Among the numerous painters active in the Netherlands during the sixteenth century, one of the most controversial is the Braunschweiger Monogrammist, so named after a painting in the Herzog Anton-Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig. It depicts an outdoor feast set against an atmospheric distant landscape. The subject is the Parable of the Great Supper, or the Feeding of the Poor (Luke 14:21-27). The numerous small figures are remarkably well articulated, moving and conversing with each other. However, instead of a signature, the artist added a monogram in the lower left corner of the panel, depicted as a medallion on the end of a log. Since no consensus exists about the letters comprising the monogram, the artist is usually referred to as the Braunschweiger (or Brunswick) Monogrammist.
The Monogrammist painted other pictures similar in style to the Braunschweig panel, including Christ Entering Jersusalem (Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie) and two versions of Christ Shown to the People (Paris, Louvre; Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie). He is also credited with pictures quite different in subject matter and composition, with figures considerably larger in scale than those in his biblical scenes. These paintings show brothel interiors, where men drink and socialize with the women or climb stairs to more private upper rooms. Occasionally a woman is already shown in bed awaiting her partner.
Based on attempts to decipher the artist’s monogram, various scholars have identified him with several sixteenth-century Flemish artists, including Jan Sanders van Hemessen, Jan van Amstel, and Mayken Verhulst, wife of Hieronymus Cock and mother-in-law of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The Monogrammist has also been the subject of monographs by Felix Graef (1908). Robert Genaille (1948), Dietrich Schubert (1970), and Burr Wallen (1983). Ubl’s recent volume however is by far the longest and most detailed investigation of the artist and his work; it also contains an extensive review of previous scholarship. Published in a large format, it contains some 448 pages and a wealth of splendid color illustrations, both of pictures attributed to the Monogrammist and of comparative material, mostly by the Monogrammist’s contemporaries. Indeed, the very richness of Ubl’s volume makes it difficult to offer here more than a summary of its contents and a selection of the author’s major conclusions.
The volume opens with nine full-page color plates, illustrating the major paintings by the Monogrammist, plus a tenth plate, The Lute Player (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), on which he collaborated with an artist whom Ubl identifies as a member of Jan van Hemessen’s workshop. Probably wisely, Ubl makes no attempt to decipher the controversial monogram on the Braunschweig Feeding of the Poor.Instead, he presents a convincing survey of the pictures that can reasonably be attributed to the Monogrammist, as well as those pictures in which he collaborated with other artists, which define the Monogrammist’s place in the development of Flemish painting during the first half of the sixteenth century. Ubl also discusses at length the whitish patches that appear on the figures of the Braunschweig Parable of the Great Supper and in some of his other biblical scenes: these whitish patches result from the Monogrammist’s use of white underpainting that has penetrated the top layers of paint.
Although the Monogrammist’s career, Ubl says, may have begun as early as the mid-1520s, he was certainly active no later than the 1530s, and he continued working into the 1550s. He probably worked in Antwerp: his broad landscape compositions populated with small human figures form an important link between Antwerp artists Joachim Patinir, active in the earlier sixteenth century, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, who died in 1569. Moreover, his brothel scenes recall those produced by two Antwerp contemporaries, Jan Sanders van Hemessen and Pieter Aertsen, although the Monogrammist’s brothel figures omit the lively facial expressions that often animate men and women in brothel scenes by his Antwerp colleagues.
Ubl examines in detail and ultimately rejects previous identifications of the Monogrammist with various other artists. However, the Monogrammist occasionally collaborated with Hemessen, Aertsen, and Jan van Amstel, adding background figures and landscapes to their paintings. A striking example is The Lute Player, a large-scale figure of a young woman seated in an interior. Ubl assigns this work to an artist in Hemessen’s workshop, but the small-scale landscape visible through the doorway at upper left, depicting Christ with several disciples and Christ speaking with a seated woman, perhaps Mary Magdalene, is unquestionably by the Monogrammist himself.
Throughout the text, small illustrations of the pictures under discussion, as well as enlarged details are frequently repeated on the pages where they are discussed, thus assisting the reader. Ubl also reproduces some infrared photographs of two Monogrammist pictures. The Lute Player shows details of the room concealed by later overpainting. An even more drastic compositional change occurs in the partial form of a huge human arm, covered by a sleeve, which appears in the underpainting of The Feeding of the Poor (p. 82), suggesting that the panel was originally intended for a large-scale figure composition, later abandoned for the current biblical subject. Hardly less intriguing, the Couple in a Grainfield (Braunschweig, Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum) depicts an erotic encounter: he stands, adjusting his stockings, while his companion sits on the ground before him, her arms outstretched in a welcoming gesture. Just visible beneath her left arm are a crucifix and a rosary. Ubl suggests that the picture represents a commentary on religious pilgrimages, condemned by Luther and other reformers as encouraging unchaste behavior.
Ubl’s monumental study supports his conclusion (p. 247) that the Monogrammist was a “key figure in the artistic landscape of Antwerp in the second quarter of the sixteenth century.” The book closes with an illustrated catalogue of the paintings that can be attributed to the master, as well as copies and other works by other artists in his style, plus a bibliography of literature cited in the text and a general index. Also included is a dendrochronological table of selected paintings, based on data compiled by Peter Klein of the University of Hamburg and Catherine Laver in Paris. While we do not yet know the identity of the Monogrammist, Matthias Ubl has richly elucidated his artistic achievements.
Walter S. Gibson