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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Petrus Christus (active by 1444, died 1475/76)

On July 6, 1444, Petrus Christus went to the burghers’ lodge in Bruges to fulfill the formalities needed to acquire citizenship in this Flemish center of international commerce. A clerk noted in the registers that “Pieter Christus, son of Pieter, born in Baerle, purchased his citizenship . . . in order to become a painter.” The protectionist regulations of the local painters’ guild were very strict: in order to be allowed to practice his profession in Bruges, Christus had to become a member of this organization, for which citizenship was required. It is not known how old Christus was when he settled in Bruges; nor is it known where he was trained or whether he spent all of his formative years in his hometown in the duchy of Brabant. Within a short time, Christus secured several important commissions and rose to prominence as Bruges’ leading painter of the mid-fifteenth century, after the death of Jan van Eyck in 1441, and before Hans Memling arrived, around 1465.

Christus arrived in a city that was thriving economically after years of political upheaval between 1436 and 1440. After a harshly punished rebellion, Bruges returned to the good graces and favor of its sovereign, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (r. 1419–67). During Christus’s lifetime, Bruges was a favorite residence of the Burgundian dukes, who often made triumphal entrances into the city, accompanied by distinguished guests. Along with the regular presence of the ducal court, wealthy local businessmen and foreign merchants and bankers comprised a potential clientele that drew artists such as Christus to the city. Mediterranean nations played an especially prominent role in Bruges’ commerce; significantly, nearly half of Christus’s small oeuvre was commissioned by Italians, has an Italian or Spanish provenance, or was early on known to southern artists such as Antonello da Messina.

When Christus’s oeuvre was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, it was rather pejoratively assessed as eclectic and largely derivative of Jan van Eyck. More recent scholarship, while acknowledging Van Eyck’s influence, has focused on Christus’s inventive approach to accommodating the wishes of his patrons in Bruges, as the artist adjusted his style to suit their tastes. His meticulous technique is related to that of manuscript illumination; he was most assured working on a diminutive scale, but became increasingly adept at volumetric description in larger works.

Five of Christus’s thirty surviving paintings are housed at the Metropolitan Museum, providing a core group for the study of this artist. Modern scientific investigation has played a significant part in the reassessment of Christus’s oeuvre. Technical examination—including X-radiography, infrared reflectography, and dendochronological analysis—reveals an increasingly sophisticated working technique for Christus’s paintings that can be seen in the stylistic evolution of his underdrawings and his progressively more advanced employment of a perspective system. This has helped to resolve some issues of chronology and dating. Infrared reflectography has, for example, supported a date of about 1450 for the Museum’s Lamentation (91.26.12) which, because of distinct stylistic differences from thematically similar works, such as the monumental Lamentation in Brussels (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts), has been variously dated to the 1440s, 1450s, and 1460s. Additionally, comparing the underdrawings of authenticated works with those of paintings of uncertain authorship—such as the jewel-like fragment depicting the Annunciation (32.100.35)—often allows for a more conclusive attribution. Christus’s authorship of a small group of extant drawings, likewise, has gained greater clarity through the possibility to compare them with the underdrawings in his paintings.

An early work of about 1445, the Head of Christ (60.71.1) illustrates Christus’s ability to assimilate features from an earlier model while altering others, thus creating a new kind of image. Based on a lost picture of the Holy Face by Van Eyck (now known through copies in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Groeningemuseum, Bruges, and formerly J. C. Swinburne collection, Newcastle-upon-Tyne), this small painting was created for private use and should be understood in the context of the rise of devotional piety—spurred by mystical movements such as the Devotio Moderna— that occurred in the Netherlands during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This development led to the production of images whose specific purpose was to stimulate emotional and compassionate responses by evoking the sympathy of the viewer. The Christus Head of Christ is similar to its Eyckian forerunner in that the head, though planned according to a strict canon of proportions, is rendered as a volumetric portrait of a living being, while the fictive marble frame and floriated nimbus emphasize the subject’s closeness to the picture plane and to the viewer just beyond it. Here, however, Christus fuses the Holy Face type (which derives from the supposed imprint of Christ’s face on Veronica’s Veil) with that of the Ecce Homo, depicting Christ in the midst of his suffering—robed in purple, a crown of thorns piercing his furrowed brow. The refinement of this image makes it more comparable with Christus’s portraits than with the somewhat formulaic heads in his religious paintings.

The Museum’s collection includes one such portrait of 1446 (49.7.19), arguably Christus’s finest and the earliest of his signed and dated works, depicting a lay brother of the Carthusian order. In certain ways, it represents an homage to the lifelike portraits of Jan van Eyck in its three-quarter bust-length view, and the attention lavished upon the depiction of textures and of the changing quality of light on surfaces. Here, Christus also implemented Van Eyck’s use of a trompe-l’oeil frame as a window between sitter and viewer, extending the illusion of the space from one side to the other. The ways in which the Portrait of a Carthusian differs from Van Eyck’s representations show the innovations Christus brought to Flemish portraiture. Instead of employing a uniformly dark, anonymous setting, Christus set off the white-robed figure with a warm red, ambiguous background. Here he also introduced a new concept in panel painting: the corner-space portrait. The sitter is anchored obliquely in a narrow cell-like space defined by two sources of light: an intense raking light issuing from the right and a softer glow illuminating the back left corner. Christus may have borrowed the notion of a diagonal point of view into an interior corner from pre-Eyckian manuscript illuminations such as those by the Limbourg brothers. Further eliminating the barrier between sitter and viewer, Christus added the ingenious device of the trompe-l’oeil fly, momentarily perched just above the artist’s name on the windowsill. In later portraits, he discarded the ambiguous lighting and complex spatial description seen here, favoring a compositional balance of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines to anchor the sitter in a dynamic geometrical construct, as in the Portrait of a Young Woman of about 1470 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).

Among Christus’s best known works, A Goldsmith in His Shop (1975.1.110), signed and dated 1449, is also perhaps his most enigmatic. This view into a goldsmith’s stall, where a fashionably dressed couple chooses a wedding ring, conveys a sense of the opulent world of fifteenth-century burghers. The goldsmith was once identified as Saint Eligius, who brought Christianity to Flanders and was associated in Bruges with the guilds of the gold- and silversmiths, the blacksmiths and metalworkers, and (along with Saint Luke) the painters and saddlemakers. It is more likely a vocational painting, depicting the profession of goldsmithing and perhaps a particular goldsmith. Technical analysis reveals the underdrawing of the goldsmith’s face to be very fully modeled—more so than the faces of the bridal couple—suggesting the possibility of a portrait. Hugo van der Velden has proposed that he is Willem van Vleuten, a Bruges goldsmith who worked for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. In 1449, the date of this painting, the duke commissioned from Van Vlueten a gift for Mary of Guelders for her marriage to James II, King of Scots. That couple may well be depicted in this painting. The diversity of finely crafted objects at the right serves as a kind of advertisement for the goldsmiths’ guild. Included are raw material of the trade—coral, crystal, porphyry, open sacks of seed pearls, and a string of beads—and finished products made from them—brooches, rings, and a belt buckle. The crystal container on the lower shelf was probably meant for storing Eucharistic wafers, and the pewter vessels above are presentkannen, or donation pitchers, which the city’s aldermen offered to distinguished guests. The assemblage of objects thus presents gold- and silversmiths in the service of both religious and secular communities. The Eyckian device of the convex mirror, reflecting two young men with a falcon (symbol of pride and greed), establishes a moral comparison between the imperfect world of the viewer and the world of virtue and balance depicted here.

The Virgin Enthroned with Saints Jerome and Francis (Stâdelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt), signed and dated 1457, epitomizes Christus’s achievements in painting. This small devotional panel demonstrates the artist’s mastery of one-point perspective, his debt to the art of Jan van Eyck, and his successful integration of Italian pictorial elements—notably the sacra conversazione format—that were presumably meant to accommodate his foreign patrons. It has been suggested that Christus sojourned in Italy some time between 1452 and 1457, but this is unlikely. He probably assimilated perspectival techniques bit by bit through exposure to Italian paintings brought north by foreign patrons or through directions given by these patrons.

Some time between 1458 and 1463, Christus and his wife Gaudicine joined the honorable Bruges Confraternity of the Dry Tree, which numbered all the Burgundian dukes and well-known aristocratic and upper-class families among its members. In the late 1460s, Christus joined the similarly prestigious Confraternity of Our Lady of the Snow. Certainly indicative of his elevated status in Bruges society, this also represented an astute entrepreneurial move on Christus’s part, placing him in the path of important commissions. One of these came in 1463, when Christus and another master painter were paid to supervise the construction of two gigantic props used for tableaux vivants during Philip the Good’s triumphal entry into the city.

Christus’s fame diminished in the North soon after his death. In Italy, however, his reputation endured. A portrait of a French lady by Christus was listed in the 1492 inventory of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The studio of Antonello Gagini (1478–1536) produced a relief sculpture, the Death of Saint Zita, in about 1503–4 for the Church of Saint Zita in Palermo that was directly based on Christus’s Death of the Virgin (Timken Art Gallery, Putnam Foundation, San Diego) of about 1460–65. In a letter of 1524, the humanist author Pietro Summonte mentioned a painting by Christus—”pictor famoso in Fiandra”—in the Sannazaro collection in Naples.