Trolling the Heilbrunn Timeline: A Goldsmith in His Shop

Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in His Shop (1449)

On returning from Italy, I decided it was high time I supplemented my scant knowledge of medieval and Renaissance art, so I gathered up a few books* on the subject. After reading said books, it occurred to me that a Renaissance art vacation extender might be available at the Metropolitan Museum, so I looked up the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. I’d forgotten, if I really ever knew, what a rich resource this is, and trolling around the Medieval/Renaissance sections proved a time sink of the best sort. I picked out a few artworks to visit in person next time I could. Here’s one of those I visited yesterday.

Petrus Christus, A Goldsmith in His Shop (1449)

Christus detail

As described in the Heilbrunn Timeline, Petrus Christus was

. . . the leading painter in Bruges (Flanders) after the death of Jan van Eyck. The panel attests to Netherlandish artists’ keen interest in pictorial illusionism and meticulous attention to detail, especially in the luminous jeweled, glass, and metallic objects, secular and ecclesiastic trade wares that are examples of the goldsmith’s virtuosity. [cite]

Christus detail

Tucked in the lower right corner is a convex mirror, which put in mind John Ashbery’s meditation on a Parmigiano painting, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.  Turns out there was considerable fascination with convex mirrors in Christus’s time. In Christus’s painting,

The convex mirror, which links the pictorial space to the street outside, reflects two young men with a falcon (a symbol of pride and greed) and establishes a moral comparison between the imperfect world of the viewer and the world of virtue and balance depicted here. [cite]

Also notable is something now missing from the painting: a halo around the goldsmith’s head. In Peter and Linda Murray’s The Art of the Renaissance, the halo is present, and the painting is titled St Eligius and the Lovers; in the painting at the Met, the title is changed and the halo is gone. Turns out the halo was added after the fact and removed when the painting was restored. [cite; commentary on this is included in the audio samples]

In preparation for the 1994 exhibition Petrus Christus: Renaissance Master of Bruges, the issue of the halos was again raised. They were determined through technical examination to be later additions, and they were removed. With the removal of the halos, the aesthetic intentions of the artist were restored. Christus was among the first early Netherlandish painters to break through the barrier of the plain, dark background that was conventionally employed in portraiture by providing an illusionistic space to surround the figures. The addition of the halos, by contrast, introduced an element that forced the viewer to focus on the foreground, discouraging further investigation of the space beyond the picture plane. The restoration thus allowed for a renewed discussion of the function and meaning of the paintings. Neither panel was originally conceived as a religious image; the false halos had altered their intended function as secular portraits. [cite]

 Listening List

 Gelsey Bell, Rains on Me (as performed at the 2018 Resonant Bodies Festival, curated by Lucy Dhegrae)

*End note: The books, all of which I did actually read cover-to-cover. They are of varying quality: Graham-Dixon’s book, a companion to a BBC series, comes in for particular abuse, with Manchester’s book not far behind.

>Graham-Dixon, Andrew, Renaissance

>Manchester, William, A World Lit only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of an Age

>Murray, Peter and Linda, The Art of the Renaissance

>Welch, Evelyn, Art in Renaissance Italy 


Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

10 thoughts on “Trolling the Heilbrunn Timeline: A Goldsmith in His Shop

  1. Mark Kerstetter

    This is the kind of painting one can stand in front of for an hour. I spent some deep, meditative hours of this kind at the Met during the short time I lived in NY. I think about it often and really miss it.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: There are so many things to see and think about in this painting, aren’t there? I do feel grateful I live close enough to the Met to be able to get in and take a longer look at a few treasures from time to time, rather than feeling I have only one day to see what there is to see (which of course isn’t possible anyway, and only ends up with not truly seeing much of anything). A prime New Year’s resolution of mine is to take advantage of this more than I have in the past.

  2. Mark Kerstetter

    I especially like the middle detail you show here with the hanging beads.

    Usually when I went to the Met (one of the most amazing places on the earth) I made a beeline to whatever I had chosen to focus on that day, trying not to look around before I got there. On at least three occasions it was the Rembrandt room but I remember getting caught up in galleries with such small Dutch paintings in incredible detail on wood.

    I enjoyed the vocal rain sounds in your musical selection too.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Glad you enjoyed the Bell piece. (The rain sounds caught my ear, too, which is what led me to post that brand-new-to-me piece). You are SO right about the need to put the blinders on when entering the Met. In this instance, I picked up a map and headed straight for the gallery holding the handful of paintings I’d identified for this visit, and am so glad I did.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: I hadn’t see that article, and am so glad you sent it on. Even in my small travels along the trail of medieval and Renaissance art, I discovered, just in trying to properly label my photos, how unstable attributions can be, and, as in the Christus painting, advances in technology also affect long-settled assumptions (though in this case of the subject matter, not the artist).

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: I hadn’t–and in looking now, two things occur: first, my Lands End wardrobe is a pretty far cry from what she is wearing; second, that head gear, particularly, looks uncomfortable! Love your convex mirror selfies!

  3. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – love the Rains on Me piece by Gelsey Bell. While your decision to study the art – that’s the way to do it … wish I’d learnt earlier and now wish I was in a position to do it – I’ll get there … but thanks for this – I enjoyed it. Interestingly I just missed a talk by Graham Dixon on Caravaggio … I’d have gone if I’d known … not sure if I like him or not!! Cheers Hilary

Comments are closed.