For a biography of Gerard David, see “Gerard David (born about 1455, died 1523).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.The Painting:
Small enough to be hand-held, this mesmerizing image of Christ ultimately derives from ancient Byzantine prototypes of the Christ Pantokrator that adorned monumental interior domes, like the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, as well as diminutive mosaic icons. Such images were extremely popular in the late Middle Ages and early modern period, due to their appearance in the southern Netherlands, where they were brought back from the Holy Lands by pilgrim travelers and imported through trade relations between Flanders and Crete. Some found their way into the collections of the dukes of Burgundy and their courtiers. Philippe de Croy, count of Chimay in Hainaut, who frequented the court of Philip the Good and Charles the Bold, received a Christ Pantokrator icon (about 1300–1350) from Pope Sixtus IV for services rendered on the pope’s behalf (see fig. 1 above). In 1475, Croy gave the icon to the Collegiate Church of Saints-Pierre-et-Paul in Chimay, where it remains today.
As is true of even the most famous and highly revered Italo-Byzantine icons that reached the Low Countries in the mid-fifteenth century, such as the Cambrai Madonna
, Netherlandish artists never copied the prototype exactly. Rather, they adapted it from its strict iconic presentation with flat, stylized forms, and made adjustments that favored a more naturalistic depiction of the holy figures.
The Met’s Christ Blessing
descended from previous early Netherlandish adaptations of Byzantine icons, namely Robert Campin’s Christ Blessing and the Virgin in Prayer
of about 1425–30 (Philadelphia Museum of Art; fig. 2), where the figures are intentionally tightly cropped to achieve a dramatic close-up image. Campin additionally transformed his Byzantine model, rejecting its schematic facial features, and flat, decorative gold striations for the folds of garments. Most importantly, borrowing from the conventions of portraiture, he added the hands of Christ, his right hand raised in blessing, and his left hand resting on the frame edge. Thereby, he established a sense of the physical presence of the figure in the space of the viewer.
Jan van Eyck’s famous portraits of Christ have only come down to us as copies, the most closely associated ones dated 1438 and 1440, which represent the two distinct prototypes (the earlier is in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, and Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; the later is in Newcastle upon Tyne, and a seventeenth-century copy is in the Groeningemuseum, Bruges). In essence, in a bust-length image, Van Eyck conflated the early Christian archetype with the naturalistic features of contemporary portraits, thus establishing the icon-portrait. Rogier van der Weyden featured the portraitlike Christ in his Braque Triptych
of about 1450–52, where he referenced the Byzantine Deesis group, adding the Virgin and Saint John to his Salvator Mundi. It was likely due to Hans Memling’s time spent in Rogier’s Brussels workshop that he became familiar with the model of Rogier’s Christ. Subsequently, when he established his workshop in Bruges, Memling produced his own variants on the Campin/Rogier models, focusing ever more on the humanity of Christ (see examples in the Catalogue Entry for the Workshop of Hans Memling, Salvator Mundi
). The Met’s Christ Blessing
follows these adaptations, presenting the Savior as a living icon encountered through the window of the frame.Meditational Themes:
The devotional function of The Met’s panel is enhanced by the painter’s great subtlety of expression in the face and above all in the hands that help to convey the meaning of the image. Such an approach elicits an empathic response from the viewer, corresponding to the popular Devotio Moderna
(Modern Devotion) of Thomas à Kempis, and fostered by the Brethren of the Common Life, which advocated meditation on Christ’s humanity and urged imitation of it.
Independent images of Christ in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries took several different forms. The Vera Icon (see the Master of the Orcagnesque Misericordia, 1981.365.2
), Salvator Mundi (see Workshop of Hans Memling, 32.100.54
; Gerard David, 1975.1.2486
), Christ as the Man of Sorrows (see Petrus Christus, 60.71.1
), and the Blessing Christ were among the most popular. A number of these became indulgenced images, that is, by saying specific prayers before the painting a worshipper was entitled to a reward of an indulgence, which was a grant by the pope of a remission of temporal punishment in purgatory for sins committed. Among the most popular of these prayers was the Salve sancta facies
that was sometimes appended to images of Christ. Inventories of royal and ducal collections list small images that were housed in the private rooms of their owners. Period paintings show such images tacked to bedroom walls, as in Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a Man
of about 1450 (National Gallery, London) with the Salvator Mundi and the Salve sancta facies
prayer below it, or hanging over the headboards of beds, as in Jean Hey’s Annunciation
of about 1490–95 (Art Institute of Chicago). It is not possible to say whether The Met’s Christ Blessing
was intended to serve as an indulgenced image. However, its presentation as a frontally positioned Christ, and hypnotic, direct address of the viewer was certainly meant to engage him or her in sustained prayerful communication. One can only imagine that as the devotee prayed before this image, he or she felt rewarded with Christ’s blessing and absolution of sin.The Attribution and Date:
This diminutive panel was unknown until it appeared in a sale at Christie’s, South Kensington, in 2004 where it was attributed to the Circle of Jan Gossart (see Provenance). The work was reassigned to Gerard David by Maryan Ainsworth in discussions with its new owner, Joaneath Spicer. Unmistakable are the typical characteristics of David’s sympathetic and compassionate Christ type found in his other paintings: a broad face with wide, flat forehead; almond-shaped eyes; long, broad-bridged nose with prominent nostrils; soft, sensitive mouth; and wispy beard. These features are found in a number of paintings by David that represent Christ, most of which date to the early 1500s. The forerunner of David’s sensitive Christ type is found in an illumination, a Salvator Mundi, painted to accompany the Salve sancta facies
prayer in the 1486 Escorial Book of Hours
). The head of Christ in David’s Transfiguration
of 1500–1505 (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Bruges), in the Baptism Triptych
of 1502–8 (Groeningemuseum, Bruges; fig. 3), in The Met’s Christ Taking Leave of His Mother
of around 1500 (14.40.636
), and the quite damaged but autograph Salvator Mundi
of around 1500 (Philadelphia Museum of Art) all reveal these same traits.
What is equally characteristic of David’s works, and certainly a prominent feature of the Christ Blessing
, is the great attention he paid to the hands. It is the finely articulated bony structure and natural poses of the hands that contribute to the lifelike impression of the figure of Christ. This feature is the result of studies David made after life in his sketchbooks. Just a small number of these sheets remain, and one of Sixteen Heads and Hands
of around 1490 (current location unknown) and another of Four Girls’s Heads and Two Hands
of around 1500–1505 (Cabinet des Dessins, Musée du Louvre, Paris) attest to the interest David had in studying the skeletal structure and varied poses of hands. Infrared reflectography and x-radiography (figs. 4, 5) indicate that Christ’s blessing hand was minimally underdrawn and changed in its size and position in the paint layers. Christ’s less important proper left hand was not underdrawn, and instead was painted directly over his red tunic, which with infra-reflectography shows a few oblique underdrawn lines, denoting its folds.
The extraordinary sensitivity and illusion of the real presence of Christ here relied little on the summary underdrawing in pen (fig. 4), but rather was achieved through David’s deft blending of oil paints for the subtle modeling of the face. It is interesting to note that David did not strictly adhere to the popular description of Christ’s appearance in the widely known, yet apocryphal third-century text describing the physical and personal traits of the Savior, called the Lentulus letter. Although he did include the grey eyes of Christ, David abandoned the description of the forked beard typically found in other examples. His aim was to emphasize the human side of Christ and thereby more readily establish a direct communication between the holy figure and the devotee.
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2020
 Maryan W. Ainsworth, “`Á la façon grèce’: The Encounter of Northern Renaissance Artists with Byzantine Icons,” Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261–1557)
, ed. Helen C. Evans, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004, pp. 546–47. See also the various essays in Paths to Europe: From Byzantium to the Low Countries
, ed. Bernard Coulie, Brussels, 2017.
 Ainsworth 2004, p. 547 and p. 223, no. 132.
 Ainsworth 2004, pp. 582–86, nos. 349, 350.
 For the most recent discussion of these paintings, see Miyako Sugiyama, “Replicating the sanctity of the Holy Face: Jan van Eyck’s Head of Christ,” Simiolus
39, no. 1–2 (2017), pp. 5–14; and Guido Coenini, “From Rome to Florence and Bruges, and Back Again: Van Eyck’s 'Sancta Facies,' between Transcendence and Naturalism,”Van Eyck, An Optical Revolution
, ed. Maximiliaan Martens et al., exh. cat., Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, 2020, pp. 284–95 and notes.
 On indulgenced images, see Sixten Ringbom, Icon to Narrative: The Rise of the Dramatic Close-up in Fifteenth-Century Devotional Paintings
, Doornspijk, 1984, pp. 23–30.
 Ibid., p. 38.
 This painting was produced on an integrally framed walnut panel, and thus cannot be dated by dendrochronology. The fact that it was not painted on Baltic oak is unusual but not unique. Hans Memling’s Cellier Altarpiece
(Musée du Louvre, Paris), a diptych measuring 25 x 15 cm. each, is on walnut wood, and Memling’s Man of Sorrows
(Keresztény Múzeum, Estergom), measuring 12.9 x 9.2 cm. is fit into a flat-edged frame of lime or pear wood. (March 27, 2009 memo from Michael Gallagher to Maryan Ainsworth, European Paintings Curatorial files); see also De Vos 1994, nos. 62, 88.
 On Gerard David as a manuscript illuminator and on this illumination in particular, see Maryan Ainsworth, “Gerard David,” pp. 344–65, and pp. 345–47, no. 99 (with Thomas Kren) in Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick, Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe
, exh. cat. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2003.
 Maryan W. Ainsworth, Gerard David: Purity of Vision in an Age of Transition
, New York, 1998, p. 8, fig. 1, and p. 17, fig. 14.
 Under the microscope the red of the underlying tunic may be seen through paint losses in cracks in the paint of the hand.
 For the Latin text and its translation see Wolfthal and Metzger 2014, p. 136, and translation, p. 138 n. 29. This volume also has an excellent entry on the Hans Memling, Christ Blessing
in the Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, pp. 122–38, which is further relevant to the current discussion.