Jan Gossart, Jan Gossaert van Mabuse, Jan Gossaert van Mauberge, Jan Gossart van Mabuse, Jan Gossart van Mauberge, Joannes Malbodius, Jan Mabuse – and indeed Jennyn van Hennegouwe – are all names of the same painter (born c. 1478, died 1 October 1532), though Jan Gossaert and Jan Mabuse are possibly the most famous ones. (It was only quite recently that I found out that these two are indeed the same person.) ‘Jan Gossart’ seems to be the most used these days, on the ground that he was Flemish and Gossaert is a Dutch spelling – whatever those two ‘nationalities’ meant at the beginning of the sixteenth century – but in fact he spoke French, so ‘Jean’?
Mabuse etc. come from the place of his birth, Mauberge (also Malbode), today in the Nord départemente of France, but right on the modern border and hence in Gossart’s time in the middle of the Debatable Land that was the Spanish Netherlands. Mauberge was centred on an abbey founded as a Benedictine nunnery by St Aldegonde in the seventh century. A subsequent abbess, St Amalberga, was a duchess of Lorraine, who entered the abbey after giving birth to five saints, Emebert, Reineldis, Pharaeldis, Ermelindis and Gudula. Another abbess, the virgin St Madelberte or Machtelberthe, was occasionally tempted by the Devil.
Very little is known of Gossart’s early life, but it is suggested that he may have received a basic education from the nuns of the abbey. In 1508, he was in the employment of Philip of Burgundy (1464–1524), one of several illegitimate children of Philip the Good [sic], who after an active career as a soldier and an admiral, was in 1517 made bishop of Utrecht (they got around to ordaining him a few days afterwards …). Gossart was either sent by him or accompanied him to Rome when he travelled there as the ambassador of Philip the Handsome (still with me?) to Pope Julius II.
From 1509 to 1517, he may have been living in Middelburg in Zeeland, but from 1517 to 1524 he appears to have resided in Duurstede Castle, the seat of his patron the (now) bishop. On the latter’s death he moved to Veere (having first designed a suitable tomb for him) and took up a position of court painter to Adolf of Burgundy, who had become admiral of the Netherlands when Philip turned to the Church. While at Duurstede, he is believed to have taken Jan van Scorel as a pupil, providing a link with van Scorel’s ‘pupil’ and contemporary Maarten van Heemskerck, whose own journey to Italy some twenty-four years later had such a profound influence on northern European art.
Many of Gossart’s works are (in my opinion, obviously) a bit odd. Take this possible self-portrait, the strange, wistful expression, the stitched and buttoned hat, the gesturing hand?
Or these three children, now in the Royal Collection because at one point they were believed to be the children of Henry VII – Arthur, Henry and Margaret.
They are in fact the son and two daughters (John, Dorothea and Christine) of Christian II of Denmark. Their mother, Isabella of Habsburg, died in 1526, and this portrait of the solemn children, dressed in mourning, with their pallid complexions, is believed to be contemporary. In spite of their physical closeness, none meets the gaze of the others, nor do they look at the expensive fruit on the table before them: each seems completely lost, almost inhuman. Their widower father sent them to the Netherlands to be raised by Margaret of Austria, who had similarly acted as guardian to their uncle, Charles V, and Gossart later painted Dorothea, the middle child, again, but she still has an unearthly quality as she toys with an astrolable at which, again, she is not looking.
Gossart painted a good many portraits, of which one of the best known is this merchant (possibly one Jan Snoeck), seen in his counting house, surrounded by the appurtenances of his business, which include the almost trompe-l’oeil stacks of paper on the shelf behind him.
He was also famous for scenes from Greek mythology, but most of all for religious paintings, of which the one definite, undoubted, knockout masterpiece is the Adoration of the Kings, now in the National Gallery. (There is an excellent section about it on the NG website, which enables you to enlarge the image to examine details in high resolution.)
In many respects, it is a perfect painting. Technically superb, revelling in the ability of oils to create gold, jewels and the most luxurious silk brocades, crowded with people, with animals and with hovering angels, it is also famous as containing one of the earliest and most sympathetic images of a Black person in European art.
It was commissioned as an altarpiece for the abbey of St Adrian at Graamont, now Geraardsbergen, east of Brussels in the Flemish Ardennes, by Daniel van Boechout (c.1455–c. 1527), the castellan of Duurstede, a wealthy Flemish nobleman, one of whose later descendants was the first wife of William the Silent. He is depicted (literally with warts and all) as King Caspar, kneeling before the naked Christ Child in the centre of the painting.
His cap/crown, rich with velvet, ermine, gold and jewels, is left casually, along with his golden sceptre and the elaborate cover of the chalice he is offering to the baby, on the cracked floor-tiles of a ruined building, near to a random dog gnawing at a bone, while his sumptuous fur-lined robe trails in the dirt.
The building certainly does not resemble the traditional stable (although it does contain a donkey and an ox (just visible on Mary’s right; and behind him, barely visible at all, an angel)) – a high roof, now open to the sky in which the Star of Bethlehem blazes, and the dove of the Holy Spirit hovers. The broken floor, and the flowers growing in the gaps, are most beautifully depicted. At the other end of the scale, in the distance, the long retinue of the kings is still winding its way round the side of the hill, and through the open back of the building you can see the towers of a town (Bethlehem?) just outside of which a flock of sheep has apparently been abandoned, while its shepherds crowd to the back and side of the ruin, where they peer at what is going on among their betters.
Joseph is also withdrawn from the main scene: wearing scarlet, rather than the more common blue-and-yellow, leaning on the staff which got him into this in the first place, and seems to be looking askance at both the exotic and the angelic visitors.
Melchior, standing behind Caspar/Daniel, is managing somehow to hold up his elaborate golden container of frankincense on the palm of his right hand. His clothes are brighter than those of Caspar, especially his cloth-of-gold cloak and his red stockings with black sandals. His red hat (perhaps more of a cap) is surrounded by a jewelled coronet. His two attendants, dandified in a manner which recalls Carpaccio, are taking no notice at all of what is going on.
On the other side, the dignified figure of Balthasar holds the casket of myrrh, using his silk scarf to protect his hands. His leather boots are so fine that you can almost see his feet through them, his red cloak is held in a rather unenthusiastic manner by a servant who seems pointedly to be looking down, while Balthasar, like Melchior, is staring not at the central scene but apparently into the distance, or lost in his own thoughts.
In fact, the only central character who is looking at anyone else is Caspar: gazing humbly at Child, who does not meet his gaze as he apparently holds out one of the gold coins from the cup (foreshadowing of the Eucharist???). The Virgin seems to be looking at the cup, not at the old king or her baby. No-one meets anyone else’s eye – possibly the angel in green, carrying the ‘Gloria in excelsis’ banner, is trying to catch the eye of his white-robed neighbour, but he is not succeeding. Perhaps it is this lack of basic human contact (visible in many of Gossart’s other works, such as his Adam and Eve) which makes one feel that this marvellous painting is somehow lacking in the humanity which so many other nativity scenes show?