Two men are crammed into this long, thin painting which was once the right wing of a triptych (a painting in three parts). In front is the donor. He wears the white habit of a Premonstratensian canon; the mitre (headdress) in front of him shows that he is a mitred abbot. Behind him is Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the fourth century.
‘Moderation in all things’ is written on the back of the panel in Latin – a popular motto, and one used by at least two Premonstratensian abbots. Ambrose, however, was not a common name in the Netherlands, nor was he a widely venerated saint. There can be little doubt that the donor is Ambrosius van Engelen, Abbot of Park, just south of Leuven.
The panel seems to be the work of more than one artist: the faces are different in both style and quality, and this cannot be fully explained by the donor’s face being very damaged and much restored. The saint’s face is close to the type often used by Albrecht Bouts.
Two men with mitres – the tall headdress worn by bishops and senior abbots – are crammed into this long, thin painting which was once the right wing of a triptych (a painting in three parts). The man in front is the donor, a sixteenth-century abbot wearing the white robes of a Premonstratensian canon. The man behind is Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan in the fourth century. He holds a scourge – a whip with many tails – symbolising the penance he imposed on the Emperor Theodosius for his massacre of the people of Thessalonica.
On the back of the panel is a crosier (staff) and a scroll with the words ‘NE QUID NIMIS’ (‘Moderation in all things’). This was a popular motto and was used by at least two senior Premonstratensian abbots. Ambrose, however, was not a common name in the Netherlands, and he was not a widely venerated saint. There can be little doubt that the donor here is Ambrosius van Engelen, Abbot of Park, just south of Leuven, a notable patron (he died in 1543). The motto appears in manuscripts and stained glass he commissioned and was afterwards used by the abbey itself. The quality of the vestments in the painting perhaps reflect van Engelen’s own interests: he was a distinguished embroiderer who ornamented a complete set of vestments of cloth of gold and made many figure compositions in embroidery.
The panel seems to be the work of more than one artist and was done in two stages. The faces of the two men are different in both style and quality, a difference that cannot be fully explained by the fact that the donor’s face is very damaged and has been much restored. It seems the head and habit of the donor were painted before the saint’s robe and by a less competent painter. Saint Ambrose’s face is close to the type often used by Albrecht Bouts, who in 1520 was probably the leading painter in Leuven and the obvious person to whom the Abbot of Park would turn to for a triptych. We don't know why the donor portrait was delegated to another painter, presumably one of Bouts’s assistants.
The triptych, which showed the Virgin and Child in the central panel and Saint Augustine on the left wing, has been dated to 1520. It may have remained at Park Abbey until 1797 when the community were expelled and the furnishings of the church auctioned. The other parts have not been identified.
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