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Lucas Gassel

The gardens of a Renaissance palace, with episodes from the story of David and Bathsheba, in a panoramic landscape adorned with mountains and a port

Panel: 51 x 68 cm

introduction

Although much about Lucas Gassel’s life still remains a mystery, the works he left to posterity are proof of the extraordinary quality of his art and the renown he enjoyed in his day. While he followed on from the painter Joachim Patenier, Gassel had a resolutely modern vision of landscape and court life. In this exceptional painting portraying "The gardens of a Renaissance palace, with episodes from the story of David and Bathsheba in a panoramic landscape adorned with mountains and a port", our artist combines the purest tradition of Flemish landscape painting with architectural beauty. Both a painter and artist, and engraver of works published by Hieronymus Cock, Gassel undeniably differentiates himself through his avant-garde ideas and perfect mastery of pictorial techniques.

Besides its beauty, the painting’s significance resides in its story. It is part of a body of similarly constructed paintings executed in Flanders by a group of artists between 1530 and 1560. The most famous of them, painted by Herri Met de Bles, belongs to the collection of the Isabella Stewart Gartner Museum in Boston. Three other landscapes, confirmed as being the work of Lucas Gassel, belong to several prestigious collections: the Wadsworth Anatheum in Hartford, the collection of the Duke of Palmela in Lisbon, and that of Doctor Restrelli, whose version is monogrammed and dated "LG 1540".

Each of these versions has the same background. According to tradition, crystalline blue landscapes with evanescent mountains are always used to portray scenes from the Old and New Testament. Lucas Gassel is no exception to this rule. Here, the artist presents several episodes from the story of David and Bathsheba. The port visible in the distance is Jerusalem. Just like the great lords of the Renaissance, David would have resided in a magnificent palace outside the city, enjoying the parks, mazes and other bucolic places intended for the pleasure of kings and princes. According to the Second Book of Samuel in the Bible, David met Bathsheba when the Hebrew army besieged the town of Rabbah. The attentive observer will note, in the background of the painting, the crucial moment when the king catches sight of this splendid woman for the first time, taking her bath. Charmed, David invites her to join him in bed despite the fact that she is married. As fate would have it, Bathsheba falls pregnant. David requests the return of her husband, Uriah, an officer on campaign, so that he can acknowledge the child as his own. But respecting the rule of abstinence while on active service, Uriah refuses to fulfil the king's desire and returns to duty. Consumed with anger, David decides to send him to the front line to ensure his demise. Upon Uriah’s death in battle, the king marries Bathsheba. In the foreground of the painting we see the tragic moment when David hands Uriah the letter telling him to join the front line.

Lucas Gassel cleverly takes advantage of the places he depicts to portray the entertainments of a royal court in the 16th century. Teeming with details, this painting is a true collection of the games in fashion among the high society of the northern Renaissance. We are indeed reminded of the work of Francois Rabelais and his description of the gardens of the Abbaye de Thélème in chapter 55 of Gargantua (1534). There is a large maze in the middle of the garden, symbol of the finiteness of life and femininity. Up until the Renaissance, mazes were only present in religious buildings and were the symbol of spirituality. It was the Italians who added hedge mazes to gardens in the 16th century. From then on, they adopted a profane and playful significance: why not lose oneself in a maze just for fun? This fashion, which spread throughout Europe, reached the Netherlands and became one of the gentry’s favourite games, whether in the form of hopscotch or the goose game. Here, we have the labyrinth of love, which was most popular during the Elizabethan era. Couples would meet here to court, hidden from sight, and form numerous amorous intrigues. In the centre is a tree, perhaps a lime, which is known as a May tree in popular northern culture. In front of this labyrinth is an actual garden, with young people playing at firing arrows, while a group of women refresh themselves around the edges of an ornamental fountain. On the left is a rectangular enclosure used to play Boule á l’Anneau, which involves hitting a ball under hoops using a wooden stick: in other words, the ancestor of croquet! This game was very common in the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries, before being usurped by a new sport in the royal courts of Europe: tennis (or "jeu de paume"). In fact, we can see one of the first depictions of a tennis match in the foreground of our painting. The rectangular court is paved and divided in two by a rope. In accordance with the description of the humanist and scholar Juan Louis Vives dating from 1539, our court also includes galleries on the side for spectators. It seems that it was the Italians who were the first to depict the game of tennis; some say that Donatello was the first to introduce it in the background of one of the bronze bas-reliefs of the altarpiece of Saint Anthony in the Basilica del Santo in Padua. There is also the trace of a rectangular space intended for "giocare alla palla" in Alberti’s De re aedificatoria treaty. However, we shouldn’t forget the magnificent panoramic landscape rising behind King David’s Renaissance palace, which deserves all our attention. At the heart of a valley with a river running through it, towns and villages are painted with the meticulousness of his best drawings. Previously attributed to Gassel, one of the drawings in the Louvre collection features a similar composition to the one presented here. In the distance, the steep cliffs bear witness to the legacy of Herri Met de Bles, while the forest, stretching across the hills, allows him to deploy a whole range of greens.

Known for their rarity, the panoramic paintings of Lucas Gassel demonstrate the absolute quality of northern Renaissance landscape painting. This admirable landscape eloquently bears witness to his talent. The refined characters, the intensity and diversity of the colours, the enamelled appearance and his flowing lines make this painting a particularly brilliant example of 16th century art.

Provenance :
Robert A.D. Fleming;
J.E. Hope of Edinburgh;
Sale, Christie's, London, 20 December 1929, lot 41, where it was acquired by Leggatt for Jervis Wegg, who bequeathed it to his godson John Rickards;
Private Collection.

Littérature :
W. Meyers, The Illustrated London News, 31 May, 1930, illustrated in colour (as The Master of Brunswick);
Frank R. Davis, 'Sixteenth Century Painters and Real Tennis', The Illustrated London News, 29 July, 1950;
A. de Luze, A History of the Royal Game of Tennis (Kineton, 1979) ill. p. 216;
R. Morgan, Tudor Tennis a Miscellany (Oxford, 2001), pp. 105-115, ill. p. 54.