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Monday, April 29, 2013

The Masters of...

The Legend of St. Lucy, 1480, Master of the S. Lucy Legend
One of the most difficult problems faced by art historians is the anonymity of some 14th and 15th century artists, individuals with painting styles so distinctive it's possible to ascertain their working careers to within a year or two, the dates when they died, and even speculate quite accurately as to when they were born. Yet no one knows their names. There are at least five artists who fall into this category. What's an art historian to do? Well, starting back in the early 1920s when this phenomena first appeared, these art history researchers have taken to calling their artists, "The Master of..." These painters tend to have one thing in common, with one exception, they were all what art historians have termed "Netherlandish," having lived and work in and around Bruges, Belgium, mostly during the 15th century, which would make them "Pre-Northern Renaissance," a term I just made up for lack of a better one (as an amateur art historian I reserve that right).

Last Judgment, ca. 1422
Master of the Bambino Vispo
Starting with the one exception, we have The Master of the Bambino Vispo, an Italian working in the early 1400s. He was identified by the early 20th century art historian, Osvald Siren, as the artist behind four separated religious panels found in Florence, Rome, Philadelphia, and Berlin all depicting a rather lively countenance of Jesus and his mother, as well as an exceptional Last Judgment (left) from around 1422. At least four artists have earlier been credited with this latter work, none of them with any degree of certainty, though the Italian, Gherardo Starmina, may be the most likely.

The most well-known "Master of..." has to his credit some twenty-five to thirty-five paintings, by far the largest body of work by any of the "Netherlandish" group. He's referred to as The Master of the St. Lucy Legend after his most famous work, a three-panel altarpiece depicting scenes from the life of the saint dating from 1480 (top). The date is based upon the level of completion seen in the background depiction of the belfry of the city of Bruges. Further detective work indicates that, whoever he was, he was trained by Dieric Bouts and Hans Memling. By the same token, his influence can be found in the work of several Spanish artists he likely trained in his workshop.

The Mass, ca. 1500,
Master of Saint Giles
The German art historian, Max Friedlander in the 1950s came up with the Master of Saint Giles based upon his study of two wooden panels of an altarpiece in London's National Gallery. He titled them The Miracle and The Mass (right). Later he identified two additional panels by the same artist in Washington's National Gallery. Friedlander wasn't sure if the artist was French or from the Netherlands and simply migrated to France. But in any case, these four works are by far the thinnest oeuvre of the group. Friedlander attempted to rectify this problem by proposing additional works as being by his master, but encountered the biggest difficulty faced by art historians in doing so. The more pieces he studied and labeled by his artist, the more other art historians called into question, not only them, but his earlier pronouncements. Thus by attempting to bolster his case he may, in fact, have weakened it.
Phillip the Handsome and
Joanna the Mad, ca. 1500,
Master of Affligem
Friedlander also identified the Master of Affligem (sometimes called the Master of the Joseph Sequence) as having painted a number of round (tondo) paintings all having to do with the Legend St. Joseph, and later still, more paintings depicting the Life of Christ and The Life of the Virgin. In this case, the more works, the more likely the attribution, though the name of the artist is still just as unknown. The reference to Affligem comes from an altarpiece in the Abbey of Affligem, a Last Judgment (ca. 1500). Two unusual side panels depict Phillip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad (left).
Virgin and Child in a Landscape, 1492-98,
Master of the Embroidered Foliage
The Master of the Embroidered Foliage is another of Friedlander's anonymous painters from Bruges. No, the artist didn't take up needle and thread to create his greenery (interesting idea, though), it only looked that way, at least to Friedlander. Here Friedlander grouped five paintings, all quite similar, of a Virgin and Child in a Landscape (right). Other authorities have suggested each was done by a different artist using the same template, but again, were unable to come up with names. So they chose to continue Friedlander's designation as a catchall until someone can come up with something better.


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