This book is the catalogue for a 2017-2018 exhibition at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Frankfurt. The exhibition (which, sadly, I have not seen) is a small one, highlighting a single painting, Campin’s Crucified Thief (normally housed in the nearby Städel Museum), which is a fragment from the right wing of a lost Deposition triptych. In the exhibition and its catalogue, the Crucified Thief is contextualized in relation to eleven other associated works, including works in a variety of media: paintings (notably, the “Flémalle panels” and Rogier van der Weyden’s Medici Madonna, both from the Städel Museum); drawings; sculptures (notably, figures from the Master of the Rimini Altar’s Crucifixion from the Liebieghaus’s own collection); and an illuminated manuscript (The Hours of Catherine van Lochorst, now in Münster). The Liebieghaus exhibition was conceived as a follow-up to the spectacular 2008-2009 exhibition, The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden, held in Frankfurt and Berlin, which took on the much larger task of examining the complete works of these two artists. The narrower scope of In neuem Glanz, however, amply demonstrates the great value of its alternative exhibition format, that of the “focus exhibition,” a type that has become increasingly popular in the museum world today.
The book’s foreword wisely begins by noting the attribution problems associated with Robert Campin and by claiming that the “Master of Flémalle” was not an individual, but a group of painters working in Tournai in association with the workshop of Robert Campin – a group that included the young Rogier van der Weyden. At this time, the foreword asserts, it is not possible to separate these hands due to the close cooperation between the various artists. Hence, in a happy change of pace within the Campin scholarship, attribution issues are not a focus of this book.
The body of the volume consists of three essays, beginning with that of Jochen Sander and Fabian Wolf, which offers important information about the appearance of the original triptych. Noting that the fragment has unpainted borders at the top and sides, the authors establish that the wing (sometimes presumed to have been wider) could not in fact have been much wider than it is now. Moreover, based on the presence of grisaille on the exterior, Sander and Wolf also dispute the claims in the 2008-2009 exhibition catalogue that the Deposition triptych was originally a fixed, rather than folding triptych. Sander and Wolf’s hypothetical reconstruction drawing of the Deposition triptych is highly convincing, particularly in light of the similarities to the Seilern Triptych that the authors examine. This essay thus not only reconstructs the Deposition triptych, but also provides valuable insights into how this triptych might have related to other triptychs from the Campin shop. Sander and Wolf’s essay also includes iconographical observations about the Crucified Thief fragment and the Deposition triptych as a whole, taking up the idea (also raised in the 2008-2009 catalogue) that the gilded press brocade in the background was meant to evoke the gilded rear wall of a shrine housing polychromed figures, thereby making the work analogous to Rogier van der Weyden’s Deposition. The authors also argue convincingly that the powerful realism of Campin’s Deposition triptych would have served to communicate the concept of the real presence of Christ’s body in the consecrated Host.
The second essay in the volume is Annegret Volk’s fascinating discussion of the recent, two-year technical examination and conservation of the Crucified Thief. Because of the thickness of the paint, most of the underdrawing is not visible using infrared reflectography, but enough was revealed to establish three phases of modification between the first underdrawing and the final paint layer. This essay is particularly interesting in its discussion of the work’s use of pressed brocade (the German “Pressbrokat,” translated in the text as “applied brocade”), which represents the earliest surviving – and an unusually extensive – use of the technique. The removal of the varnish and later red fillings from the pressed brocade was one of the key accomplishments of the work’s conservation; now the ornamental pattern of the pressed brocade, with its scrolls, palmettes, leaves and birds is once again visible.
Another change resulting from the work’s conservation is the reappearance of a blue robe worn by an angel, at the upper left edge, which had been painted over when the fragment was separated from the rest of the triptych. Since the wing has retained its original width, this robe must have once been part of the garb of an angel who appeared not in the right wing but in the center panel. This practice of continuing motifs across the joints between panels is also seen in the Seilern Triptych’s treatment of the wattle fence. (The Liverpool copy of the triptych, however, keeps the angel’s robe within the boundaries of the center panel.) As part of the work’s conservation, a wooden slat on the outside of the wing – a later addition intended to help repair a split to the panel – was removed.
The third essay in the volume is Wolf’s brief discussion of the original location of the Deposition triptych. This essay considers evidence for the traditional theory that the work was made for the Church of Saint James in Bruges (and was mistakenly identified in the sources as a work by Hugo van der Goes). Wolf questions this theory, raising the possibility that the work was instead made for the Prinsenhof Chapel in Bruges. Ultimately, the author recognizes that the question of original location – as well as the associated question of patronage – remains open, but the essay’s discussion is useful, if a bit confusingly presented.
The remainder of the book consists of catalogue entries for the twelve works of art included in the exhibition. The entry on the Crucified Thief is very brief, likely due to the ample discussion of the work in the book’s essays. However, it would have been useful for the entry to have addressed the question of whether the thief is the good or the bad one. According to standard hierarchies, this thief, on Christ’s left (that is, Christ’s bad side), should be identified as the bad thief – as he is here and in the 2008-2009 catalogue as well. However, there has been some debate on this issue because the representation of the body of the Crucified Thief lacks the contortions normally associated with the bad thief; moreover, the thief at Christ’s (good) right side in Campin’s original triptych (known from copies and drawings) has a much more contorted body position and is blindfolded, normally a sign of spiritual blindness. Nevertheless, a sculpture in the exhibition from the workshop of the Master of the Rimini Altar represents a blindfolded thief at Christ’s right who is very close in his contorted body position to Campin’s thief at Christ’s right; and this sculpted figure must be the good thief, since the sculpture includes an angel who receives his soul. Oddly enough, though, other sculptures in the exhibition from the Master of the Rimini Altar, reverse the thief types of Campin’s triptych, by including a thief very similar to Campin’s thief at Christ’s right and to the sculpture attributed to the Master of the Rimini Altar (though without the blindfold) placed this time on the other side, Christ’s left – and a figure similar to Campin’s thief at Christ’s left, the Crucified Thief fragment, placed at Christ’s right.
The production of In neuem Glanz is excellent, with abundant, high quality illustrations. There are a few minor infelicities in the English translation, but overall the English/German pairing is very successful and makes the catalogue accessible to a much wider audience.
Lynn F. Jacobs
University of Arkansas