In her monograph on Queen Isabel’s Retablo , likely never completed and hence never assembled, Chiyo Ishikawa meticulously and convincingly examines that work of private devotion, commissioned in 1496 by the Queen of Spain. Authorship is Ishikawa’s primary concern, and she pores over the extant panels to identify the hands at work. Her stylistic and contextual analysis particularly tracks the trajectory of Juan de Flandes’s career and enumerates the political, religious, and literary attitudes within the court of Castile. She additionally provides a comprehensive catalogue of each surviving panel..
Sold individually after the queen’s death in 1504, most of the Retablo ‘s 47 original panels depict episodes from the life of Christ but were not associated with any artist in documents. Today 27 panels survive in various collections throughout the world. Two panels by Michel Sittow are explicitly attributed to him in inventories that provide the only definite authorial information. Several paintings had been stylistically linked to Juan de Flandes, and some scholars have even detected a third style in some. Ishikawa endeavors to prove this third hand is in fact that of Juan de Flandes, representing an earlier period in his Spanish career. Her most convincing evidence that Juan de Flandes was the principal painter of the Retablo comes from stylistic analysis. After pointing out the lack of another viable candidate for a third painter in court records, she divides the paintings into two groups: one clearly identified with Flandes, the other contested. She considers the groups in relation to other works attributed to Flandes, chiefly the early St. John the Baptist polyptych in Burgos and the later retablo for the cathedral in Palencia.
In dealing with the contested group, Ishikawa draws on evidence that Flandes was trained primarily as a manuscript illuminator in the Netherlands to argue that those panels come from an earlier period in his career. The Last Supper panel conveys a depth of space characteristic of miniatures. In contrast, the other group limits compositions to essential information in order to accommodate far-off viewers. This change accords with Juan de Flandes’s situation, where a Netherlandish manuscript artist adjusted to Spanish conventions of representation.
An important strength of Ishikawa’s argument is her use of infrared photography and x-radiography to reveal the panels’ underdrawing, exposing the artist’s distinctive technique. For example, below-the-surface examination of panels shows instances in both early and late groups where the artist’s underdrawing on the primed surface would then be modified aspects in the paint layer. Additionally, microscopic analysis reveals graphic idiosyncrasies, consistent in both groups, that could only have come from the same hand. On this basis, she confidently attributes the entire range of panels to Flandes and finally places the contested group within an early production phase of 1496-1498, with the other group comprising two phases, 1498-1502 and 1502-1504, respectively.
In addition to her scrutiny of the extant Retablo panels, Ishikawa examines historical records to trace the diverging paths of the paintings following the death of the Queen. For example, the inventory for initial sale of each panel is printed in translation in the first chapter and in transcription in the appendix, along with photographs of the original document. She follows the panels in the order they were purchased, profiling each buyer and describing the panels’ subsequent display. While not the primary focus of her book, Ishikawa reveals the afterlife of a work that became detached from its patron and took on new significance for subsequent viewers. In particular, she discusses Margaret of Austria’s purchase of a group of panels, raising issues of recontextualization.
Ishikawa also pays close attention to the overall climate of Isabel’s court. She discusses popular treatises on the life of Christ, linked to the subject matter of the Retablo . She introduces key figures in the orchestration of court life, including Fray Hernando de Talavera, instrumental in choosing certain scenes of the life of Christ for theRetablo . Since Ishikawa takes pains to reconstruct a context of court life and literature, it is surprising that she does not further discuss painting in that context. While her identification of Flandes as the principal painter for the Retablo project is persuasive, that analysis of authorship remains incomplete without this background.
Attribution of the contested panels raises issues regarding medium and format. Ishikawa only partly explores why and how often retablos were produced with so many panels during Isabel’s reign. Since Flandes evidently had to learn the local particulars of retablo painting and to adjust his style and approach for a specifically Spanish audience’s different visual expectations, she could usefully have mentioned other examples of altarpiece models for Flandes to strengthen her analysis. In addition, the idea that Isabel’s private altarpiece would have been a miniature version of retablos found in churches is not fully explored. Since these panels were stored in a cabinet during Isabel’s life, we do not know the intended setup of the finished Retablo , so drawing on other examples would have proven useful. Furthermore, the smaller scale of Isabel’s private Retablo raises the tantalizing question of whether such a work would have been seen, for example, as an intermediate form between miniatures in a book of hours, intended for the private contemplation of a single viewer, and those retablos viewed en masse by an entire congregation of worshippers.
Nevertheless, Ishikawa reconstructs a solid portrait of an artist at work in his new environment. Her engagement with this single work, chronicling its long life and fully documenting each remaining panel in her catalogue, elucidates issues concerning Isabel’s artistic patronage. While expounding the experience of a transplanted Flemish painter in the Castilian court, Ishikawa’s detailed analysis provides a useful model for in-depth study of a complex work.
University of Pennsylvania