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Grey Matters

The Master of 1499 (active Ghent? ca. 1490–1520)
Two wings from a triptych showing the Annunciation, with scenes of the Nativity and a kneeling donor accompanied by standing Saints on the reverse, ca. 1500
oil on panel
46 1/4 x 16 3/4 inches
117.5 x 42.5 cm

These panels are the wings, or shutters, of what was originally a triptych. Painted by the Master of 1499, an attribution supported by Till-Holger Borchert, these panels are a remarkably rare survival from the workshop of Hugo van de Goes and are especially important for their trompe l’œil grisaille exterior scenes representing The Annunciation which are of exceptional quality.

Connections with Hugo van der Goes

Fig. 1 Hugo van der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece, exterior scene of the Annunciation. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

When they first came to scholarly attention at the time of their conservation in 1979–82, their similarities both to the work of the Ghent painter Hugo van der Goes and to the anonymous Master of 1499 were correctly noted. Many of the figures refer to those depicted in Hugo’s work, indicating that our painter had access to workshop patterns of which he was able to make free use. He was, nevertheless, also receptive to Hugo’s use of colour for subtle visual and symbolic effect, and his careful choice of primary and secondary tones reveal an intimate knowledge of Hugo’s working methods and chromatic interests that is not likely to have been conveyed through pattern models alone.

Fig. 2 The Master of 1499, workshop, The Virgin Annunciate, ca. 1500, 21.8 x 16 cm. pen with black and brown ink, wash, and watercolour on paper. London, British Museum, Inv. 1892,0804.20

Perhaps the most immediate connection our panels offer with Hugo’s work is the composition of the Annunciation scene, which suggests a knowledge of the exterior wings of the Portinari Altarpiece (fig. 1), Hugo’s largest and most ambitious work, commissioned by Tomasso Portinari for his family’s chapel in Florence and completed by 1478. The figure of the Virgin diverges from Hugo’s example, and was instead executed with recourse to a preparatory drawing now in the British Museum (fig. 2), which was also utilised for a small diptych by the Master of 1499 now in Berlin (fig. 3).

Fig. 3 The Master of 1499, Annunciation Diptych, ca. 1500. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

An elusive artist

The Master of 1499 is perhaps the most important artist to emerge from Hugo van der Goes’ workshop who is named after a small diptych inscribed with that date (KMSKA ; fig. 4). He is believed to have been active in the last decades of the fifteenth century and the first three of the sixteenth.

Despite the importance of this artist, he has until recently been only scantly discussed in the scholarship largely because nothing is known of his movements, contracts or career, other than that he may have been a manuscript illuminator as a well as a panel painter. It is plausible that he worked in Hugo’s workshop before that master left Ghent to enter the Rode Klooster, an Augustinian monastery south-east of Brussels, in 1478. He may even have followed Hugo to Brussels in order to find work, a notion supported by the original frames on our panels, which correlate closely both in design and construction to other known Brussels frames of the same period.

Fig. 4 The Master of 1499, the Diptych of Abbot Christiaan de Hondt, dated 1499, 37.1 x 20.4 cm, oil on oak panel. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

Stylistic comparisons

The Master of 1499’s recurring tendency to paint low-set mouths, heavy lidded eyes and almost hourglass facial profiles that emphasize the forehead can be traced on all four of our panels’ paintings. The faces of Saint Jerome and the bishop saint who stand behind our kneeling donor appear very like those of a triptych in the Royal Collection (figs. 5-6), particularly perhaps the figures of Saint Bruno and Saint Dominic.[1] The Royal Collection triptych also shares our painter’s idiosyncratic treatment of hair, learnt, it would seem, from Hugo to suggest hanging whirls at the ends of long locks. Moreover, both commissions share their remarkable and highly distinctive treatment of the fictive marbled niches in which our two grisaille figures are set, with a russet colour used behind the Virgin and a green for the angel (fig. 6).

Fig. 5 The Master of 1499, Triptych of the Coronation of the Virgin (open), ca. 1480 – 1500, 107.1 x 137 cm approx., oil on panel. The Royal Collection, In. No. 404758
Fig. 6 The Master of 1499, Triptych of the Coronation of the Virgin (shut). The Royal Collection

Other parallels between the work of the Master of 1499 and our wing panels – including the figure of the Virgin from a Holy Family now at the KMSK in Antwerp (fig. 7).

Fig. 7 The Master of 1499, ‘Trinitas terrestris’ (The Holy Family), ca. 1500, 42.8 x 36.5 cm, oil on panel. Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp. Inv. No. 558
Installation view of the Master of 1499 triptych wings (recto)

Iconography and function

These remarkable survivals brilliantly represent the growing market for conceptually sophisticated, large-scale folding altarpieces of high quality in the Southern Netherlands during the last decades of the fifteenth century. It is clear from the dense number of scenes on the interior of the left-hand panel, as well as the sheer number of saints depicted behind the kneeling donor on the right, that our panels’ artist and their patron – presumably a man called Peter – must have worked closely together to develop their complex compositions as part of a bespoke commission.

It is reasonable to suggest, given the panels’ size, quality, and iconographic sophistication, that the altarpiece for which they were intended was made to endow an altar in a richly decorated side chapel of a prominent religious foundation. Given the visual prominence afforded to the dove on the left-hand panel, the patron for whom it was commissioned may well have been connected with one of various local confraternities dedicated to the Holy Spirit (Heilige Geest), of which several branches were founded during the fifteenth century in towns including Bruges (established in 1428, in the Carmelite friary since 1466), Oudenburg, Diksmuide and Ypres.

Fig. 8 The Master of 1499, central panel of present triptych.

This is further supported by the unusual prominence given to the dove of the Holy Spirit in the Enthroned Madonna of the original central panel (fig. 8). Other panel paintings associated with such confraternities include the work by the Master of the Legend of Saint Lucy that was donated in 1489 by the confraternity of the Drie Sanctinnen to the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk in Bruges (Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels); this prominently depicts the three female saints with which the chamber was associated. The chamber of the Holy Ghost in Bruges seems to have been of particular significance, attracting members from all levels of society: at the end of the fifteenth century, when a federation of the chambers from the three principal Flemish cities was formed, the chamber of the Drie Sanctinnen was placed under the tutelage of that of the Holy Spirit, a reorganization that attests to its civic reach and influence across sites in the Southern Netherlands. Although the present painting is a more personal work than the Brussels Drie Sanctinnen panel, and unlikely, with its focus on an individual patron, to have been on the altar of the confraternity chapel, a member of such a confraternity might want their devotional interests shown in a triptych for their own private chapel, as this work is likely to have been.

A note on the construction

Fig. 9 The present triptych reunited, 2018

The triptych to which these panels belonged had become divided by the 1980s and was briefly re-united (fig. 9) before the private sale in 2018 of the central panel. Although the elements of the triptych were all original and belonged together, the central panel seemed different in handling to some scholars and so the triptych was once again separated.

We are indebted to Till-Holger Borchert for his observations on these panels. They are requested to be included in the upcoming Hugo van der Goes exhibition in Bruges and Berlin in 2022. ❖

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Installation view of Grey Matters at Nicholas Hall, 2021
Left wall: stained-glass roundels; center: two wings from a triptych, the Master of 1499; right: Perseus and Phineas, School of Fontainebleau.

Commissioned by a lay Canon of a church in the southern Netherlands, possibly Ghent, ca. 1490-1500

Possibly in the collection of the del Carretto family, Genoa, ca. 1530s

Collection of the Pardo de Ribadeneira family, Castile, ca. 1570

Private collection, Spain

Deposited for conservation in the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (IRPA/KIK) in 1979, and separated from the central panel of the triptych at some point shortly after this date


Regine Guislain-Witterman et al., ‘Un triptyque de la Vierge aux anges annonciateurs de la Passion: état des observations technologiques et historiques et du traitement’, Bulletin de l’Institut Royal du Patrimoine Artistique, 18, 1980, pp. 191-217.

Matthew Reeves in Susie Nash ed., Late Medieval panel Paintings II: Materials Methods Meanings, London, 2015, pp. 250-285.

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