Marcellus Coffermans became a free master in the Antwerp guild of Saint Luke in 1549. Between 1564/65 and 1578/79, he lived on the Lange Nieuwstraat, in a house called “the Mersman” that also served as his atelier and no longer exists today. However, Coffermans signed his earliest known work, The Met’s Adoration of the Shepherds
, MARCEL, HELMON, FE,[CIT], indicating that he came from Helmond, Brabant, where he is referred to in archival documents.
There are several dated paintings falling between 1561 and 1575, signed mostly as “Marcellus Coffermans pinxit” or “Coffermans fecit”. These include a Penitent Saint Mary Magdalen
of 1568 (Museo del Prado, Madrid), the Death of the Virgin Mary
dated 1570 (private collection, Madrid), and an Annunciation Triptych
dated 1575 (Cremer Collection, Dortmund). They are predominantly religious themes painted in a retardataire vein, derived from compositions by other fifteenth and early sixteenth-century painters, namely Rogier van der Weyden, Bernard van Orley, and the Master of Frankfurt, and by painter-engravers such as Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer. Cofferman’s works could be called “imitations” of the works of these artists, as they were simply a source of inspiration, mainly for the composition and figural groupings, to which he added his own characteristic style. Popular themes in well-known designs were mass-produced for open market sale and for export, especially to Spain. Occasionally, Coffermans branched out assimilating the contemporary vogue for Italian motifs in such works as the monumental Penitent Mary Magdalen
of 1568 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). For his mass-market production, Coffermans developed streamlined methods for efficiently making copies of various sizes and formats and on available standard-sized supports. In these efforts he doubtless was aided by his assistant from 1554 on, Lucas Edelinck, and perhaps also by his daughter, Isabella, a painter who joined the Antwerp guild of Saint Luke in 1575.The Painting:
The Gospel of Luke 2:1–14 recounts how having been refused a night’s lodging at an inn, Joseph and his pregnant wife, Mary, found a makeshift shelter in a stable for the birth of the Christ Child. With the ox and ass peering in from the sidelines, four local shepherds gather around the wondrous sight, one of their sheep resting to the side of the manger and turning its head to view the Child. Joseph and the Virgin Mary gesture their astonishment and adoration of the baby Jesus, while angels above sing their praises: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:9). In the far distance is a subsidiary scene of the Annunciation to the Shepherds. According to the scriptures, “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2: 9–12).
Added to the well-known biblical account was the popular rendition of the event by Saint Bridget of Sweden. During a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1372, Bridget experienced visions of the birth of Christ that became part of the visual tradition of the Nativity in paintings and prints. Among the details she recorded in her diaries were images of the young Virgin with long flowing hair, the naked Christ Child, and the angels singing “wonderfully sweet and most dulcet songs.” Perhaps the most important feature of Bridget’s visions is the “great and ineffable light” emanating from the Christ Child, such that it surpassed the light from the candle held by Joseph. This presented a challenge to painters, some of whom, such as Gerard David, Michel Sittow, and a follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar (The Met, 1982.60.22
), beautifully conveyed this exceptional detail of the narrative (see figs. 1–2 above). The painting under discussion follows many of the biblical and Saint Bridget vision features of the story, but omits the “great and ineffable light,” giving greater attention instead to the other elements of the presentation—the individual characterization of the local shepherds, the careful depiction of the stable animals, and the tender expressions of Joseph and Mary toward their newborn child.The Attribution and Date:
Walter Cohen (1912) was the first to assign this painting to Marcellus Coffermans. The signature on the stone slab at the lower right of the painting—MARCEL, HELMON, FE,[CIT]— indicates that the artist originally came from Helmond, a small town near the southern border of The Netherlands (Wehle and Salinger 1947). Some noted the “obvious influence of Hugo van der Goes and Gerard David” (Wehle and Salinger 1947, and Diaz Padrón 1981–84). This presumes a lost work by Hugo, which is a debatable assumption. The influence of Bruges artists Gerard David and Michel Sittow, namely from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna Nativity
paintings (figs. 1, 2), appears less compelling when The Met panel is compared to certain examples of Antwerp artists of around 1510–20. Paintings of the Adoration of the Christ Child
by a follower of Jan Joest from Kalkar (The Met, 1982.60.22
) and especially by the Workshop of the Master of Frankfurt (The Met, 1975.1.116
)— only two works among many of this popular design—show features assimilated by Coffermans in The Met painting: the U-shaped grouping of figures with the Christ Child anchoring the composition at its base, the standing and kneeling positions respectively of Joseph and the Virgin Mary at the left, angels or shepherds crowding in together at the right side and kneeling angels at the back of the manger, three angels above singing from a banderole with music, and a landscape viewed through the center of the painting into the distance beyond. In these features, Coffermans’s painting particularly derives from the example from the workshop of the Master of Frankfurt. Given this connection, Coffermans’s Adoration of the Shepherds
most likely was produced in Antwerp under the influence of such precursors. This may well have been shortly after Coffermans was accepted into the Antwerp guild of Saint Luke in 1549. This would explain the artist’s signature on the painting—MARCEL, HELMON, FE,[CIT]—that identifies the origins of the newly arrived and established painter. After this time, Coffermans signs his works more often as “Marcellus Coffermans Fecit” or “Marcellus Coffermans pinxit.”
As several scholars have already suggested (Wehle and Salinger 1947, Wilenski 1960, De Vrij 2003), The Met painting is likely Coffermans’s earliest known signed work from around 1550. We can see from the preparatory sketch made on the prepared panel a sense of confidence and directness of handling of the tool that comes from familiarity with the composition and the placement of the figures (see Technical Notes and fig. 3). With a model already in mind, Coffermans rapidly sketched in his design only deviating from it in the painted stage where he diminished the size of the Annunciation to the Shepherds from its larger underdrawn concept. Hopefully, the characteristics of Coffermans’s underdrawing, presented here for the first time, will serve as a standard or benchmark for the eventual technical study of other paintings attributed to him and his workshop. The expressive verve of the underdrawing is at odds with the subtly blended brushstrokes for the modeling of the flesh tones and the meticulous rendering and attention to tiny details that we find in the painted layers. Touches of shell gold on the borders of Joseph’s and Mary’s robes and here and there in the angels’ garments enhance the precious nature of this small gem.
The exquisite handling and embellishment of certain details with gold suggest a particular commission rather than a painting made for open market sale. The diminutive size of The Met panel (8 1/8 x 5 1/2 in., or 20.6 x 14 cm) indicates that it was most likely an independent work used for private devotional practice. Subsequently, its design facilitated the production of larger works. Diaz Padrón (1981–84) noted a replica in a private collection in Madrid and another version on the art market in Madrid, both of which are the centerpieces of triptychs possibly by members of Coffermans’s workshop.
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2022
 Ph. Rombouts, De liggeren en andere historische archieven der Antwerpsche Sint Lucasgilden
, 2 vols., Antwerpen 1864, vol. I, pp.164–65. The artist is referred to as Marcelis Coffermans, (de oude), scilder.
 Rombouts 1864, vol. 1, p.165.
 See De Vrij 2003, p. 28, and Koopstra 2020, p. 76–77.
 Hélène Mund, “Approche d’une terminologie relative à l’étude de la copie,” Annales d’histoire de l’art et d’archéologie
V (1983), pp. 19–31, especially p. 27.
 Marie Grappasonni, “Les Copies de Marcellus Coffermans pour le Marché Espagnol,” in Eduardo Lamas and David García Cueto, eds., Copies of the Flemish Masters in the Hispanic World (1500-1700), Flandes by Substitution
, Turnhout, 2021, pp. 135–48.
 On Saint Bridget’s Revelation, see Hendrik Cornell, The Iconography of the Nativity of Christ
, translated by Anna-Stina Cornell, Uppsala Universitets Årsskrift, Uppsala, 1924, pp. 1–21.
 Ludwig von Baldass proposed that the nocturnal Nativity was an invention of Hugo van der Goes. See Ludwig von Baldass, “Mabuses ‘Heilige Nacht,’ eine freie Kopie nach Hugi van der Goes,” Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien
35, (1920–21), pp. 39–43.
 Cohen (1912) apparently confused The Met painting with another Nativity
by Coffermans that was with the art dealer Böhler in Munich and carries the date 1561.
 For related version, see also De Vrij 2003, nos. 1A, 1B, 1C, 1D.