Two International Gothic Altarpieces Acquired by the Museu Nacional d’Art in Catalonia

Jaume Cirera (First Half of the 15th Century) and
Bernat Despuig (Known from 1383-1451)
Altarpiece of Saint Michael Archangel and Saint Peter,
Tempera on Wood, Gilts - 287.5 x 336 x 37 cm
Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
Photo : MNAC

29/11/11 - Acquisitions - Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya - Lest we might have forgotten, International Gothic was also a Catalonian style, explaining perhaps the reason for the recent acquisitions by the Museu Nacional d’Art in Catalonia. This establishment has succeeded in reuniting the altarpiece of Saint Michael Archangel and Saint Peter, scattered in the 20th century, though some of the panels were already held by the museum. The Spanish Ministry of Culture paid 600,000 € in April 2011 for the other elements, nine in all, which were in a private Belgian collection. This imposing ensemble was painted in the first half of the 15th century by Jaume Cirera and Bernat Despuig for the church of Saint Michael, located in the town of Seu de Urgell in Catalonia, and originally dedicated to Saint Peter until 1364. The two main figures are surrounded on each side by scenes from the life of Saint Peter and episodes illustrating Saint Michael’s deeds ; in the upper section, four of the seven Joys of the Virgin encompass the Crucifixion and the Defeat of the Fallen Angels.
The predella is missing here but in fact resides at the Museo Nacional de San Carlos in Mexico City. Its style stands out from the rest of the ensemble and leads us to think that it was executed by another artist, as suggested also by the undated contract, with Jaume Cirera and Bernat Despuig, which indicates that the altarpiece had already been started when they received the commission. The predella would then have been painted by Ramón Gonçalbo or his father, Jaume Gonçalbo, active in Alt Urgell between 1403 and 1428. In any case, the altarpiece was finished around 1433 by Jaume Cirera in collaboration with Bernat Despuig with whom he worked between 1425 and 1442. The two painters seem to have first collaborated for the Saint Martin altarpiece meant for one of the chapels of the church of Santa Maria de Solsona in 1425. They also produced the altarpiece of Saint Peter of Ferrerons of which three elements reside at the Episcopal Museum in Vic (Spain).

Joan Mates (Known from 1391-1431)
Altarpiece of Saint Michael,
First Quarter of the 15th Century
Tempera on wood - 173 x 143 cm
Barcelona, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya
Photo : MNAC

Another work which joined the museum in 2011, the altarpiece of Saint Michael is smaller in size but by a major artist, Joan Mates, a master of International Gothic, and a contemporary of Lluís Borrassà, Guerau Gener and Rafael Destorrents. This ensemble was purchased from a Catalonian collector for 650,000 €.
In the central panel, Saint Michael, a preeminently eschatological figure, thrusts his spear with an elegant nonchalance into one of the dragon’s many heads. The other panels represent the same episodes as those in the altarpiece of Saint Michael and Saint Paul : the defeat of the fallen angels on the left, and on the right, the mass for the souls in purgatory as well as the miracle of Mount Gargano. This last episode takes place in 492 in the kingdom of Naples recounting how a bull was found at the top of the mountain, at the entrance to a cave, his horns tangled in the bushes. He fought so hard that no one could approach him and it was decided to send an arrow which mysteriously returned to the archer. Later, the archangel appeared to the bishop and told him that the cave was intended as a place of worship for God and his archangels. Finally, the upper part of the altarpiece illustrates the Annunciation and the Crucifixion. The center of the predella represents the Man of Sorrows surrounded by the saints.
The artist amused himself in executing the figures of the fallen angels and the dragon with minute and humorous details. He is easily recognized by his way of drawing the curls in the hair and by the black circle with white dots which surrounds the halos.

This altarpiece as well as that of Saint Lucy (private collection), both by the same artist, resided at the beginning of the 20th century at the hermitage of Santa Maria Penafel, in the city of Santa Margarida i els Monjos near Barcelona. As the painter was still unknown, he was named the "Master of Penafel". He was identified thanks to the altarpiece of Saints Martin and Ambrose, documented and stylistically comparable, painted between 1411 and 1415 for the cathedral of Barcelona. Joan Martes was the son of Vilafranca del Penedes, whose activity in the Catalonian capital can be followed between 1391 and 1431, the year he died. The Museum in Castres (France) holds a panel by him representing Saint John in Patmos which was part of an ensemble dedicated to both Johns, the Baptist and the Evangelist.
The Catalonian museum already owned two works by the painter : the panel of Saint Sebastian before Calvary and also a fragment of a panel from the Deploration of Christ, Dead. The acquisition of a complete altarpiece by the artist is of course fundamental in helping to reconstitute his oeuvre.

Version française

Bénédicte Bonnet Saint-Georges, mardi 29 novembre 2011

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