Saint Bernard, the standing monk seen on the left interior wing, was a reformer of the Cistercian order and a fervent proponent of the cult of Mary. In this triptych he gathers with his family around the throne of the Virgin. The altarpiece was commissioned by Jeanne de Boubais, abbess of the Cistercian convent of Flines, who appears in the central panel in the guise of Saint Bernard's sister, Humbeline, and for this reason wears the black Benedictine habit. Painted in grisaille on the exterior is Bernard's vision of the Virgin, who miraculously wet the saint's lips with her milk.
This large triptych, which was discovered in 1861 in the Le Cellier chapel, the former granary or cellar of the Cistercian abbey of Clairvaux, has been plausibly identified with an altarpiece that was commissioned from Jean Bellegambe around 1508 by Jeanne de Boubais, abbess of Flines (Genaille 1952), whose coat of arms, slightly changed by restorations, is depicted in the upper part of the right inner wing. The arms at the top of the left wing belong to the family of Saint Bernard and were used by the Cistercian order. A fervent proponent of the cult of Mary and a reformer of the Cistercian order, Saint Bernard appears on both the interior and exterior of the triptych.
The long controversial subject portrayed on the inner panels of the altarpiece has been established as Saint Bernard, assisted by Saint Malachy, introducing his own family to the Virgin (Genaille 1952). The theme was possibly inspired by a contemporary woodcut, which served as the frontispiece to an edition of the sermons of Saint Bernard, published in Paris in 1508 (Will 1981). The Virgin and Child are seated in the central panel on a heavy throne, surrounded and crowned by music-making angels; while God the Father appears in a golden nimbus in the sky above. The richly dressed man and woman closest to the Virgin are Bernard’s pious parents, Tescelin le Saur and Aleth de Montbard. Five monks in Cistercian robes and a nun in a Benedictine habit kneel in prayer behind them. They can be identified as the saint’s brothers, who converted to the Cistercian order via Bernard’s influence, and his sister, Humbeline, who is shown with the facial features of abbess Jeanne de Boubais. In the left wing Saint Bernard, who holds a crozier signifying his status as abbot of Clairvaux, is represented standing in front of a landscape that includes a view of Douai with the abbey of Flines and, beyond it, the four bell towers of the abbey of Anchin. Another reformer and a close friend of Bernard’s, Saint Malachy, archbishop of Armagh, acts as his counterpart in the opposite wing.
Painted in grisaille on the exterior is the best-known legend associated with Saint Bernard, the miracle of lactation: when the Virgin appeared to Bernard in a vision, she miraculously wet the saint's lips with her milk. Since Mary also nurtured the infant Christ, this occurrence emphasized her role as mother of—and mediator for—all mankind.
The altarpiece responded in its Bernardine-centered iconography to contemporary reform movements. When Jeanne de Boubais was elected as abbess of Flines at the end of 1507, Guillaume de Bruxelles, her superior at the abbey of Clairvaux—which Saint Bernard had founded—called for a return to stricter Benedictine rule. The triptych’s subject would have been particularly appropriate under these circumstances, since it was Bernard who energetically carried out the first Cistercian reform of Benedictine rule. It has been suggested that Jeanne de Boubais might have commissioned the painting for her superiors at Clairvaux in order to express her commitment to reform (Genaille 1952 and Pearson 1995 and 2001).
The MMA altarpiece is one of the earliest large-scale works produced by Jean Bellegambe, who was active in the Franco-Netherlandish border town of Douai, now part of Northern France but earlier under the rule of the counts of Flanders. Influenced by both French and Flemish art currents, the artist developed an independent style, the sources of which are often difficult to pinpoint. In this triptych the landscape is similar in atmosphere and invention to those of Joachim Patinir and Jan Provost, while the Virgin’s throne, with its exaggerated spatial recession and refined detail of ornament, reflects the decorative impulse present in Antwerp painting in the early sixteenth century.
[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2013]
found in the farmhouse of Le Cellier, former granary of the abbey of Clairvaux, Colombe-le-Sec, Champaigne (in 1861); baron Antoine de Tavernost, Paris (by 1906); baronne Tavernost, Savigny-lès-Beaune, Côte d'Or (until 1922; sold to Wildenstein); [Wildenstein, Paris and New York, from 1922]; Michael Friedsam, New York (by 1927–d. 1931)
New York. F. Kleinberger Galleries. "Loan Exhibition of French Primitives and Objects of Art," October 17–November 12, 1927, no. 40 (lent by Michael Friedsam).
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Michael Friedsam Collection," November 15, 1932–April 9, 1933, no catalogue.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 87.
H. d' Arbois de Joubainville. Répertoire archéologique de l'Aube. 1861, pp. 36–37, mentions this triptych as then in the farmhouse of Le Cellier, the former granary of the abbey of Clairvaux, and calls the subject on the inside the Triumph of the Virgin.
F. de Mély. "Le Retable du Cellier." Revue de l'art ancien et moderne 24 (1908), pp. 97–108, believes that the picture is signed B. J. and dated 1533 and is a work by Jean Bellegambe; suggests that the donatrix may be Jeanne de Boubais; identifies the buildings in the landscape on the [n.b., field capacity inadequate for entire text].
Louis Réau. "Une collection de primitifs français en Amérique." Gazette des beaux-arts, 5th ser., 13 (January 1926), pp. 7–8, ill. between pp. 8 and 9, calls it the Triptyque de l'Abbaye Cistercienne de Flines, and agrees with de Mély's analysis.
[O. von] F[alke]. and [A.L.] M[ayer]. "New York: Französische Primitive bei Kleinberger." Pantheon 1 (January 1928), p. 52, mentions our picture as a work by Bellegambe.
Louis Réau in The Michael Friedsam Collection. [completed 1928], pp. 153–54, calls it Triptych of the Adoration of the Virgin.
Bryson Burroughs and Harry B. Wehle. "The Michael Friedsam Collection: Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27, section 2 (November 1932), pp. 6–10, ill., doubt the existence of the signature and date; identify the coat of arms on the right wing as that of a lady of the Nove, or Nouë, family from East Friesland, north Netherlands, and consider the picture an important work by Bellegambe.
Paul Wescher. "Oeuvres inconnues de Jean Bellegambe." Gazette des beaux-arts 74 (1932), p. 217, agrees with de Mély, mentioning our picture as signed and dated.
Katharine Grant Sterne. "The French Primitives in the Friedsam Collection." Parnassus 4 (January 1932), p. 9, dates it 1533 and comments that it "illustrates admirably Bellegambe's progress, or regress, from the comparatively pure Flemish style of his youth, to a superficially Italianate manner".
Robert Genaille. "Jean Bellegambe, peintre de la Flandre wallonne (1er tiers du XVIe siècle) et l'école de Douai." Master's thesis, École du Louvre, 1934, dates it before 1510 [see summary in Bulletin des Musées de France 6 (1934), pp. 162–64].
Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 12, Pieter Coeck Jan van Scorel. Leiden, 1935, pp. 36–38, 177, no. 119, pls. 14, 15, doubts the signature and date reported by Mély; dates it about 1511–20.
Louis Réau. French Painting in the XIVth, XVth and XVIth Centuries. London, 1939, pp. 27–28.
Ernest Lotthé. La pensée chrétienne dans la peinture flamande et hollandaise. Lille, 1947, vol. 1, p. 131, pl. CII b; vol. 2, p. 332, no. 309.
Robert Genaille inJean Bellegambe, "le Maitre des Couleurs". Exh. cat., Musée d'Arras. Arras, 1951, pp. 9–10, dates it 1508–9.
Robert Genaille. "L'Enigme du retable du Cellier." Revue des Arts 2 (1952), pp. 99–108, ill., identifies the subject as Saint Bernard, assisted by Saint Malachy, presenting his family to the Virgin; connects the picture with an altarpiece mentioned in a document of 1509.
Robert Genaille. "Jean Bellegambe ou Gobin de Valenciennes?" Revue belge d'archéologie et d'histoire de l'art 21 (1952), pp. 59–61.
Robert Genaille. "La Déploration du Christ du Musée de Varsovie et les débuts de Jean Bellegambe." Revue des Arts 3 (September 1953), pp. 155–56, 162–63.
Charles Sterling. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of French Paintings. Vol. 1, XV–XVIII Centuries. Cambridge, Mass., 1955, pp. 18–21, ill., discusses the subject and the identification of the figures; observes that the style of the painting suggests a date as early as 1509.
Robert Genaille. "Deux oeuvres de Jean Bellegambe." Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de l'Art Français, année 1960, (1961), pp. 84, 88, fig. 3 (detail).
Robert Genaille. "L'Annonciation de Bellegambe à L'Ermitage." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 57 (January 1961), p. 6.
Robert Genaille. "Communications: Reconstitution d'un triptyque de Bellegambe." Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de l'Art Français, année 1961, (1962), pp. 9–10, 13, 16, 18.
Robert Genaille. "Le Retable de Varsovie "la Deploration" de Jean Bellegambe." Bulletin du Musée National de Varsovie 4 (1963), pp. 46, 48, fig. 4 (detail).
Robert Genaille. "Communications: Le vrai sujet du polyptyque d'Anchin." Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire de l'Art Français, année 1964, (1965), pp. 17, 23.
Robert Genaille. "L'oeuvre de Jean Bellegambe." Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 87 (January 1976), pp. 7, 17–18, no. 4, figs. 5, 6 (detail), ill. on cover (detail), catalogues it as Glorification de la famille de Saint Bernard, an altarpiece commissioned in about 1508 by Jeanne de Boubais, and completed in 1509; observes that the saint on the right wing must be Guillaume de Bourges, rather than Saint Malachy.
Elisabeth Heller. Das altniederländische Stifterbild. PhD diss., Universität München. Munich, 1976, p. 175, no. 35.
Katharine Baetjer. "Pleasures and Problems of Early French Painting." Apollo 106 (November 1977), pp. 342–43, fig. 6 (detail).
Robert Genaille. "Jean Bellegambe de Douai et la tentation du manierisme." Archives de l'Art Français: A Travers l'Art Français, n.s., 25 (1978), p. 125.
Robert Will. "Une peinture murale, datée de 1504, se trouvant jadis en l'église Saint-Guillaume de Strasbourg: Contribution à l'iconographie de saint Bernard." Cahiers alsaciens d'archéologie, d'art et d'histoire 24 (1981), pp. 124–25, calls our altarpiece a liberal interpretation of a woodcut (fig. 4) that served as the frontispiece to the sermons of Saint Bernard ("Sermones de tempore et de sanctis de saint Bernard de Clairvaux," Jean Petit, Paris), the earliest edition of which was apparently first published in 1508, although an edition of 1500, not necessarily including the same frontispiece, is listed in a nineteenth-century sale catalogue; observes that this engraving was widely known among Cistercians and is certain that Bellegambe was familiar with the image, in which Saint Bernard, the Virgin, and Saint Malachy O'Morgair (identified with banderoles) are shown standing on columns below which the family of Saint Bernard is represented; reproduces a painting of 1534 by Nicolas Kremer (fig.3) in the convent of Lichtenthal, near Baden-Baden, that more literally follows the composition of the woodcut; dates our triptych about 1530.
Introduction by James Snyder inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Renaissance in the North. New York, 1987, pp. 136–37, ill. (color).
Nikolai Nikulin. Netherlandish Paintings in Soviet Museums. Oxford, 1987, unpaginated, see discussion relating to pls. 81–89.
Andrea Gail Pearson. "Gender, Image, and Ideals at the Cistercian Convent of Flines, 1500–1575." PhD diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 1995, pp. 226–34, 240, 243–47, 249–52, 256, 284–89, 292–95, 299–300, 409–11, no. 3, figs. 18, 30–32 (overall, exterior wings, details), believes the 1508 woodcut discussed and reproduced by Will [Ref. 1981] loosely inspired the theme of our triptych, generally dated 1509/10; sees our altarpiece as a gift from Jeanne de Boubais to Jean Foucault, abbot of Clairvaux, who initiated reform at Flines and regularly corresponded with her on the subject.
Mary Sprinson de Jesús inFrom Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 64, 332–34, no. 87, ill. (color).
Cyriel Stroo et al. The Flemish Primitives III: Catalogue of Early Netherlandish Painting in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Vol. 3, The Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Bouts, Gerard David, Colijn de Coter and Goossen van der Weyden Groups. Brussels, 2001, p. 346 n. 15.
Andrea G. Pearson. "Nuns, Images, and the Ideals of Women's Monasticism: Two Paintings from the Cistercian Convent of Flines." Renaissance Quarterly 54 (Winter 2001), pp. 1356–62, 1365, 1380, 1382, 1386–87, 1390–92, 1394–95, figs. 1–3 (overall and details), notes that Margaret of Austria, in a letter of November 16, 1509, informed the convent of Flines of accusations of serious transgressions within the community, including the theft of valuable church possessions and revenues, charges which were determined to be erroneous after a fifteen day investigation; argues that these events precipitated the commission of this altarpiece, as it was a means for the abbess, Jeanne de Boubais, to suggest her compliance with the mandates of reform.
Burton L. Dunbar. The Collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: German and Netherlandish Paintings, 1450–1600. Kansas City, Mo., 2005, p. 166, ill.
Andrea Pearson. Envisioning Gender in Burgundian Devotional Art, 1350–1530: Experience, Authority, Resistance. Aldershot, England, 2005, p. 141, fig. 49, ill.
John Oliver Hand et al. Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych. Exh. cat., National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2006, pp. 31, 309 n. 5, fig. 1 (color), discusses our altarpiece in relation to the portrait of Jeanne de Boubais in the Frick Art and Historical Center, Pittsburgh.
Nico van Hout et al. Anmut und Andacht: Das Diptychon im Zeitalter von Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling und Rogier van der Weyden. Exh. cat., Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Stuttgart, 2007, p. 63 [shorter European cat., which also appeared in French and Dutch, based on Washington cat., "Prayers and Portraits: Unfolding the Netherlandish Diptych"].