A miraculous appearance for a queen: Juan de Flandes, Christ Appearing to His Mother

Juan de Flandes, Christ Appearing to His Mother, c. 1496, oil on wood, 62.2 x 37.1 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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Additional resources

This painting at The Met

Learn more about the expanding the renaissance initiative

Learn more about Juan de Flandes on Smarthistory

Read more about Juan de Flandes from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid

Read about Renaissance art in Spain

Learn more about Rogier van der Weyden

Hand, John Oliver, and Martha Wolff. Early Netherlandish Painting. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1986

Jessica Weiss, “Juan de Flandes and His Financial Success in Castile,” Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art 11:1 (Winter 2019) DOI: 10.5092/jhna.2019.11.1.2

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] We’re in the galleries at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, looking at a painting by a Flemish artist — Juan de Flandes, John of Flanders. The painting shows a typical subject of Christ appearing to his mother. Christ has died, he’s been crucified, and we can see in the background of the painting that he’s been resurrected. And so after his death, he miraculously appears to his mother.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:27] Here in the foreground, we see Mary, who is seated, reading inside of this beautiful space, and Jesus appears to her and clearly startles her. Her arms are raised, and his gestures signal “do not be afraid.” It’s this miraculous moment where he reappears to his mother after his resurrection.

Dr. Harris: [1:04] When we see the Resurrection in the background, it’s not simultaneously occurring. We have a continuous narrative here. We have two different moments of time depicted in the painting in order to tell us the full story.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:23] This story is one that does not come from scripture. It comes from a 13th-century text by Pseudo-Bonaventure, which is an extension of the narratives that are told in the Bible.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] What we’re looking at is really a depiction of the central miracle of Christianity, of the Resurrection, of life after death. It’s no wonder that Mary is surprised. She’s been praying and she’s been lost in her prayers, and then Christ appears to her and he’s supposed to be dead. You can imagine that this is a great miracle.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:29] The painting is really rooted in reminding us of the life of the Virgin Mary. Surrounding Jesus and Mary, we have this archivolt where we have marble sculpture, here painted in grisaille or grayscale, that are showing different scenes of the life of the Virgin. For instance, I see the Assumption, I see Pentecost. These different vignettes of the life of the Virgin.

[1:53] There are two inscriptions in this painting that relate to the Virgin Mary.

Dr. Harris: [1:58] We have one inscription along the hem of Mary’s garment, and that comes from a passage in the Bible that’s referred to as the “Magnificat,” which is also the name of the prayer that uses this text. It’s from the Book of Luke.

[2:11] On the hem of the garment, we read, “My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on, all generations will call me blessed, for the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name.”

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:28] Up at the top, we see an angel holding a crown. From that crown, we have a banderole on which is written an inscription, and it comes from the Book of Revelation. It says, “This woman persevered, conquering all. Therefore, a crown was given to her.”

Dr. Harris: [2:45] In so many ways, this looks like a church setting to me. The sculptures that surround the arch, the figures on the left of Saint John, on the right of Saint Paul, a space that looks like the architecture of a church, so a sacred space.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:02] I love the Gothic tracery that we see in wood that’s just above them, and then as we go further into the background of this space, we see more of that Gothic tracery. We also see narrative columns. We see scenes that are prefiguring Christ’s triumph over death, such as David defeating Goliath.

Dr. Harris: [3:21] This idea of using Old Testament stories to prefigure — to foreshadow — the events of the life of Christ and Mary.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:28] Juan de Flandes was an extremely talented painter. He was trained in Bruges, and so he’s a Netherlandish artist, and we see all of the characteristics that we expect to see in Netherlandish painting of the 15th century.

Dr. Harris: [3:41] So sometimes we use the word Flemish, sometimes we use the word Netherlandish, sometimes we call this the Northern Renaissance. Art historians like to complicate things, but we’re up in northern Europe, which was an important trading center in the 15th century.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:54] Some of those characteristics that we see that we associate with Northern Renaissance painting are things like the crumpled up drapery. We see for instance that the Virgin Mary has a lot of extra cloth to her mantle, and it’s all crumpled up on the floor. We see that too with Jesus’ red mantle.

[4:09] We also have these hyper-realistic details, this attention to the material splendor of things. We also have the doors that are open and windows that are open that lead us into this vast expanse of terrain in the background.

Dr. Harris: [4:22] And the textures of things that only oil paint could capture, so the wood on the bench that Mary is sitting beside, or even the gold clasp of the book, the Bible that she’s reading, or the gold embroidery along the hem of her garment. This attention to tiny details, even as we move back into space, this desire to hold on to those details and to give us as much information as possible.

[4:48] Christ does seem to back off a little bit or to be concerned about Mary’s reaction, but he’s also demonstrating his wounds, or at least showing us his wounds, the wounds from the nails in his hands. We clearly see the wound that he got in his side while he was being crucified, and the reality of his humanness. His body here is so palpable.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:12] I feel like Juan de Flandes accentuates that by showing us things like the veins popping out on Christ’s arms, where you really get the sense that there is blood once again flowing through his body after the Resurrection.

[5:25] Something else I’m also struck by in this painting is the visual parallel to scenes of the Annunciation, where Mary is seated, usually inside, reading a book, when the archangel Gabriel enters the room and announces to her that she’s going to bear the son of God.

[5:39] She’s usually shocked by this news, and here we see her, once again, seated inside, reading a book. She has shock on her face, and it’s as if Jesus is in the position of Gabriel here, making his announcement to her.

Dr. Harris: [5:52] In both cases, we see Christ — we see the divine become flesh, become earthly.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:58] In some ways, it’s almost taking the narrative that begins with Gabriel and bringing it full circle to Christ announcing his presence after his resurrection to his mother.

[6:06] Now, Juan de Flandes, as we mentioned, is from the Netherlands, trained in Bruges most likely. But this is a painting that was done in Spain for an incredibly important patron, Queen Isabel of Castile herself.

Dr. Harris: [6:19] It gets even more complicated because Queen Isabel asked Juan de Flandes to make a copy of a painting by Rogier van der Weyden which had been owned by her father. What we’re looking at is a copy of one of the panels of the triptych of the “Miraflores Altarpiece.”

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:35] King Juan II, Isabel’s father, had owned the “Miraflores Altarpiece,” which he had then gifted to the charterhouse in Miraflores near Burgos in Spain. This is also where Isabel will commission a tomb to commemorate her father.

[6:50] And so having Juan de Flandes copy this painting suggests to us that she wanted to have a replica of something that belonged to her father, and possibly even to legitimize her right to rule as the queen of Castile.

Dr. Harris: [7:05] Isabel is intentionally, perhaps, looking back to her father and the art that he collected and he commissioned in order to show her legitimacy as the queen of Spain. And there were particular reasons why she might have needed to do that.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [7:19] Spanish dynastic history is complicated, but Isabel needed to legitimize her rule because her brother and other members of her family were vying for the throne, or putting their support behind other members of her family. Showing a correlation with her father, or things supported by her father, was helping to maintain consistency and maintain her power.

Dr. Harris: [7:41] This painting is a really good example of the close relationship between northern Europe — Flanders — and Spain.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [7:47] A great deal of painting in 15th-century Spain looks to Flemish art. We have Spanish artists who travel to Flanders. We have Flemish artists who come to Spain. We have many people in Spain, such as Isabel, but even rulers and other elites before her, who collect tapestries, and painting, and other objects from Flanders. There’s a longstanding relationship between them.

[8:10] This is one reason why you have a great deal of painting in particular demonstrate Flemish characteristics and techniques. Juan de Flandes is a great example of the itinerancy of artists in the Renaissance. What I mean by that is artists that are moving around from one place to another throughout their careers.

Dr. Harris: [8:28] I think one of the problems that we have in the 21st century is that we think about Spain as a unified country, we think about Italy as a unified country, and that wasn’t the case then. When we say an Italian artist or a Spanish artist, it’s not quite right. It’s not quite historically accurate.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [8:46] Juan de Flandes even changes his own representational mode or style throughout his career. There are other paintings here in The Met that show his transformation over time. He’s a remarkable artist. So remarkable, in fact, that when he was brought to Spain by Isabel, she made him her court painter.

Dr. Harris: [9:05] Artists are always adapting their style to what their patron wants. What fun to see this painting here at the museum today.

[9:12] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "A miraculous appearance for a queen: Juan de Flandes, Christ Appearing to His Mother," in Smarthistory, May 22, 2020, accessed June 21, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/miraculous-appearance-for-a-queen/.