Two Panels from an Altarpiece
These paintings show episodes from the life of Christ: the visit of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth, and the Flight into Egypt. They are thought to be two of four surviving panels, possibly from of a huge altarpiece made for a patron in Spain or Portugal; this format was more popular there than in the Low Countries.
Goossen ran a large workshop, and several assistants evidently worked on these panels at various stages. At least two artists did the underdrawing (the preliminary outlining of a composition); one was responsible for the figures, the other for the landscape. There were certainly changes of plan: the final landscapes are completely different from those in the underdrawing.
These pictures show episodes from the life of Christ: the visit of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth, and the Flight into Egypt. They are perhaps the remains of a huge altarpiece, possibly made for a Spanish or Portuguese patron. Two other panels of same dimensions and similar style are believed to come from the same altarpiece: an Adoration of the Kings (Honolulu Academy of Arts) and Christ among the Doctors (Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp).
The style – large figures set in a deep landscape, full of medieval details – is typical of Netherlandish late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century painting; we also see it in The Virgin and Child in a Landscape by Jan Provoost and The Virgin and Child in a Landscape by Bernaert van Orley. Painters often reused ideas and designs from other artists, and there are echoes in these paintings of the work of Goossen’s grandfather, Rogier van der Weyden, whose patterns and drawings he had inherited.
Although the presentation of the stories is not unusual in Netherlandish painting, the format of the altar from which they came was. The backs of all four panels are rather irregularly finished and seem never to have been painted. They were clearly not intended to be seen and so can‘t have been the shutters of a folding altarpiece, like Scenes from the Passion of Christ.
They may have been arranged around a large central panel, perhaps a (lost) Nativity, with The Visitation of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth on the left and The Flight into Egypt on the right. Such altarpieces were popular in Spain and Portugal, where Goossen van der Weyden had contacts, and where his work was much admired. Paintings by his workshop were found in churches in Madeira and a triptych of the Presentation in the Temple (now in the Museum Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon) was probably painted for a convent near Lisbon.
Goossen ran a large workshop, and it seems that various assistants worked on the panels at different stages. Infrared reflectography has revealed extensive underdrawing by two draughtsmen – one did the landscapes, the other the figures. The artist who did the figures and the donkey may well have been working from cartoons or patterns of some sort. We also know both pictures were changed at the painting stage: the artist who painted the backgrounds ignored the underdrawn landscapes. In The Visitation of the Virgin to Saint Elizabeth, for example, the view of the town on the left is painted over an underdrawing of a wooded scene. In the top right corner, completely different buildings were underdrawn and partially painted. None of the smaller figures, animals or birds are underdrawn – they were added later. Only the brick arch was planned from the start (but the view through it was changed several times).
We aren’t sure if the same artist painted the figures and the landscape, even though the technique is very similar in both pictures. They may have been done by different assistants who had been trained to work in the same way.