MASTER of the Joseph Sequence
(active around 1500 in Brussels)

Wings of an Altarpiece

c. 1505
Oak, 125 x 48 cm (each)
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

These two panels are the wings of a triptych, the central panel of which, the Last Judgment, is also found in the Brussels museum. The latter, however, is by a weaker hand. All three panels come from Zierikzee, where presumably the triptych originally hung in the courtroom in the town hall. This is one example of a so-called "justice tableau" (gerechtigheidstafereel), as commonly found in courtrooms in the Low Countries. The presentation of the Last Judgment and other edifying justice tableaux were intended to encourage judges to judge equitably.

On the left hand panel we see Philip the Fair, in full armour, with uplifted sword in his right hand, presented as the ultimate earthly judge. He is crowned and wears, on his ermine cape, the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece. His breast armour is decorated with the Burgundian, Austrian and Spanish coats of arms. His wife, Joan of Castile, also known as Joan the Mad, wears, above her brocade dress, a wide royal mantle on which the same coats of arms are recognisable. She too wears a crown on her head.

Philip, the son of Mary of Burgundy and Maximilian of Austria, was born in 1478. In 1496 he married Joan of Castile, the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. The latter died in 1504, allowing Philip to claim the Spanish throne as his inheritance. Given that Philip is clothed here with the symbols of royal power and himself died in January 1506, these portraits can be dated with considerable accuracy.

Both the sovereigns are shown in the gardens of the palace of the Dukes of Burgundy on the Coudenberg in Brussels, more specifically in the area where the tournaments took place. In the background can be made out a part of the Brussels city wall and the two western towers of St Michael's cathedral, in those days dedicated to St Gudule.

These panels belong to a group of works, the painter of which is known, in the absence of further details, as the Master of the Joseph Legend. It is not impossible that this master was Jacob van Laethem, who was admitted into the painters' guild in Antwerp in 1493. Van Laethem received commissions from the court, mainly for decorative works, on various occasions and accompanied Philip the Fair on his trips to Spain.