The paintings of the Flemish artist Quentin Massys (c. 1465-1530) hark back to the works of his great predecessors but at the same time show an awareness of the Italian art of his own period.
Quentin Massys, also spelled Matsys or Metsys, was born in Louvain, the son of a blacksmith. He is traditionally thought to have been trained in that craft by his father. Art in Louvain while Massys was growing up was dominated by Dirk Bouts. Massys became a member of the painters' guild in Antwerp in 1491 and died there in 1530. He represented a current of painting that flourished in Antwerp at this time of its sudden new prosperity. Erwin Panofsky (1953) described this trend, "archaism of around 1500," as "a prelude to, in fact a fact of, the Renaissance in Netherlandish painting," which prevailed in the southern Netherlands.
The monumental Enthroned Madonna (Brussels), an early work by Massys, has features recalling both Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck. The central panel of Massys' imposing St. Anne Altarpiece, or the Holy Kinship (Brussels), which was commissioned for the church of St-Pierre in Louvain in 1507 and signed and dated 1509, has a prototype in the Holy Kinship of Geertgen tot Sint Jans. Even the physical types and costumes in Massys' version refer to Geertgen's. But Massys placed his rhythmically balanced figure groups in a domed, arcaded loggia that in architectural style appears to be reaching for a Renaissance vocabulary it cannot quite attain; certainly the architecture evokes a later period than that represented by the Gothic throne of the Enthroned Madonna.
The calm and restraint of the St. Anne Altarpiece are replaced by heightened emotional expression in the next important painting by Massys that can be firmly dated, the Deposition triptych (Antwerp). This was commissioned in 1508 by the guild of joiners in Antwerp for their chapel in the Cathedral; Massys completed the composition in 1511. It was inspired by Rogier van der Weyden's great Deposition, which was in the church of St-Pierre in Louvain in Massys' time, and also quotes from Rogier's Entombment.
Massys painted genre subjects, possibly with emblematic meaning, such as A Money Changer and His Wife, which belonged to a Netherlandish tradition that maintained its popularity right through the 17th century. In portraiture he made significant contributions. His pair of portraits of Erasmus and Petrus Aegidius, painted in 1517 for Sir Thomas More, set the pattern for representations of the scholar in his study.
The physiognomic types and soft modeling in some of Massy's late paintings, particularly Madonnas, as well as the grotesque quality of some of his portraits, have led to the supposition that he was familiar with works by Leonardo da Vinci. The Renaissance types of architecture and ornament with which Massys embellished his later works give proof of his interest in the new developments in Italian art, which, however, always remained foreign to him.
Further Reading on Quentin Massys
Massys is dealt with in Max J. Friedlaender, From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting (1921; trans. 1956; rev. ed. 1965), and Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting, Its Origins and Character (2 vols., 1953).