This portrait and its pendant (62.267.1
) show an unidentified couple at half length. They have been attributed to Barthel (Bartholomäus) Bruyn the Elder of Cologne since the time of their first publication (Plietzsch 1915). Bruyn appears not to have signed any portraits, and none can be linked to him through documentary sources. Nevertheless, a large body of independent portraits has been established for him through comparison with donor portraits in securely documented retables, such as the high altarpiece that Bruyn completed for Xanten Cathedral in 1534. The large irises, prominent chins, fleshy noses and lips, and high-contrast modeling characteristic of the Xanten portraits are evident in the Museum's pair. Morever, the MMA works compare well in format, style, composition, costume, and attributes with several contemporary portrait pairs that are accepted as the work of Bruyn. The deft and efficient execution further supports a full attribution to Bruyn; it is especially convincing in the modeling and costume details of the female portrait, which is the better preserved of the two.
The sitters wear costume typical of the upper-class citizenry of Cologne, whose members were Bruyn's usual patrons. The woman's exposed hair, visible in braids at either side of her face, indicates that the couple are depicted as engaged, not married, as married women of Cologne wore their hair completely covered. It is likely that the portraits were commissioned to commemorate their engagement. In the context of this work, the carnation in the woman's hand is symbolic of love, betrothal, and marriage.
Material and iconographic evidence suggests that many of Bruyn's portraits with rounded tops were originally attached as folding diptychs, such as his 1528 portraits of Gerhard and Anna Pilgrum (Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne). The reverse of the Anna Pilgrum portrait displays a vanitas allegory that would have been visible when the work was closed for storage. The original frames of other Bruyn portraits have recesses on the sides where hinges were once affixed, and vanitas scenes are found on the backs of several other extant female portraits by him. The Museum's panels lost any evidence of hinge or hanging hardware when they were cut from their original frames. Nevertheless, it can be inferred from the undecorated, black reverses, neither of which was meant to be seen, that the portraits were most likely not conceived as a folding diptych. Rather, they were probably meant to hang side by side as autonomous pendants.
[2013; adapted from Waterman 2013]