Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Juan de Flandes (active by 1496, died 1519)

Juan de Flandes probably came from the county of Flanders, as his conventional name suggests, for his early works reveal familiarity not only with Ghent-Bruges manuscript illumination but also with the art of painters of that region, including Hugo van der Goes, Justus of Ghent, Hans Memling, and Gerard David. Although the artist’s family name is not known for certain, he was first documented as “Juan de Flandes” in 1496 at the court of Queen Isabella of Castile and León, for whom he worked until she died in 1504. Thereafter, he fulfilled commissions for altarpieces in Salamanca and in Palencia, where his major undertaking was a series of paintings to be installed alongside sculpture for the high altar of the cathedral. He died in Palencia in 1519.

The three paintings by Juan de Flandes at the Metropolitan Museum are Christ Appearing to His Mother, ca. 1496 (22.60.58), The Marriage Feast at Cana, ca. 1500–1504 (1982.60.20), and Saints Michael and Francis, ca. 1505–9 (58.132). Relatively close in date, they represent distinctly different styles. The explanation for this is rooted in the circumstances of this Flemish artist who emigrated to Spain. Juan de Flandes adapted to his surroundings, altering his style to conform to the prevailing aesthetic and to the requirements of various patrons. These three paintings have always been discussed separately, as each presents a different aspect of the art of Juan de Flandes. Yet it is instructive to consider them together, to discover what they have in common and to understand how these paintings, which are visually so diverse, can be identified with one and the same artist.

Christ Appearing to His Mother, ca. 1496
The earliest of the three works, Christ Appearing to His Mother, is a copy of a panel from Rogier van der Weyden’s Miraflores Altarpiece, the Triptych of the Virgin, ca. 1435 (Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), commissioned by Queen Isabella during the time her court resided in Burgos. Here, Juan de Flandes aimed to mask his own individual style and suppress his artistic identity. Although it indeed succeeds as a close copy of Rogier’s panel—and as such must have pleased Juan’s patron—close examination of its execution and handling reveals Juan’s own hand. The underdrawing is stylistically different from that of Rogier, and there is nowhere here in evidence his characteristic hook-ended strokes. Juan made considerable adjustments to the contours of the architectural forms and there is evidence of as much freehand drawing as ruled lines or arcs produced by a compass. This was done in order to achieve a one-point perspective and an improvement over Rogier’s composition, which does not employ this exact system. The underdrawing in the figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary, however, reveals rather rigid contour lines indicative of an exact copy after Rogier’s original design.

The Marriage Feast at Cana, ca. 1500–1504
This panel once joined forty-six other panels that represented episodes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin. Intended for the queen’s private devotions, The Marriage Feast of Cana’s diminutive size and the subject matter, which depended on biblical texts, ensured that it could be readily appreciated like a sumptuously illuminated book. Indeed, its aesthetic appeal had much to do with its visual association with Flemish miniatures. In terms of technique and handling, it conforms to well-known works by Ghent and Bruges artists such as Hugo, Memling, and David. The meticulous rendering of details, nearly imperceptible brushwork, and lavish use of glazes for the subtle modeling of forms come from this long-established tradition. The rich narrative, deeply saturated colors, sensitive use of light to describe form, and background views into varied landscapes are characteristic of early Netherlandish painting.

Early in his service to Isabella, however, Juan de Flandes had already begun to adapt his Northern sensibilities to Spanish taste. He introduced a cooler palette and exchanged typical Flemish landscapes for the recognizable countryside of Castile. In addition, he not only portrayed identifiable court personages in the narrative scenes but also included the ethnically diverse populace of the region. Perhaps the most startling indication of Juan’s incipient transformation from a Flemish to a Spanish-style painter is in the nature of the underdrawing (58.132). For such a small panel, the underdrawing is quite complex and fully developed, as well as remarkably untidy. The number of changes freely made in the drawing stage suggests a process of constant revision taking place directly on the prepared panel. Numerous details, many of them purely anecdotal and unrelated to the specific biblical narrative, were never painted. For instance, Juan originally planned an open archway in the back wall, flanked by putti holding swags. The table was cluttered with objects—napkins, plates, a loaf of bread, a knife, and a large charger in the center. A curious dog entered the scene from behind the potted plant at the lower left. The directness and simplicity of the final painting were more in keeping with the sober taste of Isabella’s court.

Saints Michael and Francis, ca. 1505–9
With Saints Michael and Francis, the evolution of Juan de Flandes from a Flemish to a Spanish artist was complete. Gone are the deeply saturated colors, imperceptible brushwork, and multiple thin glazes of his early training. This Flemish technique has given way to a broader handling of paint in wide sweeping strokes that endow his figures with a greater sense of monumentality. A palette of paler tones and subdued colors emerges, and the paint is generally opaque, not translucent. Although Juan never loses his interest in reflective surfaces—whether a mirror, a shield, or sparkling gems and jewels—this is perhaps the only remnant of his Flemish origins. In a relatively short span of time, from about 1498 to 1505, Juan assimilated the aesthetic of his adopted Spain.

The figure type of Saint Michael hints at what little remains of Juan de Flandes’ Netherlandish origins. Unlike most contemporary representations of Saint Michael in Spanish painting, Juan’s archangel wears a long, flowing bluish white robe rather than the customary suit of armor. The artist possibly recalled this model from examples he knew in Flanders. The underdrawing in the draperies of Saints Michael and Francis is distinguished by Juan’s idiosyncratic preference for columns of vertical parallel strokes that run up the surface of the drapery in broad zones. Here and there, clusters of parallel oblique strokes are juxtaposed with short, comma-like marks that are perpendicular to the major fold lines. In addition, Juan established the contours of forms with a series of tiny dots made by the tip of his ink-charged brush or pen. Typical of Juan de Flandes at this time are the strokes that show an excess of ink, apparently caused when he placed his drawing implement on the prepared panel and perhaps paused for a second before moving upward. This can result in messy underdrawings, where the drawing medium seems to have been smeared or splashed accidentally over the surface of the panel.

As the three unusually diverse paintings at the Metropolitan Museum readily demonstrate, Juan de Flandes was truly a chameleon painter. These panels, different in form and function, indicate the extent to which a painter could change his style and technique to serve the requirements of different patrons in various locales. What unites them are the details of handling and execution—many of them hidden beneath the surfaces of the paintings—that show one master at work.