The Master of Flémalle
The Master of Flémalle (Robert Campin) Active c.1420-40. Triptych: The Entombment, The Two Thieves On The Cross With A Donor, The Resurrection. Oak Panel, c.1420.

The painting is replete with layers of meaning recalling the liturgy of Holy Week and the Eucharist. The key is the tomb, which is clearly also an altar, with Christ’s shroud serving as the altar cloth, a symbol of the Eucharist and a reminder that some of the earliest Christian services were masses held at the tombs in cemeteries. Further reference to Christ’s sacrifce and to the miracle of the Eucharist is provided by the tearful angels holding the Instruments of the Passion, and by the gesso relief of vines and grapes on the gold background.

The viewer’s world is represented by the donor and his little dog. It has been suggested that he is dressed in pilgrims’ robes and, if so, the mysterious path winding into the background represents the pilgrimage road to Jerusalem. The triptych form divides the three scenes, but they are united by the gold background and by details such as the angel on the left looking at the donor and the fence which winds its way round the three panels.

I also have a more personal reason for choosing this picture, for it was my father, Arthur Kauffmann, who, together with a group of other German refugee dealers including Grete Ring, Alfred Scharf, Franz Drey, Henry Roland and Gustav Delbanco, sold it to Count Seilern in 1942. It had been auctioned at Christie’s as by Adriaen Isenbrandt (active 1510; d.1551); my father’s attribution was based on his knowledge of the panels in the Staedelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt, thought to have come from the Abbey of Flémalle, near Liege, from which the artist’s name was derived. Some thirty years later, I reminded Count Seilern of the dealers from whom he had bought the triptych. 'Ah yes’, he smiled, 'I called them the fondazione dei tedeschi’.

Michael Kauffmann
Director of the Institute 1985-95