Geertgen tot Sint Jans (ca. 1460-1490) is one of the most beloved Netherlandish primitive painters, noted for his charming naiveté and the purity and simplicity of his style.
The principal source of knowledge concerning Geertgen tot Sint Jans, also called Geertgen van Haarlem, is the Dutch biographer Karel van Mander, who wrote about him in 1604. According to Van Mander, Geertgen was born and lived in Haarlem and was a lay brother in the local Order of St. John as well as a pupil of Albert van Ouwater. Van Mander records that Geertgen died at the age of 28. More recent discoveries, however, suggest that he was actually born in Leiden and that he served a portion of his apprenticeship in Flanders, probably at Bruges. In any case, his paintings display a marked Flemish influence, especially from the works of Hugo van der Goes.
The earliest painting attributed to Geertgen is the Holy Kinship (ca. 1480), which shows a strong reliance upon Van Ouwater both in the treatment of the static, doll-like figures and in the construction of the luminous architectural setting. Geertgen's Adoration of the Magi in Cleveland, from a few years later, reveals the added inspiration of Van der Goes for the composition and the quality of the continuous landscape recession.
Geertgen's later works are characterized by feelings of intense devotion as well as increasing formal innovation. A small Nativity in London, for example, is not only profoundly emotive but highly original, representing as it does the first true nocturne in Western art. In much the same way, the famous St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness is expressive of deep religious sentiment yet also reveals the "most advanced conception of landscape to appear in 15th-century Flemish painting" (Charles D. Cuttler, 1968). For the high altar of the Commandery of the Order of St. John in Haarlem, Geertgen executed a gigantic altarpiece of which two major fragments survive. Entitled the Lamentation and the Burning of the Bones of John the Baptist, these works are noted for their unified landscape spaces and the contrived and elaborate grouping of the figures. A section of the latter painting, in particular, contains the first posed group portrait in Dutch art, the persons depicted being members of the artist's own monastic community.
Geertgen's late style is represented by the painting Man of Sorrows. In this shockingly original and emotional panel, the brutally beaten figure of Christ, surrounded by the instruments of his Passion, is posed against a stark gold background that transports the event outside of earthly time and space. In this, one of the most richly creative products of the artist's imagination, Geertgen expressed his deep individual piety and his spiritual kinship to the great religious mystics of the late Middle Ages.
There is no full-length work on Geertgen in English. With the exception of short accounts in Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting (2 vols., 1953); Charles D. Cuttler, Northern Painting (1968); and a few articles in journals, all other material on Geertgen is in German or Dutch. □