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Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges.

This publication accompanied the exhibition of Petrus Christus's works held at the Metropolitan Museum from April to July of 1994. The catalogue essay, "The Art of Petrus Christus," and the catalogue are by Maryan Ainsworth. Two additional essays, "Bruges During Petrus Christus's Lifetime," and "Petrus Christus: A Cultural Biography," are by Maximilian P. J. Martens as is an appendix: "Archival Documents and Literary Sources." A second appendix: "Dendrochronological Analysis of Panels Attributed to Petrus Christus," is by Peter Klein.

The exhibition enabled the Metropolitan to place a major portion of Christus's known and attributed works together for visual comparison, most of them for the first time. These included twenty-three works, including eighteen paintings, one miniature, and four drawings. In addition, the catalogue beautifully reproduces the St. Jerome from Detroit's Institute of Arts, once attributed to Jan van Eyck; Christus's Madonna With Sts. Barbara and Elizabeth and Jan Vos, made possibly in Jan van Eyck's workshop, from the Frick Collection; and a drawing by a Christus follower, from the Biblioteca Reale in Turin. The Eyckian diptych of the Crucifixion and Last Judgement from the Metropolitan Museum's own collection was also on display, though not included in the catalogue or discussed in the text except for a brief mention of inscriptions on its frame and a black-and-white reproduction.

Considerable scientific analysis was undertaken in preparation for the exhibition. The results were included in the show, and ranged from infrared reflectography, xradiography, and dendrochronological evaluation. The evidence of this study - particularly the reflectography and radiography - forms a critical element in Aynsworth's essay on the art of Petrus Christus.

Christus was the most important of Bruges's painters between Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. Three years after Jan van Eyck's death, he became a citizen of Bruges in order to enroll in the painters' guild. In emulation of van Eyck, Christus signed and dated a small number of his paintings, even though none of Christus's Bruges contemporaries - and only a few other painters of the fifteenth-century Netherlandish school - signed their works. As a result, there is a core of paintings more-or-less securely attributable to the artist. Earlier scholarship has also drawn an inevitable, though far less dependable, link between Christus and van Eyck, assuming Christus to have been in van Eyck's workshop, and to have completed at least two of van Eyck's works at his death.

Two monographs and several scholarly articles over the past twenty years have not settled all of the many problematic matters of attribution and association for this artist, but it seems unlikely now that Jan van Eyck and Petrus Christus were ever so directly associated. Christus appears to have been aware of some of van Eyck's workshop practices, and therefore may have had access to his studio at some point, but the matter is moot.

Petrus Christus lived until 1475 or 1476. While several other Bruges painters are prominent in the archives of the period, scholars have not yet isolated their works by name. Hans Memling, who became a citizen of Bruges in 1465, and who signed his name and dated several of his own works, is the next major Bruges artist.

Ainsworth's basic chapter on Christus deals with the historiography of Christus scholarship and the documentary evidence of signed and dated works, seven of which are valuable as such, especially since no proven documents of commission or payment for Christus's paintings survive. Ainsworth follows with an analysis of the artist's painting technique and chronology, devoting considerable space to the comparison of underdrawing techniques by Petrus Christus.

These criteria tend to be confusing. The discussion of the Lamentation in Paris, for instance (not in the exhibition), first acknowledges the apparent authenticity of the underdrawing of figures and faces, then finds the faces in paint uncharacteristic of the artist, though these follow the underdrawing closely. Meanwhile no discussion ensues on the poor condition of the entire paint surface or repainting of the Paris work which is distinctly evident, even in the reproduction. Comparison of the Lamentation with the Death of the Virgin, cat. 15, in the Timken Art Gallery, San Diego, presents some distinct affinities in painted drapery style, faces, and landscape, despite the erosion and size differences between the two works.

The computer-assembled reflectographic images were difficult to read in originals at the exhibition and are much more so in the text. Further, the assertions of technique that seem to derive from them seem based on far too few comparisons for this reader to feel secure about the conclusions drawn. This analysis continues to represent specialized knowledge about which the lay viewer is advised rather than actively engaged.

In the Friedsam Annunciation, for instance, the reader is invited to compare the underdrawing of the Virgin's garments with that of the Virgin's garments in the Frankfurt Madonna and Saints (figs. 132, 142, 145). Not only is the comparison inconclusive when the images are confronted, but the styles of drapery in the two paintings are so different as to increase doubts as to the common source.

The Friedsam Annunciation is in general an ongoing problem, presented here as "attributed to Christus" with many arguments for the attribution. Unconvinced, this writer has no reasonable alternative to present for an attribution but can only note the work's affinity with the several magnificent paintings displayed as "School of van Eyck" or even "Hubert van Eyck" in the world's museums.

CHARLES I. MINOTT University of Pennsylvania
COPYRIGHT 1996 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Minott, Charles I.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1996
Words:901
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