The Subject of the Painting:
Presented in a near-profile view, this forthright image of a man is incisively drawn to accentuate the gaunt, bony structure of the face. His physiognomy is closely observed and rendered in minute detail featuring tousled grey hair, deep-set and heavy-lidded eyes, an unusually long, aquiline nose, and a thin-lipped mouth set over a square jaw. Protruding veins at the man’s proper-left temple, and sagging jowls enhance the description of advanced age. The man is tonsured and wears the habit of the Benedictine Order; thus, he has been identified as a Benedictine monk.
The close-up view and tight cropping of the image, and the long-held assumption that the painting is a fragment (similar to Dieric Bouts’s Portrait of a Man
), has raised questions about whether this is truly a portrait or the representation of a saint cut from a larger composition (Campbell 1979, 1981; Bauman 1986; Ainsworth 1998). However, recent technical examination (see forthcoming Technical Notes) has clarified that the panel exhibits a barbe on the left, right, and top edges and is trimmed slightly at the lower edge. Therefore, the image was painted within a now-lost frame as is typical of independent portraits. What separates this example from that genre, however, is its deviation from other conventional features. The man’s hands are not included at the lower edge, as was common for independent portraits at the time. Furthermore, he does not glance up or out of the picture, as does Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of Francesco d’Este
); or Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Man
), Portrait of an Old Man
), or Portrait of Tommaso Portinari
). Nor does he directly address the viewer, as in Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a Carthusian
). Instead, with downcast eyes, the Benedictine conveys a melancholy demeanor or an attitude of moody introspection. The plain dark background, more usual for portraits of a generation or two earlier (such as those by Jan van Eyck), further isolates the man both figuratively and emotionally.
The unusual nature of this painting is especially striking when it is compared, for example, to another figure belonging to a religious order, the lay brother portrayed by Petrus Christus in the Portrait of a Carthusian
). The latter exhibits all of the characteristics of a formal portrait: a meticulously described sitter in three-quarter pose who inhabits a shallow, cornered room, while directly addressing the viewer from behind a fictive frame edge, signed and dated by the artist. In the present painting, however, few of these traditional features are present, except, of course, for the detailed rendering of physiognomy and the mere suggestion of interior space implied by a slight cast shadow behind the head. This begs the question of why a monk of the ascetic monastic Benedictine Order would commission a portrait of himself. If not a portrait, per se, then how can this image be understood?
The original frame for the painting, which might have included information about the sitter or the circumstances of the rendering, has been lost. The reverse retains its original back with later beveled edges, but it has not been painted with a marble imitation, or any coat of arms or personal motto, such as we find in Rogier’s Portrait of Francesco d’Este
). Furthermore, the oak plank on which it was painted has an extremely tangential cut, that is, a far less desired cut for a commissioned portrait (see forthcoming Technical Notes). Rather than a conventional portrait, the painting appears to be an absorbing study of introspection or religious meditation. Such an emphasis on mood was typical of Hugo van der Goes to whom the painting has been attributed (for which see below). Hugo is also noted for his close study of contemporary individuals who populate his religious narrative paintings as casual participants, or who assume various featured roles, thus infusing his compositions with a sense of present-day reality – promoting both deeper as well as more easily accessible meaning. Included among these examples are the Monforte Altarpiece
, the Nativity
of about 1470–75 and 1480–82 respectively (both Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), and the Death of the Virgin
of 1481/82 (Groeningemuseum, Bruges; see Fig. 1 above). It has often been remarked that certain figures in Hugo’s paintings are painted with astonishing verisimilitude. They are so individualized, and so precise in their graphic depiction, that they appear to have been studied after life. Such life studies of individuals from Hugo’s environs, intended for subsequent incorporation in his paintings, may be found in examples such as his Portrait of an Old Man
), a likeness produced in oil on paper attached to wood.
The present work reminds one of various heads in Hugo’s Death of the Virgin
. As Elizabeth Dhanens noted, these heads are painted in a manner so lively and precise, and the graphic depiction of their features so closely observed and rendered that they must have been based on some of the brothers of the Roode Klooster where Hugo then resided. As these monks by their rule would have been clean-shaven and not bearded as they are in Hugo’s painting, it is unlikely that they represented actual monks of the order. However, several of them appear to have been studied in advance from life for their demeanor as much as for the details of their physiognomies (figs. 2, 3, 4). The Met’s Benedictine Monk
can most likely be explained as a character study of this type for incorporation into a larger composition, rather than a conventional, commissioned portrait.The Attribution and Date:
Early on, scholars attributed this painting to Rogier van der Weyden or an artist in his orbit (Friedländer 1916, 1921; Weale 1922; Panofsky 1940, 1953). The particularly linear approach to the drawing of the sharply defined facial features, all rather thinly painted, suggests this, as is borne out by a comparison with Rogier’s Portrait of Francesco d’Este
). Subsequently, the majority of scholars attributed the Benedictine
to Hugo van der Goes, with some vacillating between Hugo and Hugo’s circle (see References). The psychologically intense character of the man and his profoundly meditative mood for many linked the Benedictine
to Hugo’s oeuvre. However, the execution of the head in paint appears to flatten forms; it is distinctly different from Hugo’s works where the heads appear more three-dimensional and to be painted with broader, sometimes disengaged brushstrokes and impasto touches that create a fleshier depiction of the physiognomy.
It is rather with the close followers of Hugo that the Benedictine most closely fits. Among these examples is a Virgin and Child with Saints Thomas, John the Baptist, Jerome, and Louis
of about 1480 (Phoebus Foundation, Antwerp, fig. 5). In particular, the head of Saint Louis and the Benedictine
are similar not only in the introspective attitude portrayed, but also in the way the heads are described (fig. 6). Light comes from the left side, casting the proper left side of the faces into shadow, and sharply modeling their features. Comparable are the beautifully sinuous contour lines of the heads in near-profile view, the deep-set eyes with heavy upper lids, the unusually long, thin noses, and the tightly pursed lips over a prominent chin. Considering the somber attitude of the man—equivalent to that in the apostles in the Death of the Virgin of 1481–82—and the details of execution—analogous to Saint Louis in the Phoebus Foundation painting—The Met’s Benedictine
was most likely painted by an exceptional artist within Hugo’s immediate circle and in the early 1480s when the influence of Van der Goes was still strongly felt.
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2022
 Till–Holger Borchert, Van Eyck
, Cologne, 2008, pp. 34–47; see also http://Closertovaneyck.KIKIRPA.be
 See Maryan W. Ainsworth, “Hugo’s Approach to Portraiture,” Stephan Kemperdick, Erik Eising, eds., Hugo van der Goes
, exh. cat., Berlin, Gemäldegalerie SMB, March 31–July 16, 2023), Munich, forthcoming Summer 2022.
 Elisabeth Dhanens, Hugo van der Goes
, Antwerp, 1998, p. 356.
 For other examples of portraits that functioned as studies for other works, see Catheline Périer–d’Ieteren, “Un portrait peint á l’huile sur papier marouflé á attribuer au Maître des Portraits Princiers,” Annales d’Histoire de l’Art & d’Archéologie
, 37 (2015): 7–29. See also the examples among the works of Quinten Massys: Head of St. Anthony(?)
(Palacio de la Virreina, Barcelona); Two Heads
(Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin), perhaps studies for Quinten Massys, Two Monks at Prayer
(Palazzo Doria, Rome); and Portrait of an Old Man
(Jacquemart–André, Paris) for the Portrait of an Old Man
(Ronald Lauder Collection, New York). For photos of these, see Max J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting
, vol. 8: “Quentin Massys,” Leyden and Brussels, 1971, no. 30, pl. 36, (91), p. 77; no. 80, pl. 68; no. 51, p. 53.
 Maryan W. Ainsworth,“The Middendorf Altarpiece by a Follower of Hugo van der Goes,” in A. Dubois, J. Couvert & T.–H. Borchert, eds, Technical Studies of Paintings: Problems of Attribution (15th–17th Centuries)
, Symposium XIX, Bruges, September 2014, Leuven: Peeters, 2018, pp. 60–73. See also catalogue entry by Till–Holger Borchert in forthcoming in Stephan Kemperdick, Erik Eising, eds., Hugo van der Goes
, exh. cat., Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, March 31–July 16, 2023), Munich, forthcoming Summer 2022.