Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance

by Geoff Hall on March 16, 2011

Jan Gossaert at the National Gallery, London – 23rd February to 30th May, 2011.

When I researched the Iconoclastic Disorders of the 16th Century for my BA (Honours) Degree over 20 years ago, I came across an enchanting painting by Jan Gossaert ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ (1510-15). It is saturated with colour and the fine ‘sprezzatura’ (nonchalance was a courtly virtue) brushwork, especially of the garments is magnificent. It stuck in my mind from that day, but paintings are like that, they burn into your memory. So, it was great to be given the opportunity to study his work and his artistic milieu more closely at the National Gallery.

NG2790 Jan Gossaert The Adoration of the Kings
 1510-15 © National Gallery, London

What has grabbed my attention this time follows my review of Deborah Keiller’s work in ‘Sensuality and Spirituality’ and this whole area of thought considering the separation of two aspects of our humanity into some kind of flesh versus spirit dualism. As if, of course, that’s how we live our lives, fragmented, ethereal spirituality and earthy physicality!

(see http://artsmentoring.co/
articles/sensuality-and-spirituality.html )

Can we look at the art of history with this kind of focus? How did the spirituality of the Renaissance view sensuality? Is it true that the Renaissance is a cultural rebirth of the Christian faith? (Renaissance = Resurrection?) Let’s take the first two questions. I may need to come back to the third with a separate blog article.

It’s been a while since I ventured into the Great Smoke for an exhibition and my how things have changed.  At the NG you used to get a freebie handout with relevant room information, paintings of note, that kind of thing.  Now you just get a free flyer informing you of what you can buy to supplement your visit; books, posters,DVD’s etc. It seems that marketing has taken over the educational remit of the National Gallery! I must confess that I’m not a fan of this and unless they want art to be for an elite, they should stop such dreadful policies. Just as well I brought my pen and notebook. I’m still disappointed by this aspect though, as it’s not exactly free when you pay £11 to go into the exhibition!

That aside, what did I learn about an ancient spirituality from the art produced here?
Well many in the christian arts circle seem to make this big assumption that the world was a more christian place during the Renaissance and art just followed suit! However…take a look at this painting by Jan Gossaert ‘Man with a Rosary’, 1525-30.

NG656 Jan Gossaert 
Man with a Rosary
about 1525-30
© National Gallery, London

How do we read this painting? What kind of spirituality is represented here? Well you will notice a certain sanctification of the character, the pious disengaged look and the rosary and then all is well with our christian worldview. Yes? No!

To adequately read this painting we also need to assess the setting. The background reveals that the subject is positioning himself in the context of classical antiquity. Here we have a spirituality born of synthesis. Classical Humanism and christian spirituality meet, not so much head on, but are synthesised, melded as equals to each other; an hermaphrodite spirituality, fused with a universal intent which obviates distinction, diversity?! Sound familiar?

Now at this point I’d love to have shown you Jan Gossaert’s painting of ‘Adam & Eve’ c1520, but the copyright belongs to Her Majesty the Queen and I don’t want to spend any time in the Tower of London for crimes and misdemeanours!  So, please follow this link.

(right click on the image and  then ‘go full screen’)

You will have a clear identification between sensuality and original sin! Eve’s sensuous frame; her curved shoulders (the style of the day), beautiful hair, small stylised breasts and those long legs. Adam with his curly red hair, his muscular torso, the finger touching his lips to hint that he had already succumbed to temptation, but also please note his left forefinger pressing into Eve’s upper arm; an extremely tactile gesture of sensual love and possession. The serpent above the couple is worming its way between them; passion brings separation, antagonism, disappointment. As Juvenal wrote in his ‘Satires’ “What good is sex, when desire outweighs performance!”

Physical intimacy is represented as a part of humanity’s Fall from grace; don’t 
touch, don’t taste, don’t enjoy. God is watching! Guilt personified. Thank goodness there are only seven sins!

X6583 Jan Gossaert  Hercules and Deianeira, 1517
© The Barber Institute of Fine Arts,
 The University of Birmingham
Drawings and paintings of Adam & Eve and other amorous couples (here Hercules and Deianeira, 1517) suggest a place in the mind of the Renaissance man for erotic imagery. We see the familiar classical background, firmly placing the couple in antiquity (of course) and the intertwining of legs to show their intimacy. It is a cultured setting, speaking of the richness of Classical design. 

The frieze in the background and under the seat probably bear reference to the ‘Labours of Hercules’ and the great warrior was said to be the personification of the Greek ideal of pathos, that is struggle and suffering leading to fame and immortality. The appeal of such ancient stories to the Courts of 16th Century Northern Europe; of the ideal husband, warrior and lover, reveals that the more sensual images of course were there to inflame the passions, not deter them! Hercules here, is putting down his club to attend to his wife’s passionate advances, love conquers violence when at home in your Renaissance Apartment!

This gives us two different views of physical passion, the one which follows the ideal of Courtly manhood and the other which denigrates the physical senses to the realm of sin, of fallen-ness, as inferior to our spiritual character, as corruptible. Original Sin is depicted as sexual and departs from the Creation Narrative, but how long has it taken us to perceive the shift and remove the guilt? Gossaert’s ‘Adam & Eve’ places them firmly within an uncultivated, almost wild setting, save for the grand fountain, perhaps the fountain of life in the distance and reminiscent – in its inclusion but not its style – of the fountain in the Creation panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ (c1490-1510).

In the next article we’ll look at the Renaissance christian spirituality of the day, in the light of this synthesis.



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