In the Spring of 2001, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum put on show its recently restored Holy Kinship, traditionally attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans. Almost twenty years ago, in 1983, the painting had been withdrawn from display for treatment by L. Kuiper, the museum’s former senior restorer. About twelve percent of the painted surface had disappeared; much larger parts were heavily overpainted. After the death of Kuiper in 1989, Gwen Tauber took over the restoration on which she worked from 1991 onwards.
On the occasion of the completion of the restoration, a small exhibit was staged, accompanied by a book with chapters on iconography (1 and 2), the painter (3), the patrons (4), the production process (5) and the restoration (6). The book is profusely illustrated with large and beautiful color plates and technical documentation. When opened, the dust jacket, together with pages 42 and 43, display, from left to right, full page illustrations of the painting after the recent restoration, the painting before the restoration of 1983, a 1991 photograph of the painting showing the paint losses and finally a schematic overview of the persons depicted, with their names. A comparison of the first three illustrations shows us how meticulously the restorer has gone about her work. The reconstruction of St. Anne’s red dress and of Mary’s grey undergarment may prove the point (details on p. 44).
An extensive report on the restoration is given in the final chapter, which also discusses the history of the painting’s earlier restorations. After elaborate experiments with different techniques, the museum opted for an “integral (illusionistic) approach” (p. 52), making the retouches an integral part of the painted surface, in order to cause the observer as little distraction from the preserved parts of the image as possible. A public account such as this one is highly valuable, since even to this day extensive restorations are being performed – even in museums – without any report being given to the outside world. In this particular case, an explanation of the decisions taken was the more pressing because of the unavoidable removal of all of Kuiper’s retouches (p. 53). Whatever one may think of the extensive inpainting, the result is magnificent. Needless to say that the process was carefully documented and that reversible materials were used.
The chapter on the restoration is the finest in the book. Other chapters are less clearly argued. Chapter 5, “How was the painting made?” lacks the appropriate context needed to make the observations meaningful. On p. 28, for example, we read that “dowels of the same sort” were found in the Paris Raising of Lazarus. Yet the question how common or uncommon these dowels are for the work of Geertgen or for late fifteenth-century paintings in general is completely ignored. The most curious passage is found on p. 33. Here the authors argue that the use of carbon black chalk has also been established in the underdrawings of the Vienna Lamentation and the Prague, Amsterdam and ClevelandAdoration. The authors refer to a publication by me on the portrait series of the Haarlem commanders of the Knights of St. John (the footnote and the bibliography erroneously refer to Molly Faries as the author). This publication does not mention underdrawing in any of these panels at all. This makes one wonder if the Rijksmuseum has new information that isn’t accounted for. The question is all the more pressing because the underdrawing in the Prague triptych was studied extensively for the first time in June 2001.
The results of the research done with infrared reflectography are treated carelessly and superficially. The work of Dolf van Asperen de Boer (April 3,1966 and June 6,1990) is completely ignored. Furthermore, the paragraph will certainly astonish anyone who has witnessed Lisa Murphy’s careful and balanced argumentation in her paper presented at the symposium held on the occasion of the completion of the restoration. Murphy is mentioned as one of the authors but it is clear that her argument was inaccurately summarized and selectively integrated into the book. One example will suffice: in the underdrawing of the Lamentation and Burial of the Bones of John the Baptist (Vienna) – the only works that can be confidently attributed to Geertgen – and in the Rijksmuseum Adoration, the artist used a wet medium, as well as chalk. The absence of chalk in the Holy Kinship is simply argued away with the statement that there is no landscape background. This is a distorted representation of the facts: in the Vienna and Amsterdam panels chalk was, among other things, used for free sketching, and in the Adoration this happened to be in the landscape. In the Vienna panels, however, this is also the case with the figures in the background, as Molly Faries and I have shown in our article on these panels (Proceedings of the conference on ‘Dessin Sous-jacent’, 1991, p. 142). This publication was referred to by Murphy in her paper, but not in the book under review. Thus the lack of chalk underdrawings in the Holy Kinship cannot simply be dismissed with the statement that there is no landscape background. Rather, the absence of chalk underdrawings raises serious issues of authorship.
Fortunately, Lisa Murphy, who is preparing a dissertation on Geertgen and Haarlem painting, has been asked to publish her paper in the Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum. This will also be the case with Henk van Os’s paper on iconography which he presented at the aforementioned symposium. Iconography is also the subject of the first two chapters of the book under review which deal with the two main traditional interpretations of the painting – it is believed to refer both to the immaculate conception of the Virgin and to the Eucharist – and state that the depiction of the Holy Kinship in a liturgical setting serves “to bring together the two messages that had to be conveyed (p. 13).” It comes as a surprise then to find that Ton Brandenbarg’s study Heilig Familieleven was not adequately achnowledged, though it seems to have supplied most of the information in these two chapters.
Chapter 4 deals with the question of patronage. The Haarlem Dominican and Augustinian monasteries are mentioned as possible candidates, but most attention is being paid to the convent of the Knights of St. John, indeed the most likely candidate. The main points in this chapter were provided by a summary but reliable brochure of 1981, by Frans Tames. It is a pity that my dissertation (Tot Lof van Haarlem, 1993) which contains all relevant documentation seems not to have been available to the authors.
Two altars are suggested as the possible original site for the Holy Kinship. The first was consecrated to the Virgin Mary, St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist. A painting depicting the latter two in such a prominent position would certainly have been a worthy decoration for this altar. The altar, however, was not in the church – as suggested by the authors – but in the hospital within the convents premises that housed elderly people (Lof Haarlem, p. 185, fn. 77).
The authors seem to consider a second altar to be the most likely original destination. However, they based their argument on an inaccurate reading of an entry in the accounts of 1575 relating to the repair of the so-called Heemstede chapel following the Siege of Haarlem (1572/73). (This chapel was part of the convent’s church.) In reality, this document does not state that the altar was consecrated to the apostles Simon and Judas, as the authors like to believe because they consider these two saints to be the two sons of Maria Cleophas – which in fact only Judas was. The text states nothing more than that the restored chapel was re-consecrated on the day of Simon and Judas (October 28) in the year 1575 (Lof Haarlem, p. 418, fn. 478). It is very likely that at this occasion it was dedicated to new patron saints: Our Lady and Saint Anne. A missal of 1511 from the convent mentions Our Lady and Saint Nicholas as the previous patrons (Lof Haarlem, p. 628, n. 45).
When it comes to the cult of Saint Anne in the Haarlem convent of Saint John, the authors are somewhat hasty in their conclusions. They base their findings on the fact that in 1501 (five years after the assumed date of completion of the painting) a member of the Strasbourg convent of Saint John published a German edition of the De Legenda Sanctae Annae, in which he extolls the veneration of Saint Anne and mentions the dedication of an altar of Saint Anne in Strasbourg (sic!) in that same year (p. 25).
In chapter 3, “Who made the painting?,” the authors set out to prove that Geertgen is indeed the painter. Recent archival and technical research has established Geertgen’s authorship of the Vienna panels, as well as their location as part of the former high altar of the Haarlem convent (Lof Haarlem, p. 375). The two paintings therefore should serve as the point of departure for any reconstruction of the artist’s oeuvre, which indeed they do in the present publication. The comparisons of details in the Lamentation and Burial with those in theHoly Kinship are convincing and superbly illustrated. Such comparisons of the painted surface indeed make an attribution of theKinship to Geertgen very attractive. Unfortunately, two problems remain. Firstly, by not paying adequate attention to the underdrawings in the Kinship and Vienna panels, the authors failed to recognize the differences between the two sets. Secondly, they did not take into consideration Geertgen’s death date. In his recent edition of Van Mander’s Schilderboeck, Hessel Miedema calculates that Geertgen died somewhere beween 1486 and 1492 (I, fol. 205v; II, p. 260). Dendrochronology, on the other hand, places the painting around 1496. This potentially significant discrepancy should not have gone unmentioned. In conclusion, it must sadly be said that Geertgen’s wonderfully restored painting deserved a more fully researched publication.
I thank Marten Jan Bok for his critical comments.
Truus van Bueren