MASTER of the Holy Blood
(active c. 1530 in Bruges)

Virgin and Child with St Catherine and St Barbara

Oil on oak panel, 87,5 x 66 cm (central panel), 88,5 x 28 cm (each wing)
Groeninge Museum, Bruges

The Master of the Holy Blood was a Bruges follower of Quentin Massys and he takes his name from a triptych in the Holy Blood Museum in Bruges, which formed the nucleus around which his oeuvre has been reconstructed. This triptych in the Groeninge Museum - displayed in the original frame - is one of his best surviving altarpieces.

The main scene represents a Rest on the Flight into Egypt in which the seated Virgin with the Child on her lap is accompanied by St Catherine, who as Christ's bride receives the symbolic ring, and St Barbara who holds a peacock's feather in her hand. It is a rather exceptional combination of the biblical theme with that of the Virgo inter Virgines. There is an echo of Memling in both the general layout as a triptych and the composition of the main scene, which is remotely reminiscent of the St John altarpiece (Memlingmuseum, Bruges).

In the middle ground of the rocky landscape three angels are picking figs (a `poetic' variant of the palm-tree miracle) and on the right walks Joseph, perhaps taking the figs to Mary, who indeed holds a fig in her left hand. The donors on the wings, protected respectively by St Joachim and St Judocus, were identified as Joachim Christiaens, orator of the deanery in Bruges (regularly mentioned between 1535 and 1552) and city councillor (in 1530, 1534, 1536 and 1544), and his second wife Jossine Lamsins.

In the background of the three panels small scenes are depicted from the legend of the saints in the foreground. On the left wing at the level of the founder's head is the Preaching of St John the Baptist, a scene connected with the patron saint of the former donor. Above this on the hill is the Annunciation to Joachim, which was added later. Behind St Catherine, on the far left next to the rocks, is her martyrdom with the wheel and the heavenly lightning. Behind St Barbara in front of the rocks is the shepherd with his flock who will betray Barbara's hideaway in the rocks to her father. He is shown talking to Barbara's father, while in the scene above Barbara is being threatened by her father in the cave. The pilgrim begging for alms in the right wing at the back is connected with the story of St Judocus.

The exterior features an Annunciation in grisaille on a red marbled background.

The triptych, which dates from around 1520-25, is the first work by this anonymous master to be found in which donor figures appear, and since it is clearly of Bruges origin, there can be no more doubt about his being active in Bruges.

Joachim Christiaens died in 1552 and Jossine Lamsins in 1557. They were both buried by St Michael's altar on the south side of St Donatian's Cathedral, which was probably also the original destination of the triptych.