-organized ...

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