Scorel, Jan van - by H.R. Rookmaaker
Jan van Scorel: universal artist
by H.R. Rookmaaker
On 15 October 1550 Jan van Scorel, originally from Schoorl
[in the Netherlands], and later promoted to the position of a canon in
Utrecht, received the royal patent for his invention of a method of
dike-building that used anchored blocks. It was a technique he
developed for the purpose of reclaiming the Zijpe. That same year, he
won a silver cup for restoring the famed Lamb of God by Jan van Eyck of
Ghent. The modern reader will think: he must have been a
chemist-inventor. But no, we are dealing here with one of those widely
gifted individuals of the Renaissance, who in the end – as happened so
often – became famous for his works of art.
Jan van Scorel was a typical Renaissance man, and that refers
to more than just his painting style. One senses it in the way he describes
himself on his earliest known work - pictoris artis amator – a ‘lover of
painted art’. When he painted this Holy Kinship altarpiece in 1520, in a
late Gothic style reminiscent of his teacher, Jacob Cornelisz, he already
acted no longer like an artisan but more like a proud, liberated artist.
That’s also why he never joined a guild, which he considered unqualified
to promote art for art’s sake.
We can be very thankful for the opportunity to see this altarpiece
from Obervellach in Austria at the exhibition of Jan van Scorel’s work in
the Centraal Museum in Utrecht – not just because it has never before
been removed from its village church but also because it represents the
early work of Scorel in such a splendid way.
The young Scorel had left Holland to travel to Nuremberg, where he
also met Dürer, and there enjoyed the patronage of an important noble
family from Kärnten (Austria); he travelled with them to their ancestral
castle where he painted this first-rate masterpiece, a testimony to his
great talent – especially since he was only 25 years old at the time.
Soon thereafter he went to Venice, and there it was inevitable that a
man so in touch with the spirit of Italian Renaissance culture would be
influenced by Italian art. In 1521 he went to Rome, where Adrian
from Utrecht had just become pope. This compatriot gave him one of
the most enviable positions that an artist of that day could have wished
for – he became Raphael’s successor and was given the studio that the
previous pope had furnished for Leonardo da Vinci. Unfortunately for
van Scorel this did not last long, for in 1524 Adrian died and the
artist returned north, enriched by a thorough knowledge of the work
of Raphael and Michelangelo. So van Scorel became the one who introduced
our country [the Netherlands] to this new Renaissance art, not as
a slavish follower but as a man spiritually and artistically permeated with
ideas and knowledge still new to the North.
The exposition in Utrecht is a beautiful testimony to his art.
Certainly, his work lacks the seasoned maturity of the greatest
Renaissance artists but, on the other hand, it has a freshness and clarity
of colouring, a liveliness in composition, a beautifully mature rendering
of landscape backgrounds and a pervading lucidity that makes viewing
his work a special experience. See for instance his Entry into Jerusalem,
the Baptism in the Jordan and the valuable Mary Magdalene from the
Rijksmuseum as well as the beautiful Madonna from New York.
Even more poignant is Jan van Scorel’s portraiture. How accurately and
individually he could depict his subjects – so beautifully positioned against
the background, with finely balanced light and dark contrasts. In these wonderful,
delicately-painted portraits, van Scorel’s art reaches its culmination:
Agatha van Schoonhoven, The Jerusalem pilgrims, The twelve-year-old boy.
As an agent of renewal, van Scorel strongly influenced the further
development of sixteenth-century painting in the Northern
Netherlands, also through his very important pupil Maerten van
Heemskerck. The latter’s early work, painted under the influence of van
Scorel, shows us a powerful and gifted artist, maybe even greater than his
master. The family portrait from Kassel is stunning, one of the most
impressive pieces painted in this time. The story goes that Jan van Scorel
became so jealous of this pupil that he booted him out of his studio.
The exposition shows many more works by portraitists and painters of
biblical scenes who were directly influenced by Jan van Scorel. Thus this is
also an exhibition of great scientific importance, addressing many hitherto
unresolved art-historical problems. But it is foremost an exhibition
that offers the enjoyment of works of superior quality to every lover of art –
especially of portraits and biblical scenes of powerful persuasiveness.
Originally published in Dutch in Trouw, no date (between 1949 and 1956).
Published in English in M. Hengelaar-Rookmaaker (ed.): H.R. Rookmaaker:
The Complete Works 1, Piquant – Carlisle, 2003.