(b. ca. 1462, Leiden, d. 1527, Leiden)

Christ Taking Leave of his Mother

c. 1515
Oil on panel, 55 x 43 cm
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Cornelis Engebrechtsz. headed a large painters' workshop in the first decades of the 16th century, and trained Lucas van Leyden, Aertgen van Leyden and his own three sons, Pieter Cornelisz, Cornelis Cornelisz and Lucas Cornelisz. He and his pupils and assistants produced altarpieces and numerous smaller works for private devotion. One of his chief patrons was the Augustinian nunnery of Mariënpoel just north of Leiden. Among the works he made for the convent church were altarpieces with the Lamentation (c. 1508) and the Crucifixion (c. 1517), which were described by Karel van Mander in 1604 and are now in Leiden's Museum de Lakenhal.

The Amsterdam painting undoubtedly comes from an altarpiece illustrating episodes from the life of the Virgin. It was recognised as Engelbrechtsz.'s work in 1904, and shortly afterwards the Rijksmuseum was able to acquire a second, less well-preserved panel from the same altarpiece: Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.

The events depicted in the two panels are not found in the Bible but in the popular late-medieval Meditationes vitae Christi. Both scenes precede the Arrest of Christ. In the conversation with his mother and Mary Magdalen, Christ refused to abandon his planned visit to Jerusalem during the Jewish Passover, and foretold his impending death.

The second panel shows Christ taking leave of his mother, immediately before he and his disciples set off for Jerusalem. Movingly he embraces the kneeling Virgin amidst the sorrowful Marys and the apostles. Some of the disciples are descending into the valley on the right, with the city gate and walls of Jerusalem in the distance.

The attribution of the panels to Engelbrechtsz., based partly on the correspondences in style, colouring and manner of execution with the Crucifixion triptych in Leiden, was recently confirmed by an examination of the two underdrawings using infrared reflectography.

This painting is a fine example of the artist's more mature work. The poses and gestures in the figure group highlight the emotional nature of the leave-taking. The landscape and city in the background are painted in a surprisingly lively way. The steely, blue-white shapes of the mountains and rock formations contrast with the warm, bright colouring of the figures in the foreground. The attention paid to ornamental details, which was relatively slight by the standards of the day, and the broad manner of painting, which fades to the sketchy in the background, are typical of the work of Engelbrechtsz. and of the Leiden painters he trained.