Triptych of martyrs
Quinten Massys painted this altarpiece for the Antwerp Joiners’ Guild. Christ’s dead body lies at the centre of the work, close to the viewer, while the side panels tell the story of the martyrdom of the joiners’ two patron saints. On the left, Salome serves up the head of John the Baptist to Herod. And on the right, Emperor Domitian watches as John the Evangelist stands stoically in a cauldron of boiling oil.
From sculpture to painting
The joiners established a guild of their own in Antwerp in 1497. To decorate their chapel in the Church of Our Lady, they ordered an altarpiece from two sculptors in Leuven. But nothing came of the commission. When an Antwerp sculptor failed to complete it too, the guild turned instead to Quinten Massys, who had already been working on the painted side panels. He had chosen a style for these scenes that would complement the wooden sculpture planned for the centre of the altarpiece: full of energetic figures, imaginative costumes and strong light and dark contrasts. When Massys’ commission was extended to include a painted central panel too, he opted in this case for a more traditional visualization, designed to encourage reflection and prayer.
The central panel is a Pietà or Lamentation of Christ. Jesus appears at the front, forming the focal point together with his mother, Mary, and St John. The three key protagonists are coloured white, blue and red respectively – a reference to earlier Flemish Primitive Lamentations. The story unfolds in the landscape, where we see the mouth of the rocky tomb, the two thieves still crucified, Christ’s empty cross, a man with a ladder walking away from it, and Jerusalem and the mountains in the distance. It is a theatrical scene tailored to churchgoers, as if you were looking at an enlarged miniature painting.
Salome and John the Baptist
In the open wing on the left, we see Salome presenting her uncle and stepfather Herod and her mother Herodias with a platter containing the head of John the Baptist. The beheading itself takes place in the background. The banquet resembles those organized for the upper echelons of society around 1500, in which the various courses were alternated by singing, dancing and spectacular performances. Just like Salome’s. The page-boy is there to refill the cups.
Domitian and John the Evangelist
The right wing of the altarpiece shows John the Evangelist in a cauldron of boiling oil, although it doesn’t seem to be affecting him too badly. Emperor Domitian and his retinue look on. They are presented as caricature Orientals, in keeping with a traditional visual language that expressed the wicked as ugly and alien. The Roman Porta Latina in the background has been grafted onto the Antwerp fortress Het Steen. The imperial eagle alludes to the Roman Empire.
Flemish Primitives, Italian tempera technique
The central panel harks back to traditional 15th-century representations, yet this is still a highly innovative work. In it, Massys reconciles northern and southern styles: the composition and landscapes recall those of the Flemish Primitives, while the figures derive from southern traditions. Conventional poses alternate with graceful gestures. Jewellery and sumptuous fabrics add lustre to the dramatic scene. The clothes worn by Mary and John are painted in tempera, in the Italian manner. Elements of an emerging Humanism can also be sensed in the action here, making The Lamentation one of Massys’ most noteworthy altarpieces.
Massys alias Metsys
Quinten Massys or Metsys was born in 1466, the second son of a smith. The ‘Flemish Michelangelo’, as he has been dubbed, started out producing mostly large altarpieces, before later tending towards smaller, intimate works, often for his Humanist friends. At the same time, his work evolved from ‘primitive’ to distinctly Renaissance. Quinten offered an idealized reality: harmonious compositions, carefully balanced lighting and soft, muted colours that interact with one another, all creating a sense of perfection.
The road to the KMSKA
The Altarpiece of the Joiners’ Guild was installed in the Church of Our Lady in Antwerp in 1511. In 1582, it was purchased by a magistrate, who had it moved to the Town Hall, but it was returned to the church eight years later. When French revolutionary troops looted Antwerp in 1798, the city’s greatest works of art were mostly carried off to Paris. Not so this altarpiece, which ended up in a French school in Antwerp – the École Centrale du Département des Deux-Nèthes, which transferred it to the Academy Museum in 1810. Eighty years later, a large proportion of that museum’s collection was installed at the newly opened KMSKA.