Triptych with Episodes from the Life of Christ
Ca. 1440. Grisaille, Oil on oak panel.
The Triptych in the Museo del Prado labeled as Scenes from the Life of Christ is a pivotal work in the story of Valencian painting in the fifteenth century and in the transmission of the style and technique of Jan van Eyck to the Iberian Peninsula. The panel entered the Prado collection in 1931 from the convent of the Encarnación in Valencia, a Carmelite foundation established in 1502. It was then considered to be an anonymous work, de muy difícil clasificación, and was displayed initially with the Flemish paintings, alongside works by Gérard David, Jan Gossaert and Bernard Van Orley. In 1937 Schöne postulated that it was a work made in Naples by a Flemish artist, but since 1943, following the suggestion of Post, it has universally been agreed to be a work by a Flemish artist active in Valencia, made in the 1440s. The obvious candidate for this was Louis Alincbrot, a painter recorded in Bruges in 1432-37, who had settled in Valencia by 1439, and who had died there by 1463. A close examination of the triptych, however, alongside a reassessment of what we know from archival sources about Alincbrot, indicates a different history for its making, and a surprising turn for its attribution. It would appear not to have been made in Valencia, and not to have been made by Alincbrot. Its artist, if not his name, can be identified, allowing us to expand our ideas of Flemish painting of the period, of the impact of Jan van Eyck`s works on artists in the 1440s, and of the acquisition of northern paintings at the court of Alfonso V of Aragon.
When closed the triptych shows a grisaille Annunciation, with fictive stone figures of the Virgin and Gabriel set in a room (its outlines now only clearly visible in the infrared reflectogram), framed by a darker brown fictive stone tracery. The Annunciation itself is iconographically minimal: there is neither dove nor lilies, only the scroll held by Gabriel with the angelic salutation written on it, inscribed upside down so that it reads away from him towards the Virgin. By contrast with the subdued and pared down imagery of the exterior, the triptych when open is rich in colour, visually dense and full of narrative and decorative detail: no less than ninety figures are depicted across the three panels, not including those who are only indicated by a hat or helmet. On the left-hand wing the Circumcision is seen through the carved archway of a northern Gothic church that is decorated with sculpted figures, presumably apostles since they hold books and staffs. The building has tall plate tracery windows, the floor laid with Valencian cobalt blue and gold lustre ceramic tiles, of a type exported in large numbers into Flanders. In the central panel, in a continuous landscape flanked by two turreted and fantastical townscapes, are three scenes that all take place in or outside Jerusalem: Christ disputing with the doctors in the Temple, the way to Calvary, and the Crucifixion. On the right wing the Virgin holds the body of her son on her lap, kissing his left hand; John wipes tears away and supports his head; the Magdalene sits at his feet, a reference to her role in their washing and anointing, though no pot is visible. Behind them is a purple-veined marble tomb and a single empty cross (its floating titulus a result of restoration that removed the wooden rod that would originally have connected it to the cross:) the thieves
crosses were planned in the underdrawing, but not executed. Behind the cross is a view of Jerusalem, depicted in some detail: the Tower of David and the Holy Sepulchre are both identifiable, but the Dome of the Rock is absent. The Virgins sorrow is clearly a unifying theme in the triptych, but the events chosen are not a standard nor straightforward set of the Sorrows. The events selected in the Prado triptych, and the way they are composed, seem intentionally centred not simply on the Virgin
s compassion for Christs suffering but more precisely on the specific pain she suffered through her separation, physically, from her son: this is a recurrent theme in the prayers and texts that describe, and often dwell on, her anguish at losing her son in the Temple in Jerusalem, and her agony at the imminent removal of his body from her at the Pieta.
While the iconography alone indicates that the triptych was specially commissioned, this is confirmed by the five coats of arms set between the inscriptions on the lower frame. From the traces visible in the best preserved of these arms they were identified in 1947 by Xavier de Salas as those of the Roís de Corella family, who were Counts of Cocentaina (a territory near Alicante); Salas made the identification from a frontispiece set with the same arms in a printed book of 1583 dedicated to Jerónimo Ruyz de Corella, a sixteenth-century heir to the title. There are, however, important examples of this coat of arms from closer in date to the triptych, that allow us to be certain it was a form used in the fifteenth century by specific members of this family. These examples include, most notably, the miniatures in a manuscript recording the entry of Eximén Pérez de Corella, Governor General of Valencia and Count of Cocentaina, and his son Pedro Roís de Corella into the Confraternity of Santa Marta in Naples, painted in the 1440s and 50s, and glazed ceramic tiles recovered from the fortress of the Corella family in Elda (Alicante), dated to the 1440s. Eximén Pérez de Corella (d. 1457), was the first member of this family to hold these royal arms, awarded the right to do so by Alfonso V in gratitude for being a magnifico et strenuo militia at the conquest of Naples in 1442, where he was among the first to scale the walls of the city non sine proprii sanguinis effusione. Indeed, Eximén was one of Alfonso V
s longest serving and most trusted generals, a member of his favoured inner circle in Naples in the 1440s, and one of the best diplomats and administrators at the Kings disposal. While it cannot be ruled out that the triptych was commissioned by one of Eximén’s sons (who may have used the arms in their father`s lifetime), on the basis of chronology, prominence, opportunity and, arguably, taste, Eximén is by far the most likely candidate for its patronage.
The support of the painting is made of boards of Baltic oak, evident from its very regular, dense grain, visible in the X-radiograph and on the reverse. Baltic oak is, of course, typical of practice in the Netherlands. Significantly, in the Prado triptych the Baltic oak planks are combined with Netherlandish methods of frame construction and in a triptych format and style that was also emphatically northern. If the Prado triptych had been constructed in Valencia, it was by a northern carpenter, using northern materials, an improbable scenario. The fabrication of this triptych in the Southern Netherlands is further supported by its style. The artist is in fact identifiable with the Collins Master who was a manuscript illuminator active in Amiens in the early 1440s, whose style has its roots in Parisian illumination of the 1420s and Amiens production of the 1430s.
The restitution of the triptych to the north has important repercussions. It expands our idea of the acquisition of Netherlandish panel paintings by the court of Alfonso of Aragon. It also inserts it firmly into the story of early Netherlandish painting, providing a clear link between Parisian illumination of the 1410s and 20s and painting in Bruges.
Nash, Susie, The Myth of Louis Alincbrot: relocating the ”Triptych with Scenes from the Life of Christ” in the Prado. Boletín del Museo del Prado, Museo del Prado, 2014, p.70-95 fg.1-6,f.8, f.10,f.13,f.15, f.17-19, f.21-25]