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The 2010 exhibition Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance (Metropolitan Museum and National Gallery, London) (click here for review) brought renewed attention to a key Netherlandish artist. Whereas the exhibition sought a comprehensive view of Gossart’s varied output, Marisa Anne Bass’s eloquent new book, Jan Gossart and the Invention of Netherlandish Antiquity, focuses specifically on his mythological paintings. In so doing, she presents a much-needed extended examination of Gossart’s relationship to classical antiquity, which has long constituted the foundation of his art-historical interest and reputation.
As is often noted, Gossart’s drawings of Roman monuments rank him as the first Netherlander to make a documented artistic excursion to the Eternal City. Further, his mythological images essentially founded this genre of painting in the Low Countries. These factors offer an opportunity to consider major, persistent problems in the study of early modern European art. How (or to what extent) do the period’s artifacts suggest transformations in the perception of time and history? How do we assess the status of classical antiquity and, indeed, the very category of the “Renaissance” north of the Alps, where ancient ruins were in relatively short supply?
Bass frames her study most explicitly in terms of this latter concern. Advocating for renascences over an all-encompassing Renaissance, Bass decries the Italocentrism and stark geographic dichotomization implied by the “Northern Renaissance” moniker. Her book aims to dislodge Rome from its central position in accounts of Gossart’s career. She argues that Gossart’s mythological paintings did not merely import or insistently imitate Roman models for northern audiences. Instead, the works formed part of a revival of a decisively local, Netherlandish past. As such, they referenced and helped construct an “alternative” antiquity to that of Rome (4). This revival turned on the activities of artists and humanists alike; it was often sustained by and for courtly patrons like Gossart’s frequent client, Philip of Burgundy, the illegitimate son of Burgundian Duke Philip the Good.
The book mainly follows a chronological organization, but the prevailing emphasis is thematic. Each chapter examines a particular issue in this local historical enterprise, unfolded through one of Gossart’s mythological paintings.
Chapter 1 uses the example of Venus (1521) to highlight the mythological paintings’ connections to Netherlandish artistic traditions and courtly interests. The body, Bass argues, comprised Gossart’s medium for “enliven[ing]” (7) the past and granting it a sensual immediacy for viewers. The main features of this approach stemmed not only from ancient Roman sources; Gossart also drew on northern (Albrecht Dürer) and especially Eyckian precedents. Jan van Eyck’s works enjoyed a general rebirth in the early sixteenth-century Netherlands, evoking the courtly splendor of the recent Burgundian past. In contrast to his more limited usage of Roman examples, Gossart consistently adapted van Eyck’s hallmark technical virtuosity as well as, for example, his strategies for constructing figural presence and heightening the spectator’s relationship to pictorial space. For Gossart, Eyckianism constituted a local “antiquarian style” (36) that inflected the various subjects in his oeuvre. In the mythological paintings, this Netherlandish idiom both appropriates and defines the subjects’ antiquity. For Philip of Burgundy, these paintings neatly showcased his Burgundian connections along with his humanistic antiquarian pursuits.
Chapters 2 and 3 delve into the culture of local antiquarianism surrounding Philip’s court—first during his tenure as Admiral of the Netherlands based in the province of Zeeland and, later, as Bishop of Utrecht. The second chapter focuses on Gossart’s earliest dated mythological painting, a large-scale depiction of two nudes, traditionally titled Neptune and Amphitrite (1516). Bass explores the impact of Philip’s patronage and of Zeeland’s unique topography on efforts to revive its heritage. The sea, a hallmark of the water-bound province’s identity, had also devoured physical evidence of its past. Yet piecemeal archaeological finds referred to Hercules and provoked inquiry into the Batavians, the Netherlands’ ancient island-dwelling denizens described by Tacitus. With their classicized architectural setting and probable display in Philip’s coastal palace, Gossart’s prodigious sea gods could serve in part as “surrogates” for absent or fragmented monuments. Both figures conveyed multiple, oscillating identities. While Neptune has been understood as a reference to the painting’s admiral patron, Bass sees Amphitrite additionally as an embodiment of Zeeland, positioned under Philip’s guardianship.
Chapter 3 turns to Hercules and Deianira (1517), which anchors a wide-ranging analysis of the theme of lineage, mainly in the construction of elite cultural and political identities. As interest in the Batavians grew, Philip and his Netherlandish Habsburg counterparts sought to incorporate this past—with its luster of authority and erudition—into their patronage, collecting practices, and genealogies. Bass argues that the figure of Hercules permitted a melding of Burgundian and Batavian heritages. In the context of courtly collections of classical and classicizing objects, the intimately scaled Hercules and Deianira promoted a hands-on, contemplative engagement with the past.
If Gossart’s depictions of antiquity differ from those on offer in Italy, this study presents an image of patronage that, in its structure and motives, will be familiar to specialists in early modern Europe. As Bass notes, the cooperation of courtly patron, humanist, and knowledgeable artist was a novelty in the Netherlands but “seems almost a stereotype of Renaissance artistic production” (46). However, Bass’s examination of patronage is distinguished by its depth of research and an expanded cast of humanist characters. Counterweighing Gossart’s canonicity, she draws attention to the writings and impact of the Netherlands’ lesser-known, provincial men of letters. The resulting expanded view of Northern humanism is perhaps one of the book’s most important contributions.
Bass’s treatment of Gossart’s paintings underscores their visual specificity, multivalence, and temporal complexity. Even as they promote the region’s history, these works mobilize numerous narrative, historical, and interpretive associations. The images simultaneously insist on the figures’ pastness and somatically erode the sense of distance between antiquity and the present. Princeton University Press’s exquisite design—replete with high-quality color illustrations—enhances the interpretation of the visual evidence. Sometimes Bass’s analysis seems to imply an increased status for painting in the Netherlands, as Gossart undertakes subjects once chiefly the province of tapestry and manuscript illumination, endowing them with a distinctive obliqueness and a historical style that emphasizes panel painting’s own virtuoso traditions. Yet Bass also tends to the paintings’ relationships to the diverse material world at court, where coins, medals, sculpture, and other collectibles played valuable roles in revival and reconstruction.
A compelling fourth chapter addresses the late work Danaë (1527). Bass submits Philip’s grandnephew, Adolph of Burgundy, as the likely patron. She locates the work in the context of debates on the decorum of images during the early Reformation. While authorities like Erasmus censured pagan imagery as corrupting distractions from Christian devotion, Bass argues that Danaë presents a rejoinder to such critiques. Gossart’s treatment of this myth of procreation, she suggests, asserted the “generative” powers of artistic invention (125).
The painting’s allusions to procreation and birth extend beyond such metaphors: Danaë’s seated pose resembles that adopted by Netherlandish women during childbirth. This convergence of sensualized antiquity, pro-image sentiment, and medical practice opens onto the fascinating figure of Jason Pratensis—doctor, humanist, proud Zeelander, and physician to Adolph and his wife, Anna van Bergen. Pratensis’s writings on reproductive medicine intimate an understanding of “the female body as inextricable from local history and culture” (138). He also espoused the positive effects of sensual pictures on procreation and conception, a prescription he may have advocated for Adolf and Anna. Through the figure of Anna, Bass points to a female spectator for Gossart’s mythological subjects. Whereas chapter 3 examines the interests of another female viewer, Margaret of Austria, in largely intellectual terms, here the paintings’ erotic character is central to gendered spectatorship and the defense of images.
The epilogue charts Gossart’s posthumous standing in the early modern Netherlands. Bass argues that the mythological paintings were eventually all too local, all too restricted in their audience and courtly context to exert long-term influence. Political and social transformations shifted tastes away from Burgundian forms and toward a more cosmopolitan vision of antiquity, one patently fluent with Roman and European works. The next generation of Netherlandish antiquarian painters saw Gossart less as a classicist pioneer than a vestige of bygone regional traditions. In this sense, Jan Gossart’s Renaissance was both a rebirth and a demise.
While this study retains the scholarly emphasis on Gossart’s use of antiquity, it helps expand the ways that antiquity can be situated and conceptualized. It points to aspects of Netherlandish culture that imparted a distinctive character to revival, and Bass effectively throws Gossart’s particularity into relief. The book’s epilogue, however, refrains from further reflections on the broader implications and critical stakes of this particularity. Can Gossart’s singularity facilitate new frameworks in the history and historiography of the Renaissance? Or does it generally work against larger theorization?
These questions arise in part because historians of early modern art have recently pursued intensified conceptual and historiographic deliberations, particularly regarding time and the temporality of artifacts. But Bass’s study suggests that this renewed focus on time has honed the evaluation of place in considerations of the Renaissance, especially in northern locales (see also, for example, Christopher Wood’s Forgery, Replica, Fiction [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008] [click here for review] and Stephanie Porras’s Pieter Bruegel’s Historical Imagination [University Park: Penn State University Press, 2016] [click here for review]).
Gossart’s milieu additionally foregrounds a local model of historical inquiry that may appear striking in the midst of the discipline’s current emphasis on global networks. That Bass traces this localized project to the moment of its displacement gives this study of historians past an added resonance for historians present. It ultimately invites questions not only about how objects mediate time and history, but also the potential place, shape, and import of the local in contemporary representations of the past.
Assistant Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Utah
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