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The present painting is the remnant of what was once a remarkably large
altarpiece, created by Geertgen on a commission from the Haarlem Order of
St. John of Jerusalem. He was probably an “inhabitant” of the order – the
Sint-Jans-Heren (thus the painter’s name) gave him shelter without requiring
him to join. During the siege of the city by the Spanish in 1573 the triptych was destroyed. While the right wing remained, the front and back were separated (back: The Lamentation of Christ; KHM, GG 991). The commission
was prompted by a diplomatic gift of Sultan Bayezid to the order, then called
the Knights of Rhodes, in 1484: he bequeathed the order relies (arm and fingers) of St. John the Baptist from Jerusalem. Herodias had persuaded her daughter, Salome, to demand the head of John the Baptist from her tepfather, Herod Antipas, in return for her dancing at his birthday feast (Matt. 14:6–12; Mark 6:21–28). Geertgen depicts the burial of St. John in the background, while Herodias is seen hiding his head in the palace garden, stretched out behind the tomb. According to medieval legend, Emperor
Julian the Apostate (361–363 AD), who appears with his entourage at the
front of the painting, later ordered the burning of St. John’s corpse. But monks who happened to be present prevented the complete destruction of the relics. The circumstances surrounding the commissioning of this altarpiece altered the legend at this point, however: here a delegation from the order is seen standing at the open tomb; at the upper right they are taking the rescued relics to Jerusalem. The combination of various successive episodes in a single painting is in keeping with older tradition; in his composition Geertgen arranges them behind and on top of each other. In comparison to other southern Netherlandish and Flemish works, the most distinguishing feature is the lack of distance to the viewer, which includes the figures in the background. Clear lighting and strong coloration leave no detail unexplained. With the group of figures standing at the open tomb, Geertgen also created the first group portrait in Netherlandish painting. It is a special local type, which is also found in later works, such as Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch.

© Cäcilia Bischoff, Masterpieces of the Picture Gallery, Vienna 2010

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