A sculptural work recently acquired by the Rijksmuseum
has been attributed to the father of Dutch sculpture, Claus Sluter. In March this year, the museum purchased a boxwood figure of excellent quality made during the Burgundian Netherlands period (around 1384 to 1482). Research conducted into art historical and technical aspects of the work has led multiple experts to conclude that this exceptional object can be conclusively attributed to Haarlem-born Claus Sluter, who was the court sculptor to Philip the Bold in Dijon, France, from 1389 to 1406. This makes the work the first by Sluter to be held in a Dutch collection. Calvary depicts the crucifixion of Christ with Mary and John the Evangelist, and will go on display at the Rijksmuseum on 25 August 2021.
Calvary by Claus Sluter was acquired through the generous support of the Mondriaan Fund, the Vereniging Rembrandt (thanks in part to its dedicated Themafonds Beeldhouwkunst and Schoufour-Martin Fonds) and private donors via the Rijksmuseum Fonds.
Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum: The great generosity of several funds and private donors has at last made it possible for the Rijksmuseum to fulfil its long-held dream of placing on permanent public display a work by the most important early sculptor from the Netherlands, Claus Sluter.
Discovery and attribution
The Rijksmuseum bought the sculpture in spring 2021 in the firm belief that its origins could be traced to around 1400 and the world of the Burgundy court in Dijon. In the course of extensive research and consultation with multiple specialists, it gradually became clear that the sculptures striking stylistic similarities with Sluters three major works in Dijon, along with the unique juxtaposition of several specific motifs, meant that the work could only have come from the workshop of the great genius and innovator himself. The sculpture combines, for example, the characteristically naturalistic, slightly crooked tree trunk from which the arbor crucis, the cross of Christ, was made; the lioness with her cubs in a hollow beneath the tree (a rare medieval symbol for Christs resurrection); and the densely woven crown of thorns in the form of a helmet worn by the Christ figure. Moreover, using Carbon-14 analysis it was possible to establish without doubt that the boxwood used for this Calvary sculpture dates from the 14th century.
Claus Claes Sluter was born in the Dutch city of Haarlem around 1350 and he died in 1406. Sluter was one of the greatest innovators in medieval art, introducing an unprecedented level of realism into sculpture. His attention to naturalistic detail and human emotion was unparalleled in his era. In 1385, Sluter started working at the Dijon court of the Burgundian duke Philip the Bold, for whom he made three major works: the portal sculptures at Champmol monastery church near Dijon; the dukes funerary monument, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon; and the celebrated Well of Moses in Champmol. All three are key works in the history of sculpture, and the only certain works by Sluter. The discovery of this Calvary and its attribution to Sluter adds a hitherto unknown aspect to the sculptors oeuvre: that of the small work in wood. The fact that it is just 57 centimetres in height suggests it was intended for personal use in a private oratory or other sacred space, probably in the refined setting of the Burgundian court or its environs. In the mid-19th century Calvary apparently enjoyed such fame that an almost exact copy of it was made in Cologne. The copy is currently held by an English museum.
Sluter and the Rijksmuseum
In the period around 1900, art historians came to regard Sluter, with his innovative realist style, as the originator of a typically Dutch art that would culminate in 17th-century painting in general and Rembrandt in particular. It was partly for this reason that he is celebrated at no fewer than four locations in the Rijksmuseums 19th-century building: in a large tile tableau on the south facade; alongside other artists in a relief on the front of the building; in a stained glass window in the Great Hall; and in the Gallery of Honour. It was partly due to the start of the Second World War that the Rijksmuseum was unsuccessful in its attempt to buy two Sluter figurines from Philip the Bolds tomb in 1939-1940.