Ambrosius Benson: Rest on the Flight into Egypt

Ambrosius Benson, perhaps originally called Benzone, was born in Lombardy, but went to the Low Countries for his training, and served his apprenticeship with the Early Netherlandish painter Gerard David. In consequence, his works are a unique amalgamation of Netherlandish and Italian Renaissance influences. He perhaps moved to Bruges c. 1515, and he is first mentioned in the Bruges records on August 21, 1519, having emerged from his apprenticeship and become a freemaster in the Bruges guild of painters and saddlemakers. He later became dean of the painters’ guild in 1537–38 and 1543–44, and is also on record as having purchased a house, paying half of its price in paintings, and marrying a local girl, Anna Ghyselin. He had two sons with her, Jan and Willem, both of whom became painters. He also had a daughter Anna from a second marriage, and is believed to have had at least two other daughters from extra-marital affairs.

Benson’s association with David is revealed at the point when it came unstuck in 1519, because the two men took each other to court. David had impounded two chests containing various designs, patterns, and at least four paintings that belonged to Benson and two other Bruges painters, Adriaen Isenbrant and Albert Cornelis. The studies and patterns were essential reference material for a practicing painter, so this was important. But Benson owed David a good deal of money, which is why the latter had distrained on the two chests. On January 28, 1520, David was imprisoned for impounding the chests, but Benson was sentenced to work at David’s workshop until he repaid the debt, suggesting that the magistrates saw both men as having been at fault.

Benson evidently had strong connections to the Spanish merchant community in Bruges, since he received many commissions from them. So many of his pictures were sent to Spain that in a study of his paintings made in 1886, they were attributed to a ‘Master of Segovia’.  The fact that much of the artist’s oeuvre is to be found in Spain seems to be entirely due to 16th-century trading routes and in particular, to the flourishing commercial relations between Spain and the so-called Spanish Netherlands, since there is no record of a trip by the artist to the Iberian peninsula.  His identity was revealed by detective work, which began with the discovery of a monogram, “A4B” on the Saint Anthony of Padua Altarpiece in Brussels (in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique). Max J. Friedländer found a Holy Family in a private collection that had the same monogram, and Hulin de Loo then connected the two monograms and linked them to the name Ambrosius Benson, which he found in the register of the Guild of Saint Luke in Bruges.  

Only two works are ascribed to Benson with relative certainty: the 1527 Holy Family in the Groeningemuseum, Bruges and the Saint Anthony triptych in Brussels, both of which have AB monograms, and these provide the basis for all other attributions. Most paintings in Benson’s oeuvre are ascribed to him because of stylistic resemblances to these two works or because they are strongly influenced by the style and composition of Gerard David’s work. However, Benson sometimes collaborated with Adriaen Isenbrant, who had also worked with David, and whose oeuvre is equally problematic. They appear to have exchanged patterns and compositions, making it particularly difficult to assign paintings to one or the other. Generally, Benson’s style comprises elements from Bruges art, and in particular from Gerard David’s paintings, together with Italian stylistic influences. Some of his motifs—such as Mary Magdalen reading or with an ointment jar—are typical Bruges themes, which were relatively old-fashioned and traditional in the early sixteenth century, compared to more progressive trends in Antwerp.

One theme which evidently became particularly dear to Benson is that of a woman with a book in her hands. He painted several ‘Reading Magdalens’, and several more of ‘the Persian Sybil’, who is also shown reading. The Madonna and Child at Campion Hall is therefore typical of his oeuvre in that it shows a red-draped Virgin holding a large book so that she and the Christ Child, sitting on her knee, can both look at it. The Child is helping her to hold it, and his invisible right hand may be turning a page. The book is folio, suggesting that it may represent the Old Testament, the book of the law.

The landscape behind the figure of the Virgin includes a number of interesting details. Behind her left shoulder, a stand of corn has grown six feet high, concealing the Holy Family from the soldiers who are pursuing them: a peasant points out their direction to one of the pursuivants, doubtless mendaciously: this is an episode from the apocrypha which is quite often represented in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century pictures.  To her right, a peasant has been threshing, separating the wheat from the chaff (Matthew 3:12), and in the farmyard, rather surprisingly, there is a peacock, with his tail spread, a symbol of the Passion. A path zigzags from the cornfield to the farmhouse and back across the painting; on it, the Holy Family are proceeding quietly on their journey.