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Essay – Ferdinand Bol – The Virgin and Child with the infant Saint John the Baptist, and Gabriel

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Essay - Ferdinand Bol - The Virgin and Child with the infant Saint John the Baptist, and Gabriel

The Virgin and Child with the infant Saint John the Baptist, and Gabriel was painted by Ferdinand Bol, one of Rembrandt’s most prominent pupils.1 Born in Dordrecht, Bol probably worked in Rembrandt’s studio from about 1635 to 1641, a period that had a decisive impact on his career. In his early work, Bol borrowed numerous elements from the great master, who was ten years his senior. Like Rembrandt, he produced almost exclusively history paintings and portraits. His reputation is based primarily on the former, which earned him considerable success: in 1656, for instance, he secured a prestigious commission to make large paintings for the Burgomasters’ Council Chamber in Amsterdam’s new town hall (now the Royal Palace). In addition, many local townspeople ordered portraits from Bol. From 1667 onwards he was commissioned by several admiralties to produce portraits of Vice-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, who defeated the British fleet in 1666. These paintings have determined the public’s image of this great Dutch naval hero down to the present day. After 1669, the year of Rembrandt’s death, Bol remarried and appears to have given up painting. His second wife, Anna van Arckel had a considerable private fortune, so that he no longer needed to work to earn a living. Bol died in 1680, and was buried in the Zuiderkerk, Amsterdam.

This large painting was only rediscovered a few years ago; there had previously been no mention of it in the literature on Bol. We see the Virgin Mary holding her son on her lap; her fingers lovingly caress the sole of his foot. The Christ Child is seizing the white lily offered to him by an angel, who can be identified as the archangel Gabriel. On the lower left is a fourth figure, John the Baptist as a child, identifiable by his standard attribute of a lamb. This young creature was a traditional sacrificial animal in oriental religions, and alludes to Christ’s sacrifice for humanity, which is why John the Baptist later called him the ‘Lamb of God’ (John 1: 29 and 1: 36). The child restrains the creature with one hand, stretching out his other hand to Christ. The grapes in the horn in Christ’s hands refer, like the lamb, to the suffering he will endure as a man. The fruit also alludes to the Catholic celebration of communion, in which wine symbolises the blood of Christ. The lily, Gabriel’s customary attribute, represents purity. The figures are in a park-like setting; behind Mary are roses, which are traditionally associated with her.

The meeting between Christ and the slightly older John the Baptist is not described in the Bible, but derives from the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James, which relates that Elisabeth and Zacharias visited the Holy Family with their little son John. From the Italian Renaissance onward, artists elaborated this story into images of Mary and the two children (as in the painting by Abraham Janssens, cat. no. 30). The iconography of the present scene, incorporating Gabriel as a fourth figure – as if in a picture of the Annunciation – is rather uncommon.2 Gabriel is subtly differentiated from the other figures here by being placed in the shadows. He is also behind a stone parapet, on which Bol prominently inscribed his signature and the year 1659 – in his portraits, the painter also included parapets of this kind.3

This atmospheric history painting dates from a period in which Bol had developed a more baroque style of painting.4 The smooth brushwork and play of lines in the composition display the influence of Flemish painting, especially the work of Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). That Bol had embarked on a new phase in his work is also clear from the rendering of the clothing. Instead of the historicising garments in his more Rembrandtesque paintings, all of which were produced in roughly the same period – including the monumental history paintings for the town hall – we see here more timeless, classical clothing. These costumes are well suited to the elegance of the figures, whose bodies are characterised by soft contours. There is a salient use of bright colours, certainly in comparison to Bol’s early work. The yellow drapes contrast marvellously with Mary’s red dress, which is striking amid the range of warm brown and cool grey hues in the clothes of Gabriel and John. Her headscarf, which falls playfully over her shoulders, is painted in broad strokes, in golden yellow tones that harmonise well with the other garments. The stalks of the bunch of grapes, clearly visible against the red of the dress, demonstrate Bol’s attention to detail.

Bol’s history paintings rarely feature the Virgin Mary as a protagonist, as here. Mary’s gaze, focusing emphatically on the lamb, seems to be intended as an exhortation to the faithful to contemplate the future sacrifice of her son, the Redeemer. The subject and large size of this painting, the early provenance of which is unknown, suggests that it was originally intended as an altarpiece. This is noteworthy, given that Calvinism was the dominant religion in the United Provinces and that Calvinists did not order paintings of this kind. Given the wealth of Catholic imagery in this work, we may assume that Bol painted it for a Catholic client – probably someone from Amsterdam, although the person’s identity is a mystery. There is some evidence, however, of the painting’s presence in Amsterdam. Albert Blankert, who published a monograph on Bol in 1982, linked it to a ‘Visitation with Saint John the Baptist’ that was auctioned in Amsterdam in 1806 along with items belonging to the local art collector Daniel Mansveld (1726-1806).5