Ambrosius Benson is most noted as a North Italian painter who went to study and work in Bruges. As a result, his works are a unique conflation of Netherlandish and Italian Renaissance styles. Most likely originating from Lombardy, Ambrosius Benson is reported for the first time on August 21, 1519, as a freemaster in the Bruges painters’ guild. Nothing is known of his life before this date, but he might have settled in Bruges a little earlier as an assistant in Gerard David’s workshop (for a biography of Gerard David, see the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
). However, this collaboration ended in a legal dispute concerning the ownership of two chests containing various designs, patterns, and at least four paintings that belonged to Benson and two other Bruges painters, Adriaen Isenbrant and Albert Cornelis. Benson had accumulated a rather large debt to David who, as a result, withheld the two chests. On January 28, 1520, David was imprisoned and Benson was sentenced to work at David’s workshop until he repaid the debt.
Benson had strong connections to the Spanish merchant community in Bruges, from whom he received many commissions. He also became dean of the painters' guild in 1537–38 and 1543–44 and purchased a house, paying half of its price in paintings. Although he is mentioned many times in archival documents, none of his attributed paintings can be linked to any of them. Only two works are ascribed to Benson with relative certainty: the 1527 Holy Family
(Groeningemuseum, Bruges; see fig. 1 above) and the Triptych with Saint Anthony
(Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels) both have an AB monogram, providing the basis for all other attributions. Most paintings in Benson’s oeuvre have been ascribed to him because of stylistic resemblances to these two works or because they show a strong influence of Gerard David’s style and compositions. Benson sometimes collaborated with Adriaen Isenbrant, who had also participated in the workshop of Gerard David, and whose oeuvre is just as problematic as Benson’s. They appear to have exchanged patterns and compositions, making differences between the two difficult to discern. Generally, Benson’s style comprises elements from Bruges art, and in particular from Gerard David’s paintings, together with Italian stylistic influences. Some of his motifs—such as Mary Magdalen reading or with an ointment jar—are typical Bruges themes, which at the time were relatively old-fashioned and traditional, compared to more progressive trends in Antwerp.The Painting and Comparisons:
In this poignant Lamentation
, Christ lies on the ground on a shroud, surrounded by only three figures: the Virgin, Saint John, and Mary Magdalen. The Lamentation became a popular theme in Northern art in the fourteenth century. It gave prominence to the Virgin, who often holds the body of her son. By the sixteenth century there were many different compositions relating to the Christ figure, the number of accompanying figures, and the setting. In this painting the composition is minimal and sober, and Marlier (1957) found that it verges on the classical and almost sculptural. He proposed the Lamentation
by Gerard David (Philadelphia Museum of Art) as the prototype for The Met's painting, while other authors (see Davies 1953 and Bauman 1984) mainly saw David’s version in the National Gallery, London, as Benson’s model. Marlier implied that Benson improved the composition of the Philadelphia Lamentation
by placing Mary Magdalen next to the Virgin, where she holds the arm of Christ, similar to David’s painting in London. However, a triptych with a Lamentation
attributed to David in the Escorial, Madrid, seems to be even closer. In his publication on Isenbrant, Friedländer (1974) mentioned the similarities between The Met's painting and the central panel of a triptych in the Chillingworth Collection in Nuremberg (see Friedländer 1974, p. 94, no. 234, pl. 158; this work was last seen at a sale at Bonhams, London, in 2008). Several other versions of the Lamentation by Benson and contemporaries are related to The Met's painting; two are in Spain, in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, and Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, and one painting attributed to Isenbrant is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It is clear that these paintings can be traced back to several examples by Gerard David, showing that Benson and his generation continued with the themes of their predecessors, altering very little in the composition and style of the familiar Bruges paintings of the fifteenth century. The tall, narrow format of The Met's Lamentation
differs from that of fifteenth-century paintings but is not uncommon in Benson’s and Isenbrant’s oeuvres and sixteenth-century Bruges painting in general. The subject and shape of the painting suggest that there may have been wings accompanying it, although no examples have yet been found. The original arrangement of the triptych could have looked something like Isenbrant’s altarpiece of The Virgin with the Symbols of the Immaculate Conception
, which has roughly the same shape at the top and is also very tall and narrow (see Friedländer 1974, p. 82, no. 136, pl. 114; current location unknown).The Attribution and Date:
Marlier (1957) attributed the painting to Benson and dated it 1520–25, since it is still very much in the style of David. Other than a stylistic comparison, he offered no other arguments to support the attribution and date. Infrared reflectography and x-radiography (see Technical Notes and figs. 2–3) provide additional insight concerning the attribution. This work has an elaborate underdrawing; the lack of tracing, and alterations in the hands of Mary Magdalen and John the Evangelist and in John’s face indicate that it is not merely a slavish copy after David’s compositions. Rather, the searching lines and the way Benson worked out the folds indicate that he tried to make David’s composition his own, though in a somewhat uncertain fashion. This is especially true if compared to the underdrawing in Benson’s Holy Family
of 1527 (fig. 4). In that work, the underdrawing is more confident than in The Met's painting, though without a doubt comparable. Similarities between the two underdrawings may be found in the shadows indicated with extensive parallel hatching, the strong and heavy lines for the draperies, and the hands (often altered in the paint layers) with elongated fingers and pronounced knuckles. However, the underdrawing in the Holy Family
—particularly in the folds of the draperies—seems to be more meticulously rendered. Where Benson still searched for the forms in the Lamentation
, in the Holy Family
his preoccupation was mostly with the composition, perhaps indicating his greater experience. In contrast, the underdrawing in the Lamentation
seems to have a much more tentative and spontaneous character. These differences, in addition to the strong comparison with David’s style, seem to suggest that Marlier was right in dating the Lamentation
In both the New York and Bruges paintings, Benson took a known composition and tried to make it his own. This is more so the case with the Lamentation
than with the Holy Family
, for which he borrowed the composition of Andrea del Sarto’s Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist
, now in the Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Since that painting is usually dated 1525–29, it uncertain how Benson could have known about it before completing his version in 1527. Possibly he saw it through a drawing, print, or painting that is now lost. The changes he made are visible with infrared reflectography, such as the adjustment of the hand and head of Joseph and the leg of Christ, which correspond with the Hermitage painting, showing that Benson was certainly familiar with Andrea del Sarto’s composition. What we can conclude from Benson’s paintings, like The Met's Lamentation
, the Bruges Holy Family
, and his oeuvre in general, is that he relied heavily on the art of his predecessors. Whether this indicates a struggle to come up with his own compositions or a deliberate choice in an art market that seemed to favor the more traditional themes of the fifteenth century is a question that remains to be answered.
Joyce Klein Koerkamp 2018
 See R.A. Parmentier, Bescheiden omtrent Brugsche schilders van de 16e eeuw: I. Ambrosius Benson
, Bruges, 1937, p. 89.
 See Maximiliaan P. Martens, ed., Bruges and the Renaissance: Memling to Pourbus
, exh. cat., Memlingmuseum, Bruges; Turnhout, 1998, pp. 142–43. See also Parmentier 1937, pp. 92–94.
 See Martens 1998, p. 143.
 Hulin de Loo connected the two monograms and linked them to the name Ambrosius Benson, which he found in the register of the Guild of Saint Luke in Bruges. See G. Hulin de Loo, Exposition des tableaux flamands des XIVe, XVe et XVI siècles: catalogue critique, précédé d’une introduction sur l’identité de certains maitres anonymes
, Ghent, 1902, p. 29.
 My sincere thanks to Till-Holger Borchert, Anne van Oosterwijk, and Guenevere Souffreau for access to the infrared reflectography of the Holy Family
and the permission to include it as fig. 4.
 It is noteworthy that Andrea del Sarto traveled to Paris in the summer of 1518 to work at the court of Francis I, just a few months before Benson arrived in Bruges in the fall. Perhaps Benson came into contact with del Sarto’s art during this period. However, since this occurrence predates the paintings by ten years, it seems more likely that Benson saw the composition at a later date, perhaps through a drawing or print that is now lost.