Petrus Christus (Netherlandish, active by 1444, died 1475/76)
Oil on wood; Overall 11 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (29.2 x 21.6 cm); painted surface 11 1/2 x 7 3/8 in. (29.2 x 18.7 cm)
The Jules Bache Collection, 1949 (49.7.19)
This small, exquisitely painted portrait represents an anonymous lay brother of the Carthusian order. It is one of the few extant independent portraits of a male cleric, and one of the earliest bust-length portraits by a Netherlandish painter to explore the possibilities of an interior setting. The sitter is shown in three-quarter view, behind an illusionistic stone molding inscribed with the Latin form of the artist's name and the date of the picture's execution. Here Christus moves beyond the flat neutral backgrounds of portraits by Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin, and Rogier van der Weyden, potently suggesting a three-dimensional setting by posing the man against the corner space of an implied room painted a resonant red. The subtle modeling of the face and habit through the manipulation of light further enhances the illusionistic impact of the setting. Christus also deftly painted the image of a fly on the sill just in front of the sitter, emphasizing the momentary character of the image. Though some have read symbolic meaning into the motife.g., as a protective talisman or a momento moriChristus may be playfully demonstrating his talents at trompe-l'oeil. The original intention of the portrait was altered by the later addition of an incised arc and a gold halo, which served to illegitimately canonize a lay figure. With the recent removal of the halo, viewers can better appreciate the original qualities of this dazzling, intimate portrait.