Copies of Flemish masters

Michiel Coxcie after Hubert and Jan van Eyck, Copy of the Ghent Altarpiece: Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, oil on panel, 165.4 x 71.1 cm, Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen; God the Father, oil on panel, 208.4 x 79.5 cm, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie © KIK-IRPA, Brussels.

One of the most prestigious copies after a Flemish master in the Hispanic world during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was that made by Michiel Coxcie (1499-1592) of the Ghent Altarpiece by the Van Eyck brothers.

This copy was commissioned by Philip II (1541-1598), who had proposed to the Chapter of St Bavo’s in Ghent that he purchase the Ghent Altarpiece. However, following the Chapter’s opposition, the king had to fall back on the commission of a copy. The king ordered the copy from Coxcie, who worked on it for two years, completing it around 1556-1559. Karel Van Mander reported that the azurite employed by Coxcie in his copy was provided by Titian at the request of the king.

The copy was set on the main altarpiece of the Royal Chapel of the Alcázar, the royal palace of the Habsburg dynasty in Madrid, where it presided over the religious celebrations of the court from 1561 until 1661, when – during a renovation of the chapel ordered by Philip IV – it was replaced with Raphael’s Christ on the road to Calvary (known as El Pasmo de Sicilia), now in the Museo del Prado.

During the reign of Philip III the copy was particularly admired. The king had in his collection while he was still prince a copy of the figure of the Virgin, and other similar copies were to be found in courtiers’ collections. Cocxie likely may have made another copy of the outer panels of the polyptych, that may have come from the same princely collection and which was in the Escorial in 1640. Juan de Herrera, the architect of the monastery, owned similar copies.

In 1593, the painter Juan Gómez made a copy of the Virgin on panel, which may be one that was in the Alcázar in Madrid in 1598. Many others can be found in the monastery of the Descalzas Reales, in the Cathedral of Cuenca, in the parish church of Loranca de Tajuña and in the Fine Arts Museum in Bilbao, as well as in various private collections.

Anonymous Spanish master, Upper registers of the altarpiece of the church of San Blas, Lerma © Santiago Abella

The Duke of Lerma (1552-1623), the puissant favourite of Philip III, commissioned another partial copy for the church of San Blas, a monastery he founded and which served as a chapel for his palace in the little town of Lerma, not far from Madrid. These copies, painted on canvas, were installed on the main altarpiece of the church in 1616. The ducal court of Lerma in this way imitated the royal one, where the king enjoyed the privilege of contemplating the enormous Ghent Altarpiece alone, or nearly alone, in a private space. Or more accurately, just its substitute.

Art History Seminar 18 of the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA), Brussels, 9-10 February 2017
Institut royal du Patrimoine artistique, parc du Cinquantenaire 1 BE-1000 Bruxelles
Koninklijk Instituut voor het Kunstpatrimonium, Jubelpark 1 BE-1000 Brussel