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Object of the Month: October 2019

Choir Stalls


Jan Terwen Aertsz.

Flemish, 16th century

Churches and cathedrals throughout time have something architecturally in common: a location for the choir. Where the choir is placed differs in the various places of worship, yet the choir accentuates the central focus of the church: the altar. In many early European monasteries and later collegiate churches, the choir was positioned along the chancel which separates the nave (where the laity would sit) from the altar. The chancel is lined with rows of seating for the choir members. Every detail within Medieval and Renaissance places of worship were handcrafted, including the choir’s seating or choir stalls.

Choir stalls consist of carved, individual seats divided by armrests; these seats are attached to a long, carved dorsal panel (a short or high backrest board) and sometimes a canopy. M&G’s pair of sturdy oak Choir Stalls date to the 16th century and were designed by Gothic Flemish artist Jan Terwen Aertsz.

Little is known about Jan Terwen Aertzs. who lived a long life of 78 years. Born in 1511 and later educated at the Dordrecht School, Jan was considered a master woodcarver in Dort, also known as Dordrecht.  While the exact church in the Netherlands from which M&G’s Choir Stalls originate remains a mystery, the location of Jan’s greatest work is on view in the Grote Kerk in Dordrecht. The church’s choir stalls, made between 1538-1542, demonstrate Jan’s skill and eye for detail, and are pristine examples of Flemish woodworking in the 16th century.

M&G’s Choir Stalls provide two sets of four seats each and are covered in finely detailed carvings. For example, the fins under the armrest are devised to look like eagles with every feather individually carved into the hard oak. The dorsal and end panels of the stalls contain images from various Biblical stories, including King Solomon displaying his God-given wisdom with the two mothers, and the believing woman healed by just a touch of Christ’s robe. Every minute design is accounted for—from the patterned hem of a character’s tunic, and the hair on Jesus’ head and beard, to the scenes’ distant mountains in the background, and the patterns in the tile underfoot. Surrounding these narratives are decorated spindles and more reliefs consisting of fruit and flowers flanked by winged, mythological creatures. 

One of the most fascinating details of the Choir Stalls are the misericords. Misericords (from the Latin word for pity and heart, literally pity of the heart or compassion of the heart) are molded brackets on the underside of a seat. Choirs or monks would stand for hours singing and participating in the worship ceremony; to provide them with a modicum of comfort and stability, these misericords or “mercy seats” were added. When the choir members would stand to sing, they could lift the seat up and surreptitiously rest against this small structure while still appearing to be standing. 

The ownership history, or provenance, of these beautiful seats is long, mysterious, and fascinating. The choir stalls survived the iconoclasm that followed the Protestant Reformation sweeping through the Netherlands as staunch Catholic Philip II of Spain fought to retain Flanders, where they remained undamaged until the early 20th century. As America entered the Gilded Age with its booming economy, many American business and factory owners became millionaires; they wished to display their newly-earned wealth and position by designing grand homes decorated in the Old-World style. Men like architect Stanford White were sent to Europe to purchase whole rooms of traditional Medieval or Renaissance décor and ship the furnishings back to America. White chose the Choir Stalls to adorn Hearst Castle built by William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper magnate. The choir stalls decorated Hearst’s home until his bankruptcy during the Great Depression. In 1941, Hammer Galleries acquired the choir stalls at auction. A later owner gifted the Choir Stalls to the Collection in 1968, where they found a home among objects and paintings of the same age. While they are not being used for their original purpose, the Choir Stalls allow M&G’s guests a glimpse into 16th-century cathedrals.

Ashley Ellis, M&G History Intern


Published in 2019

Gaspar de Crayer

St. Augustine 

Gaspar de Crayer

Below the image, click play to listen.

Object of the Month: February 2018

St. Ambrose and St. Augustine

Oil on panel

Gaspar de Crayer

Flemish, 1584–1669

Gaspar de Crayer spent much of his career as a painter for the elite of the Spanish Netherlands. In addition to numerous portraits, he completed a large number of altarpieces. Matthias Depoorter notes: “The motifs that he borrows from the work of Rubens are so specific that people suspect that he had contact with Rubens’s studio.” For example, the figurative influence, coloration, and brushwork of Rubens’s Entombment (figure 1) is also clearly evident in De Crayer’s Deposition (figure 2).

Depoorter goes on to point out that later in De Crayer’s career the influence of Anthony Van Dyck (Rubens most noted pupil) emerges. Critics observe that Van Dyck’s portraits are characterized by a “relaxed elegance.”  But this elegance is enriched by a subtle emotional sentiment that intuitively connects the subject to the viewer. These qualities are readily discerned both in Van Dyck’s Self-Portrait (figure 3) and in De Crayer’s portraits of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine from M&G’s collection.

Ambrose was a revered Greek scholar, poet, lawyer, and orator. Trained in politics and law he was literally thrust into an ecclesiastical life. When Auxentius, Bishop of Milan, died in 374 the Arian heresy was on the rise. During the election for the new bishop a violent outbreak seemed inevitable until the 35-year-old Ambrose stood up in the public square and gave an impassioned speech “exhorting the people to proceed in their choice in the spirit of peace.” Following his plea, the whole assembly took up the cry “Ambrose for Bishop.” Although his election astonished him, he determined to take up the task with vigor. Aware of his theological limitations he embarked on an arduous study of Scripture. He also read extensively the writings of the church fathers, especially Origen and Basil. Before long he was revered by both low and high born as a “good shepherd.” The garments he wears in De Crayer’s portrait symbolize his ecclesiastical station.

Although Ambrose is still counted as one of the great doctors of the Western church, his reputation is overshadowed by his most famous convert, Augustine of Hippo. It is not surprising, therefore, that Gaspar de Crayer would do a companion portrait of Augustine. This work, also part of the M&G collection, was featured as Object of the Month in February 2016.

Augustine acknowledged that Ambrose was the key figure in bringing him to Christ. He records in his Confessions that, “This man of God welcomed me, as a father. As a result, I began to love him, not because of his teaching, but because of his warm and loving personality. I enjoyed hearing him preach, not in order to learn from what he said, but in order to admire and learn to imitate his eloquence. Indeed, I still despised the doctrines he taught. Yet, by opening my heart to the sweetness of his speech, the truth of his teaching began to enter my soul, little by little.”   Ambrose would baptize Augustine on Easter morning in 387.  Soon after Augustine returned to North Africa where he eventually became Bishop of Hippo, ruling in that turbulent African diocese for 34 years until his death in 430.


Donnalynn Hess M&G Director of Education


Published in 2018

Object of the Month: December 2017

The Adoration of the Magi

Oil on canvas, Initialed and dated, lower right: JB 1652

Jan Boeckhorst, called Lange Jan

Flemish, c. 1604–1668

Click on the link for additional reference information.

Among the Museum & Gallery’s collection, there are both famous and unknown artists.  But what about those who fall right in the middle?  What about the artists who have active careers and equal skill to the “greats,” but never achieve the fame of their contemporaries?  One of these artists is the Flemish master, Jan Boeckhorst.

Jan Boeckhorst, nicknamed Lange Jan (“Tall John”) was born in Münster, Germany in 1604.  At seventeen, he became a canon in the Jesuit church, but at the advanced age of twenty-two (long past the standard age for training) decided to become a painter.

In the 1620s, he moved to the coastal city of Antwerp—home to some of the greatest artists of his time.  Some historians claim he studied with Jacob Jordaens while others say it was Peter Paul Rubens.  More than likely, Boeckhorst studied with Jordaens because Rubens was in Spain and England in the late 1620s. Around 1634, Boeckhorst achieved the title of Master in Antwerp’s Guild of St. Luke and worked alongside the other Flemish masters including Rubens and Anthony van Dyck.  Boeckhorst visited Italy twice to study the sixteenth-century Venetian masters such as Titian and Tintoretto and returned to Antwerp by 1640.

Throughout his later life, he painted a variety of subject matter including religious and mythological for church altarpieces and private collectors.  His artistic work ranged from paintings, designing tapestries, and illustrating for religious books.  He also contributed to the founding of the Antwerp Academy.  After a full life, he died on April 21, 1668.

Despite his active career, much of Boeckhorst’s work is unknown, unsigned or wrongly attributed, so it has been difficult to compile a comprehensive list of his art.  One of the reasons his work might be misattributed is his close work relationship with Rubens. There are many evidences of their collaboration based on the standard studio practice of the time. Boeckhorst would help touch up paintings under Rubens’ instructions and even assisted the master in large commissions. After Rubens’ death in 1640, Boeckhorst finished or even restored Rubens’ remaining works. An example of their collaboration is King David Playing the Harp at the Städel Museum.

In M&G’s collection, there are three paintings by Boeckhorst; of these The Adoration of the Magi is considered his greatest work in America.  In the lower right corner, his initials and date are painted on a rock face: JB 1652.

Boeckhorst displays a heightened attention to texture with the wafting incense, richness of the garments, and different animals.  Because of his saturated colors, graceful composition and dramatic movement, scholars consider this painting to be a masterpiece of the High Baroque style.

KC Christmas, M&G graduate assistant



Published in 2017

Object of the Month: January 2017

Mille-Fleurs Tapestry

Franco-Flemish, c. 1480

Gift of Z.E. Marguerite Pick in memory of Misty

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

Mille fleurs tapestries are those with a myriad of small flowering plants sprinkled across a dark blue or red or sometimes dark brown background.  Mille-fleurs is French, literally translated “thousand flowers.”

Tapestries have been around for centuries, and their use was not merely decorative as we might assume in today’s culture. These incredible textiles are constructed from a considerable amount of wool threads with varying amounts of silk, silver, and gilt yarns for beauty and richness. Their size and material provided insulation in the drafty, cold interiors of medieval castles and homes, and they could easily be rolled or folded and transported, which was a great advantage to those living back then.

However, the subject matter of tapestries varied significantly focusing on scenes from history, allegory, mythology, Scripture, and romance with coats of arms and decorative elements included too.  The mille fleurs decoration, however, wasn’t necessarily linked to any specific subject, but sometimes might be; instead, as one writer describes, the flowering background is more of “an expression of the universal human love of fresh flowers and the wish to have bouquets of fields of them covering the walls”—especially in the barren winter months.

Although as symbols, mille fleurs particularly lend themselves to allegorical and romantic themes “furnishing a slight subject for tapestries entirely sprinkled over with sprightly growing plants” with the “now and then active dogs, strange beasts or an occasional human figure [who] claimed a space.”

M&G’s tapestry certainly meets this composition depicting the imaginary animal, the unicorn, with various birds (perhaps a falcon on the right) against the mille-fleurs background.  The upper portion reveals a landscape of mountains and hills with tall grasses, trees, various buildings, towers, and castles—including one with a moat full of wavy, active water.

The unicorn has quite a history—through second-hand accounts, of course. This mysterious animal is described in classical references as having goat-like features, hence the cloven hooves and beard; he hunts in the mountains and is a very strong, fast animal that no one could capture.  He is depicted on cylinder seals as far back as Babylon and Assyria and referenced in the fifth-century Greek writings by Artaxerxes’ physician, Ctesias.  Other references of the unicorn appear in the old bestiaries.

Philippe de Montebello, former director at the MET, explains the interest in animals both real and imagined, “During the Christian era, the expressive power of animals perhaps reached its height in the Latin bestiaries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These books, labored over by the monks who copied them over and over again, combined factual, realistic observations of animal life with legend and served as allegorical texts for teaching clergy and laymen alike. Animals in their amazing diversity yielded illustrations and promulgations of desired behavior as well as warnings against misbehavior or evil.”

Of all the beasts, the unicorn (sometimes called the Monoceros) has become legendary. He symbolizes purity, and since the unicorn could only be captured by a virgin because of his attraction to her love of chastity, the hunt for the unicorn became an allegory of the incarnation of Christ as well as an allegory of romance and marriage.  Thus, the unicorn appears in both secular and religious art—even on some vestments worn by priests.

It is said that the horn of the unicorn possessed the virtue of detecting poison as well as the power to render the poison harmless. According to legend the animals of the forest would not drink from a pool until the unicorn had first purified it with his horn.  This story is depicted in one of the great unicorn tapestries in the collection at the Cloisters in New York.

The unicorn is often depicted in a place of colorful and abundant fauna, referencing Paradise—sometimes in connection with scenes of Creation and the Fall. He usually stands in the middle or off to the edge, alone or distant from the other animals, and sometimes near a body of water, perhaps immersing his horn.

For the gardeners and lovers of flowers, some of the plants possibly depicted include: foxglove, day lilies, rowan, and the daffodil.  Look closely to identify these symbolic plants:

  • Cuckoo Flower, which Pliny claims can repel snakes and “drive away melancholy and makes people happy in their hearts.”
  • Blue Bell blossoms, which supposedly when a bluebell is suspended above the threshold, “all evil things will flee therefrom.”
  • Wild Pansy, a symbol of remembrance and meditation
  • English Daisies, which signify the joy of Easter, and in medieval Germany these were called massliebe or “measure of love” suggesting that even then girls plucked the petals saying, “He loves me, he loves me not.”

Without knowing more about the designer, weavers and past owners, it’s difficult to know the intention of the tapestry; however, its symbolism provides insight for both the secular and spiritual just as it did in its original home.  The concept of appreciating nature and learning from our observation of it wasn’t new in the old bestiaries or even Aesop’s fables. King Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, exhorts the reader in his wisdom writings of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to observe God’s creation and find its parallels for application and improvement in our own daily living—a good start for a New Year.

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published in 2017

Object of the Month: December 2016


Bovine Bone

Flanders, 15th century

Acquired with funds from the Audrey Love Charitable Foundation

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

Special boxes or caskets were once made to hold valuable items or at least the personal items of the wealthy. These containers, used for storage and transport, are often beautifully decorated and constructed of rich materials themselves—a practice that has existed for centuries as far back as Egyptian culture.

Many of the surviving caskets focus on romance—decorated with scenes from medieval literature including Tristan, Taking the Castle of Love, Aristotle’s infatuation with Phyllis, poems by Homer, and the concept of chivalry in the characters of Sir Gawain, Lancelot, Percival and others. Thomas T. Hoopes, former curator at the MET explained, “In nearly every case they are decorated with scenes from popular legend and romance, especially with such as would have an allegorical significance appropriate to the occasion for which they were designed.”

In the middle ages, France was the primary creator and market for the luxury items of carved ivory and bone, but by the fifteenth century the center of industry shifted.  The best known craftsmen were the and Florence. For four decades, this group of artisans created and satisfied the demands of fashion crafting beautiful objects in ivory, wood, bone, and horn. The workshop produced a variety of carvings including large and small altarpieces, but their principal output seemed to focus on special, personal items such as caskets, mirror cases, and small toilet articles—many of them bridal gifts or gift sets for the wealthy and noble of the court.

However, the Embriachi weren’t the only entrepreneurs in carving; the industrious and creative Dutch also continued the French tradition.  The workshops in both the southern and northern Netherlands innovated and developed commercial centers for a variety of products including textiles, metalwork, and oil painting. Specifically, the workshops in Flanders developed an export trade of bone boxes and ivory products that traversed the Rhine river routes to European cities and markets—bone boxes like the present Casket.

M&G displays a number of cassone and chests used by our European forbears to store their household items as well as a few smaller versions of storage containers in the form of coffers and now a casket for protecting one’s precious personal items: jewelry, documents, and sentimental objects.

At one time, it was the height of medieval fashion to own a casket, but with the delicate nature of the material it is unusual to have an intact box that has survived time, use, and past repairs.

The Casket is constructed of bovine bone mounted on a wood structure. The bottom of the box is a checkerboard pattern of wood and bone, and the sides and top are carved in low relief, which still retain some gilding and color.  The carved decoration is religious depicting Christ, apostles such as Peter holding the keys, and various saints including St. Catherine identified by her wheel. Perhaps the religious decoration on its exterior reveals that this Casket formerly sheltered a manuscript or religious text.

Since the background of the individual bone plaques is crosshatched, it may indicate that the workshop was influenced by religious prints and engravings from the time period, such as Biblia Pauperum (the Pauper’s Bible).

While the interior is lined by worn and repaired green fabric, interestingly, what was so valued to be safely stored inside is now lost. Once an expensive, beautiful container for holding something of great value, however, it is now the container itself that has become the treasure.

M&G is grateful for the generosity of the Audrey Love Charitable Foundation, without whom we could not have acquired this beautiful, mysterious medieval object.

Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published in 2016

Object of the Month: February 2016

St. Augustine

Oil on panel

Gaspar de Crayer

Flemish, 1584–1669


Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

Gaspar de Crayer began his career in the city of his birth, Antwerp. He later moved to Brussels and trained under the artist Raphael Coxie, court painter to Archduke and Duchess Albert and Isabella.  This introduction to the court facilitated a longstanding relationship with the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands. De Crayer eventually did work himself for the Archduke and Duchess and went on to receive the appointment of official court painter to Cardinal-infant Ferdinand and eventually well-known art collector, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm. He embraced life in Brussels serving as dean of the Brussels painters’ guild from 1611–1616 and as a member of the city council from 1626–1627. In his later years, he moved to Ghent where he died.

De Crayer spent much of his career fulfilling commissions for altarpieces, however, he also dabbled in portraiture as well. His works show similarities in style and technique to those of Peter Paul Rubens and Rubens’ famous student, Anthony van Dyck (both of whom are represented in M&G’s collection). Today, de Crayer’s works fill world-renown museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museo del Prado in Spain, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The presence of Gaspar de Crayer’s St. Augustine at the Museum & Gallery reveals the breadth and importance of the Old Master collection.

De Crayer’s St. Augustine illustrates the depth of religious fervor Augustine possessed. The flaming heart, depicted here in Augustine’s hand, symbolizes his zeal and devotion for God. The contrast of the dark background draws the viewer’s attention to Augustine’s face where he appears lost in thought. This small dramatic painting was most likely meant for private devotion and to inspire the viewer to the same religious ardor that ruled Augustine’s life.

Known as one of the four eminent Fathers of the Western Church, Augustine of Hippo remains one of the most well-known figures in church history and Christianity. Augustine was born in a province of North Africa in 354 CE where he received an excellent education and excelled in rhetoric and philosophy. His studies exposed him to a wide array of religions and philosophies leading him to live his early years in moral irresponsibility. His mother, Saint Monica, devoutly prayed for her wayward son and saw the answer to her prayers in the form of Saint Ambrose of Milan. Under the teaching and guidance of Ambrose, Augustine converted to Christianity becoming a priest and eventually a bishop. He is perhaps most well-known for his writings, Confessions (an autobiography) and The City of God  as well as his fervent zeal for the spread of Christianity. In art, artists typically portray Augustine in the vestments of a bishop as evidenced in this work by the presence of the crozier (bishop’s staff carried by high-ranking church officials).

Rebekah Cobb, Guest Relations Manager


Published in 2016

Object of the Month: January 2016

Tapestries on the Life of King Hezekiah: The Destruction of the Idols by Hezekiah, The Sacrifice of Hezekiah,  and Hezekiah’s Life Prolonged

Signed: unknown weaver’s mark (bottom right)

Woven wool  and silk tapestry

Designed by Jan Cornelisz. Vermeyen

Flanders, active 16th century

Woven by the Weaver of the Hezekiah Series (of the Royal Swedish Collection in Stockholm), also known as the Weaver of the Book of the Kings Series (of the Royal Collection in Vienna)

Brussels, c. 1530

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.
During these winter months, we turn up the thermostat, put on a sweater, or throw an extra blanket on the bed when the temperatures drop. Insulation, thermal-pane windows, and caulking keep our houses snug from winter’s chill.  But what if your home was a drafty castle with no warmth except near the fireplace? If you were wealthy enough, tapestries would provide some insulation to keep the winter winds out and the meager warmth in. The tapestry’s portability was an added bonus. When one residence got particularly smelly or otherwise unsuitable, the artistic insulation could be rolled up and transported to the next home. Of course, we view tapestries today primarily as works of art, without much thought as to their original practical purposes.

When you step into the Lobby at the Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones University, some of the first works of art you encounter are three tapestries, each measuring 13 feet x 11.5 feet. They depict three scenes from the life of King Hezekiah, ruler of Judah in the 8th and early 7th centuries BC. The tapestries were produced in Brussels, Brabant (before Belgium existed as a country) in the early 16th century, and by the early 17th century they graced the walls of Somerset House in London, residence of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of King Charles I. Since tapestries were considered the most valuable objects of their time, only royalty or the very wealthy would have owned them. With the beheading of Charles I, the tapestries became possessions of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Later sales trace them to Spain and then New York. M&G acquired them in 1965.

The Bible records details of Hezekiah’s life in 2 Kings 18–20, Isaiah 36–39, and 2 Chronicles 29–32. As one of Israel’s moral, godly rulers, Hezekiah is depicted in the first two tapestries destroying idols and restoring temple sacrifices to draw his countrymen back to serving and worshiping the one true God genuinely, purely, and wholeheartedly. The third tapestry shows an incident where Hezekiah was gravely ill and requested a longer life from the Lord; God answered his prayer and miraculously healed him. The Latin phrases at the top of each tapestry describe the events of each pictured scene.

Anne Short, Volunteer Collection Researcher & Retired Docent

Published in 2016

Object of the Month: October 2015

Procession to Calvary 

Oil on panel

Master of the Holy Blood (Maître du Saint-Sang)

Flemish, active c. 1500


Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

The identity of the anonymous artist called the Master of the Holy Blood has remained a mystery since the first serious study on the artist by Georges Hulin de Loo in association with the 1902 Exposition de Tableau Flamands des XIVe, XVe et XVIe Siecles in Bruges. De Loo decided to name this anonymous artist after the location of the Lamentation Triptych in the Chapel of the Holy Blood in Bruges, where it has resided since its commission by the Brotherhood of the Holy Blood around 1530.

The general composition of the present Procession to Calvary relates to paintings of the same theme produced in the late fifteenth century, which likely derive from a lost original attributed to Jan van Eyck (best known for the Ghent Altarpiece).

In the upper middle portion of the painting, a Flemish city in the guise of Jerusalem recedes into space through the artist’s use of atmospheric perspective in gray-blue tones. A fantastical building meant to represent the Dome of the Rock rests in the foreground of the city scene while a smaller dome for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher rises on the right side.

Moving from the distant city are progressively closer views of medieval Flemish houses forming a backdrop to the large grouping of figures in the right middle-ground.

Three men on horseback and two soldiers standing behind them form the first figural group of the procession. Each horseman is dressed in oriental garb—a tradition stemming back to the Limbourg Brothers (learn more here) connecting eastern headgear with Jews. The pointed hat on the horseman at the far left is traditionally Jewish in type, whereas the second horseman’s turban has a large jewel on the front associated with Muslim caliphs. The man on the white horse also has a Muslim turban. Northern Renaissance painters used these costuming stereotypes to depict non-Christian characters such as Jews or Arabs. Artists such as the Master of the Holy Blood were not yet exposed to the documented cultures of the Greeks and Romans since such information had not reached the Netherlands in any significant way. Since Islamic culture was also foreign to these artists, any pagan (non-Christian) characters set in Biblical narratives were naively costumed as Muslim.

In the right foreground is a ruggedly dressed soldier armed with both a sword on his hip and a cane for beating Christ. Next to him an elderly man, representing Simon of Cyrene, helps take the weight of the cross from Christ as he falls. His gentle, caring look and effort to support the cross contrast sharply with the tormentors surrounding Christ. The next tormentor, dressed in a white tunic, pulls tight on a rope tied around Christ’s waist to increase His suffering and to prevent Him from resting from the grueling task. The opposite end of the rope falls to Christ’s side and terminates in an unusual object of torture—the spikeblock or stumbling block. Made of a thick plank of wood with nails pierced through, the spikeblock is shown upside down with the nails facing Christ. This unusual object, a Netherlandish invention, maintained a relatively popular appearance (in a variety of forms and types) in northern European art for about 150 years. The concept was intended to visualize the intensity and torture of Christ’s suffering: as Christ made His way to Calvary, the swinging block would wound His heels from behind and His shins from the front, and it would also trip Christ while carrying the cross, thus becoming a “stumbling block.”

The Procession to Calvary is undoubtedly one of the Master of the Holy Blood’s most accomplished works, revealing the trends, motifs, and stylistic hallmarks of an artist who is at once distinctive and also reflective of the influences around him in early sixteenth-century Antwerp and Bruges.

John M. Nolan, Curator


Published in 2015

Object of the Month: July 2015

St. Michael the Archangel and St. Agnes 

Oil on panel

Colijn de Coter

Flemish, c. 1455–d. 1538


Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

The construction of Colijn’s artistic career is based on three signed works, each representing the early, middle, and later phases of his style. Rogier van der Weyden’s compositional sense greatly influenced him, even though Colijn painted nearly half a century later. Colijn loved to explore the tactile qualities of the subjects he painted, while retaining the sculptural drapery effects characteristic of the art of this period. The influence of this artist’s works spread throughout his native Brussels in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.

Here, St. Michael is richly dressed in priestly embroidered silk robes similar to those found in van der Weyden’s works. The highly decorative cope is rendered so carefully that seemingly every gold thread of the garment is visible. The front trim of the cope has various unidentifiable saints within architectural niches while an elaborate gold quatrefoil morse clasps the garment together. Because St. Michael was originally part of a wing panel, de Coter breaks from van der Weyden’s frontal model and faces the character to the right in a contrapposto position that takes up nearly the entire width and height of the panel. The animation of his twisting pose is graphically emphasized by the long cross-staff that he uses to defeat the demon. One hand balances and thrusts the symbolic weapon into the demon’s throat, causing the flesh of its neck to protrude. Two fingers of the other hand carefully hold a ring in the fulcrum of the scales of justice.

The objects being weighed in the scales are of particular interest. On the right is a tiny seraph, identified by its six wings, representing a soul. Although Michael’s efforts will successfully prevent the demon from pulling the soul down, the object in the left pan of the scale far outweighs the soul and tips the scale to keep the symbolic seraph aloft (and safe from hell). What is it that could be providing such power to raise the soul out of evil’s grasp? At first glance it seems as if it might be representing the blood of Christ in a shallow dish. I John 1:7 says, “…and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.” Closer examination reveals an image painted into the red oval shape (with pointed ends) that portrays a figure with a tiered tiara wearing a cope with a cross staff held in the left hand, the right hand across the front in a blessing position, and an arched throne behind. A narrow band also runs around the outer edge with marks that appear to represent letters. Altogether, the imagery presented identifies this object as a red wax seal in a lead dish—a type used by numerous secular and ecclesiastic rulers at this time but closest in shape and image to seals of a bishop or an abbot.

The presence of an ecclesiastic seal on St. Michael’s scale is virtually unknown outside of this image. Use of wax seals were commonplace throughout Europe in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and were used to validate acts or protect and validate documents that were executed under an official’s name. The implied meaning behind the seal’s efficacy to counterbalance the soul and keep it from going to hell is remarkable. Its presence either authenticates the seal owner’s power to save souls (on Christ’s behalf) or is meant to show a certain bishop or ecclesiastic’s validation for Christ’s payment for mankind’s sins (as evidenced by Michael’s cross-staff overcoming the demon’s efforts to claim the soul). The specific identity of the ecclesiastic office represented by the seal is not readily apparent in the present image. Nothing on the seal identifies a specific person who owns it. Perhaps the original panel(s) that belonged with the present wings provided more information on whose seal and authority is being promoted with this iconography.

The other figure on the fused panel represents St. Agnes dressed in gorgeous brocade and scarlet fabric. Agnes actively reads her book while holding her symbolic, name-sake lamb on a gold-chained leash. The finery of dress is particularly evident and provides a pleasing balance to the ecclesiastic garb of Michael. De Coter’s composition delicately balances the swayed poses of the two figures as each gently holds their respective objects—Michael’s scale and Agnes’s leash.

Although no original documents are known for the present work and little period archival documentation survives on the artist himself, de Coter remains one of the most important and prolific painters from the Renaissance in Brussels. St. Michael the Archangel and St. Agnes is among his best preserved works and testifies to the ability and ingenuity of this artist.

John M. Nolan, Curator


Published in 2015