Grey Matters

Circle of Dirk Vellert (ca. 1480 – 1547)
The Prodigal Son cavorting with harlots, ca. 1520
green-tinted clear cylinder glass with vitreous paint and several hues of silver stain
⌀ 9 7/8 inches
⌀ 25  cm
This well-preserved roundel is among the finest examples of its type to have survived.

Details such as the female attendants’ opulent dagged robes, the banqueting room’s carefully organised perspectival recession, and the refined foreshortening of the table top and its contents, reveal a meticulous level of planning using what must have been highly finished preparatory drawings executed by the hand of an absolute master. The way in which the figures are arranged indicate that it was designed specifically for a circular format.

Antwerp production

The work can be associated with a group of nine other roundels produced by an Antwerp workshop active in the early 16th century currently in the collection of the University of Antwerp. Their shared provenance include the former convent of the Grey Sisters on the Lange Sint Annastraat in Antwerp since at least 1693.[2]  The present roundel reproduces a number of elements first believed to have been developed on a group of paintings on linen preserved in the Kunstmuseum in Basel (fig. 1), which depict scenes from the story of Sorgheloos.[3] The figure types employed in the Basel paintings were clearly extremely popular amongst painters and glaziers alike, since the figure in the foreground with her back turned towards the viewer reappears almost verbatim in quite a diverse group of contemporary stained-glass roundels and other paintings.

Fig. 1 Sorgheloos and Lichte Fortune, Low Countries, ca. 1520, Distemper on linen, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, Kunstmuseum

Playing with puns

The subject of the roundel is the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15, 11:32). It is about a young man conned out of his inheritance by the false advances of female attendants and by his own irresponsible decisions. His tale offered a moral message that all strata of the late-medieval populace could understand, but it also allowed artists and their audiences freedom to play with sexual pun-making and themes that straddled the knife-edge of indecency.[1] The yellow-handled knife resting on the prodigal son’s plate is carefully positioned in order to double as a tongue-in-cheek reference to his genitals, in a manner reminiscent of the gold daggers worn suggestively by the attendants of Jean de Berry in the January miniature of the Très Riches Heures (fig. 2). Playing with the theme further, the attendant on the left rests her hand on her deck of cards but splays her fingers out towards the tip of its blade, as if reinforcing the notion that sexual promiscuity and the gambler’s art go hand in hand in the ruination of the individual.

Fig. 2 Limbourg Brothers, Très Riches heures du duc de Berry, ca. 1412-16, 22.5 x 13.6 cm, tempera and gilding on vellum. Musée Condé, Chantilly © Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Glass-painting in Antwerp

Fig. 3 Dirk Vellert, The Triumph of Eternity, 1517, clear glass with vitreous paint, 22.2 cm diameter. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam inv. RBK-1966-58

Dirk Jacobsz. Vellert (c. 1480-1547) was one of the foremost glass-painters active in Antwerp around the first half of the 16th century. He is known for a group of surviving drawings, a handful of large-scale windows, and two signed roundels depicting Triumphs – one in the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels and the other in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (fig. 3).[4] Vellert and his workshop can be credited with spreading a very precise and veristic style of glass painting that was undoubtedly taken up and copied with rapidity by other workshops active in the same city.

Our roundel stylistically relates to Vellert’s known works but it remains unclear whether its author belonged to Vellert’s workshop or one of these associated ateliers.[5] The only other known version of the same composition is preserved in a broken state the Institute Néerlandais (Collection Frits Lugt) in Paris.[6] ❖

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Installation view of Grey Matters at Nicholas Hall, 2021
With two stained-glass roundels

Wilfred Drake (1879-1949), London

R. G. de Boer, Laren

Frides Laméris, Amsterdam

Klaus Tiedemann collection, inv. 17, acquired from the above in 1998

Laren, Singer Museum, Nederlandse primitieven uit Nederlands particulier bezit, 1 July-10 September 1961

Romont, Vitromusée (Musée Suisse du Vitrail et des Arts du Verre), Légendes Dorées: Rondels des anciens Pays-Bas du XVe au XVIIe siècle, 8 June-23 November 2008

Iphofen, Knauf-Museum, Gemalt auf Glas & Licht – Kabinettscheiben von Gotik bis Barock, 29 March-2 August 2009

Heidelberg, Museum für Sakrale Kunst und Liturgie, Gemalt auf Glas & Licht: Kabinettscheiben von Gotik bis Barock, 16 July-16 October 2011

Linnich, Deutsches Glasmalerei-Museum, Goldene Geschichten auf Glas: Kabinettscheiben von Gotik bis Barock, 16 March-4 August 2013

R. G. De Boer, Nederlandse primitieven uit Nederlands particulier bezit, Singer Museum, Laren, 1961, exh. cat., no. 118.

Klaus Tiedemann, Gemälde aus Glas und Licht: Kabinettscheiben der Renaissance, privately printed, Heidelberg, 2006, p. 66.

Klaus Tiedemann, Gemalt auf Glas & Licht: Kabinettscheiben von Gotik bis Barock / Painted on glass & light: Stained glass panels from the Gothic to Baroque Period, Dettelsbach, 2009, p. 91.

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