The Members of the Guild of the Old Crossbow of Mechelen

CC0

Artist / maker

Meester van de Mechelse Sint-Jorisgilde (painter)

Date

c. 1497

Period

15th century
The dead Christ hangs from the Cross in the centre, with the Virgin and St John at bottom left and right. The top corners are adorned with the sun and the moon, symbolising the eclipse that occurred during the death on the Cross. The skull at the foot of the Cross is an allusion to Adam, the first man, who…
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The dead Christ hangs from the Cross in the centre, with the Virgin and St John at bottom left and right. The top corners are adorned with the sun and the moon, symbolising the eclipse that occurred during the death on the Cross. The skull at the foot of the Cross is an allusion to Adam, the first man, who according to apocryphal traditions was buried on the spot where Christ was later crucified. It is a crucial point of Christian doctrine. In the Old Testament Adam and Eve were jointly responsible for Original Sin and the subsequent Fall of Man. Christ died on the Cross to deliver mankind from that sin. The man kneeling at the foot of the Cross is far smaller than the biblical figures. He is the donor of the painting, and is identified in the inscription at the bottom as Hendrik van Rijn, prior and archdeacon of the Church of St John in Utrecht. The painting was probably commissioned shortly before or after his death in 1363. This is one of the earliest Netherlandish panel paintings, and the only one of its kind from the same region. The artist’s name is not known, and so far no other paintings have been found that could be by the same hand. The inscription at the bottom explains its importance for the donor: the faithful are asked to pray for his soul. That appeal was prompted by the late medieval belief in Purgatory, which is where the dead were cleansed of their sins before being allowed into heaven. Van Rijn hoped to reduce his soul’s stay in the fires of Purgatory by donating the painting to the church, so he appealed to the faithful to pray for his soul. The background consists of four square gilded tiles with a relief design of a circle enclosing a lion rampant. Relief decorations are found on 14th-century paintings made in various towns in north-western Europe and England. It is impossible to locate the precise origin of the technique, but its widespread dissemination indicates that it was passed on by itinerant artists. The lion reappears on the donor’s red garment, and had a specific meaning for Van Rijn. His family had a coat of arms with three lions that was developed in imitation of the Count of Holland, who had four lions in his coat. The count and the bishop of Utrecht got into a dispute in the 14th century, with the latter seeking to preserve the city’s independence, whereas the count wanted to increase his influence over it. This divided Utrecht into two camps, with the Van Rijn family siding with the count. When the bishop and his supporters emerged as the winners, Van Rijn and his brothers were banished. They were able to return, however, when the count strengthened his position. By depicting himself with the lion after all the tumult, Van Rijn was confirming his family’s historic loyalty to the secular power. Religious tensions in Europe eventually erupted in iconoclasms in the 16th century. Utrecht was subjected to two rounds of destruction, in 1566 and 1580. Hendrik van Rijn’s Mount Calvary may have been damaged in one of those outbursts, for when the panel was being restored it turned out that scratches had been scoured in Christ’s body and face. After the second Iconoclasm the painting was probably entrusted to the protection of one of the canons, who stored it away outside the church. No further mention was made of it until the early 19th century, when it belonged to Florent van Ertborn, a nobleman who bequeathed it to the KMSKA.
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Vlaamse Kunstcollectie - EN

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