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An Artist's Traveling Adventures: Jan Gossart in Rome

Christ wearing a dark blue robe and carrying the cross

Jan Gossart, Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532. Christ Carrying the Cross, ca. 1520–25. Oil on oak, 9 7/8 x 7 1/2 in. (25.1 x 19 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Honorable J. William Middendorf II, and Purchase, Walter and Leonore Annenberg and The Annenberg Foundation Gift, Director's Fund, Gift of George A. Hearn, by exchange, and Marquand and The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment Funds, 2016 (2016.39)

Artists employed by the Dukes of Burgundy in the 15th and early 16th centuries were not only occupied with painting portraits and devotional subjects, but were also called upon from time to time to travel on diplomatic missions—and to create art along the way.

Jan van Eyck (c. 1390–1441), the most famous of the early Netherlandish painters, undertook a number of diplomatic missions abroad on behalf of Duke Philip the Good, including one to Lisbon in 1428 to explore the possibility of a marriage contract between the duke and the Portuguese infanta, Isabella. Jan painted two portraits of the princess (now lost) to send back to the duke for his consideration while the marriage negotiations were under way. 

Another painter who traveled on behalf of the dukes was the celebrated Jan Gossart (1478–1532). Gossart's chief patron was Philip of Burgundy, the bastard son of Philip the Good. In 1508, Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands, sent Philip, then her trusted courtier, to Rome to discuss matters of state with Pope Julius II. Gossart was hired to join the entourage with the specific assignment of drawing the ancient sculpture and monuments that they encountered there.

Drawing of nude boy removing thorn from foot on left; bronze sculpture of same boy on right

Left: Jan Gossart, Netherlandish, ca. 1478–1532. Sheet with a Study after the "Spinario" and Other Sculptures (detail), 1509. Pen and gray-brown ink, 10 3/8 x 8 1/8 in. (26.3 x 20.5 cm). Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden, Prentenkabinet. Right: Boy with Thorn, first century B.C. Bronze and copper, 32 x 18 x 24 in. Musei Capitolini, Rome (Inv. S 1186)

Only a handful of the drawings that Gossart made have survived; among them is the Spinario (above left), drawn after the Greco-Roman bronze sculpture in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, now part of the Musei Capitolini, where it still stands today (above right).

To the right, a marble sculpture of a large male nude and two smaller males strangled by a huge snake; to the left, painting of Christ carrying the cross.

Left: Laocoön, ca. 40–30 B.C. Marble, 82 x 64 x 44 in. (208 x 163 x 112 cm). Musei Vaticani, Rome (Cat. 1059). Photo courtesy of the Vatican Museums. Right: Jan Gossart, Christ Carrying the Cross

Pope Julius II was an avid collector of antique sculpture, acquiring pieces as they were excavated. Among his most prized acquisitions was the marble statue of Laocoön and his two sons strangled by snakes, a monumental piece unearthed in Rome in 1506, just two years before Gossart's arrival in the Eternal City. Although no drawing by Gossart of this renowned marble survives, its impact on the artist can be seen in several of his later drawings and paintings of both mythological and religious subject matter.

Perhaps the most keenly affecting of these is the diminutive Christ Carrying the Cross, now on view in gallery 624 along with other new acquisitions. Christ's contorted pose is clearly influenced by that of Laocoön, and the two figures share a mood of pain and sacrifice, so poignantly conveyed in both the sculpture and the painting.

Related Links
European Paintings: Recent Acquisitions 2015–16, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through March 26, 2017

Now at The Met: View all blog articles related to this exhibition.

Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: "Jan Gossart (ca. 1478–1532) and His Circle"

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