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Archive for April 11th, 2015

GossaertMadonnaThe Flemish painter Jan Gossaert (c. 1478–1532) was much sought after, as a portraitist of Hapsburg royals and as a creator of altar pieces for Catholic churches. When I saw this Madonna and Child at the Met last December I just about burst out laughing. No, I didn’t actually laugh out loud, though that’s permissible in museums, but I did stand there for a long time, gaping at this extravagant and, yes, funny image of what was at the time a sacred subject.
He was a very busy man and it’s hard to imagine that he had time to paint for his own entertainment. But it’s also hard to imagine this undogmatic Madonna and Child hanging in a Catholic church in the early 16th century, during the Counter Reformation.
Let’s consider one bit of the historical context. In the Late Gothic, the S-curve of the Madonna becomes very pronounced and the baby Jesus becomes playful and fidgety, pure baby.
https://www.google.com/search?q=late+gothic+madonnas&biw=1536&bih=851&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=lYwoVabCJca8ggTs04GgCA&ved=0CCAQsAQ
But Gossaert’s Madonna is over the top. He shows her playing with the baby, but it doesn’t look like a lot of fun, does it. The baby looks terrified and frantic and mom–sitting on the floor with her knees pulled up–is more interested in posing than in bonding with her child.
The heap of blue cloth that we are supposed to accept as her gown is so overdone—even for the convention of the time—that I find it comically bizarre. It seems to be the work of an obsessive-compulsive. Or somebody who had an ax to grind.
Maybe Gossaert painted this not so much for his own amusement but as a satire. Satire wafted in the northern air. It was a time of political/theological upheaval and Gossaert may have had clients who were eager to see satirical views of the establishment’s icons. Who else would have bought a painting like this around 1500?!
Two contemporary northern satirists were Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), who had the nerve to poke at the papacy, and Hieronymus Bosch (1450’s-1516), who made no bones about his disgust with the corruption of the Catholic Church and the general insanity of the time. Sebastian Brant (1457-1521) published his satire Ship of Fools in 1494. Here’s part of Bosch’s illustration of that theme:

BoschShipFools
We don’t have personal details about Gossaert’s life that would provide insights into his playful, very human and possibly satirical Madonnas.
For more Madonnas by Jan Gossaert,
https://www.google.com/search?q=jan+gossaert+madonna+and+child&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=bIsoVfaQIIS8ggTD9IHACQ&ved=0CCEQsAQ&biw=1175&bih=829
Jan_Gossaert_-_the_virgin_and_child_with_white_lily_and_cherriesAll contents copyright (C) 2010 Katherine Hilden. All rights reserved.
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