- Drama and Devotion: Heemskerck’s Ecce Homo Altarpiece from Warsaw by Anne T. Woollett, Yvonne Szafran, and Alan Phenix
This beautifully illustrated book is a comprehensive study of an Ecce Homo altarpiece by the Dutch artist Maerten van Heemskerck (1498–1574) that has recently undergone conservation treatment at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The triptych features Pontius Pilate presenting a tortured and bound Christ to a [End Page 362] crowd that calls for his crucifixion in the central panel. On the outer panels, Heemskerck depicted the pious commissioners with their namesakes, St. John the Evangelist and St. Margaret of Antioch. These same saints were also represented in grisaille on the opposite sides of the outer panels and would have been visible when the altarpiece was closed. This artwork is historically significant and worthy of study due to its survival. As the fervor of the Reformation gained increasing intensity in the sixteenth century, Heemskerck’s 1544 altarpiece could have easily been destroyed by iconoclasts in the Netherlands. The altarpiece is also noteworthy because its artist is an important figure in Renaissance art history. Anyone who has taken a Renaissance art history course will recognize his name due the drawings he produced while he was in Rome as a young artist that depicted the early construction of the New St. Peter’s Basilica, ancient Roman ruins, and Roman collections of antiquities. This new publication about the Ecce Homo altarpiece provides a more comprehensive examination of the artist beyond his Roman drawings.
The altarpiece is part of the collection of the National Museum of Warsaw, but through collaboration between the two institutions, Getty conservators removed dirt and discolored varnish in order to reveal the altarpiece’s vibrant colors. Such collaborations between the Getty and other art institutions have provided opportunities for the Getty to display extraordinary artworks, while ensuring that these artworks are preserved and stabilized. Other recent examples of these types of collaborations include a 2006 exhibition of ancient Roman mosaics through collaboration with the Institut National du Patrimoine in Tunisia and a 2011 exhibition of a bronze sculpture of Apollo as Archer through collaboration with the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. One hopes that these partnerships involving both ancient and early modern artworks will continue, as it provides opportunities for those in Los Angeles to view artworks from global collections in newly-restored condition.
Once the conservation treatment of Heemskerck’s altarpiece was complete, it was displayed in an exhibition at the Getty Center from June 2012 until April 2013. The publication under consideration in this review accompanied the exhibition and explores in greater depth many of the exhibition’s themes: the life and work of Maerten van Heemskerck, the altarpiece’s style, iconography, and historical context, and information about the conservation treatments. Although the exhibition is now closed, the exhibition website is still available online at www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/heemskerck and includes useful links, as well as a video of the altarpiece being opened and closed.
Like many Getty publications, the design of the catalogue and color images within the publication are striking and impressive. The publication’s focus on a single artwork is reminiscent of other notable monographs published by the Getty related to objects in their own collections, such as Dawson W. Carr’s Andrea Mantegna: The Adoration of the Magi (Getty 1997), Elizabeth Cropper’s Pontormo: Portrait of a Halberdier (Getty 1997), and Eliot W. Rowlands’s Masaccio: Saint Andrew and the Pisa Altarpiece (Getty 2003). One of the most striking features of the publication design is the inclusion of a fold out photograph of the altarpiece next to the title page that allows the reader to open and close the altarpiece. This interactive element demonstrates the glorious color of the opened altarpiece in contrast to the more somber grisaille [End Page 363] of the closed altarpiece. Following the title page, the text is organized into two substantial essays. The first essay, “A Renaissance Altarpiece Revealed” by Getty paintings’ curator Anne T...