Artists employed by the Dukes of Burgundy in the 15th and early 16th centuries were not only occupied with painting portraits and devotional subjects, but were also called upon from time to time to travel on diplomatic missions—and to create art along the way.
Jan van Eyck (c. 1390–1441), the most famous of the early Netherlandish painters, undertook a number of diplomatic missions abroad on behalf of Duke Philip the Good, including one to Lisbon in 1428 to explore the possibility of a marriage contract between the duke and the Portuguese infanta, Isabella. Jan painted two portraits of the princess (now lost) to send back to the duke for his consideration while the marriage negotiations were under way.
Another painter who traveled on behalf of the dukes was the celebrated Jan Gossart (1478–1532). Gossart's chief patron was Philip of Burgundy, the bastard son of Philip the Good. In 1508, Margaret of Austria, the regent of the Netherlands, sent Philip, then her trusted courtier, to Rome to discuss matters of state with Pope Julius II. Gossart was hired to join the entourage with the specific assignment of drawing the ancient sculpture and monuments that they encountered there.
Only a handful of the drawings that Gossart made have survived; among them is the Spinario (above left), drawn after the Greco-Roman bronze sculpture in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, now part of the Musei Capitolini, where it still stands today (above right).
Pope Julius II was an avid collector of antique sculpture, acquiring pieces as they were excavated. Among his most prized acquisitions was the marble statue of Laocoön and his two sons strangled by snakes, a monumental piece unearthed in Rome in 1506, just two years before Gossart's arrival in the Eternal City. Although no drawing by Gossart of this renowned marble survives, its impact on the artist can be seen in several of his later drawings and paintings of both mythological and religious subject matter.
Perhaps the most keenly affecting of these is the diminutive Christ Carrying the Cross, now on view in gallery 624 along with other new acquisitions. Christ's contorted pose is clearly influenced by that of Laocoön, and the two figures share a mood of pain and sacrifice, so poignantly conveyed in both the sculpture and the painting.
Now at The Met: View all blog articles related to this exhibition.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: "Jan Gossart (ca. 1478–1532) and His Circle"