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Organized by Koenraad Jonckheere in collaboration with Peter Carpreau, senior curator at M – Museum Leuven, this important, thoughtful, and beautiful exhibition aims to enshrine Michiel Coxcie among the select group of northern masters—Jan Gossaert, Jan van Scorel, Maarten van Heemskerck, and Frans Floris—who visited Rome during the first half of the sixteenth century and engaged inventively with the art of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo, as with their ancient sources, both sculptural and architectural. The exhibition and its Dutch- and English-language catalogues (which slightly vary in content) constitute a robust response, four hundred years after the fact, to the ambivalent account of Coxcie offered by Karel van Mander in his Schilder-Boeck (Book on Picturing) of 1604. It is worth dwelling, at least momentarily, on Van Mander’s assessment, since his chapter on Coxcie remains so influential and in fact underlies Jonckheere’s alternative formulation.
In the “Life of Michiel Coxcie, Excellent Painter of Mechelen,” part of Book IV on the Netherlandish and High German masters, Van Mander records two telling anecdotes about the artist. Having been shown a sculpture collection laboriously transported from Rome by a young painter, Coxcie observed acidly that he would have done better to take these works to heart, rather than lugging them home on his shoulders. As Van Mander explains, the older master was placing a premium on the assimilation of one’s models, which must be thoroughly committed to memory, as if imbibed (Karel van Mander, Het Schilder-Boeck, Haarlem: Paschier van Wesbusch, 1604, fol. 259r). The second anecdote, though less positive than the first, nevertheless complements it: Coxcie actively resented the print publisher Hieronymus Cock for issuing reproductive prints such as Giorgio Ghisi’s School of Athens of 1550, engraved after Raphael’s famous fresco; the reason was that they laid bare how closely adapted from Raphael were his major altarpieces, specifically the Dormition of the Virgin (ca. 1559) in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudule. Read in light of its companion anecdote, this one can be seen to imply that Coxcie loathed such prints because they externalized the mnemonic touchstones he had been treating like closely guarded personal property. Van Mander’s reading, however, is quite pejorative: he explicitly states that these prints betray a certain paucity of invention on Coxcie’s part, revealing his compositional faculty (ordinantie) to have been “less than copious” and perforce derivative (fols. 258v–259r).
Jonckheere’s exhibition and catalogue function as an elaborate apparatus designed to agree with the first anecdote, even while contesting the second. Room 1, for example, dubbed “To Rome and Back,” immediately sets the terms of discussion: two ambitious panels by Coxcie, Plato’s Cave (ca. 1530–39; newly rediscovered by Jonckheere) and the centerpiece of the Holy Kinship Triptych (1540), are juxtaposed with an altarpiece by his probable teacher Bernard van Orley, the Life and Death of the Virgin (ca. 1525), completed by the older master’s workshop, perhaps during Coxcie’s residency. Whereas Van Orley’s polyptych clearly emulates earlier paintings by Gerard David and Hugo van der Goes, Coxcie’s Holy Kinship completely transforms this popular northern subject, famously rendered by Quinten Metsys and the Master of Frankfurt, by assimilating the figural paradigms of Raphael and Leonardo. The central group of five, comprising Anne, Mary, Elizabeth, Jesus, and John, amplifies upon Raphael’s many variations on the Madonna and Child and on the Holy Family. Each of the major protagonists originates in a topically pertinent source by Leonardo: Anne from the Virgin and Child with St. Anne (ca. 1508) in the Louvre; the Christ child from the cartoon of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Infant John the Baptist (ca. 1499–1500) in the National Gallery, London; and John the Baptist from his counterpart in the Virgin of the Rocks (ca. 1506–8), again in the National Galley. Coxcie has adapted and integrated these citations in ingenious ways: Christ turns toward John, swiveling his head and torso as he does in the Louvre painting, but shifting his attention from his mother to his cousin; at the same time, he gestures toward Elizabeth, addressing her as he does John in the London cartoon, thus drawing her into the heart of the holy kinship. In these and other ways, the complex ties—corporeal, spiritual, and affective—that Leonardo so brilliantly explored in groupings of three and four figures are shown to center on and issue from Christ, who binds together an extended family of nineteen members.
Coxcie accomplishes all this and more, as Jonckheere usefully points out in the catalogue. For one thing, he continues to employ the technical refinements typical of Flemish painting. In place of Leonardo’s sfumato, he incorporates subtle changes of intense color that enliven the richly draped fabrics, and he minutely describes facial features in a manner reminiscent of Jan van Eyck. Furthermore, he interpolates as a sculptural ornament the celebrated statue known as Thusnelda, which he had studied in the courtyard of the Palazzo Della Valle-Capranica, and here displays in a prominent niche. The much admired effigy, whose pose and drapery are consistent with those of the figures below, serves to emphasize that the Holy Kinship, in its monumentality, has been painted all’antica (and, as an epitome of dignity enslaved, alludes, by way of antithesis, to Christ as liberator). In all these respects, as Jonckheere affirms, the painting indisputably certifies that Coxcie was one of the most accomplished Romanists of his generation.
Probably painted in Rome, Plato’s Cave, which combines citations from ancient sculpture (the Apollo Citharoedos, Falling Gaul, Satyr Reaching for a Bunch of Grapes) with citations from Michelangelo (Battle of Cascina [1504–5], Dying Slave [ca. 1513–16]), allows Jonckheere to argue that Coxcie, like an exponent of humanist philology, sought to discern the true sources of the new painting and sculpture. Since Plato’s Cave is an allegory on the search for ideal forms, it implicitly underscores the canonical status of Michelangelo. It also contains a deliberate solecism that alludes to a passage from Plato’s Sophist: the central figure with the proportionally mismatched head and torso recalls the distinction between making likenesses and making appearances; likenesses, even when they are faithful to nature, may give the impression of being disproportionate, and this is why painters sometimes adjust their ratios, preferring to cultivate the mere appearance of truth. Coxcie’s reference to this philosophical conundrum, as Jonckheere avers, evinces a high degree of familiarity with literary tropes circulating among the respublica literaria.
From the start, then, the exhibition makes a strong case for Coxcie’s visual erudition and emulative prowess. As will be evident, in putting forward the argument that Coxcie urgently requires to be revaluated, the exhibition and the catalogue (its main points well distilled in the audio guide) operate in tandem. Indeed, the crucial point that Coxcie, even at an early stage of his career, displayed absolute mastery over rhetorical principles such as decorum and never quoted haphazardly has to be made mainly in the catalogue since pictures such as The Fall of Man (ca. 1545–50) and The Expulsion (ca. 1545–50) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, painted soon after his return from Rome, and, like many of his works executed on panel, were deemed too fragile to travel. In The Fall of Man, Adam derives from the Torso Belvedere since he has yet to commit the original sin and, as such, still epitomizes male perfection, whereas Eve, already grasping the forbidden fruit, derives from the Satyr Reaching for a Bunch of Grapes, since she has succumbed to temptation, having failed to bridle her illicit desire. In the Expulsion, on the other hand, Adam resembles the Apollo Citharoedus by way of Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (ca. 1513–16), a personification of mankind’s struggle against concupiscence, whereas Eve, now overwhelmed by shame, summons up the Venus Pudica. These and other examples amply support Jonckheere’s contention that Coxcie utilized citation meaningfully.
Rooms 2 and 2a–b, respectively titled “Printed and Disseminated” and “Nimbly Drawn,” exemplify Coxcie’s skills as designer-draughtsman. The former chiefly displays the reworked second state of Coxcie’s popular, though now very rare series Cupid and Psyche (ca. 1535), based on Apuleius Metamorphoses, adapted from Raphael school drawings, and engraved by Agostino Veneziano and the Master of the Die. The latter contains the magnificent series of ten modelli for the Loves of Jupiter (ca. 1541–42), another popular set of engravings, this time based on Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Whereas both print series were produced for the open market, the other drawings shown here resulted from Habsburg patronage: the suite of six large windows commemorating Charles V and his royal relatives, designed by Coxcie between 1541 and 1556 for the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in the Church of St. Michael and St. Gudule; and the Competition between Apollo and Marsyas and Punishment of Ixion (ca. 1548–49), painted for the grande salle of the Chateau of Binche, as part of an allegorical cycle on pride commissioned by Mary of Hungary. That the Ixion was hung beside Titian’s Tityus, Sisyphus, and Tantalus (ca. 1548–49) confirms the Habsburgs’ high regard for Coxcie, whom Mary had appointed court painter by 1546 at the latest. Along with the tapestry cartoons and tapestries displayed in room 3, “Painted for Wool and Silk,” and the devotional paintings in room 5, “Beloved by King and Emperor,” these designs raise an obvious question, which Jonckheere and his co-authors Almudena Pérez de Tudela and Melina Reintjens attempt to address in the catalogue: what was it that so distinguished Coxcie, prompting Mary of Hungary and, after 1555, Philip II to favor him as their foremost court painter in the Low Countries (Almudena Pérez de Tudela, “Michiel Coxcie, Court Painter,” 100–15; and Melina Reintjens, “The Habsburg Windows in Brussels Cathedral,” 140–55). As they suggest, his ability to reconcile three styles—all’antica, Flemish, and Roman—into a perfectly synthetic compound that remained virtually unique until the advent of the next generation of painters (Frans Floris, Willem Key, Maarten de Vos, and their students) came to signify the singularity of the House of Habsburg and its ambition of renewing the ancient Roman imperium under the banner of Christ.
Room 4, “Master of the Counter-Reformation,” assembles prime examples of Coxcie’s avowed orthodoxy, including the Carrying of the Cross (ca. 1540), an early work to which Charles V became so attached that he took it with him upon retiring to the Hieronymite monastery of Yuste in 1556, and the Self-Portrait as St. George, one of the outer wings of the St. George Triptych painted ca. 1575 for the Antwerp Guild of Arbalesters, in which Coxcie strongly identifies with the soldier-saint whom he portrays in the armor and colors of a Habsburg knight. Unfortunately, the artist’s most profound religious statement, the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament (1567), painted for the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament in Brussels and now in that city’s Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, could not be included in the exhibition. As Jonckheere brilliantly demonstrates in the catalogue, the centerpiece, a Last Supper, adduces Christ as the living image of God who justifies all sacred images by juxtaposing him with two empty niches inscribed with verses 3 and 4 from Exodus 20. These are the well-known prohibitions against the exaltation of alien gods and the making of graven images that obtained under the Old Law but are now displaced by the New Law of Christ.
The exhibition concludes splendidly in room 6, “Out of Van Eyck’s Shadow,” with Coxcie’s copy of the Ghent Altarpiece, painted for Philip II between 1557 and 1558, soon after he became the king’s painter. Divided between several collections, all the surviving panels have been reassembled for the first time since their dispersal in the early nineteenth century. As a fitting conclusion to this memorable exhibition, they remind the viewer that Coxcie’s artistic commitments were never less than complex: one of the greatest Romanists of the mid-sixteenth century was also a painter steeped in the traditions of early Netherlandish painting.
Walter S. Melion
Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Art History, Art History Department, Emory University
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