The Birth and Naming of Saint John the Baptist; (reverse) Trompe-l'oeil with Painting of The Man of Sorrows

Bernard van Orley (Netherlandish, Brussels ca. 1492–1541/42 Brussels)

ca. 1514–15
Oil on wood
25 x 30 in. (63.5 x 76.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of Hertha Katz, 2000
Accession Number:
  • Gallery Label

    These two panels once formed the wings of an altarpiece dedicated to Saint John the Baptist that was commissioned by abbot Jacques Coëne for the Benedictine Abbey Church in Marchiennes, near Tournai. The left wing depicts Saint Elizabeth in bed, shortly after giving birth to the newborn saint. Zacharias appears at the entrance to her room, carrying a scroll which declares his son’s name will be John. The pendant shows the moment after the Baptist’s death, when Salome receives his head on a platter. The centerpiece of the triptych, likely a sculpture of the Baptism of Christ, has not survived.

  • Catalogue Entry


  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings

    Inscription: Inscribed (reverse, on scroll): FInIS COROnAT [Crowned at the end (motto of Jacques Coëne, Abbot of Marchiennes)]

  • Provenance

    abbey of Marchiennes (about 1515–at least 1555; commissioned for the altar in honor of John the Baptist, first consecrated in 1515 and reconsecrated in 1541; listed in the Abbey's inventories of 1546 and 1555); Broleman, London; [P. de Boer, Amsterdam, in 1937]; George and Hertha Katz, Great Neck, N.Y.; Hertha Katz, Great Neck (by 1981–d. 2000)

  • Exhibition History

    Amsterdam. Kunsthandel P. de Boer. "Tableaux anciens," July–August 1937, no. 2.

  • References

    Marchiennes abbey inventory. 1546 [Archives départementales du Nord, Lille, 10 H 271, Mobilier, reliques et trésor de l'abbaye de Marchiennes (1546–1754), no. 4132; see Ref. Gelder 1973, p. 157 n. 6, p. 171], lists the altars for Saint John the Baptist and Saint Martin separately [the altarpiece presumably made for the Saint John altar included our panel and one in the collection of Hester Diamond, New York; see Notes].

    Marchiennes abbey inventory. 1555 [Archives départementales du Nord, Lille, 10 H 271, Mobilier, reliques et trésor de l'abbaye de Marchiennes (1546–1754), no. 4133; see Ref. Gelder 1973, p. 157 n. 6, p. 171], the altars for Saint John the Baptist and Saint Martin are listed separately in this inventory.

    Charles de Linas. Étude sur Dom Jacques Coëne, Abbé de Marchiennes, 1501–1542. Amiens, 1856, pp. 15–16 n. 3, lists the altars erected by Jacques Coëne in the abbey of Marchiennes and reports that five were consecrated when John, Bishop of Beirut, was in Marchiennes in 1515: to Saints Andreas, Nicasius, John the Baptist, Martin, and Sebastian; believes that three of these altars, including the one dedicated to Saint John, were reconsecrated in 1541 because they were destroyed [and rebuilt] during the reconstruction of the choir; adds that the altar dedicated to Saint John is cited at the time of its reconsecration in 1541 as ". . . 4º one, in honor of Saint John the Baptist, with the relics of Saints Sebastian, Quentin, Adrian, martyrs, and the prophets Elisha and Abdias, with a piece of the sepulcher of our Lord"

    Catalogue de tableaux anciens. Exh. cat., Kunsthandel P. de Boer, Amsterdam. Amsterdam, 1937, unpaginated, no. 2, as by Van Orley, from the Broleman collection, London.

    Max J. Friedländer. "Pieter Bruegel und Nachträge zu den früheren Bänden." Die altniederländische Malerei. 14, Leiden, 1937, p. 112, ascribes to Van Orley a scene with the birth of the Baptist [the present work], with de Boer in Amsterdam, and his beheading, with a dealer in New York [now with Hester Diamond, New York] and associates them with a pair of altar shutters in the Schiff collection [scenes from the legend of Saint Martin; see Friedländer, Die altniederländische Malerei, vol. 8, 1930, p. 168, no. 92, where he dates them about 1514 and identifies them as two altar shutters, including the knighting of a young saint]; assumes all four panels were part of the same complex.

    Ludwig Baldass. "Die Entwicklung des Bernart van Orley." Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien, n.s., 13 (1944), pp. 152–54, figs. 132, 134 (obverse and reverse), supports Friedländer's view [Ref. 1937] that the Saint John panels were originally part of an altarpiece with the Schiff panels, which he describes as scenes from the life of Saint Martin of Tours; believes the scenes of Saint Martin were mounted above those of Saint John.

    Art of Four Centuries. Parke-Bernet, New York. January 23–25, 1947, pp. 55, 66, mistakenly identifies a painting of Saint Helena in Rome [rather than the present work] as the companion to lot 237, Van Orley's panel with the beheading of John the Baptist, and notes that other panels from the same altarpiece were with Mortimer Schiff in New York.

    Luís Reis-Santos. Masterpieces of Flemish Painting of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries in Portugal. Lisbon, 1962, pp. 99–100 [Portuguese ed., 1953], is not convinced by Baldass's [Ref. 1944] reconstruction of the altarpiece.

    Max J. Friedländer et al. "Jan Gossart and Bernart van Orley." Early Netherlandish Painting. 8, New York, 1972, p. 103, no. 92, pl. 90 (obverse and reverse).

    J. G. van Gelder. "Scorel, Mor, Bellegambe und Orley in Marchiennes." Oud Holland 87, no. 4 (1973), pp. 170–72, fig. 14 (reverse), identifies "finis coronat" as the device of Jacques Coëne, abbot of Marchiennes; rejects reconstruction of an altarpiece that includes the scenes with Saint John the Baptist along with those of Saint Martin, noting that they are mentioned separately in the 1546 and 1555 inventories of the abbey church of Marchiennes [see Ref. 1546 and 1555] and were clearly not installed in the same chapel; dates these distinct altarpieces about 1514/1515, as the altars for Saint John the Baptist and Saint Martin were both consecrated in 1515 [see Ref. Linas 1856]; supports Linas's view that the three altars consecrated in 1515 and reconsecrated on March 27 and 28, 1541, including the altar for John the Baptist, were probably damaged during construction of the choir; notes that the description of the Saint John altar at the time of its rededication [see Ref. Linas 1856] reveals that it contained no relics of Saint Martin


    John David Farmer. "Bernard van Orley of Brussels." PhD diss., Princeton University, 1981, pp. 99–103, 119 nn. 33–34, calls the two Saint John panels "largely a workshop labor" produced about 1517 probably for private worship; rejects proposed reconstructions of an altarpiece including both the Saint Martin and Saint John panels, noting that the donor's portrait and device would appear twice in such a configuration; also believes the difference in quality makes it more likely that these sets of panels were separate commissions; notes that our panel has been cut down at the top and bottom and believes it was conceived as a folding diptych with the scene of the saint's beheading.

    John Oliver Hand in John Oliver Hand and Martha Wolff. Early Netherlandish Painting. Washington, 1986, pp. 222–23 n. 16, believes this panel and the panel with the beheading of the Baptist were conceived as a diptych.

    Lars Hendrikman. "Bernard van Orley's Washington Diptych. Art Historical and Technical Observations." La peinture dans les Pays-Bas au 16e siècle: Pratiques d'atelier, infrarouges et autres méthodes d'investigation. Colloque 12, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1999, p. 64.

    Burton L. Dunbar. The Collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: German and Netherlandish Paintings, 1450–1600. Kansas City, Mo., 2005, pp. 204–5, 207, 209, figs. 15f, 15h (obverse and reverse), associates Van Orley's Knighting of Saint Martin by Emperor Constantine (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City) with the altarpiece dedicated to Saint Martin, and the MMA picture with the one dedicated to Saint John, both of which were recorded in Marchiennes; notes that the words "FINIS CORONAT," the motto of Jacques Coëne, on the reverse of the MMA panel were once on the verso of the Kansas City panel and are visible in an old photograph; dates both altarpieces about 1514; remarks that Van Orley's Christ among the Doctors and Marriage of the Virgin, also made for Coëne, form yet another pendant pair lacking a central panel, which appears to him to be "a self-contained devotional unit suitable for private workship"; agrees with Refs. Van Gelder [1973] and Hand [1986] that there never was a central panel for the two pictures in the National Gallery of Art, Washington (Christ Among the Doctors and The Marriage of the Virgin), but finds this conclusion hard to accept for the Saint Martin and Saint John panels.

    John Oliver Hand et al. Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2006, pp. 9, 306 nn. 19–21, 23, figs. 5A, 5C, reviews the various hypothetical reconstructions of the original altarpiece(s).

    Old Master Paintings. Sotheby's, London. July 9, 2008, pp. 24, 26–27, figs. 2–3. (obverse and reverse), discusses our panel in relation to the one with the beheading of the Baptist ("presumed to have been bought in Paris by the father of the present owners") and in relation to the two panels with scenes from the life of Saint Martin; reports results of dendrochronological analysis by Ian Tyers for two of the three panels used in the Beheading: "conjectural usage date of 1492–1524").

    Alexis Donetzkoff in La renaissance de Jan van Scorel: Les retables de Marchiennes. Exh. cat., Institut Néerlandais. Paris, 2011, pp. 42–43, 49 n. 39, figs. 13, 15 (color, obverse and reverse).

  • Notes

    This panel and one depicting the beheading of Saint John the Baptist in the collection of Hester Diamond, New York, were originally the shutters of an altarpiece commissioned for the abbey church of Marchiennes, France, by Jacques Coëne, abbot from 1501 to 1542. The reverse of the panel representing the saint's beheading originally included a portrait of Coëne in prayer, and, like the reverse of the MMA panel, a banderole bearing his motto, "finis coronat," and a bishop's crozier. By 1936 this portrait was separated from the panel and sold alone as lot 228, "S. Bernard of Clairvaux," at Parke-Bernet, New York, January 23–24, 1947. When the shutters of the altarpiece were closed the portrait of Coëne in prayer would have faced the devotional image with the Man of Sorrows.

    Like the stylistically related wings with scenes from the life of Saint Martin with very similar trompe-l'oeil inventions on their reverses (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, and private collection, formerly Wetzlar collection, Amsterdam; see Ref. Dunbar 2005)—also commissioned by Coëne for the abbey of Marchiennes—the central element of the ensemble remains a mystery. Maryan Ainsworth [see Ref. 2001] has suggested that these altarpieces may have featured sculptures rather than paintings as their central devotional image.

    Abbey records show that altars dedicated to Saints John the Baptist and Martin were consecrated in 1515. The altarpieces are thus likely to have been completed sometime between 1514 and 1515. The handling of the MMA panel suggests intervention from Van Orley's workshop, while the panel in the Diamond collection appears to be entirely autograph.

  • See also
    In the Museum
    Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History