Three Wooden Panels from the Collection of the Art Museum in Cluj-Napoca

November 29, 2023 – January 14, 2024
November 29, 2023 - January 10, 2024

The Art Museum of Cluj-Napoca invites you to admire three paintings from its artistic heritage, namely the Portrait of the Virgin Mary, created by an anonymous artist from Hunedoara, a fragment from the Way of the Cross painted by Herri Met de Bles, and a small wooden panel depicting the Beheading of Saint James painted by an anonymous artist from the German school environment.

The oldest piece is the icon depicting the Virgin Mary, originating from the former Franciscan monastery in Hunedoara, which settled in this city in 1487. The icon was painted in tempera on wood covered with canvas and coated with gypsum. The frame shares a common body with the icon, as it was carved from the same wooden panel. The anonymous artist, probably a Franciscan monk, painted the portrait of the Virgin Mary covered with a dark green head cloth, inscribed on the edge: "Maria Mater Gracie Mater Misericordie. I(esus) H(ristus)." The background and frame are gilded, and the face is painted in shades of yellow, red, and pink, with exceptional finesse and transparency. The precision of the drawing and composition recalls the severity of Byzantine art, tempered by the finesse and transparency of the flesh, and the humanization of the grieving expression. The work reflects echoes of Italian art from Assisi from the first half of the XIVth century, with the Franciscan artist introducing a decorative element through the stylization of the hair, visible under the head cloth.

The second temporarily exhibited panel represents the Beheading of Saint James painted by a German author from the late XVIth century, probably from the famous Donauschule. The Cluj panel painter opted for the rarer representation of the apostle’s martyrdom. The scene is set outside the city gates, visible on the right side of the work. The entire scene unfolds dramatically in the foreground of the image, the decapitated body of the saint serving as the pedestal supporting the column-like figures around him. In his immediate vicinity, his young executioner, dressed in Roman armor, is captured as he reinserts his sword into its sheath (a rather curious detail is the total absence of blood on the sword and around the decapitated body). His facial expression and bodily demeanor exude detachment and serenity, giving the impression of a character not emotionally involved in the entire scene, although his role is perhaps the most dramatic. Also, the contrast between his Roman centurion attire and the medieval-Renaissance clothing of the other characters captures and intrigues the viewer. Emerging from the martyr’s body is the equestrian figure of King Herod Agrippa. He is dressed in a red mantle adorned with ermine, wearing a crown similar to that of the kings of Hungary. His face and hands express inner tension, his gaze passing over the servant presenting the martyr’s head, his right hand with the index finger pointing to his eyes, and his left hand positioned at the level of his heart. The harness of the white horse is relatively simple, made of black straps with gold buttons. Out of the group of five servants, only two are highlighted: the one on the right side of the painting carrying the severed head and the one on the opposite side, positioned near the executioner, reaching out to Herod (probably representing the converted informant who was martyred simultaneously with the apostle). Another striking detail of the painting is played by the lush tree framing the characters, acting as a transition between the martyrdom scene and the serene hills in the background.

The third panel represents a fragment from the Way of the Cross painted by the Flemish artist Herri Met de Bles (c. 1505/10 – c. 1584). The painter depicts an episode from the passions of Christ, specifically His journey to Golgotha (Luke 26-32). The figure of the Savior is located towards the center of the image, depicted at the moment when he is assisted by Simon of Cyrene. Around him, groups of Roman soldiers, Jewish priests, and ordinary people are portrayed with the same simplicity as Jesus, and the scene itself is depicted with the naturalness of an ordinary day.

The image is divided into three major horizontal registers: the hilly surface in the foreground, including a group of standing or sitting men and women, one of them carrying a basket with captive birds (probably symbolizing the captivity of Christ). On the left side of the panel, a group of four pigs indifferently observes the scene. The second register is the most densely populated. The central scene consists of the figure of the Savior assisted by Simon and the Roman soldiers assaulting them. In their immediate vicinity, a cart with two characters transports the other two crosses. Following them, on the right side of the panel, the Roman garrison that will carry out the death of Jesus is depicted, along with the Jewish priests. On a hill above this group, the women who support the fainting Virgin Mary are shown. The last register, represented in somewhat diluted colors, is populated with people who are indifferent to the Savior’s torment.

The type of landscape used by the artist emulates the example of Joachim Patinir (ca. 1480-1524), the uncle of the painter Herri Met de Bles, who synthesized topographical details arranged in a fantastic image. De Bles had learned the art of landscape from Patinir’s workshop, considered in literature as the first Dutch painter of autonomous landscapes, who worked in the Guild of Painters in Antwerp. The concern for the landscape appears somewhat earlier in the art of Hieronymus Bosch (c.1450-1516), and the prototype of the composition of the Cluj panel is identified by Erwin Kessler in a lost painting by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), visible in a copy from the collection of the museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. (Text: Ioana Filipescu.)