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Museum Hails New Acquisition

By Jan McCoy Ebbets

This October, the Smith College Museum of Art will unveil a notable new acquisition: an early 16th-century painting by the Northern Renaissance artist Bartholomäus Bruyn the Elder, to be showcased in an exhibition that opens October 20.

The work, “Coronation of the Virgin,” is a three-panel altarpiece, painted in oil on oak wood panels around 1515. It is the earliest known altarpiece by Bruyn, a contemporary of Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein and the foremost painter in Cologne in the first half of the 16th century. According to Linda Muehlig, associate curator of paintings and sculpture and associate director for curatorial affairs, the triptych was painted for Dr. Peter von Clapis, law professor at the University of Cologne, and his wife, Bela Bonenberg, who are represented in small portraits on the central panel.

Bartholomäus Bruyn, the Elder. German, 1493–1555. The Coronation of the Virgin, c. 1515. Triptych altarpiece; oil on oak wood panels. Image courtesy Smith College Museum of Art.

Describing the painting as “pretty darn beautiful,” Muehlig says she first noticed the work at an international art fair in the Netherlands in March 2005. “There are few German Renaissance altarpieces on the market, and fewer still with the side panels intact.”

The large central panel of the triptych depicts the Virgin Mary being crowned by Christ, on the left, and God the father, to the right, dressed in the brocaded robe. The dove of the Holy Spirit is above her head, and angels hover nearby. Kneeling at her feet are the figures of those who commissioned the painting. The panel on the left depicts Saint Ivo, the patron saint of lawyers, while the other panel presents St. Anne, the mother of Mary. On the reverse of the side panels, only visible when the panels are closed, the figures of the Virgin and the Angel Gabriel are rendered in monochrome, forming a scene of the Annunciation.

While one quick look at the three-paneled painting easily offers a spectacular eyeful, it may belie the exhaustive behind-the-scenes work that the acquisition set in motion—including researching the artist and establishing the triptych’s history of ownership or provenance [see accompanying story].

Moreover, the painting was in need of an overall cleaning and conservation work, which was accomplished at the Straus Center for Conservation at Harvard University.

“It’s a very interesting piece, and we’re still learning about it. It will be a very important resource for teaching,” says Muehlig. “This acquisition, although it is a big investment, will have a significant impact on the museum collection and address one of our major goals—to acquire a medieval or German Renaissance work.”

Members of the art history faculty are equally enthusiastic about the triptych. Associate Professor John Moore wrote in an e-mail to Muehlig:

“The scale, the patronage history, and many other aspects of the Bruyn altarpiece would make it a truly wonderful addition to our collection. Apart from the altarpiece’s intrinsic artistic qualities, the issues … with respect to conservation and provenance would also make a great object lesson for teaching, especially in the Western survey class. … This altarpiece would look spectacular in our galleries and add immensely to the treasures we already have.”

The altarpiece remains on view through May 27, 2007, in the Museum of Art’s third-floor Ketcham Gallery.

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