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Jan Gossart Mabuse at the National Gallery.

ONE of the many puzzles about this Netherlandish master of the early sixteenth century, which is what we should call him, is not hard to solve. Martin Davies (from 1945 to 1968 compiler of the catalogues of the Early Netherlandish School tat the London National Gallery, and the gallery's Director from 1968-1973) noted that after 1515, roughly the midpoint of his career, the master signed his pictures Joannes Malbodius (Jan of Maubeuge) with no reference to Gossart. Malbodius was the Latin for 'of Maubeuge', a town on the river Sambre at the edge of the Ardennes. Its name in the painter's native Flemish was Mabuse. With Valenciennes, the birthplace of Antoine Watteau about 25 miles to the north-west, it was ceded to Louis XIV of France as part of Hainault in 1678.

The painter is named as Giovanni di Mabuse by Vasari in the enconium on 'Various Flemish Painters' in his Lives of the Painters of 1568, thirty-six years after Mabuse's death, and also by van Mander in his Schilderboeck of 1640. A design of c.1515 by Mabuse for a coloured glass window in honour of St John the Evangelist (either unused, or else destroyed in 1799 with the rest of the Cathedral of St Donatian in Bruges) is preserved in the print-room of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. On a stately cartouche in one corner, and in the same brown ink as the rest of the drawing, it bears the signature, 'Jehannin Mobuze'. Subsequent arthistorians have, as in the current exhibition at the London National Gallery, Jan Gossaert's Renaissance, mistaken his name. His masterpiece in the gallery, The Adoration of the Kings, is signed Jenni Gossart de Mabu[se], whimsically on the brim of the Moorish King Balthazar's crown. To make doubly sure, the collar of Balthazar's black attendant is inscribed with a further signature, Jennin Gos[art]. The cloth on which Balthazar carries an anachronistic monstrance is embroidered with what may be taken as the date of the picture: MDVII. That would be plausible enough. Although Martin Davies disputes the date, a more renowned authority on Netherlandish painting, Max Friedlander, adduces internal evidence for placing the picture at c.1506. Such an elaborate and meticulously finished work could well have taken the greater part of two years to finish in all its detail.

Even the date of Mabuse's birth is conjectural. Martin Davies suggests that Mabuse may be the 'Jennyn van Henegaw' (Jan of Hainault) who graduated as a master in the guild of painters of Antwerp in 1503, and assumes that he became a master at the age of 24, although that was late for the curtailed lifetimes of the sixteenth century. That would make his date of birth c.1479. In the absence of evidence from parish registers, nobody has bettered Davies's speculation so far. Research by Jose-Maria March, firmly supported by contemporaneous evidence, makes it certain that Mabuse died at Middelburg in Zeeland in 1532. Thus his span was from c.1479 to 1532--sadly, only about 53 years.

Probably through some connection with the Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled most of the Netherlands at that time, Mabuse had drawn the attention of Philip, one of the many illegitimate children of Duke Philip (sycophantically called 'the Good') to his paintings. Philip of Burgundy, Admiral of Zeeland and later Bishop of Utrecht, had commissioned occasional works from Mabuse since 1507. When Margaret of Austria, Regent of Flanders, sent Admiral Philip from her court at Malines (or Mechelen in Flemish) as an envoy to Pope Julius IT in Rome, he took Mabuse with him. Thus Mabuse preceded Maerten van Heemskerk in sending back to Flanders pictorial records of antiquities. That is what Philip, a noted classicist, most wanted; although he also relished Mabuse's company, according to van Mander, for their shared dissipations. The embassy passed through Verona, Mantua and Florence, possibly after taking ship from the French coast to Leghorn to avoid the Alps. On this swift Grand Tour, Mabuse lingered behind the main party at times, no doubt to increase his knowledge of Classical Italy. In Rome he made a meticulous sketch of the Graeco-Roman statuette, Spinario (Leiden University Library), in which a boy pulls a thorn from the sole of his foot. Either the figurine was high on a pedestal, or Mabuse tilted it backwards in order to display his skill in simulating the undersides of the thighs and loins in all their muscular swell by means of narrowarcing cross-hatch shading. It is a rare feat of painstaking and unremitting patience; not a mere copy but a transfiguration of the model.

During his exploration of Italian galleries he was fascinated more by the statues than by the pictures. He had the chance to see Michelangelo and Raphael's work in preparation at the Vatican, but passed it by in favour of quite obscure three-dimensional Hellenistic statuary. He loved contour rather than colour. Yet he animates what in a statue would be inert, as if blood flowed through the marble veins. The effect is akin to the scenic logic which Jean Cocteau applies to the illogical in his film, La Belle et la Bete (1946). As its heroine explores the stairway of the Beast's castle, the sculptures with which the steps are lined start to breathe. Since they are cold stone, their nostrils exhale mist. Likewise, Mabuse's figures, although motionless, imply (by their gestures, their facial expressions and exchanges of glances, and above all by their tactility) incipient movement.

Mabuse was one of the painters most capable of representing the sense of touch, as may be seen from his panel of Hercules and Deianira (1517) at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, which is a special example of how he rendered tactile qualities in paint. As the enamoured couple sit together in an embracement with curiously entangled legs (her raised ankle flattening his calf, the bridge of her other foot spanned by the arch of his) they almost twine into the hermaphrodite Mabuse delineated in two stages, in the tiny panel at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen at Rotterdam, of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (c.1517).

The story is told by Ovid in his Metamorphoses IV: weary of her solitude in a lake near remote Halicarnassus, the robust water-nymph Salamacis dragged Hermaphroditus, son of Venus and Mercury, into it as he was passing by. The lake had the unusual characteristic of rendering effeminate any man who drank from it. Complete immersion had a more rigorous effect on Hermaphroditus. He emerged from the foam half-man and half-woman. In this picture Salamacis shows herself to be a calculating and ruthless wrestler, her gaze fixed and her abdominal muscles flexed, as she prises Hermaphroditus back over her thigh. To signify Salamacis's triumph, they appear on the far side of the lake, near a windmill, looking quite pleased, even if with only two legs, surmounted by a wisp of ivy, to share between them. Above the waist they diverge, although their enclosing clasp suggests that, no longer wrestling but embracing, they will soon be merged.

Mabuse displays his dexterity in rendering tactile effects still more in the Birmingham picture of Hercules and Deianira, to which we now return. Hercules sinks his finger-tips deeply into her bare waist, dimpling the gloss of her skin, amply supported by the complacent tissue underneath, as with one hand she traces the ridge of his shoulder. Deianira's free hand toys with the folds of the vestigial flit of her remaining attire as her ringlets waft about her bosom. The decidedly unhandsome Hercules (perhaps a portrait of a patron) is wiry rather than colossal, but his menace is attested by his massive ironbound club and the braggart list of his achievements carved into the couple's stone bench. These two statues of Mabuse's own invention have come to life like Pygmalion's Galatea, infused with a vital fire.

The Children of Christian II of Denmark (British Royal Collection; formerly at Hampton Court), painted in 1526 is a more sombre representation of the sense of touch. It portrays children not with the hilarity of Hogarth's Graham Children (London Tate Gallery) but with the solemnity of dull hopelessness. Their mother, Isabella of Austria, has recently died, which is why they are wearing mourning clothes. Their father is in well-deserved disgrace and exile. Christina, the infant daughter of the King of Denmark, the niece of the Emperor Charles Vand the future Duchess of Milan and afterwards Duchess and Regent of Lorraine (the subject of portraits by Holbein, van Orley and here Mabuse) sits numb and bemused as she fumbles with an apple, exploring its whorls and contours with her small three-year-old hands. Holbein's Duchess of Milan is content for now to learn what the shape of an apple feels like. Her elder sister Dorothea listlessly rolls an apple across the green cloth of the table where they are sitting. Her brother Jan, never to become King of Denmark, sweeps away three cherries with the back of his hand. The fruit does not delight them. Gloom alone suffuses their pudgy infantile faces. They sit closely by each other's sides, Jan and Christina armin arm, Dorothea pressing against Jan's shoulder. It is Mabuse's most humane picture.

The tenderness of this triple-portrait is consistent with Mabuse's evident dislike of harsh scenes, such as martyrdoms or executions. The few renderings of such subjects attributed to him are sometimes drawings for uncompleted projects and sometimes engravings of doubtful attribution. This gentle painter preferred portrayals of human shelter and support. His favourite subjects were Adam and Eve (before the Fall) and the Virgin with a playful but affectionate Child. The two subjects are curiously paired, since the infant Jesus is always carrying or being tempted by an apple. Perhaps the religious symbolism is that having redeemed mankind of the sin of disobedience, represented by the apple, He has dismissed the significance of the apple.

The first painting of Adam and Eve (Thyssen Collection, Madrid) appears to date from c.1510 but not necessarily after the Italian journey. Like William Blake, Mabuse seems to have learned the elements of anatomy from the prints of Durer and other German artists of the early Renaissance, which were not hard to obtain. Durer, for example, sold his own engravings at a stall in the market-place at Nuremberg. The Madrid painting may have been prompted by Durer's engraving of Adam and Eve, but does not replicate it. Mabuse's bearded mentor, Adam, is clearly older than the girlish Eve and, whilst offering Eve harmless nuts or berries, points upwards as if reminding her of God's one proscription. Adam looks out of the picture, as if into the future, when mankind will use its free-will so atrociously. Eve looks downward, smiling at her own ideas inspired by Satan, and hides the apple behind her back.

Not until c.1525, in the Adam and Eve at the Grunewald Hunting Lodge in Berlin, did Mabuse use direct life-models. In Adam and Eve (British Royal Collection; formerly at Hampton Court) Mabuse still owes traces to Diirer. Their frankness is covered by Adam's spray of ivy and the soft drift of one of Eve's long tresses across her abdomen to merge with a sprig of leaves from the apple she hides behind her back. Once more Eve looks down, but this time to evade Adam's steady assessing gaze. Their arms remain around each other's shoulders. In her perplexity about how to explain herself to him, Eve twists one of her legs around another and nervously smoothes out the undergrowth under her toes.

Late in 1509, having loitered among the classical antiquities of Rome and Florence, Mabuse returned to Flanders. Probably his patron did not regret a delay which further advanced Philip's ambition to bring the Revival of Learning to the North; in fact to Walcheren, the outmost island of the Zeeland Archipelago formed by the confluence of the deltas of the rivers Scheldt, Maas and Waal. Vlissingen [Flushing], the south outlet of the Scheldt was already silting up, but remained the main seaport for travellers, so Walcheren and its provincial capital Middelburg were well visited. After his travels in Italy, Mabuse seems to have decided that Walcheren was quite big enough for him. Middelburg was near the Residence of Philip of Burgundy, the Admiral of Zeeland.

There Mabuse remained for most of his last years and, after the death of the Admiral, was inherited by Philip's great-nephew Adolf of Burgundy, Lord of nearby Veere. His other patrons were not far away. The Habsburg Court was at Brussels. The Regent of the Burgundian Netherlands, Margaret of Austria was at Mechelen. Jan Carondelet, the Chancellor of Flanders, was for most of the time at Bruges. The Guild of St Luke at Antwerp, which had incorporated Mabuse as a Master, was a few miles away along the River Scheldt.

Thus Mabuse was content to settle in Philip's Residence and, when the Admiral-Bishop died in 1524, moved in, like an old retainer, with Philip's grand-nephew at his Manor in Veere on the north side of the island. Both grand houses were close to Middelburg where the island's principal market was held. Then the farmers and their wives--and to Mabuse's delight, it seems, their daughters--crowded the town and its taverns. Mabuse's reputation as a libertine reached van Mander a hundred years later. Yet he had a large and pious religious picture, a Deposition from the Cross in the Abbey for which Middelburg was best known. Regrettably, it was destroyed by fire, probably in the conflagration of 1568. He reverted to the subject in a triptych of 1521 (St Petersburg, Hermitage), but is unlikely to have replicated the version at Middelburg. The Middelburg painting was so famous that Diirer braved the chilling sea-fogs of Zeeland to pay it a special visit in 1520. He was disappointed. He noted that, in his view, the painterly details were better than the general composition: 'nit so gut im Haupt-streichen als im Gemal'.

This criticism has also been made of Mabuse's Adoration of the Kings in the London National Gallery. On the contrary, the Epiphany may be seen as crowded indeed, but crowded with linked felicities, from Joseph wonderstruck, not by the parade of the Kings but at the delectable flight of eight angels above (surely the most lovely image of early Flemish painting), to the donkey intently gnawing a root; all within a long narrow perspective which slants towards a fretted horizon of Gothic towers: a nativity on the sea-coast of Flanders.

Authors Note: There is no catalogue for this exhibition; merely a picture book of some of the best-known Netherlandish paintings in the London National Gallery, few by Mabuse. Future students of Mahuse, seeking a printed record of recent research on Mabuse will need to revert to the thoroughly valuable but ill-bound (i.e., falling-to-pieces) catalogue of the Bruges and Rotterdam exhibition of May/August 1965, as well as the heavyweight handbook of the recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, N.Y., of which that in London is an off-shoot. Such inertia would seem unbelievable to Martin Davies.
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Author:Bruce, Donald
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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