Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

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 exhibition, which also traveled to London's National Gallery, was accompanied by a gorgeous and hefty catalogue. The shrewd decision to include every known work by Gossart, all reproduced in color and with individual entries, gives this catalogue value beyond its record of the exhibition. At the same time, this catalogue's secure position as the definitive text on Gossart's art makes its scholarly omissions all the more significant. As its title, Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures, suggests, the catalogue emphasizes Gossart as an artist under the spell of Italian humanism, classism, and libidinousness. What is missing from the essays gathered here, but fully manifest in its vivid images, is the depth of religious passion and the height of sacred vision realized in Gossart's body of Christian painting.

While his Italianate qualities may have distinguished Gossart from his Netherlandish contemporaries, he remained principally a painter of portraits and religious works. In fact, Gossart transformed several motifs and compositional structures, taken from artists such as David and Dürer, into his own distinct visual language in which there is a dialectic exchange between visual experience and spiritual reality.

Virtually all of Gossart's known religious paintings address one of three themes: Adam and Eve's temptation; Mary and the Christ child; and Christ's passion. Each of these motifs, specifically as Gossart employs them, directly confronts viewers both with the reality of their own sin and with the potential for salvation in Christ. Some of Gossart's works, such as the Malvagna Triptych (ca. 1513-15), unite two of these subjects. The Malvagna Triptych's exterior panels, depicting Adam and Eve's temptation in Eden, open to a heavenly vision of Mary and the Christ child attended by saints and angels. The fixed and often disassembled state of many Netherlandish altarpieces belies the fact that these works were intended to be physically employed in private and corporate worship. In the best examples of this genre of devotional art, as in the Malvagna Triptych (which has remained intact), the physical movement of these panels (the opening and closing of wings, the dividing and uniting of images, the revelation and concealment of images, the passage from exterior to interior) aims to initiate a spiritual passage of the soul toward an encounter with the sacred.

The Malvagna Triptych's visual and theological structure originates in a state of sin. When the exterior panels are closed, we see Adam and Eve standing, pre-fall, naked in Eden. In fact, this work was a collaborative work in which Gossart painted the figures and Gerard David supplied the landscape. (This type of partnership between two master artists was common in Netherlandish art.) Gossart's Adam and Eve stand, with their arms amorously wrapped around each other, in a pose that suggests the influence of Dürer's print of the same subject from a series called The Small Passion (1511). If the attributed date for the Malvagna Triptych is accurate, Gossart adapted Dürer's composition fairly quickly. Art historian Max Friedlander has even wondered if Gossart might have preceded and influenced Dürer. This is unlikely since Dürer's treatment of Adam misses the theological innovation of Gossart's composition. In fact, Gossart's depiction of humanity's first parents breaks with tradition in at least one significant detail. Following convention, Dürer shows Eve taking fruit from the serpent, while Adam dutifully warns her against this act. Gossart's Eve already holds a piece of fruit in her hand while Adam reaches for fruit directly from the serpent, confirming his own culpability. In the background, a sword-wielding angel drives them from Eden. The inclusion of Adam and Eve in a devotional altarpiece, as an object in the Mass, establishes a contrast between the sinful eating of the fruit and the sanctified partaking of the host.

The Malvagna Triptych's structural and iconographic configuration demonstrates how the liturgical operation of the Netherlandish devotional altarpiece admitted the worshiper, in sight and faith, from corruption to exaltation. When this dimensionally intimate yet visually sumptuous altarpiece is opened, the central panel reveals an exquisite image of Mary and the Christ child. We behold them enthroned in an elaborately painted high gothic architecture surrounded by pudgy Italianate cherubs singing and playing musical instruments. Although Christ and Mary have often been referred to as the second Adam and Eve, the Malvagna Triptych is a rare example of a folding altarpiece that connects them as the exterior and interior subjects. (There is precedent for this iconographic arrangement in Gerard David's Triptych of the Sedano Family, 1490-95.) The Malvagna Triptych, as a liturgical object to be employed in the Mass of a private chapel, is a medium by which the worshiper may first acknowledge their fallen state in sin and then gain access to paradise's glory.

The triptych exemplifies how Jan Gossart's art is theologically and visually rooted in a Netherlandish tradition of devotional art. The development of Netherlandish pietistic art in the 15th century was directly shaped by religious developments in the previous century. The rise of the Devotio Moderna (Modern Devotion), articulated by texts such as Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ, shifted the worshiper's attention away from God's unknowable divinity to Christ's personhood. Christ's humility, suffering, resurrection, and ascension were put forward as models for the Christian to contemplate.

The Devotio Moderna's emphasis on intimate and inward-oriented spirituality manifested itself in a particular theology of vision. Netherlandish devotional art was governed by a three-stage spiritual conception of vision. This originated with the carnal vision of the viewer/worshiper's active gazing and seeing. However, the worshiper's vision was to be focused not on but rather by the image. The image would lead the worshiper inward to an emotional and imaginative state in which they beheld the holy subject. The spiritual reward of this meditation was a spiritual vision of the invisible. The image would be a means by which the worshiper, transported through belief, would enter the presence of the imageless. Thus this process of encountering the sacred moved first from sight to faith and then from faith to transformed sight.

The theological climate in the Netherlands of the 14th and 15th centuries, which continued to have effect into the 16th century and beyond, led to the development of a particular mode of devotional art. In his 1984 book Icon to Narrative: The Rise of the Dramatic Close-up in Fifteenth-Century Devotional Painting, Sixten Ringbom describes three types of Christian art: didactic narratives, venerated icons, and empathic images. The devotional image is neither viewed, as narratives, nor venerated, as icons. Ringbom notes, "The devotional image belongs to the domain of private piety where it is used as a recipient of prayer and benediction, or as an incentive and aid to meditation which is the preparatory stage for higher level of contemplation, an image-less state of mind where external aids should no longer be needed." Whereas the icon transports the worshiper spiritually and the narrative image absorbs the viewer pictorially, the devotional image confronts the worshiper. First instilling the worshiper with a sense of repentant passion, the devotional work rewards this piety with entry into the presence of a sacred made imminent.

Specifically applied to Jan Gossart's art, Ringbom's distinction of the devotional image from the narrative image and icon is clarifying. While there is less danger in mistaking Gossart's works for icons, regarding them as failed narratives equally misinterprets them. While Netherlandish art can be narrative, Gossart's works are generally not. Although Max Friedlander has criticized Gossart for the artist's limitations as a "storyteller," I would suggest that other qualities, such as the theological and artistic structure of the work of art as an evocation of sacred presence, might have been more important to Gossart than narrative development. The Devotio Moderna emphasized the spiritual benefits of suffering and self-denial. A conception of the work of art as visual passage from the corporeal to the spiritual are evidenced in both the thematic choices and compositional structures of many of Gossart's religious works, such as his Saint Jerome Penitent (ca. 1510). This work is the combined exterior panels of a dismantled altarpiece, whose overall size suggests that it may have been intended for private use. Meditating on this image, Gossart moves the worshiper through several stations of penitence.

As visual theology, Gossart's Saint Jerome Penitent realizes, in its language and composition, a practice of adoration. Starting from the rocky ground at the lower left, our vision is drawn towards Jerome; the artist has even placed a pointed rock in the image's lower-left corner to direct our visual/spiritual movement. The orientation of the saint's posture and gaze then redirects us, leftward and upward, toward the crucified Christ. While Jerome is our model, Christ's suffering is the ultimate and highest point of our devotion. Following a process of elevating devotion the visual passage of this work—from material/stone to meditation/Jerome to faith/Christ—is repentant; we move first in one direction and then another. Saint Jerome Penitent is not illustrative of a religious subject; its structure moves us through the mechanics of belief to realization of greater intimacy with Christ.

A model of piety, Jerome has stripped off the religious formalities of his cardinal's hat and robe to bare his body and soul before a crucifix attached to a rugged tree. In this discussion of Gossart's work as devotional art, it is worth specifically noting that it is Jerome's contemplation of this visible object that ignites a zeal within him. Jerome, as depicted by Gossart, is model of the proper use of visible images/objects in worship. It is through this movement from carnal, to meditative, to spiritual vision that Jerome models the life of faith and temperance that, in the case of this altarpiece, literally opens to a communion with Christ.

Painted in grisaille, Saint Jerome Penitent suggests a world as "seen dimly." The altarpiece opens (as if this interior image were the reward for our piety) to reveal Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (ca. 1510). This nocturnal scene's principal source of illumination is a crescent moon, a symbol of Christ's death and resurrection. (This is both because the phases of the moon may symbolize death and resurrection and because the First Council of Nicaea established that Easter's date would be set in relationship to the moon's phases.) In this deeply felt work, we witness the depth of Christ's "dark night of the soul." We are visually drawn, between the sleeping disciples, toward Christ. He kneels on the ground but his posture is upright; there is little sense of agony in either his body or face. Christ is absorbed in prayer. For a worshiper intent on imitating Christ by meditating on his passion, Gossart's Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane encourages belief.

Gossart's Christ in prayer is both the object of and model for the Christian's worship. Christ looks up to a backlit angel, which seems frozen in space. Placed on a rock before Christ is a Eucharistic chalice and wafer. While the angel's presence can be explained from Scripture, the chalice and wafer are extra-biblical elements which must have been intentionally placed there by Gossart. In fact, their purpose is directly tied to the altarpiece's liturgical function. These signs of Christ's body and blood connect this altarpiece with the Mass. Furthermore, that Christ is looking at the chalice and wafer, tangible and visible material, is significant. The implication is that even the Savior, God incarnate, benefited, at least in his humanity, from visual aids that led him to contemplate his own passion. It is hard to think of a stronger defense of devotional art.

Although this work, especially the image of Jerome, suggests some of the sculpture-like qualities that characterize many of his figures, scholars have not agreed if this altarpiece was painted before or after Gossart's 1508-9 trip to Rome. Perhaps no episode in Jan Gossart's life and work is more often employed as the prism through which his artistic accomplishment is viewed than his trip to Italy. Gossart spent seven months in Rome as part of Philip of Burgundy's entourage. This diplomatic mission to Pope Julius II, himself a patron of the arts, allowed Gossart to study and sketch classical and renaissance architecture and sculpture. Being one of the first Netherlandish artists with personal knowledge of classicism brought Gossart fame. Being called "the Apelles of our age" is both praise and a description of Gossart's attempt to realize modern subjects in the forms of antiquity.

One of Jan Gossart's most visually resplendent and theologically complex works is Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin (ca. 1520-22). Applying oil painting's capacity for detailed realism to its maximum effect, Gossart makes the sublime present. The subject of Luke painting a portrait of Mary and Christ had some important precedents in Netherlandish art, particularly van der Weyden's famous treatment. The popularity of this subject is explained in part by the fact that artists belonged to the Guild of Saint Luke. Representations of Luke painting or drawing an image of the Virgin and Christ were employed to celebrate artists' social standing as skilled craftsmen and scholars. In one of the greatest artistic treatments of this subject, Gossart breaks with traditional conventions for representing Luke painting the Virgin and Christ, transforming it into a model of piety and vision.

In reinventing this motif, Gossart relocates the site at which this encounter takes place from the secular space of artist's studio to the sacred realm of the church. Precedent-setting depictions of this subject set the encounter in a domestic or studio space, as if Mary and Christ had come to sit for a portrait. In fact, Gossart had made an early work of Luke, the Virgin, and the Christ child that takes place within a less specifically defined, presumably domestic if not also palacious, setting where they all occupy the same temporal space. However, in his later Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, Gossart depicts the evangelist, situated in an Italianate church, envisioning Mary and Christ.

The specific nature of this vision is Gossart's second break with other renditions of this subject. He depicts Mary as the Queen of Heaven being crowned by angels, affirming her as an intercessory figure. However, since he is drawing Mary and Christ, it is unusual that Luke is not looking at them. He may not even be seeing them corporally. What we see, with the aid of this work of art, may not be a miraculous and visible apparition of Mary and Christ but rather Luke's inner vision. In a third departure from previous representations of this subject, Gossart includes an angel guiding Luke's drawing hand. This angel's presence evokes representations of the evangelist being inspired by an angelic presence to write his gospel. In fact, Luke's own gospel may be the book that rests in the lectern's arched shelf. Perhaps Luke was absorbed with this book when he had the mystical vision. As Luke's faith has become sight, he has placed the book under the lectern, where it acts as a theological support for his creative act. This direct connection between the writing of the gospel and the drawing of the image is one of several ways in which Gossart defines and defends the theological foundation of his own artistic vocation.

Luke has removed his shoes; he is performing sanctified work on holy ground. This reminds us of Moses before the burning bush. In fact, there is a history in Christian art of associating Mary and the burning bush. However, the association between Moses and Luke is rare. In this case, Gossart placed a sculpted figure of Moses directly above Luke, as if the vertical axis were an Old Testament/New Testament timeline. Moses, who looks like a sculpture come alive, holds the tablet of the Ten Commandments and may even be pointing to the second commandment, the potential prohibition of representational religious art as idolatrous. Having Moses looking down in approval on this event, Gossart transforms him from iconoclast to iconophile.

Gossart's Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin asserted the claims of religious art at a moment when the Protestant Reformation was rapidly transforming Europe. It is worth noting that Martin Luther, who defended the proper place of the visual arts in worship, appeared at the Diet of Worms in 1521. In 1522, Andreas Karlstadt convinced the Council of Wittenberg to have all works of art removed from their churches. The first widespread and violent Protestant iconoclasm occurred in Zurich in 1523. The spread of Protestantism across northern Europe dramatically altered the course of art history and, where it was adopted, radically transformed, and often brought an end to, this type of visionary devotional art.

But Gossart's art is more than an example of Netherlandish art in its final pre-Reformation phase. In the Malvagna Triptych, Saint Jerome Penitent, Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin, Gossart developed thematic and compositional innovations that directly furthered the purpose of devotional painting. Although his art is not as consistently strong as that of Gerard David or Albrecht Dürer, Gossart did make several distinct, and underappreciated, contributions to the history of Netherlandish devotional art. The richness of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibition, and the regrettable absence in the catalogue of a greater scholarly treatment of Gossart's religious art, suggest that his place—as well as that of Netherlandish devotional painting—in the history of Christianity and the visual arts deserves further examination.

Exiting the exhibition and walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Gossart's Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane still impressed on my mind, I was struck by Vincent van Gogh's Cypresses (1889). Painted at a time in his life when Vincent was experiencing a revival of faith, Cypresses, when considered alongside Gossart's work, evidences an influence of Netherlandish devotional painting that is both pervasive and largely ignored in Vincent's art. Although neither Christ nor an angel is depicted, Cypresses evokes a spiritual empathy between the twisted form of the trees (which Vincent used a symbol of death) and the crescent moon (which he understood as representing Christ's resurrection). Both of these motifs also appear in Vincent's Starry Night, a vision of eternal spiritual communion in the afterlife. If the purpose of Netherlandish devotional art is to move us from temporal sight to personal faith and to transformed vision, Cypresses emblematizes the continuing significance of Netherlandish devotional art, in which the whole world can be seen as an encounter with the sacred.

James Romaine is associate professor of art history at Nyack College and co-founder of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art. He is the editor of Art as Spiritual Perception: Essays in Honor of E. John Walford, just published by Crossway.

Most ReadMost Shared