These panels, presenting Abner's Messenger before David
and The Queen of Sheba Bringing Gifts to Solomon
, once formed the interior wings of a folding triptych the center of which was an Adoration of the Magi
(now Galleria Colonna, Rome; see fig. 1 above). At an unknown date, the wings were separated front from back and now constitute four independent panels. The Annunciation
on the reverse is visible when the wings are closed. Painted in grisaille, in imitation of stone sculpture, the Annunciation serves as a prelude to the theme of Christ’s Incarnation represented by the Adoration of the Magi.The Artist:
Probably originating from Bruges or the Northern Netherlands, the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend was active in Brussels between 1470 and 1500. His provisional name was created by Max J. Friedländer (1924) based on two associated panel fragments illustrating scenes from the legend of Saint Barbara (now Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, and Heilig Bloedbasiliek, Bruges). He belongs to a group of minor anonymous artists active in Brussels in the last quarter of the fifteenth century. These masters dominated the painting market of Brussels between the death of the city’s then most prominent artist, Rogier van der Weyden, in 1464, and the occurrence of a new formal artistic language in the 1520s and 30s, represented by artists such as Bernard van Orley. Similar to his fellow artists, the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend perpetuated the tradition of Rogier in reusing his figural and compositional formulas while employing a rough, unpolished style. Characteristic is his colorful mannerism and the hybrid, idiosyncratic architectural settings and landscapes in which he positions his biblical narratives.
Although little is known about this artist, we know that he worked collaboratively. In late-fifteenth-century Brussels, a master’s workshop usually involved the engagement of assistants, students, and collaborators, that is, independent masters who could be associated with various workshops at the same time. This vivid interaction of painters, and their attempt to imitate their master’s style, makes it difficult to distinguish between the different hands that were involved in the creation of paintings that came from these workshops. Accordingly, scholars have identified multiple hands in the works attributed to the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend. He further has been identified as Vrancke van der Stockt and Aert van den Bossche, respectively (see Attribution section below).The Interior Panels:
The two narrative episodes shown on the former interior panels take place in open architectural spaces. Round arched doorways and window openings, an antique-like marble column, a wooden ceiling, and tiled floors mark the interiors as imperial palaces with courtly ambience. The right panel (32.100.56b) displays the Queen of Sheba with her attendants and a manservant bearing gifts to King Solomon (I King 10:1–13). Solomon is enthroned under a brocade baldachin and flanked on one side by two courtiers who witness the event. In the Speculum Humanae Salvationis
(Mirror of Human Salvation), a religious picture book popular during the later Middle Ages, the represented subject occurred as an Old Testament prefiguration of the gifts that the Magi brought to the Christ Child. The typological reference between the right wing’s iconography and the central panel has prompted several attempts to identify the rarely depicted theme on the left panel (32.100.56a) as some Old Testament subject. Mirroring the composition on the right, the left panel presents an enthroned king, flanked by two courtiers on either side, receiving a letter by a messenger. In the background, the messenger’s servant takes care of the horses, indicating their recent arrival at court. Burroughs and Wehle (1932) viewed the event as David learning of the death of his rival, Uriah, the husband of Bathsheba (II Samuel 11: 18–25). Wehle and Salinger (1947), followed by Zeri (1960), believed the scene represents Old Testament King David giving Uriah the letter that sent him into battle (II Samuel 11: 14–18). Held (1949) convincingly weakened this interpretation by pointing out that it is in fact the messenger who is presenting the letter to the king, not vice versa. Friedländer (1924–25 and 1926) suggested that the scene presents Hezekiah receiving letters and a gift from Merodak-Baladan, son of the King of Babylon (II Kings 20: 12–13). Hoogewerff (1936) insisted it is King Hezekiah receiving Sennacherib’s messenger (Isaiah 37: 9–14). Folie (1960) criticized that none of these proposed subjects ultimately relate to the Adoration of the Magi on the central panel, as the scene on the right interior wing does. Instead of an Old Testament episode, Folie read the subject as Herod learning of Christ’s birth (Matthew 2: 1–3). It was Gibson (1965) who finally linked the scene on the left panel to the Old Testament account of David and Abner, drawing on a woodcut illustration of the Adoration flanked by the Queen of Sheba and Solomon to the right, and by Abner pledging his loyalty to David to the left, which he found depicted in the other great picture book of the period, the Biblia Pauperum
(Paupers’ Bible; fig. 2). The depiction of Abner, ruler of the house of Saul, kneeling before and presenting David with a letter, included in various German and Flemish block book versions of the Biblia Pauperum
, relates closely indeed to the composition of The Met's panel. It varies, however, in that the youthful, beardless kneeling figure, shown in a short tunic and dark hose, differs markedly from the usual depictions of Abner as an old bearded man, wearing a long robe. Gibson further argued that this change, together with the rider and the two horses, absent in the Biblia Pauperum
representations, suggest that the kneeling man may not be Abner himself, but one of the messengers whom he sent to negotiate with David, as described in 2 Samuel 3:12. The biblical text tells us that this messenger was dispatched to inform David that Abner would help deliver Saul’s kingdom to him and hence make him ruler over all Israel. If interpreted in this way, the narrative episode on the left most satisfactorily relates to the central panel as a prefiguration of the Adoration of the Magi. The compositional and formal vocabulary of the interior wings, such as the specific architectural interiors and the body language of the figures, correlates with depictions of ceremonial events at the fifteenth-century Burgundian court recorded in manuscript illuminations and other media. The theme of the emperor acting and pronouncing judgment with his scepter (functioning as a staff of justice) particularly recalls the audiences and ceremonies of Charles the Bold (1433–1477), Duke of Burgundy. Dirk Bouts’ s The Justice of Emperor Otto III
, then on display in the Town Hall of Leuven (today Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels), might have functioned as a model for The Met’s paintings. Bouts’s paintings, in turn, succeeded the prominent justice panels by Rogier van der Weyden for the Brussels Town Hall (destroyed by fire in 1695), and The Justice of Cambyses
by Gerard David for the Justice chambers of Bruges (Stedelijke Musea, Groeningemuseum, Bruges).
At the same time, the triptych’s pictorial program is unique in fifteenth-century panel painting. Several subsequent early sixteenth-century Flemish triptychs, produced in the circle of the so-called Antwerp Mannerists, pair the subject of the Adoration of the Kings with related Old Testament episodes. For example, several triptychs, attributed to Pseudo-Bles, mirror the altarpiece’s formal and thematic composition, presenting the Adoration flanked by depictions of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and the Mighty Men bringing water from Bethlehem to David (II Samuel 23:16).The Donor Figures:
Spatially separated, four austerely dressed donors kneel in the foreground of the interior scenes in adoration of the central theme of the altarpiece. Presumably these donors were officers of a lay confraternity, or members of a local guild or civic body. The motif of Saint Joseph at his carpenter’s bench, shown at the left drilling holes in a block of wood, is a rare iconographic motif in fifteenth-century Netherlandish art that might derive from The Met’s Merode Altarpiece
), and might provide a link to the identity of the donors. Saint Joseph functioned as the patron of fathers of families, of manual laborers, especially carpenters, and of bursars and procurators. If these donors were the officers of a carpenters' guild, it would explain Joseph’s particular portrayal in the triptych (Bauman 1986). The depicted donors may have perished during the plague that struck Flanders in 1489. This could account for the crosses above their hands, added after the picture had been completed (see Technical Notes). The triptych, thus, might have experienced a change in function. While the altarpiece might have been commissioned and dedicated before the death of the represented donors, it is likely that the work gained an additional memorial function after their passing, indicated by the addition of the crosses.The Exterior Panels:
The two semi-monochrome panels (32.100.56c, d), illustrating the Annunciation, decorated the exterior of the wings and would have been visible when the wings of the triptych were closed on weekdays. Judging by its format and size, the triptych originally would have been intended for display in a private chapel or oratory. Thematically, the Annunciation acted as a prelude to the theme of Christ’s Incarnation, represented in the Adoration of the Magi of the triptych’s central panel. The Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary inhabit red niches, crowned by semicircular arches. The figures are placed on polygonal pedestals that appear to extend into the viewer’s space. Both are painted in grisaille, meant to simulate stone sculpture, such as statues in niches, found on the portals or the rood screen of a cathedral. The imitation of stone figures is further emphasized by the assertive use of shadows and struts, intended to stabilize those parts that protrude from Gabriel’s body (such as the banderole). The representation of visually convincing stone sculpture in painting functioned as a display of technical virtuosity. It should be noted, however, that in the late fifteenth century, polychrome sculptures were far more widespread than unpainted stone-colored statues. The artist thus primarily drew on the painterly tradition of simulated sculpture that had been established in the Low Countries by painters such as Jan van Eyck. Gabriel’s posture specifically evokes Rogier van der Weyden’s frequently copied left wing of the Saint Columba Altarpiece
(Alte Pinakothek, Munich). This pictorial reference might have been adopted and mediated through our painter’s study of the Annunciation on the exterior wings of Hans Memling’s Crabbe Triptych
(Musea Brugge, Groeningemuseum, Bruges). Likewise, the form of the imitated niches brings to mind similar designs by Rogier and his workshop, such as those on the exterior views of his Last Judgment Polyptych
(Musée de l’ Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune) or his Ambierle Altarpiece
(Saint Martin's parish church, Ambierle). The depiction of grisaille and semi-grisaille figures against red backgrounds on the reverse of altarpieces is a distinctive feature of works that were produced in Brussels by followers of Rogier van der Weyden during the last third of the fifteenth century.The Attribution:
Neither signed, dated, nor mentioned in an archival source, The Met’s wings were first attributed to the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend by Friedländer (1926). Since then, scholars have identified as many as three different hands within the works traditionally ascribed to this artist. The nuanced discussion of hands was initiated in 1970, when Reynaud and Foucart proposed that the group of paintings attributed to the Barbara Master lack homogeneity. Reynaud and Foucart split Friedländer’s suggested oeuvre of the artist into two groups: the first included the eponymous fragments and the New York panels; the second the Triptych with Scenes from the Life of Job
(Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne). Subsequently, Guislain-Wittermann (1978–79) determined two hands in the eponymous works of the Saint Barbara Master: Hand A, conventionally identified with the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend, that is, the author of the overall artistic project, the underdrawing, and the better parts of the painting; and Hand B, who painted the weaker elements, probably a workshop assistant. Technical investigations of the eponymous panels (in 2006) and the Job Altarpiece
in Cologne (in 2013) buttressed Guislain-Wittermann’s hypothesis. Since 1989, there has been an ongoing discussion whether the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend (Hand A) can be identified with the master who painted the Martyrdom of Saints Crispin and Crispinian Altarpiece
(National Museum, Warsaw). Based on archival sources, the latter might be identified as Aert van den Bossche. Whereas some scholars have argued for the separation of the workshops of the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend (Hand A and B) and Aert van den Bossche, recently, Steyaert (2013) proposed that Hand A and Aert van den Bossche might be one artist, active in one workshop consisting of two, three, or more painters, collaborating with other workshops.The Attribution of the Underdrawing:
(see also Technical Notes) The examination of The Met’s wings with infrared reflectography confirmed an extensive and most distinctive underdrawing, applied with a brush using the same liquid medium and variety of strokes on both the inside and outside panels (figs. 3–5). The free, diversified play with preparatory lines suggests the immediacy of an artist working out the composition directly on the prepared panel. The stylistic coherence in the underdrawings throughout the wings indicates that one and the same hand was responsible for the entire layout. The IRR of the fragment in Brussels displays preparatory underdrawing in a similar medium and with a similar stylistic handling. There is an even more consistent stylistic coherence between the underdrawing in The Met’s panels and techniques revealed in the Job Altarpiece
’s underdrawing, which has a similar freely executed underdrawing that relies on strong, angled contours. In particular, the bold underdrawing of the Job Altarpiece’s exterior figures appears to have been produced by the same hand as the underdrawing of the grisaille figures at The Met. It is very likely that the artist who was responsible for the preparatory underdrawing in the eponymous work and the Job Altarpiece
is the same as the one who carried out the underdrawings of The Met’s wings, that is, the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend (Hand A). In contrast, the underdrawing of The Met’s panels does not evoke any common ground with the underdrawing of the Martydom Altarpiece
by Aert van den Bossche.The Attribution of the Executed Paint Layers:
(see also Technical Notes) During the technical examination of the wings, the juxtaposition of the panels’ underdrawing and their painted surfaces revealed deviations, including re-positioning of elements and facial features as well as a rethinking of outlines (figs. 6–9). Strikingly, the painter has made alterations to the fall of light on the folds, introducing highlights that do not accord with the underdrawn idea. The less sophisticated and blunt interpretation of form and light in the paint layers, compared to the underdrawing, might either suggest a very idiosyncratic working method of one artist or two different hands in the creative process.
The examination of the painting layers further revealed stylistic and technical inconsistencies throughout the panels, particularly in the heads of the biblical figures and the donors (figs. 10, 11). Perier-d’Ieteren (1989–91) suggested that only the heads in the New York panels were painted by the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend, and the remainder by a workshop assistant. The stylistic and technical inconsistencies in the execution of the wings cannot, however, be separated that way. Rather, the differences are spread throughout the panels and indicate a lack of concentration on the less important parts of the triptych. The majority of the heads and their painterly quality seem to be close to that in two panels of Augustine Sacrificing to an Idol of the Manichaeans
(Mauritshuis, The Hague) and The Life of A Saint
(National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), which recently were reattributed to the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend (Hand A) by Staeyert.
At the same time, Dubois and Slachmuylders’s description of Hand A and Hand B in the Brussels fragment (2006) does not compare well with The Met’s paintings. The stylistic inconsistencies and partly crude execution in the wings contrast with the quality of their central panel. Before one can arrive at a certain attribution of the hands in the paint layers of the wings, the remaining technical study of the triptych’s central panel must be carried out.
At this point, the new documentation and visual material of The Met’s paintings show that the wings probably were laid out in the underdrawing by Hand A, the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend, and might have involved in the execution of the paint layers the intervention of a workshop assistant (Hand B?). The attribution to the Master of the Saint Barbara Legend (Hand A) and a collaborator (Hand B?) thus must remain preliminary. This entry will be updated as soon as the technical examination of the central panel has been carried out.
Linda Müller 2019
 The compositional dependence on Bouts’s The Ordeal by Fire of The Justice of Emperor Otto
, completed in 1473, might furnish a production date of the altarpiece post quem. Wood identification of the interior panels carried out in 2014 confirm that the paintings’ earliest plausible date of creation is 1474 (see Technical Notes).
 See, among others, Altarpiece of the Adoration
(Museo del Prado, Madrid); The Queen of Sheba Visits King Solomon
and Messenger before David
(Joseph Tannenbaum, Toronto); Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi
, (Town Hall, Marsala, Sicily).
 See Till-Holger Borchert, Jan van Eyck: Grisallas
. exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2009.
 A similar adoption of recent pictorial formulae is noticeable in the triptych’s central panel where the Adoration scene appears to be inspired by Rogier’s central panel of the Saint Columba Altarpiece
, received through (or combined with) the study of Memling’s Adoration of the Magi
(Museo del Prado, Madrid).
 See Bücken 2013, esp. pp. 24–35.
 See Nicole Reynaud and Jacques Foucart, "Expositions: Primitifs flamands anonymes, 1969," in Revue de l'art
no. 8 (1970), p. 68.
 See Régine Guislain-Wittermann, "L’oeuvre-chef du Maître de la Légende de Sainte Barbe: Genèse technologique" in Bulletin de l’institut royal du patrimoine artistique
17 (1978), pp. 89–105.
 See Anne Dubois and Roel Slachmuylders, “Master of the Saint Barbara Legend and collaborator,” in Syfer-d'Olne et al. 2006, pp. 220–37, no. 11.
 See Griet Steyaert, De Brusselse schilderschool na Rogier van der Weyden: De meester van de Sint-Catharina-legend
, Diss., VUB, Brussels 2003, 2 vols., p. 120 n. 369.
 See Périer-d’Ieteren 1989–91, pp. 157–74.
 See Anne-Marie Bonenfant-Feytmans, “Aert van den Bossche, peintre du polyptych des saints Crépin et Crépinien,” in Université Libre de Bruxelles, Annales d’histoire de l’arte et d’archéologie
13, pp. 43–58.
 See Molly Faries, “The Master of the Legend of Saint Barbara’s ‘Job Altarpiece’ in Cologne,” in Rogier van der Weyden in Context
, ed. Véronique Vandekerchove, Paris, 2012, pp. 237–52; and Dubois and Slachmuylders 2006.
 See Griet Steyaert, "Aert van den Bossche et la Maître de la Légende de sainte Barbe," in L'héritage de Rogier van der Weyden: La peinture à Bruxelles 1450–1520
, ed. Brigitte de Patoul and Beatrijs Wolters van der Wey, exh. cat., Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, Tielt, 2013, esp. pp. 250–51; a good summary of the discussion is also in Dubois and Slachmuylders 2006.
 See Dubois and Slachmuylders 2006.
 See Faries 2012.
 See Steyaert 2013. It should be noted that Faries 2012 attributes the underdrawing of the panel in The Hague to Aert van den Bossche.