(b. ca. 1472, Oostzan, d. 1533, Amsterdam)

Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi

Oil on panel, 83 x 56 cm (central section), 83 x 25 (wings)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Viewers of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen's Adoration of the Magi in the Rijksmuseum are both missing and gaining something compared to the faithful of Van Oostsanen's day. In its original position in the church, it was closed for most of the year, and all that could be seen were the two grisailles of Sts Christopher and Anthony on the backs of the shutters. They are hidden from sight in the present, open arrangement. Back in the 16th century, the triptych was only exhibited on major feast days (and certainly on 6 January, the feast of the Epiphany), briefly revealing the painting in all its glory.

This is a private memorial, a painted in memoriam for the donors - in this case a distinguished couple with a large clutch of children. Several of the latter have identical faces, so it is likely that they died very young. The triptych was probably returned to the family when the churches were Protestantised in the 1570s, but since it is not badly damaged it may have been taken to a place of safety by the donor's descendants before the Iconoclasm broke out. Later, when it was evidently felt necessary to stress the noble descent of all branches of the family, the coats of arms were altered, making it impossible to identify precisely who the donor was. Because Jacob Cornelisz's clientele came almost exclusively from Amsterdam, he would undoubtedly have been a respected burgher of that city. The splendid, fur-lined gown (known as a tabbaard) that he is wearing makes it clear that he belonged to the highest civic circles. He can perhaps be identified as the apothecary Claes Bouwensz, who had numerous children and was also one of the forefathers of the family bearing the principal coat of arms.

Jacob Cornelisz made nifty use of an invention he had come up with a decade previously. The Virgin seen from the front is presenting the Child to one of the Magi on the left in such a way that he can kiss its hand. The artist had employed that motif in a woodcut in a series illustrating the life of the Virgin. Those woodcuts served as models for other artists - possibly embroiderers, sculptors or decorative painters. In this case, though, he re-used his own compositional device. Sixteenth-century viewers very probably did not spot the repetition, but even if they did it would not have affected their appreciation of the work. The originality of a composition was not yet considered very important, and was certainly less highly prized than the wealth of colour and delicate finish.