Joos van Cleve (ca. 1485–1540/41) was one of the most successful painters of early-sixteenth-century Antwerp, where he managed a thriving workshop. Joos probably came from Kleve, a town in the lower Rhine region that was part of the archiepiscopal diocese of Cologne. He most likely trained with Jan Joest and participated with him about 1505/6–1508/9 on the monumental altarpiece for the high altar of the Stadtpfarrkirche Sankt Nicolai in Kalkar. Between that project and 1511, when Joos joined the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke, he is undocumented. However, the strong influence of the works of Hans Memling and Gerard David in his earliest dated paintings, especially the Adam and Eve
of 1507 (Musée du Louvre, Paris; see images above, fig. 2), suggest that he spent some time in Bruges. As a free master in Antwerp’s guild, he later took on the responsibility of serving as co-deacon in 1519, 1520, and 1525.
Joos van Cleve produced a variety of works that included large altarpieces as well as single devotional panels. The altarpieces that came to be linked with his name in the Antwerp archives—Joos van der Beke alias van Cleve—are the Death of the Virgin Triptych
(Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne) and the Saint Reinhold Altarpiece
(Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie, Warsaw) in which can be found the initials of the artist and a monogram. Joos was also known as a gifted portraitist. Lodovico Guicciardini praised him in his 1567 Descrittione de tutti I Paesi Bassi
(Description of the Low Countries) for having been called to the court of Francis I to paint the likenesses of the king and his queen, Eleanor of Austria. The evidence of this assertion is found in two splendid portraits, one of Francis I (Philadelphia Museum of Art) and the other of Eleanor of Austria (Royal Collection, Hampton Court, London).
Joos’s clientele comprised well-to-do burghers in Antwerp and Italian merchants who had professional connections there. The latter account for the significant number of works that became part of Genoese collections. Van Cleve was a savvy entrepreneur, who had the ability to anticipate the aesthetic interests of his clientele and the mass market appeal of certain themes. Early on, he incorporated in his works the popular landscape style of Antwerp’s most famous painter of this genre, Joachim Patinir. He also specialized in the assimilation of new Italianate motifs and sfumato effects of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings, especially in his many versions of the Virgin and Child with the Cherries and Christ and Saint John the Baptist Embracing. Joos cornered the market on particular subjects, namely paintings of the Holy Family and Saint Jerome in his Study. In order to satisfy the demand, he implemented methods of streamlined production and hired assistants who began to specialize in specific features of a painting, such as landscapes, leaving for himself the most important contribution, that is, the figures.The Subject of the Painting:
Tightly cropped and in a dramatic close-up of a domestic interior, an aged Joseph looks on as the Virgin nurses the Christ Child. Before about 1500, Joseph often appears in narrative scenes, such as the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi, in a subsidiary role, relegated to the sidelines of compositions that feature the Virgin and Child. However, in the early sixteenth century, Joseph’s position as part of the Holy Family was reconsidered, and Joos van Cleve was one of the major proponents of this transformation. This changing attitude towards Joseph was inspired in part by the writings of Jean Gerson (1363–1429), chancellor of the University of Paris and Dean of Sint-Donaaskerk in Bruges during the fourteenth century. Gerson advocated that the Holy Family was an earthly version of the Trinity, in which Joseph played a key role. In the fifteenth century, respect for Joseph grew and he was considered not only as an earthly father of Christ but also as a protector of the Virgin and Child. In 1479 Pope Sixtus IV introduced the feast of Saint Joseph in the liturgical calendar. Around 1490 the first account of Joseph’s life was printed in the Netherlands (Histoire van den heiligen Joseph
), issued by the Brothers of the Common Life. In 1522 the earliest scholarly treatise on Saint Joseph, the Summa de donis S. Josephi
by the Dominican Isidro Isolani, appeared.
Joseph is characterized in these texts by his humility and devotion. These traits are emphasized in The Met’s painting, as he looks up from reading a scroll, awestruck by the tenderness with which the Virgin nurses the Christ Child. Joseph has removed his reading glasses, and he witnesses firsthand, along with the viewer, the manifestation of the biblical scriptures on the scroll in his right hand. The legible text begins with words of greeting from Mary’s cousin Elizabeth in recognition of her miraculous pregnancy (fig. 1). It continues with lines from the Magnificat
(Luke I: 42, 46–50), Mary’s response to Elizabeth, which is a celebration of Christ’s Incarnation, God’s omnipotence, and the future of mankind (see Inscriptions).
The words of the Magnificat
relate to the symbolic meaning of the objects on the shelf at the upper right and on the parapet in the foreground of this domestic interior. On the background shelf is a small wooden box and a sealed carafe; a small whiskbroom hangs underneath. These objects are all traditional symbols of Mary’s purity. On the parapet, projecting into the viewer’s space, is a still-life arrangement that symbolically refers to Christ’s Incarnation and his redemption of humankind. The wine in the closed glass and the grapes on the pewter charger refer to the Eucharist. The pomegranate symbolizes the Church, since it is one whole consisting of many parts, while its red color may signal Christ’s Passion. The cherries represent the fruit of Paradise. The kernel of the halved walnut refers to Christ’s divinity, while the shell indicates the wood of the cross. The apple that Christ holds is another symbolic object: it recalls the fruit of Original Sin, and Christ’s redemptive role as the New Adam as he gently touches his mother, the New Eve. Taken together, these objects create a complex liturgical and devotional meaning beyond the simple domestic scene, and are intended for the meditation and contemplation of the viewer. The objects in the foreground are also an early example of still-life painting, and show the incipient stages of a new genre that would come into its own by the seventeenth century.The Attribution and Date: The Holy Family
has unanimously been attributed to Joos van Cleve (see References). There is only some discussion about the date of the painting, whether it is closer to 1513–15, as most authors agree, or 1517–20, as John Hand (1978, 1989, and 2004) has suggested. Taken together, the subject matter, composition, and style all argue for the earlier date, and in particular, the impact on Joos of his time spent in Bruges around 1507–11.
Between Joos van Cleve’s earliest artistic activity in Kalkar as an assistant of Jan Joest and the first documentation of his guild membership in Antwerp in 1511, there is no record of his whereabouts. However, his earliest works, such as the Adam and Eve
dated 1507 (Musée du Louvre, Paris; fig. 2), and the Virgin and Child
of about 1511/12 (private collection, The Netherlands; fig. 3) show the clear influence of Bruges painters, namely Hans Memling and Gerard David (Hand 2004, pp. 16–20; Leeflang 2015, pp. 15–16). For his Adam and Eve
, Joos conflated features of the Adam and Eve paintings of both Memling and David (compare figs. 2, 4, and 5), which, in turn, are strongly influenced by these same figures in Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s famous Ghent Altarpiece
of 1432. For the motif of the Virgin and Child, he recalled a lost prototype of Robert Campin, but referred to the Virgin type found in Gerard David’s paintings, in particular their oval faces, dimpled chins, and prominent spheroid eyes with heavy lids over oblong slits for eyes (Hand 2004, p. 24; compare with The Met 1977.1.1
The Virgin in The Met’s Holy Family
closely follows these trends in two ways, by paying homage to the oeuvre of Jan van Eyck, and by adapting the Virgin types of Gerard David’s works. The Met’s Virgin resembles the inclined head and physiognomy of his earlier private collection Virgin; note, too, the distinct similarity of the pose and elegant articulation of the long fingers in the two left hands of the Virgins juxtaposed with the pudgy right hands of the Christ Child in each. Yet the more subtly-blended and refined brushwork evidenced in the beautiful modeling of the Virgin’s face and the convincing transparency of her headdress in The Met's painting indicate the more sophisticated handling of a later work, about 1513–15 (see Technical Notes). The meticulous brushwork and poignant rendering of the ruddy, aged face of Joseph, with his sagging brow, missing teeth, and scruffy white beard is no less masterfully achieved than the exquisite execution of the still-life objects in the painting—both on the shelf at the upper right and on the cloth covered parapet in the immediate foreground.
Despite the fact that the Holy Family
was likely painted in Joos’s early years in Antwerp, it nonetheless exemplifies another important lesson that he learned in Bruges—that is, the enduring popularity of the works of Jan van Eyck. It has long been recognized that the motif of the Virgin and Child was borrowed from Jan van Eyck’s painting known as the Lucca Madonna
, due to its earliest known, nineteenth-century provenance in that Tuscan city (Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt am Main; fig. 6). Neither the original commissioner nor destined location of the Van Eyck painting is known, but the picture may still have been in Bruges in Joos’s time where he could have studied it firsthand. Joos possibly received a commission to copy the motif of Jan’s Virgin and Child in a new work, or, being a savvy entrepreneur, he may have recognized the market advantage of paying homage to Bruges’s most famous painter. Joos closely reproduced Jan’s model, and this likely explains why the underdrawing reveals a minimal contour line drawing for the figures, with only sparse parallel hatching just to the left of the Virgin’s fur cuff (fig. 7). However, Joos did not simply produce a slavish copy of Van Eyck’s work. Instead, just as Gerard David had done with his own partial copy of Van Eyck’s Virgin and Child at the Fountain
), Joos assimilated the most important motif of the painting and placed the Virgin and Child in a modern, updated composition: a recognizably contemporary domestic interior.
The combination of quotidian domestic intimacy and elaborate symbolic meaning must have had mass appeal. Both Joos van Cleve and Gerard David (fig. 8) produced versions of the Holy Family, likely hoping to garner the interest of Antwerp buyers. Somewhat later, this developed into Joos’s “niche production,” that is, his series of Holy Family paintings that he and his workshop created for open market sale in Antwerp to satisfy an increasing demand from a burgeoning middle- and upper-class of buyers. Prime examples of this phenomenon are 41.190.19
from the workshop of Joos van Cleve.
John Hand (2004, pp. 131–32) lists six versions of The Met's painting, none of which is an exact copy. The variations of the composition and the painting style of these suggest that they were not painted directly in Joos’s workshop. In any event, Joos did not have any assistants between 1511 and 1516, his first five years in Antwerp. The serial production of Holy Family paintings in Joos’s workshop are from a later period, mostly after 1525.
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2018
 For a more detailed discussion of Joos van Cleve’s biography and works, see Hand 2004 and Leeflang 2011.
 Marjory Bolger Foster, “The Iconography of Saint Joseph in Netherlandish Art 1400-1500,” Ph.D. thesis, University of Kansas, 1978, pp. 60–63.
 Guy-M. Bertrand, “La ‘Summa de donis Sancti Josephi’ de Isidore de Isolanis, O.P.,” Cahiers de Joséphologie
8, no. 2 (1960), pp. 219–49.
 Joos’s Virgin and Child
(private collection), discussed above, also shows an underdrawing limited to the contours of the figures, as it too copies a known model, in this case a Robert Campin prototype. See Leeflang 2015, p. 70, fig. 2.54.
 For the most recent discussion of Gerard David’s Holy Family
, see Peter van den Brink in Christie’s Old Masters auction catalogue, July 5, 2018, pp. 126–33, no. 31. Gerard David joined the Antwerp painters’ guild in 1515 in order to sell paintings there, although he apparently never moved his workshop from Bruges.