(b. 1465/66, Leuven, d. 1530, Antwerpen)
Portrait of a Canon1510s
Oil on wood, 60 x 73 cm
Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna
Massys here demonstrates his confident abilities as a portrait painter. The canon calmly surveys the outside world, but his thoughts seem to be turned inwards. Sebastiano del Piombo's more or less contemporaneous portrait of Cardinal Carondelet and his Secretary offers an interesting comparison in this respect. The Cardinal observes the external world with cool, calculating eyes, but without the kindliness suggested by Massys' canon. The secularity of Carondelet and his setting is diametrically opposed to the personality of the canon, rooted in the Christian faith.
In his composition, Massys achieves a homogeneity and grandeur only rarely paralleled in his oeuvre. The half length figure is contained within the approximate volume of a pyramid, dominating the pictorial field. Massys avoids any sense of rigidity, however, by slightly offsetting the sitter to the left of the central axis and by showing his head slightly turned.
The sensitive handling of paint evidenced in the iridescent hues of the cape and in the light and shade which model the head is on an equal par with contemporary Venetian painting, which Massys would probably not have known. There is a melodious harmony, too, in the relationship between figure and landscape. From a slightly elevated standpoint, we look out across a broad expanse of hills and meadows towards the hazy distant mountains. Nature is filled with the same quiet calm as the canon himself.