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Review: Maerten van Heemskerck's 'Ecce Homo' at Getty amazes

'Drama and Devotion: Heemskerck's "Ecce Homo" Altarpiece From Warsaw' is a determined, astonishing work.

June 29, 2012|By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times Art Critic
  • Maerten van Heenskerck, "Ecce Homo," 1544, Oil on panel.
Maerten van Heenskerck, "Ecce Homo," 1544, Oil on panel. (J. Paul Getty Museum )

How many pictures does an average person see on an average day? A hundred? A thousand? More?

I'm unaware of any definitive scientific studies of the question, but "more" is the certain answer. Television, the Internet, newspapers, billboards, magazines, books, family albums, junk mail — the image world is a key component of Big Data, the expanding information environment that engulfs us. In the span of human history it's new, but it has become what nature used to be: the landscape of our daily lives.

Given today's superabundance of pictures, it is difficult to imagine a time before cameras, mass reproduction and virtual e-imagery. But we can get some glimpse of how astounding the simple sight of a picture once was by looking at Dutch Mannerist painter Maerten van Heemskerck (1498–1574). Five centuries ago, he capitalized on that capacity for amazement.

In 1544, Heemskerck finished his "Ecce Homo" altarpiece for a private family chapel in an Augustinian church in the old, prosperous Netherlands port of Dordrecht. To see it now at the Getty Museum, where its loan fromWarsaw's National Museum follows 18 months of Getty conservation work, is to be taken aback by the artist's palpable determination to astonish.

Like the moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy Gale steps out of her gray Kansas existence into the imaginative Technicolor extravaganza of life beyond the rainbow, Heemskerck's three-panel altarpiece turns sobriety into spectacle. As the makeshift family that Dorothy discovered in Oz awoke from poppy-field slumber to glimpse the phantasmal Emerald City in the glittery distance, the chorus exhorted the ragtag band to "Hold onto your breath, hold onto your heart, hold onto your hope. March up to the gate and bid it open." So does Heemskerck's picture.

And open it does. When the three-panel altarpiece is closed, as it was most of the time, its two wings show stone sculptures standing in decorative marble niches. When it was opened on Sundays and feast days, a visual riot exploded.

Those stony sculptures — St. John the Evangelist on the left and St. Margaret of Antioch on the right — merge blunt simplicity with brilliant presentational skill. Getty curator Anne T. Woollett writes in the single-painting show's well-researched catalog that the pair was probably designed by Heemskerck but painted by studio assistants. That was common for an artist in as much demand as he was, but what a sly design he made.

The statuary images are classical but modern, old-fashioned yet up-to-the-minute. They invoke the erudite artistic wisdom of the ages, based on the antique Greek and Roman sculptures Heemskerck saw in his mid-30s when he went to Italy. (He stayed for four years.) But that ancient continuity is dynamic, not static, his bodies twisting to create an illusion of space and volume.

At the bottom the sculptures are frontal; midway they turn to the right; at the top they do a 180, looking off to the left. Even the figures' toes hang off the niche's edge, as if intruding into the real space that we occupy.

More clever still is the bright, raking light that seems to cast shadows inside the mottled marble niches. Heemskerck's altarpiece is a site-specific painting. He made it for a chapel in the church's side aisle, so he designed the light as if it were entering from the chapel's actual doorway. John and Margaret turn to look toward the light source. The stone saints' heads miraculously turn to greet an entering visitor or solicit a passerby.

Think of Ed Ruscha's monumental 1997 canvas commissioned for a lobby wall next to big windows in the Getty's own Williams Auditorium, which shows light streaming into a darkened interior. Same idea.

The altarpiece didn't last long in the chapel, though. Less than 30 years after being installed it was spirited away. The Dutch Revolt, which began in Dordrecht, saw Protestant iconoclasts destroy paintings and whitewash church interiors. Political independence from Spain was entangled with religious freedom from the Roman Catholicism of King Philip II.

Heemskerck's altar was hauled down the street to the home of a prominent art collector. Then the functional machinery of daily spiritual devotion entered the secular realm of contemplative art. Over centuries the triptych changed hands several times before ending up in an art museum in Breslau, Germany. The city, when annexed to Poland after World War II, gave it to Warsaw's National Museum — no doubt partly to symbolize a new national identity.

In Dordrecht it had served a different purpose. Open the stolid gray wings and, amid agitated figures and a rainbow of sumptuous colors, there once again are John the Evangelist and Margaret of Antioch. They're patron saints standing behind the altar's pious, moneyed donors — Jan van Drenckwaerdt, powerful sheriff of Dordrecht, and his second wife, Margaretha. Luxurious if somber kneeling portraits, wrapped in furs and velvets, grace the flanking panels.

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