From Estonia to Castile, a master of devotional art

First slide

The National Gallery of Art in Washington owns two of the best-preserved pictures by the Estonian artist Michel Sittow. One is the tiny “Assumption of the Virgin” set in a landscape evocative of Castile in Spain. The other is a portrait of the much-traveled diplomat Diego de Guevara. Both can be seen in a new light, as works of art and statements of faith, in an exhibit at the National Gallery marking the 100th anniversary of the founding of Estonia.

Sittow was born in the Baltic port of Reval, now Tallinn, capital of Estonia, in 1469, and died there in 1529. Between those dates he traveled to complete his formation in Bruges (now Belgium), the artistic center of northern Europe where oil painting was first perfected. He served the Most Catholic Monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon after they had unified Spain, and worked at the courts of Copenhagen, the dukes of Burgundy, and other major centers of power. His death came just before Martin Luther’s Augsburg Confession of 1530 turned dissent into a permanent rift in Christendom.

Ascension and Assumption

The Assumption and its companion, the Ascension of Christ, belonged to a 47-part altarpiece that Queen Isabella commissioned around 1500 from Sittow, who had become her court painter in 1492, and another Flemish-trained artist known as “Juan de Flandes.” It was probably unfinished at her death in 1504, and the small panels were disbursed soon afterward.

By the 1520s, the Assumption of Mary and the Ascension of Christ were cherished parts of the art collection of Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Hapsburg-ruled Netherlands. Now, the two pictures, Sittow’s only documented works, hang side by side again.

The two pictures help us understand how the two holiest persons of Christianity were translated corporeally into heaven in distinct ways. Mary stands with hands folded in prayer as six angels with robes of contrasting colors lift her toward a golden opening in the clouds. There three more angels crown her Queen of Heaven. The crescent moon under her feet and the crown identify her as the “Woman clothed in the Sun” described in Revelation 12:1, a passage often identified with Mary’s Immaculate Conception. 

A devotional diptych

While those two panels may once have been framed together, the portrait of Diego de Guevara definitely belonged to such a diptych, dated c. 1515-18, and the exhibit reunites the two wings for only the second time in nearly 500 years. To Diego’s right hangs an image of the Virgin and Child loaned from Berlin.

The Virgin is subtly larger than the man. Her child reaches up to tenderly touch her chin and she looks down. In his right hand, Christ holds a goldfinch, associated with the future Passion due to that bird’s love of thistle seeds (think: crown of thorns).

Diego de Guevara, a Spanish-born diplomat who served the Dukes of Burgundy for four decades, wears a white shirt and brocaded doublet, but the lovingly painted lynx pelt of his collar is what arrests our gaze. The buttons on his robe are decorated with thistles. What is unique about this portrait is the melancholy demeanor, unlike any other portrait by a Netherlandish painter in the time — a level of insight that heralds Rembrandt.

To quote curator John Oliver Hand, “Perhaps because he is contemplating Christ’s future sacrifice and the Virgin’s attendant sorrow, the donor’s expression is imbued with an ineffable pensiveness and restrained sadness that is all the more powerful in defying exact definition.”

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018