The Virgin and Child are enthroned in a walled garden with three saints. Saint Mary Magdalene holds her pot of oil, while the richly dressed Saint Barbara has a tower – her attribute, or emblem – in her headdress. The wheel on which Saint Catherine was tortured is visible behind her, and Christ places a ring on her finger, an allusion to her ‘mystic marriage’ (a way of visualising her spiritual union with Christ).
On the left is Richard de Visch van der Capelle, canon of Saint Donation’s in Bruges. This painting was probably the altarpiece of his family chapel there, and might have been painted towards the end of his life or perhaps even after his death in 1511. The style is very close to David’s 1509 altarpiece (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen) and Richard’s head does not seem to have been painted from life. Perhaps he was too old or infirm, or perhaps David, who would have known Richard, was working from memory.
The Virgin Mary and Christ Child are enthroned in a walled garden – a metaphor for Mary’s virginity – with three female saints. Small details tell us who they are. On the right, Saint Mary Magdalene holds the pot of oil with which she anointed Christ’s feet, while Saint Barbara, who was imprisoned in a tower by her father, has a tower in her headdress. On the left is Saint Catherine, dressed as a princess. The wheel on which Catherine was tortured for her faith is just visible leaning on the marble pillar behind her, and she is being given a ring by the Christ Child – an allusion to her ‘mystic marriage’ with Christ (a way of visualising her spiritual union with him him).
On the far left is the donor, Richard de Visch van der Capelle, canon and cantor of the Collegiate Church of Saint Donation in Bruges (and friend of Bernardijn Salviati, commissioner of David’s Canon Bernardijn Salviati and Three Saints). The greyhound lying on the tiled floor in front of him has his family’s coat of arms on its collar. This painting probably once sat on the altar of Richard’s family chapel in Saint Donation’s. Although the chapel was dedicated to Saint Anthony – who peers out from under a vine-covered walkway behind Saint Barbara – the altar was dedicated to Saint Catherine, to whom Richard was deeply devoted. The angel picking grapes immediately behind Richard could be an allusion to the wine of the Mass.
Born in the 1420s, Richard was one of three illegitimate children of the younger son of a noble family with long-standing connections with the Collegiate Church of Saint Donation. His father was a priest and an important official there, a path which Richard followed, becoming Cantor in 1463, at the same time as pursuing a successful career at the Burgundian court. In spite of his illegitimacy, Richard was very concerned for his family’s prestige. In the 1480s he wrote a will setting out his plans to be buried in the family chapel, to re-glaze the windows with his family’s coat of arms and to decorate it with statues of saints and a new altarpiece. Not all of these seem to have been in place when he died, aged well over 80, in 1511.
Richard would have known Gerard David personally, for both were members of the same confraternity. He must have been aware of the altarpiece David painted for his friend Salviati in 1501, and of the one he gave to the convent of Our Lady of Sion at Bruges in 1509 (Musėe des Beaux-Arts, Rouen).
The style of this painting is very close to that of the Rouen altarpiece – the head of Saint Barbara and the Virgin’s draperies are almost identical – and to a Virgin and Child painted in 1506 (Palazzo Bianco, Genoa).The underdrawing for Christ in this picture resembles how he is shown in the Rouen and Genoa works, though the final painted version is less similar. David evidently liked recycling ideas and it seems clear that this painting and the Rouen and Genoa panels were all produced in the same workshop in the same period.
Curiously the portrait of Richard does not seem to have been painted from life. He may have been too old or ill to sit for it, or it may have been done after his death. Could one of Salviati’s tasks as his executor have been commissioning this painting in accordance with his friend’s will?
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