Jan Gossaert: Northern Light

Jan Gossaert made his name working for the Burgundian court and was among the first northern artists to visit Rome, writes Susan Foister, curator of 'Jan Gossaert's Renaissance', the only exhibition in more than 45 years of works by this archetypal ‘Old Master’.

In the cold Brussels winter of 1511 the 47-year-old Philip of Burgundy, illegitimate son of Duke Philip the Good, both churchman and admiral, built a snowman. No ordinary snow figure, it took the form of Hercules, a classical figure associated in particular with the ruling Burgundian dynasty, and it was admired for its excellent proportions. Philip was a cultivated man and is said to have had some training in both painting and the art of the goldsmith, yet it is likely that he was helped to design the muscular snowman by the artist whose interest in classical antiquity he had taken pains to encourage, Jan Gossaert (c. 1478-1532).

On October 26th, 1508 Gossaert had set out for Italy with Philip, one of a retinue of 60 who arrived in Rome on January 14th, 1509. Philip had been sent by his cousin Margaret of Austria, governor of the Netherlands, on a diplomatic mission to treat with Pope Julius II. She was concerned by the recent tendency of the papacy to make its own appointments to lucrative ecclesiastical positions in the Low Countries; previously the Burgundian rulers had controlled these nominations to their local advantage. While diplomatic discussions took place Gossaert had an artistic mission of his own. He sketched the most famous monuments and sculptures of ancient Rome including the Colosseum and the seated figure of a boy pulling a thorn from his foot and other famous figures representing Hercules and Apollo. From these he probably assembled a book of finished drawings for Philip to peruse and admire. But he also gained a repertoire of sculptural motifs which he was to use over and over again in his paintings – and perhaps, on that one occasion, for a snowman.

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