Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 5, 2015
William Breazeale and Victoria Sancho Lobis Passion and Virtuosity: Hendrick Goltzius and the Art of Engraving Exh. cat. San Diego: University of San Diego, 2013. 47 pp.; 23 color ills.; 2 b/w ills. Paper (9780976085461)
Exhibition schedule: Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, October 20, 2013–January 26, 2014; Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Galleries, University of San Diego, San Diego, February 21–May 25, 2014
Hendrick Goltzius. The Annunciation (Birth and Early Life of Christ) (1594). Engraving. 47.9 x 35.5 cm (platemark). University of San Diego, PC2013.3.

Toward the end of their introduction to the catalogue that accompanied Passion and Virtuosity: Hendrik Goltzius and the Art of Engraving, curators William Breazeale and Victoria Sancho Lobis quote what is certainly the single most incisive sentence in the whole of the Goltzius literature, first framed in Karel van Mander’s 1604 Het Schilder-Boek: “All these things . . . prove that Goltzius is a rare Proteus or Vertumnus in art, because he can transform himself to all forms of working methods” (9). With the Passion and Virtuosity exhibition and catalogue Breazeale and Sancho Lobis aim to illuminate “all these things,” employing the prints from Gotzius’s final two magisterial series of engravings, the Birth and Early Life of Christ (1593–94) and the slightly later Passion (1596–98).

Although the work of the wide-ranging virtuoso Goltzius (1588–1617) has certainly drawn less intense critical scrutiny than that of his sixteenth-century northern European predecessors Lucas van Leyden and Albrecht Dürer, these late engravings have been the object of close and meticulous scholarship. The catalogue essays are thus essentially review articles, and they perform this function well by providing a carefully annotated distillation of recent scholarship which disentangles often complex arguments in a way that makes them maximally accessible to a wide audience without compromising a vibrant viewing experience.

However, the real strength of the exhibition at the Robert and Karen Hoehn Family Galleries at the University of San Diego is its visual material. Both the Birth and Early Life of Christ and the Passion are laid out in their entirety. There is ample supporting work from Goltzius’s own oeuvre as well as important comparanda from Lucas and Dürer, along with other supplemental work. Especially in the case of the Birth and Early Life of Christ, the possibility of studying the complete six-engraving sequence is vital in order to evaluate the claims made for his art initially by or on behalf of Goltzius himself, then elaborated by van Mander and glossed by numerous subsequent commentators and historians.

Those claims turn first of all on the dedication penned by Cornelius Schonaeus, and then, of course, on evidence provided by the work itself. It was Schonaeus who first raised the comparison with Proteus (directly) and Vertumnus (obliquely): “Just as Proteus among the waves transformed himself when he / was prey to desire for the beautiful Pomona, / Thus, O Prince, the admirable engraver and inventor, / now transforms himself by means of a changeable art for you (quoted in Passion and Virtuosity, 13). Schonaeus thus claims that Goltzius is able to “transform himself” through the systematic appropriation of the “hands” (manners or styles) of other artists (for example, Lucas and Dürer) which he then deploys as a means of establishing his own mastery of a “changeable” medium, that is, an art which is itself both transformable and transformative.

A comparison between the Circumcision from the Birth and Early Life of Christ and the parallel scene from Dürer’s woodcut Life of the Virgin (1511) provides perhaps the most stunning confirmation of this claim. Goltzius’s variation on Dürer’s composition provides a brilliant homage to the earlier master; but what is most striking is the way in which Goltzius is able to manipulate the engraver’s burin to evoke not just the general look, but the particular technical sophistication of Dürer’s earlier woodcut. Clearly, the exhibition has here placed viewers in the presence of two masterpieces of the highest order; and it is a pure joy to be able to savor all the complexities of the dialogue that unfolds between them, an experience filled out with usefully deployed anecdotal and historical details in Breazeale’s catalogue essay, “Goltzius’s Birth and Early Life of Christ: Transformation and Renown.”

If the Circumcision provides the most stunning case of Goltzius’s protean skill, it is also the most straightforward. The artist’s approach to his other northern rival, Lucas, whose challenge he takes up in his response to the earlier artist’s engraved Adoration of the Magi (1513), is another tour de force of formal manipulation, variation, and recombination (all spelled out concisely by Breazeale). Here, however, Goltzius’s burin work seeks not to ape Lucas’s technical mastery, but rather to evoke its general “effect,” resulting in a metaphorical Lucas rather than a counterfeit Dürer.

Of the remaining four prints in the series, three (Visitation, Adoration of the Shepherds, and the magnificent Holy Family with the Infant Saint John the Baptist) are clearly based on Italian models and reflect the artist’s experience on his 1590–91 trip to Italy. There has been, however, some scholarly disagreement as to which particular Italian model or models might correspond to which of Goltzius’s finished engravings. (For a summary of the scholarship, see Breazeale’s essay. Walter Melion’s groundbreaking studies are still the necessary starting point for these inquiries; see Walter S. Melion, “Karel van Mander’s ‘Life of Goltzius’: Defining the Paradigm of Protean Virtuosity in Haarlem around 1600,” in Susan J. Barnes and Walter S. Melion, eds., Cultural Differentiation and Cultural Identity in the Visual Arts, Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1989, 113–33.) Regardless of how these scholarly disagreements eventually play out, the following should be noted. Whereas Goltzius’s interest in Lucas and Dürer is pointed and his responses to their work are precisely calibrated, he seems to regard “Italy” as the repository of a more generalized set of pictorial strategies rather than as the home of particular individual personalities against which he is called to match his skill; in contrast, his competition with Lucas and Dürer is cast in personal terms.

The first in the series taken chronologically as a narrative is the delicately beautiful Annunciation which carries the dedicatory verses quoted in part above. It is also the least easy to place in relation to specific model or models. Rather, it seems an attempt to project a personal and Netherlandish synthesis of the artist’s Italian experience, or to embody a paradigmatic facsimile of Italian handling in general, while leaving relentlessly explicit the protean struggle with Lucas and Dürer.

Unlike the Birth and the Early Life of Christ, the Passion series, Goltzius’s final comprehensive embodiment of the engraver’s art, is not cast in agonistic terms; nor is it overtly protean in its approach. Nevertheless, it also illustrates the artist’s ability to master a uniquely “changeable art.” This time the issues in play are religious and ideological.

As Sancho Lobis makes clear in “Silent Oratory in Goltzius’s Passion,” Goltzius, working in Haarlem in the North Netherlands during the final years of the sixteenth century, was forced to market his prints to a confessionally heterogeneous audience. Indeed, the situation was yet more complicated than this, since post-Tridentine Catholic attitudes toward the pictorial image were themselves undergoing paradigmatic shifts to which Goltzius would have been privy thanks to his professional contacts in Antwerp.

One of the prime movers of this shifting Catholic terrain, the polymathic Milanese Cardinal-Archbishop Federico Borromeo, was the dedicatee of the Passion series. And it seems not unlikely that the Passion reflects, even if indirectly, attitudes that eventually coalesced in Federico Borromeo’s 1624 De pictura sacra (On Sacred Painting). Perhaps most important is Borromeo’s likening of the painter’s job to that of the orator or preacher (Passion and Virtuosity, 34).

In order to complicate the implications here, it is useful to compare Christ Crowned with Thorns (1597) with earlier engraved versions of the same subject produced by Dürer (1512) and Lucas (1521). In some ways, this is a difficult subject. Christ must seem passive, but not detached or emotionally disengaged. Dürer is perhaps most successful at conveying this complexity; Lucas’s Christ seems to withdraw into himself, hunkering down in abjection, while Goltzius presents a savior whose physical attitude is almost relaxed. But there is another and more important difference between Goltzius’s Christ Crowned with Thorns on the one hand, and those of Dürer and Lucas on the other. The latter two engravings are both extremely small, their spaces claustrophobic, their formal organization designed to focus attention directly on the figure of the suffering Christ. In short, they are designed to facilitate private, meditative devotion of the sort that might climax in a moment of imitatio, the evocation of Christ’s physical and ultimately redemptive suffering in one’s own sinful body. In any case, the experience they encourage is direct, personal, and intense.

Goltzius’s treatment of this incident is quite different. Although the print is hardly monumental in size, its depiction is spacious, opening up and back to encompass a considerable if ultimately enclosed urban space. Thanks, however, to Goltzius’s consummate skill in manipulating his formal elements, that expansiveness is never quite sufficient to divert awareness away from the central if displaced figure of Christ. Instead, there are multiple figures: some no more than background staffage, but many seeming to form scattered groups of observers, connected to the action on perception, even if not directly engaged in it. In a sense they become a congregation, if not a particularly sympathetic one, and their attention to the central action models the viewer’s own. Meanwhile, that action unfolds by means of a cleverly mediated structure. Visually, it resembles a narrative set at one remove from the viewer: a dramatic enactment, a play. But that dramatic structure in turn recapitulates the silent emotional drama of inspired oratory, the speaking and hearing of the Word substituting for its mimesis.

As Sancho Lobis argues, this kind of devotional strategy exemplified by the late medieval imago pietatis or Goltzius’s wonderful 1585 devotional Crucifixion is supplemented by a more discursive, text-based strategy, which served the ideological needs of the Counter-Reformation as articulated by Borromeo. Yet it could appeal to an evolving Protestant sensibility, one that similarly privileged word over image, the Word as preached over the Word as embraced and experienced.

Glenn Harcourt
independent scholar

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