ORLEY, Bernaert van
(b. 1491/92, Bruxelles, d. 1542, Bruxelles)

Joris van Zelle

Oil on oak, 39 x 32 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels

Thanks to the attractive Latin inscription around the edge of the tapestry ornamenting the back of the painting, we know the name and profession of the person portrayed. It is Joris van Zelle, born in 1491 at Leuven where he studied medicine. As early as 1522 he was appointed physician of the city of Brussels, practising at St John's Hospital until 1561. He was a neighbour and probably a friend of Bernard van Orley. Both lived at the Place Saint-Géry, the first at the corner of the Rue de la Digue, the second opposite the church entrance, and both belonged to the De Corenbloem rhetoric chamber. Van Zelle died in 1567 and was buried in the Church of St Gudule, next to his wife, Barbara Spapen. The archives describe him as a 'medicus celeberrimus".

The portrait renders homage as much to the humanist as to the bibliophile, surrounded by books that are remarkable for their precious bindings. The 32 works from his library, which are conserved to this day in Augsburg, most of them medical treatises, are elegantly and expensively bound. Wearing a felt hat and a fur-lined coat, the young 28-year old practitioner is taking notes, with his ink-well and quill-case hanging behind him. The significance of the joined hands and the ANVTEFQS monogram decorating the tapestry remain unclarified until this day. Do they allude to the understanding between the artist and his model? This has been suggested, but the mystery remains. Psychological depth is not the primary quality of this portrait.

We remain surprised by the physician's slightly lifeless face. The artist carefully and realistically renders the strong-boned nose and firmly-drawn mouth, but fails to capture the feelings, intelligence or erudition of his subject. On the other hand, Van Orley renders almost palpable the warm, limited space surrounding the physician and reflects so well the humanist atmosphere that one feels that one has been admitted into Dr Van Zelle's wainscoted cabinet, as his painter friend probably was. The lively interaction of warm and delicately-shaded reds, greens and browns, the careful painting of the materials, with the viewer immediately able to sense the differences in texture, and the tight framing, all strengthen the sense of intimacy between the sitter and the viewer.