Friday, May 09, 2008

A Joos van Cleve altarpiece

Another of the paintings I saw while in Cologne was this scene showing the Death of the Virgin by Joos van Cleve the Elder, painted in 1515 for a prominent Cologne family's estate chapel.


This was one of the Wallraf-Richartz Museum's "Pictures of the Week" in February 2007, so there is a fairly extensive article on it online here. To summarize briefly: Joos van der Beke, better known as Joos van Cleve the Elder, painted in Antwerp from 1511-1540. The Hacquenay family of Cologne, for whom this was painted, may have originally come from the Netherlands as well. Side wings of the altarpiece show members of the family.

The painting is after a "template" for such scenes developed by Hugo van der Goes. The apostles surround Mary's deathbed. In the center, Saint Peter in Mass vestments leads the rites for the dying, and on the far right margin, Saint Thomas enters the room (according to the curator I was talking with, we know it's Thomas because he's the apostle who's always late for things....). The apostles are not carrying their usual "attributes" (knife, spear, shell, etc.) so otherwise it's hard to tell who's who.

I'm particularly curious about who this fellow is to Peter's right, carrying the holy water bucket, because he's wearing a large rosary around his neck.*


There's another set of beads casually lying on a small bench by Peter's feet, together with an object rather like a gravy boat, which I think contains a supply of incense. Both rosaries are colored like wood, though the beads don't show much detail. Both are rather loosely strung and both seem to have brown-colored cords, suggesting linen or hemp. But the one draped across the bench has a non-matching green tassel, which from the highlights painted into it seems intended to represent silk.


The beads around the bucket-carrying apostle's neck, on the other hand, have a pendant cross, and it's nice to get such a detailed look at a type of cross that may have been used on rosaries. It's more or less the same color as the beads, and since it's painted at an angle, we can also see that the four arms of the cross are all more or less cone-shaped with their points toward the center. It's suspended from the cord by a ring that looks as if it's rigidly fixed, perhaps made in one piece with the cross. The cross could be wood, but the ring suggests it might also be cast metal. (I'm sure I've seen something like this for sale, but at the moment I can't remember where.)

An interesting detail is that the cross is threaded onto the string in the middle of a decade, where you wouldn't necessarily expect to see it. But I've seen a number of rosaries more or less from this era that also carry various medals or charms in the middle of decades. This placement of the cross, if authentic, suggests it is not "counted" as part of the rosary and that no particular prayers are said as you come to its place on the string. This is in contrast to later rosaries, where the Credo is recited while holding the cross. On the other set of beads, however, the tassel comes between two decades and probably marks the starting point for prayers.

I always count the beads in paintings (as you may have noticed if you read this blog regularly) and the results are often interesting. A lot of the bucket-carrying apostle's beads are hidden, but those that are showing seem to be in plausible groups of ten. The beads on the bench definitely look like groups of ten too: we can see two full decades, six beads from the next decade and four beads from another. The loop we can see hanging down on the back side of the bench has two small beads on one side, one on the other, and a large marker bead in the center. Since what's showing on the front is two almost equal groups of beads, this suggests that the loop hanging down the back is probably more or less symmetrical too, making the total four decades.

*Score one for those who point out that historically, people sometimes did wear rosaries around their necks, despite what your Catholic grandmother always told you.

Pictures from Köln:

In living color
More living color
A Joos van Cleve altarpiece
Details, details