Quinten Metsys
(Leuven 1466–1530 Antwerp)

Christ Blessing

oil and mordant gilding on oak panel
37.6 x 30.4 cm (14 ¾ x 12 in.)
c. 1491–1505

‘Metsys shows a more beautiful world, the extraordinary world of saints and holy figures, as a contrast to the grotesque faces of everyday sinfulness.’

Larry Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys with Catalogue Raisonné, p. 25.

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Artwork details

Quinten Metsys1 was born in 1466 in Leuven, modern-day Belgium, and was the son of a blacksmith. No records concerning his early life or training have survived and in the absence of facts, speculation has filled the void. An early account of his life by Dominicus Lampsonius (1532–1599) attests that Metsys initially trained as a blacksmith, like his father, but that his romantic pursuit of a woman swayed him to the profession of painting, because of its more genteel reputation.2 Karel van Mander (1548–1606) claimed that Metsys was self-taught, an improbable statement considering the rigid guild system of apprenticeship prevailing in the Netherlands at that time.3 Unfortunately, the painter’s guild in Leuven did not keep membership records before 1494, and as a result, scholars have proposed many theories about Metsys’ training. One probable scenario is that Metsys was apprenticed in the workshops of the Bouts family, which were the leading painters in Leuven around that time, although visually his earliest work seems to be indebted to the Bruges school of painting led by Hans Memling (1430–1494). Metsys is recorded as living in Antwerp in 1491 when he entered the Guild of Saint Luke as a master painter.4

At this time, Antwerp was a flourishing trade centre and the heart of artistic exchange in the Southern Netherlands, attracting wealthy patrons and artists.5 As a painter of mainly portraits and small panels for private devotional use, Metsys’ work was in high demand. It is known that he took on apprentices, four of which are documented between 1495 and 1510. By the 1520s, he owned two large townhouses, which is a testament to his success. Metsys married in 1492, but his wife died in 1507, leaving him three children. He remarried the following year and had 10 more children.6

In his religious works, Metsys’ celebration of the Southern Netherlandish artistic tradition is particularly evident.7 His compositions, ideals of beauty and levels of naturalism are in direct dialogue with his predecessors and react to the local representational tradition of the subject while updating it with his own unique innovative approach. In the present Christ Blessing, Metsys responds directly to Robert Campin’s (c. 1375–1444) treatment of the same subject from c. 1424, as well as to the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck (1390–1441) of 1432. During his time in Antwerp in the 1490s, Metsys painted this exquisitely detailed and extraordinarily well-preserved panel of Christ Blessing which is also a prime example of Metsys’ naturalistic style. Christ’s piercing gaze and the protruding rendering of his proper left hand stop the beholder in their tracks, whilst the warm spiritual atmosphere and intricate details such as the ‘beaded’ strokes of his eyelashes invite the viewer to linger and marvel. This composition of Christ Blessing is widely accepted as the prototype of the many autograph, studio and subsequent versions that followed. It is a testament to Metsys’ ingenuity, which has elevated his work to iconic status.

On the other end of the spectrum, in his secular paintings, Metsys’ naturalism could also inspire laughter and satire, rather than quiet introspection. In addition to their humour, Metsys’ secular works are lauded for their attention to detail, vivid colouring and fantastical expressions of the characters.8 Drawing on the popular ‘farce’ plays performed by the rederijkers, a literary faction of the Guild of Saint Luke,9 Metsys painted characters involved in compromising activities or of grotesque proportions, such as The Moneylender and His Wife of 1514, or perhaps most famously, An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’) of 1513. The nearly identical drawing of the duchess that came out of Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452–1519) studio, has sparked many debates as to whether the original conception was Metsys’ or Leonardo’s.10 Regardless, it is a testimony of the blooming artistic exchange between Italy and Northern Europe in the early 16th century and to Metsys’ familiarity with several of Leonardo’s drawings, or, as one might speculate, the other way around.11 Apart from their shared interest in ‘grotesque’ heads, Metsys religious works and also this Christ Blessing, radiate an atmospheric mysticism which is much akin to the aura that Leonardo created in his paintings.12

Metsys was one of the most influential painters at the turn of the 16th century and his imaginative work continues to inspire artists and art lovers alike. Already in the 17th century, Metsys’ reputation was unsurpassed and he was coined the founder of the Antwerp school of painting.13 After he died in 1530, his sons Cornelis (c. 1510–by 1557) and Jan (c. 1509–1575) carried on producing works in his style, likely taking over their father’s workshop.14

Notes
1. Please note there are many different spellings of this artist’s name. The most common versions of his first name can be Quinten or Quentin, and of his last name Metsys, Massys or Massijs. For example, The National Gallery in London, The Royal Museum in Antwerp and the Art Institute of Chicago all use different variants.
2. Hendrick Hondius the Elder, Pictorum aliquot celebrium, præcipué Germaniæ Inferioris, effigies, The Hague, 1610, accessed through the Courtauld’s Picturing the Netherlandish Canon online project, https://sites.courtauld.ac.uk/netherlandish-canon/image-and-tombstone/.
3. Karel van Mander, Het Groot Schilderboeck, 1604, fol. 215 v.
4. Larry Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys with Catalogue Raisonné, Montclair, 1984, 3.
5. Jane Campbell Hutchison, “Metsys, Quinten,” Grove Art Online, published 2003, accessed on 14th March 2023, https://www-oxfordartonline-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/groveart/display/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-90000370687?rskey=wfd0gP&result=1
6. Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys with Catalogue Raisonné, 4.
7. Jane Campbell Hutchison, “Metsys, Quinten,” Grove Art Online, published 2003, accessed on 14th March 2023, https://www-oxfordartonline-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/groveart/display/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-90000370687?rskey=wfd0gP&result=1
8. “Metsys, Quentin,” Benezit Dictionary of Artists, published 31 October 2011, accessed 14th March 2023, https://www-oxfordartonline-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/benezit/display/10.1093/benz/9780199773787.001.0001/acref-9780199773787-e-00121547?rskey=wfd0gP&result=6.
9. Larry Silver, “Power and Pelf: A New-Found “Old Man” by Massys” in Simiolus: Netherlandish Quarterly for the History of Art, 1977, Vol. 9, no. 2, 91.
10. Mark Brown, “Solved: mystery of The Ugly Duchess – and the Da Vinci connection,” The Guardian, 11 October 2008; and Richard Brooks, “’She is a he’: Was an Old Woman, the painting that inspired Alice’s Duchess, actually a man?”, The Guardian, 11 March 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2023/mar/11/she-is-a-he-was-an-old-woman-painting-alice-duchess-a-man.
11. Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys with Catalogue Raisonné, 7.
The most recent research on An Old Woman (’The Ugly Duchess’) can be explored in The National Gallery’s exhibition: “The Ugly Duchess: Beauty and Satire in the Renaissance,” 16 March – 11 June 2023.
12. Jane Campbell Hutchison, “Metsys, Quinten,” Grove Art Online, published 2003, accessed on 14th March 2023, https://www-oxfordartonline-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/groveart/display/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-90000370687?rskey=wfd0gP&result=1
13. Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys with Catalogue Raisonné, p. 2.
14. Jan Van der Stock, “Massys, Jan,” Grove Art Online, published 2003, accessed on 14th of March 2023, https://www-oxfordartonline-com.lonlib.idm.oclc.org/groveart/display/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.001.0001/oao-9781884446054-e-90000370688#oao-9781884446054-e-90000370688

Possibly in the private collection of William IV, King of England (1765–1837), at Bushy House;
presumably thence to his illegitimate son by the actress Dorothy Jordan, the Revd. Lord Augustus Fitzclarence (1805–1854);
presumably thence to his daughter, Dorothea Fitzclarence (1845–1869), who married Thomas William Goff, of Oakport, Roscommon, Ireland;
their son, Major Thomas Clarence Edward Goff (1867–1949), by whom given in May 1940 to Holy Trinity Church, Bradford-on-Avon;
acquired from the above in 2013 by an English private collector;
with Danny Katz by 2016;
private collection;
The Klesch Collection.

Unexhibited.

K. Stainer-Hutchins, S. Watney and H. Platt, ‘A rediscovered prototype by Quinten Metsys: Christ blessing with the Virgin in adoration’, in The Burlington Magazine, vol. CLII, February 2010, pp. 76–81.
K. Stainer-Hutchins and H. Platt, ‘Christ Blessing with The Virgin in Adoration by Quentin Metsys, c.1491–1505: A Technical Investigation’, in The Picture Restorer, Autumn 2010, no. 37, pp.18–21 and 29–33.1
T-H. Borchert, ‘Ars devotionis: Reinventing the icon in Early Netherlandish Painting’, in B. Coulie(ed.), Paths to Europe, Milan, 2017, p. 43, reproduced p. 45, fig. 13.

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Hover to zoom to maximum level or click to enlarge

Quinten Metsys
(Leuven 1466–1530 Antwerp)

Christ Blessing

oil and mordant gilding on oak panel
37.6 x 30.4 cm (14 ¾ x 12 in.)
c. 1491–1505

‘Metsys shows a more beautiful world, the extraordinary world of saints and holy figures, as a contrast to the grotesque faces of everyday sinfulness.’

Larry Silver, The Paintings of Quinten Massys with Catalogue Raisonné, p. 25.

Artwork details