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Master of Female Half-Lengths

The Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist

Panel: 87 x 63,5 cm

introduction

This religious work painted on the upper part of a piece of fretwork resembles the central panel of an altarpiece. A young, chubby Christ reaches out from his cradle towards the arms of the Virgin Mary, while St. Elizabeth protectively embraces the young John the Baptist in her arms, who is praying in front of the Messiah. A calm and meditative Joseph, slightly set back, observes the Mother and Child. Two gentle angels close the group on the left. One of them is holding a wreath over Mary's head like a sacred diadem.

This harmonious and dynamic composition is a literal copy of a Holy Family invented by Raphael. It was commissioned by Pope Leo X, who gave it to Francis I, King of France, in 1518. The motif of the wreath associated with the Virgin was a direct reference to Queen Claude of France's recent maternity. The painting, currently kept at the Louvre, bears the signature of the Italian master. This masterful work undoubtedly had a strong influence on artists who were able to admire it directly, or through painted and engraved copies. In 1522, Bernard van Orley from Brussels, nicknamed the "Flemish Raphael", copied the painting but reduced the number of characters and adapted it to Flemish culture. In particular, he featured a landscape in the background and the physiognomy of the characters, especially that of the Virgin, is reminiscent of the most beautiful Madonnas of the former Southern Netherlands.

The theme of the Holy Family was highly popular in Flanders in the early 16th century, particularly in Antwerp where Pieter Coecke van Aelst reigned supreme. Using selected symbols, the artist drew enriching parallels between the Old and the New Testament, thus producing a true work of contemplation and spiritual reflection. His Holy Family in Louvain owes much to the influence of Bernard van Orley, under whom he studied in Brussels. It is interesting to note that van Orley had the leisure to study Italian art when he was appointed to the court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen. He had access to collections of engravings from the peninsula from which he drew inspiration for his work. Furthermore, Coecke van Aelst received the sketches for tapestries by Raphael in 1517, in order to convert them into textile works, an activity at which the master excelled. As well as these Flemish artists possibly visiting Italy, thus explaining their southern influences – especially that of Raphael – we should also mention the arrival in Flanders of models directly from Italy, whose prestige and renown inevitably nourished the rich northern production.

Owing to the themes employed by the Master of Female Half-Lengths in his painted works, it is assumed that he worked in the privileged cultural milieu of the court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen, also frequented by Bernard van Orley. While it is impossible to demonstrate a direct link between our painting and its Italian model today, it would seem obvious that the Master of Female Half-Lengths had the opportunity to carefully study it because his version is very similar, despite a number of new motifs. The background no longer opens onto a blue sky and is completely closed. Christ’s cradle is less elaborate, just like the floor where the polychromatic marble paving is replaced by black and white tiles. The painter of half-lengths hasn’t adopted Raphael’s sparkling palette but has opted for more subdued and less varied tones. However, this in no way affects the overall harmony of the composition. The way the faces, hairstyles and drapery are painted is very similar to a Holy Family kept at the National Gallery in London[1] and another in Philadelphia[2] attributed to the Master of Female Half-Lengths, of a size almost identical to our panel. We can recognise the painter’s taste for small female faces with half-closed eyelids and a delicate well-defined mouth, and for hair carefully separated by a centre parting.

As well as featuring stylistic characteristics particular to the Master of Female Half-Lengths, The Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and St. John the Baptist offers an interesting illustration of the cultural exchanges in force in Flanders in the first half of the 16th century. Whether artists travelled to Italy or the models from the peninsula were exhibited and studied directly in Flanders, in particular through tapestries and engravings, the formal and thematic repertoires were in active circulation and every master and studio were able to benefit from this artistic manna. The Master of Female Half-Lengths is the perfect example of this context of emulation and exchange between these two creative centres. His gentle and reserved version, which bears a strong resemblance to Raphael’s Holy Family, is indeed witness to this.

[1] Rest during the flight to Egypt, Master of Female Half-Lengths, circa 1540, oil on panel, 84.2 x 64 cm, National Gallery, London.
[2] Rest during the flight to Egypt, Master of Female Half-Lengths, second half of 16th century, oil on panel, 84.1 x 62.1 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, collection John G. Johnson, Philadelphia.

Provenance :
Private collection, France