GEERTGEN tot Sint Jans
(b. 1460/65, Leiden, d. 1490, Haarlem)

Burning of the Bones of St John the Baptist

c. 1485
Oil on panel, 172 x 139 cm
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

A monumental altarpiece was commissioned from Geertgen in 1484 for the Chapel of the Knights of St John in Haarlem, probably for the special visit of the grand prior of the Order of the Knights of St John to Haarlem. The inner right wing of the huge triptych depicted the Lamentation, while the exterior of the right wing showed the Burning of the Bones of St John the Baptist. The two panels are now in Vienna, the other parts of the triptych are lost.

The exterior of the right wing represents the legend of the burning of the bones of St John the Baptist and their recovery by the original Knights of Malta. The five figures standing beside the open sarcophagus wearing the Maltese cross are the officers of the Haarlem commandery of the Knights. They appear a second time on the path that leads to the church in the right background carrying the relics, a thighbone and a finger, that were presented to the Order in Rhodes in 1482-83. Six other figures appear to the right of those in Maltese uniform. The one to the extreme right, gazing dreamingly into space, is the artist himself.

The two panels in the Vienna museum make Geertgen the ancestor of the painters of "collective portraits", of which Frans Hals and Rembrandt were to be the great masters.