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

Christ on the Cross with Donors

c. 1520
Oil on wood, 156 x 92,7 cm (central panel), 158,8 x 42,2 cm (wings)
Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp

In this triptych Massys achieves a perfect harmony between religious theme and landscape, traditional medieval scheme and innovative Renaissance elements. The Calvary group is based on a well-established medieval type. St John, gazing up at the Cross and wringing his hands, and Mary Magdalene, sinking to her knees at the foot of the Cross, are derived from earlier Crucifixion groups. The Virgin Mary is often shown in paintings of this kind but, in Massys' version she stands next to the Cross, her hands crossed on her chest, entirely withdrawn in sorrow. The weeping Mary Cleopas stands behind her. The colours are deeper and the details more pronounced than in many other works by Massys.

The realistic grief of the figures contrasts sharply with the lush, restful landscape in which the city of Jerusalem appears in the background. Massys shows himself here to be a transitional figure between the Gothic and Renaissance periods. His figures are undoubtedly Gothic in inspiration, but the fertile landscape expresses a sense of universality which points towards the Renaissance. The landscape is very similar to those of Joachim Patenier and might have been influenced by him.

The painting was dated to around 1520 on the basis of the costume worn by the donors shown in the wings. These kneeling figures have not been identified, although we know their Christian names because of their respective patron saints who appear with them. The man is accompanied by St Jerome, and the woman by St Mary of Egypt.