MASSYS, Quentin
(b. 1465/66, Leuven, d. 1530, Antwerpen)

St Anne Altarpiece

Oil on wood, 224,5 x 219 cm (centre), 220 x 92 cm (each wing)
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Quentin Massys, born in Leuven, was received as a free master in the Guild of St Luke at Antwerp in 1491, where he became very well-known as a painter of religious subjects, portraits and satirical scenes, as well as embodying the new spirit of the Flemish Renaissance. The altarpiece in the Brussels museum is signed, dated and authenticated by archival documents. It was commissioned in 1507 by the Confraternity of St Anne in Leuven for its chapel in the church of St Peter in the same city and completed in 1509. It is a work of the painter's mature period, as shown by the Italianate architecture, the suavity of the faces and the pastel colours of the garments.

The altarpiece contains five scenes from the life of St Anne, the Virgin's mother, and of her husband Joachim. The saint's family is represented on the central panel. Anne and the Virgin holding the Child are seated on a bench, dominating the composition. Anne's second daughter, Mary Cleophas, is seated at the Virgin's feet with James the Less, Simon, Thaddeus and Joseph, seen in church tradition as being her sons. A manuscript book, upside down on Joseph's legs, carries an illumination representing King David, an allusion to Christ's ancestors. Anne's third daughter, Mary Salome, is seated at her mother's feet with her two sons, James the Great and John the Evangelist, the latter identified by the inkwell attached to his waist. The four men behind the balustrade are Joachim and his sons-in-law Joseph, Alpheus and Zebedee.

The significant episodes of Anne's and Joachim's lives are evoked on the wings of the triptych. The narrative cycle that starts on the reverse of the wings depicts essentially the drama of the couple's sterility and Anne's late maternity. To the left is depicted the gift made by the young couple to the temple for the poor. On the right panel, the high priest is refusing the aged Joachim's offering because he is childless. The passing of time between the two scenes is indicated by Joachim's beard and the change in the priest's appearance. The cycle continues on the front of the left panel where an angel announces Mary's birth to Joachim. In the background of the same panel, the conception of the Virgin takes place through the exchange of a chaste kiss between the spouses in front of the Golden Gate close to the city wall. The cycle ends with Anne's death, represented on the front of the right wing, surrounded by her children and with Christ blessing her.