Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Holy Family

Joos van Cleve (Netherlandish, Cleve ca. 1485–1540/41 Antwerp)
ca. 1512–13
Oil on wood
16 3/4 x 12 1/2 in. (42.5 x 31.8 cm)
Credit Line:
The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 639
The motif of the Virgin and Child is quoted from Jan van Eyck's regal Lucca Madonna of about 1435 (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt). Reduced to a half-length image and placed in a domestic setting, the composition is further altered by the addition of Joseph. The wine and fruits on the foreground ledge refer to Christ's incarnation and sacrifice. Presented as part of everyday life, they also testify to the emerging genre of still-life painting. The combination of quotidian domestic intimacy and symbolic meaning must have had mass appeal, since many variations of this painting were produced for sale on the open market.

In this painting, Joos van Cleve reinterprets the role traditionally played by Saint Joseph in images of the Holy Family. Often marginalized as a passive onlooker, Joseph is placed close to the Virgin and Child, indicating his interaction with their family life. This reflects the changing attitude towards Joseph inspired in part by the writings of Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris and dean of Sint-Donaaskerk in Bruges during the fourteenth century (see Ainsworth 1998). Gerson advocated that the Holy Family was an earthly version of the Trinity, and that Joseph played a key role in this trio. In the fifteenth century respect for Joseph’s role grew and he was considered an earthly father of Christ and protector of the Virgin and Child. In 1479 Pope Sixtus IV included the feast of Saint Joseph in the liturgical calendar. Around 1490 the first account of Joseph’s life printed in the Netherlands was issued by the Brothers of the Common Life. In 1522 the earliest scholarly treatise on Saint Jospeh, the Summa de donis S. Josephi by the Dominican Isidro Isolani, was written. Joseph is often characterized by his humility and devotion, and these characteristics are emphasized here as he looks up from reading a scroll to observe in awe as the Child nurses from the Virgin’s breast. The legible text begins with words of greeting from Mary’s cousin Elizabeth in recognition of her miraculous pregnancy. It continues with lines from the Magnificat (Luke I: 46-55), Mary’s response to Elizabeth which is a celebration of Christ’s Incarnation, God’s omnipotence, and the future of mankind (see Inscriptions). It is unusual for the Magnificat, a hymn associated with the Virgin and Child, to be held by Joseph. His proximity to the text signals a higher stature than he had been given in earlier images (Hand 1978 and 2004).

The words of the Magnificat relate to the symbolic meaning of the objects on the shelf at the upper right and on the parapet in the foreground. On the background shelf is a small wooden box and a sealed carafe; a small whisk broom hangs underneath. These objects are all traditional symbols of Mary’s purity. On the parapet, projecting into the viewer’s space is a still-life arrangement that symbolically refers to Christ’s Incarnation and his redemption of humankind. The wine in the closed glass and the grapes on the pewter charger refer to the Eucharist. The pomegranate symbolizes the Church, since it is one whole consisting of many parts, while its red color may signal Christ’s Passion. The cherries are the fruit of Paradise. The kernel of the halved walnut refers to Christ’s divinity, while the shell indicates the wood of the cross. The apple that Christ holds is another symbolic object—it demonstrates his role as the New Adam, as he gently touches his mother, the New Eve. Taken together, these objects create a complex liturgical and devotional meaning beyond the simple domestic scene, and are intended for the contemplation of the viewer. The objects in the foreground are also an early example of still-life arrangement, and are the incipient stages of a new genre that would come into its own by the seventeenth century (Ainsworth 1998).

The motif of the Virgin and Child derives from Jan van Eyck’s Lucca Madonna from about 1435 (Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt). In Van Eyck’s painting the Virgin is depicted full-length, seated on a throne, as the Queen of Heaven. Joos instead placed his half-length Virgin in a shallow domestic space. The combination of quotidian domestic intimacy and elaborate symbolic meaning must have had mass appeal. The MMA painting, dating from about 1512–13, is the prototype on which many later variations were based, all produced by Joos and his workshop presumably for sale on the open market (see MMA 41.190.19 and MMA 1975.1.117). Although infrared reflectography revealed no perceptible underdrawing in this painting, later variations show methods of pattern transfer used to facilitate production. A modified version of the Museum’s painting in the Art Museum of the Ateneum, Helsinki, places the same figures within a Renaissance architectural setting and can be attributed to a follower of Joos.

[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2012]
Inscription: Inscribed (on scroll): . . . et benedictus / fructus ventris tui / . . . / . . . / Magnificat [a]N[im]A / mea dominum / Et exultavit Sp[iritu]s me / us in deo salutari meo / Quia respexit humi / litatem ancillae suae / [ecce enim ex hoc] b[ea]tam / [me dicent omnes] generat / [iones. Quia] fecit mihi [magna] / qui potens est et / [sanctum nomen] ejus Et / [misericordia] ejus a / [progenie in progenies timentibus eum.] ( . . . and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. . . . My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: [for, behold, from henceforth all] generations [shall call me] blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me [great things]; and [holy is his name]. And his [mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation] [Luke 1:42, 46-50, including the first five lines of the Magnificat].)
E. Secrétan, Paris (until 1885; sold to Spiridon); Joseph Spiridon, Paris (1885–1929; his sale, Cassirer & Helbing, Berlin, May 31, 1929, no. 73, for Reichsmark 310,000 to Kleinberger); [Kleinberger, Paris and New York, 1929–30; sold for $70,000 to Friedsam]; Michael Friedsam, New York (1930–d. 1931)
New York. F. Kleinberger Galleries. "Flemish Primitives," 1929, no. 54 (lent by Kleinberger Galleries).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Michael Friedsam Collection," November 15, 1932–April 9, 1933, no catalogue.

Kansas City, Mo. Nelson Gallery and Atkins Museum. "Seventh Anniversary Exhibition of German, Flemish, and Dutch Painting," December 1940–January 1941, no. 9.

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. 61.

Aachen. Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum. "Leonardo des Nordens—Joos van Cleve," March 17–June 26, 2011, no. 27.

Max J. Friedländer. Von Eyck bis Bruegel: Studien zur Geschichte der Niederländischen Malerei. Berlin, 1916, pp. 115, 186, as by Joos van Cleve; notes that the artist borrowed the composition from Jan van Eyck's Virgin in Frankfurt [the "Lucca Madonna," Städelsches Kunstinstitut].

Martin Conway. The Van Eycks and Their Followers. London, 1921, p. 401, notes that the placement of "accessories" on a ledge or table in the foreground was introduced by the Bruges School; mentions another autograph version of the composition in America.

Friedrich Winkler. Die altniederländische Malerei: Die Malerei in Belgien und Holland von 1400–1600. Berlin, 1924, p. 249, mentions this picture as an example of Joos's borrowing from Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden; notes that the fruit still lifes that appear frequently in Joos's Madonna paintings take their inspiration from the Master of Frankfort, with whom he was apprenticed.

Ludwig von Baldass. Joos van Cleve, der Meister des Todes Mariä. Vienna, 1925, p. 18, no. 18, fig. 15, places it in Joos's first Antwerp period, about 1512; suggests that this picture was the prototype for later similar compositions produced by the artist and his workshop; considers the fruit still life on the parapet characteristic of the Antwerp school, and mentions the Frankfort Master's 1496 double-portrait with his wife [now Musée Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp] as an early example of its use; sees the influence of Jan van Eyck, by way of Quentin Massys, in the background wall with its lively still-life elements.

E. M. Sperling. Catalogue of a Loan Exhibition of Flemish Primitives. Exh. cat., F. Kleinberger Galleries, Inc., New York. New York, 1929, pp. 17, 168, no. 54, pl. 54.

Raimond van Marle. "Die Sammlung Joseph Spiridon." Der Cicerone 21 (1929), p. 189.

Die Sammlung Joseph Spiridon, Paris. Paul Cassirer and Hugo Helbing, Berlin. 1929, no. 71, pl. 90.

M. J. Friedländer. "Zwei Altniederländische Bilder in der Spiridon–Sammlung." Pantheon 3 (1929), pp. 206–12, ill., dates it about 1520, "at the peak of Joos's career" and illustrates and discusses several copies after it; suggests that the artist worked from a drawing of Van Eyck's Lucca Madonna.

The Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 13, 14th ed. London, 1929, p. 146.

Hubert Wilm. Kunstsammler und Kunstmarkt. Munich, 1930, pp. 143–44, ill.

Max J. Friedländer. Letter to Michael Friedsam. April 5, 1930, as by Joos van Cleve; calls it "an absolutely pure and perfect work by one of the great Flemish Masters [Joos van Cleve]".

Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 9, Joos van Cleve, Jan Provost, Joachim Patenier. Berlin, 1931, pp. 41–43, 137–38, pl. 65, as a perfectly preserved and outstanding work by Joos van Cleve, from about 1513; identifies four copies of it; notes that Joos has varied van Eyck's forms here, while maintaining his own flexibility and stylistic self-assurance; comments that the Virgin's face owes nothing to its model and recurs as an ideal type elsewhere in Joos's oeuvre.

Bryson Burroughs and Harry B. Wehle. "The Michael Friedsam Collection: Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 27, section 2 (November 1932), p. 24, no. 33, date it about 1512.

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 132–33, ill., date it about 1513, not many years after Joos's arrival in Antwerp; consider it the original among several versions.

Ernest Lotthé. La pensée chrétienne dans la peinture flamande et hollandaise. Lille, 1947, vol. 1, pp. 124–25, no. 280, pl. 95a.

Erwin Panofsky. Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character. Cambridge, Mass., 1953, vol. 1, p. 354; vol. 2, pl. 333, fig. 494, as by "the Master of the Death of the Virgin (Joos van Cleve?)".

Leo van Puyvelde. La peinture flamande au siècle des van Eyck. Paris, 1953, p. 335.

Ingvar Bergström. "Disguised Symbolism in 'Madonna' Pictures and Still Life: I." Burlington Magazine 97 (October 1955), pp. 304, 307, fig. 3, discusses the symbolism of the still–life elements.

Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, pp. 91–92, 130–31, fig. 33, believes the precisely rendered and modeled physiognomy of Saint Joseph is borrowed from the Leonardesque types of Quentin Massys or perhaps even directly from Leonardo.

Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 9, part 1, Joos van Cleve, Jan Provost, Joachim Patenier. New York, 1972, pp. 28–29, 64, no. 65, pl. 82.

Elga Lanc. "Die religiösen Bilder des Joos van Cleve." PhD diss., Universität Wien, 1972, pp. 20, 22–26, 164 n. 1, fig. 14.

E. de Jongh. "Grape Symbolism in Paintings of the 16th and 17th Centuries." Simiolus 7, no. 4 (1974), pp. 184–85, ill., mentions it with representations of the Madonna and Child with grapes and elaborates on their symbolic meaning at the time of transition from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance; cites 16th-century texts in which Mary is described as a vineyard, and Christ as the grape, noting that in many paintings it is difficult to tell whether the grapes are an attribute of Christ or Mary or both.

John Oliver Hand. "Joos van Cleve: The Early and Mature Works." PhD diss., Princeton University, 1978, pp. 155–58, 160, 274–75 n. 40 (to p. 161), p. 299, no. 32, fig. 40, dates it about 1520 (1517/18 at the earliest); comments that Joseph is represented in a novel way as a scholar of texts and man of learning.

Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 201, 212, fig. 381 (color).

Edwin James Mundy III. "Gerard David Studies." PhD diss., Princeton University, 1980, p. 131.

James Mundy. "Gerard David's 'Rest on the Flight into Egypt': Further Additions to Grape Symbolism." Simiolus 12, no. 4 (1981–82), p. 221, mentions it as an example of grape imagery from around 1515–20.

Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Underdrawings in Paintings by Joos van Cleve at the Metropolitan Museum of Art." Le dessin sous-jacent dans la peinture. Ed. Roger van Schoute and Dominique Hollanders-Favart. Colloque 4, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1982, p. 161, notes that this painting has been unanimously accepted as by Joos, but has no detectable underdrawing.

Mark L. Evans. "An Early Altar–piece by Joos van Cleve." Burlington Magazine 124 (October, 1982), p. 623 n. 8.

Larry Silver. The Paintings of Quinten Massys with Catalogue Raisonné. Montclair, N.J., 1984, p. 177, pl. 161.

James Snyder. Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575. New York, 1985, p. 417, ill., dates it about 1513.

Lorne Campbell. The Early Flemish Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen. Cambridge, 1985, p. 28.

Introduction by James Snyder in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Renaissance in the North. New York, 1987, pp. 12, 53, ill. (color).

M. Comblen-Sonkes with the collaboration of Ignace Vandevivere. Les Musées de l'Institut de France [Les primitifs flamands, 1 Corpus de la peinture des anciens pays-bas mérodionaux au quinzième siècle, vol. 15]. Vol. 15, Brussels, 1988, p. 131.

John Oliver Hand. "Joos van Cleve's Holy Family." Currier Gallery of Art Bulletin (Fall 1989), pp. 10–11, 13–14, 16, ill., dates it about 1517–20; discusses it as a source for Joos's Holy Family in the Currier Gallery of Art (Manchester, New Hampshire); observes that among other elements, the inscription on the scroll held by Joseph is identical in both paintings.

Introduction by Walter A. Liedtke in Flemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, p. 342, no. 281, ill.

Jochen Sander. Niederländische Gemälde im Städel, 1400–1550. Mainz, 1993, p. 220 n. 12.

Víctor I. Stoichita. The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting. Cambridge, 1997, pp. 25–27, fig. 9, discusses the still life elements in this picture—the knife and bowl of fruit—that appear to "'cross' the surface of the painting".

Maryan W. Ainsworth. "A Meeting of Sacred and Secular Worlds." From 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. 69, 74, 85, 90, 246, 248–50, 252, 319, 325, 360, no. 61, ill. (color), dates it about 1512–13; discusses the picture's symbolic meaning as well as Saint Joseph's increasing importance during the 14th and 15th centuries; identifies a modified replica of our painting by a follower of Joos (Art Museum of the Ateneum, Helsinki).

John Oliver Hand. Joos van Cleve: The Complete Paintings. New Haven, 2004, pp. 52, 54, 56, 88, 116, 131–32, 142, no. 32, fig. 51 (color), dates it about 1517–20 and sees the type of Joseph as derived from Rogier van der Weyden; considers Joos "a major force in the creation and dissemination of . . . a new type of nonnarrative devotional image" with the Holy Family and calls this panel one of the earliest of these; notes that in Van Eyck's Lucca Madonna (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt), the model for the pose of the Virgin and Child here, the same references to the Virgin's purity appear: the whisk broom and stoppered carafe; adds that the beaker of wine, half walnut and bunch of grapes refer to the Eucharist and Christ's future sacrifice; calls the pomegranate an emblem of the Church, and notes that cherries often symbolize the delights of Paradise; adds that the pear and "(?) quince" may allude to Christ as the 'new Adam'.

Alice Taatgen in Joos van Cleve, Leonardo des Nordens. Ed. Peter van den Brink et al. Exh. cat., Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen. Stuttgart, 2011, pp. 172–73, no. 27, dates it about 1515–20.

Micha Leeflang in Joos van Cleve, Leonardo des Nordens. Ed. Peter van den Brink et al. Exh. cat., Suermondt-Ludwig-Museum, Aachen. Stuttgart, 2011, p. 147, fig. 124 (color).

A copy, without Joseph, attributed to the Circle of Joos van Cleve, was sold at Sotheby’s, New York, January 26, 2012.
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