Countenances of the Deepest Attentiveness: The Historical Reputation of Jan Van Scorel's Portraits *

By Godycki, Albert | Journal of Art Historiography, December 2017 | Go to article overview

Countenances of the Deepest Attentiveness: The Historical Reputation of Jan Van Scorel's Portraits *


Godycki, Albert, Journal of Art Historiography


The historical fame of Jan van Scorel (1495 - 1562) can be said to rest on two factors: his earliest biographers emphasised his sojourn in Italy and marked him out as the bringer of a 'new style' back to his native Netherlands; for more recent art history, it is the privileged position which Alois Riegl accorded to the painter as the first artist to have created an autonomous group portrait.1 It is then perhaps to be expected that the bulk of Scorel's output has been in the past interpreted through either or both of these methodological lenses. Yet, with all long-term historiographies the inevitable fluctuations in academic and more broadly social circumstances have variably conditioned the understanding and position of Scorel's oeuvre in art historical narratives, not least in that of portraiture which is the concern of the present paper. By drawing attention to early biographers' statements on Scorel, and by expanding Riegl's analysis to include other portraits, not just the oft-cited series of Jerusalem Pilgrim portraits (fig. 1)2, this paper aims to examine how an illustrious historiographic pedigree has influenced the understanding of Scorel's portraiture, and calls for a reevaluation of his contribution to this genre and of his significance as a portraitist for future generations of Netherlandish painters. Scorel was an outstandingly complex individual living in outstandingly complex times, and he actively engaged in depicting people of myriad social and intellectual backgrounds with whom he had varying degrees of personal familiarity. His portraits emerged at a time when Europe was entering the so-called early modern period, which would see a revolution (even a liberation) of the individual in relation to long-standing institutions and assumptions.3 It thus seems pertinent to reconsider Scorel's approach to portraying the individual.

The earliest biographical mention concerning Scorel is probably the epigrammatic poem written during the artist's lifetime by his friend the humanist poet Janus Secundus (1511-1536).4 As would be the case for most of the accounts of Scorel's life throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Secundus' praise for his fellow countryman orbits around Scorel's Roman sojourn. Departing the Netherlands sometime before 1518, the young artist made an extended journey south to Italy, passing through, among other places, Cologne, Strasbourg, Basel, and Nuremberg (he is said to have met Albrecht Dürer), before arriving in Venice from where he set offon a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Upon his return to Italy in 1521, Scorel landed a job as curator of the Belvedere Collection under the patronage of the Dutch pope, Adrian VI (1459âeuro'1523), a post previously held by Raphael.5 The pope's death in 1523 cut-short Scorel's employment and his stay in Rome, precipitating his return to Utrecht where he completed the Twelve Members of the Utrecht Brotherhood of Jerusalem Pilgrims around 1525 (fig. 1). Nevertheless, this short stay - including the high-profile appointment - was impetus enough for Secundus to herald Scorel as the 'divine renewer of art' ('divinae renovator artis') who defined a new beauty in Netherlandish painting as a result of his travels along the Rhine and his stay in Rome.6

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, the leitmotif of Scorel as 'renewer of art' was further emphasised by the antiquarian Aernout van Buchel (1565-1641). Aware of Secundus' lines about Scorel, Buchel added that the painter equals other artists he referred to as Apelles (including Maarten van Heemskerck, Jan Gossaert and Albrecht Dürer).7 These statements, however, which appear in Buchel's catalogue of painters compiled between 1585 and 1590, had a limited audience not like the popular editions of Hieronymus Cock's (1518-1570) Pictorum aliquot celebrium Germaniae inferioris effigies published ten years after Scorel's death in 1572 with verses by Dominicus Lampsonius (1532-1599). Comprised of a series of engraved portraits now attributed to Johannes Wierix (1549-1618), Scorel's image carries an inscription written in the first person, and is again centred around his stay in Rome; Scorel's voice tells the viewer of the importance of using 'a thousand pencils and pigments, and [to] paint pictures in that [i. …

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