The model for The Deësis, one of Gossart's most sumptuous paintings, was Hubert and Jan van Eyck's 1432 altarpiece The Adoration of the Lamb. Gossart assimilated the principal figures of the Van Eyck masterpiece but made alterations that slightly changed the meaning. In Gossart's painting, the central figure appears without the papal miter and staff and thus is not King of Kings and Lord of Lords but simply Jesus Christ (identified by the insignia IHS on his pectoral). The Virgin Mary does not read scriptures but prays to Christ, and Saint John the Baptist points to the savior as if to say, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). The emphasis on the intercessory powers of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, conveyed by their hand gestures, indicates that the painting was intended for a burial site where prayers were recited for the soul of the deceased. While the work was long thought to date about 1513–15, the style of the late High Gothic tracery is closer to that in the 1521 Annunciation panels of the Salamanca wings. Furthermore, the squat trefoil shape of The Deësis is closely comparable to the giant trefoils spanning the west and north portals of Saint-Nicolas-de-Tolentino at the Royal Monastery of Brou at Bourg-en-Bresse, the burial site of Margaret of Austria; her husband, Philibert of Savoy; and Philibert's mother, Margaret of Bourbon. The embellishment of this architectural complex in the late High Gothic style was under construction from 1506 to 1530; Gossart's friend Conrad Meit created the tomb sculptures—lifesize recumbent figures—between 1526 and 1531. If The Deësis were destined for Brou, then it may have been through Meit's service to Margaret of Austria as her court sculptor that Gossart received the commission.The materials and technique of The Deësis indicate a high-level commission and privileged access to the Ghent Altarpiece. It is the only known instance of Gossart using expensive gold leaf instead of lead-tin yellow paint (for the Gothic tracery surrounding the key figures). The heads of all the figures have a one-to-one relationship with their counterparts in the Ghent Altarpiece, and the fact that they were produced on paper pasted to the panel and then worked up in oil suggests they were traced directly from the Van Eyck painting. Infrared reflectography shows evidence of the rectangular sheets of paper on the panel, and even the watermark—a Gothic P—on each of the four sheets. In the underdrawing, Christ's head shows the headband and the large central pearl traced from the figure in the Ghent Altarpiece but not painted. After making the tracings and attaching them to his panel, Gossart augmented the design by employing another transferred pattern for the tracery. He used incised and ruled lines as well as a compass to establish the design. Finally, he added the poses of the hands (which deviate from Van Eyck's example) with spontaneous and vigorous underdrawing, probably in black chalk. He then worked up the design in paint. Such direct access to the Ghent Altarpiece in order to make the tracings was usually denied by the clergy at Saint Bavo's. They had strictly refused authorization for any direct copies to be made for 125 years after its creation. Only someone of the highest authority, such as Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, could have insisted on privileged access for Gossart. The documentary evidence is lacking, but Gossart was in Ghent in 1526 to design the burial tomb of Isabella of Denmark and could have copied the heads from the Ghent Altarpiece at that time.
Jan Gossart (Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532)
The Deësis (Virgin Mary, Christ Blessing, and Saint John the Baptist
, ca. 1525–30
Oil on paper attached to panel, oil and gilding on panel
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid