Triptych

The triptych over the altar in the Chapel dates from the 1480s and is attributed to the unknown Master of the View of Sainte-Gudule. [1988; 1989; 1991]

Triptych left panel
Triptych centre panel
Triptych right panel

The scenes depicted in each panel are:

  1. The Betrayal, with the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mount of Olives) in the background.
  2. The Resurrection, with the Appearance to Mary Magdalene in the background.
  3. The Appearance to the Disciples (and Mary Magdalene, lower left), with the Journey to Emmaus in the background.

The wood panels are probably the remnants of a much larger altarpiece. This belief stems from (a) the panels being painted on both sides; and (b) the panels being similar to double-sided painted panels on other known early Flemish altar-pieces, such as:

Such altarpieces consisted of a carved wood central panel, with wing panels painted on both sides, on hinges, that could be folded over to close off the central carved wood panel. Being painted on both sides, the panels displayed images in both configurations.

Chronology of the panels

It is not known for certain how and when the triptych panels came to the College [but see Woods 2002]. It seems improbable that, had they been in college then, they could have survived the visit of the iconoclast William Dowsing in December 1643. The earliest reference to the triptych so far found is in an inventory of the Long Gallery taken in March 1717: [QC Old Lib MS75 p. 144]

A Picture of the Passion of our Sav.

In his notebook for 1741–52, George Vertue recorded seeing:

Cambridge At Queens Coll. in the Masters Lodge large flat paintings in oyl after the manner of Albert Dure representing several of our Saviours Miracles. [1938 p. 19]

Anne Plumptre, daughter of Robert Plumptre, President of Queens’ 1760–​88, in comparing the Queens’ triptych with a four-panel artwork in the cathedral at Aix, recollected that the Queens’ triptych had been mounted at the end of the Long Gallery when she had been a child in the Lodge. She went on to speculate:

It seems by no means an ill-founded conjecture that the picture in Queen’s lodge was given by the foundress of the college, Margaret of Anjou, the daughter of king Renè, and wife of our Henry the Sixth, to ornament the chapel; but on the overthrow of the Catholic religion, when pictures were no longer allowed in the chapel, was removed to the lodge. [Plumptre, 1810, Vol 2, pp. 341–​2]

Her speculation was reproduced uncritically by subsequent historians, but unfortunately her conjecture was completely ill-founded: the panels are now considered to have been painted long after Margaret has been deposed from the crown, and possibly even after her death in 1482.

In 1790, the triptych was described as:

A curious Altar Piece from the Chapel in 3 Pannels, Judas betraying our Saviour, the Resurrection, and Christ appearing to the Apostles after the Resurrection. … These Pictures are very much in the style of Martin Schoen, they are in the highest possible preservation, and are a most invaluable curiosity [1790, p. 20]

This text, and its suggested attribution, were reproduced uncritically in subsequent guide-books and histories. For the reason given above, it is improbable that the triptych panels were in the old college chapel.

The triptych was incorporated into the reredos over the altar of the new college chapel by architect George Frederick Bodley in 1891.

In the Illustrated History by Browne & Seltman, the attribution to Schoene was doubted [1951].

In 1982, when one of the panels was taken down from the reredos for conservation, the paintings on the back of the panels were re-discovered. The subsequent investigation led to the re-attribution of the panels to the “Master of the View of Sainte Gudule [1983; 1988; 1991].

In 1993, after the panels had been restored, they formed the centrepiece of the ‘Splendours of Flanders’ exhibition in the Fitzwilliam Museum, where it was possible to see both sides of the panels for the first, and only, time.

The reverse sides of the panels

On the reverse of each panel, there are depictions of saints:

St Catherine
St George
St Barbara

The rear panels represent:

They now suffer from considerable loss of paint, but have been stabilised as seen above. These panels have not been seen since 1993.

Altarpieces with similar panels by the same artist

These altarpieces provide a guide to the possible design of a former altarpiece from which the three panels at Queens’ survive.

The “Flemish Altarpiece” at the Bowes Museum.

Photo of altarpiece at Bowes Museum
Bowes Altarpiece with side panels open.

Upper row:

  • Painted: God the Father (mirror-image at Geel)
  • Painted: Adoration of the Magi

Lower row (the Passion):

  • Painted: Gethsemane (similar to Geel)
  • Painted: Pontius Pilate
  • Carved: Flagellation
  • Carved: Crown of Thorns / Carrying the Cross
  • Carved: Crucifixion
  • Carved: Deposition
  • Carved: Entombment
  • Painted: Resurrection (similar to Queens’)
  • Painted: Appearance to the Disciples

Photo of altarpiece at Bowes Museum
Bowes Altarpiece with side panels closed.

Upper row:

  • St Anthony (similar to Geel)
  • Family of Zebedee

Lower row:

  • St Gregory
  • St Jerome
  • St Augustine
  • St Ambrose
The “Altarpiece of the Passion” at Sint-Dimpnakerk, Geel, Belgium

Photo of altarpiece at St Dymphna, Geel, Belgium
Geel Altarpiece with side panels open

Upper row:

  • Painted: Jesus with Mary
  • Painted: God the Father (mirror-image at Bowes)

Lower row (the Passion):

  • Painted: Gethsemane (similar to Bowes)
  • Painted: Betrayal (re-arrangement of same at Queens’)
  • Carved: Flagellation
  • Carved: Crucifixion
  • Carved: Deposition
  • Painted: Appearance to the Disciples
  • Painted: Pentecost

Photo of altarpiece at St Dymphna, Geel, Belgium
Geel Altarpiece with side panels closed

Upper row:

  • St Anthony (similar to Bowes)
  • St Nicholas

Lower row:

  • St George
  • St Catherine
  • St Barbara
  • St Adrian

The first three of these saints are the same saints as depicted at Queens’, in different poses.

Layout of possible altarpiece with Queens’ panels

A conjectural outline of the altarpiece from which the Queens’ panels survive, based on similar Flemish or Netherlandish altarpieces:

Possible design of altarpiece from which Queens’ panels survive - open
Possible source altarpiece - open

Lower row (the Passion):

  • Painted: Betrayal
  • Painted: (unknown)
  • Carved: (unknown, probably Crucifixion)
  • Painted: Resurrection (similar to Bowes)
  • Painted: Appearance to the Disciples

Possible design of altarpiece from which Queens’ panels survive - closed
Possible source altarpiece - closed

Lower row:

  • (unknown)
  • St Catherine
  • St Barbara
  • St George

References and Further Reading

1790: A catalogue of the several pictures in the public library and respective colleges, in the University of Cambridge, by A Gentleman of the University, p. 20. (OCLC 390916796)

1810: A Narrative of Three Years’ Residence in France, by Anne Plumptre, Vol 2, pp. 341–​2. (OCLC 2949362)

1938: Vertue’s note book A.y.y. (British Museum, Add. MS. 23,073), in Vertue note books: Volume V, The Volume of the Walpole Society, Vol. 26, p. 19. (OCLC 3266645)

1951: A Pictorial History of the Queen’s College of Saint Margaret and Saint Bernard, commonly called Queens’ College Cambridge, 1448–​1948, by Archibald Douglas Browne (1889–​1977) & Charles Theodore Seltman, plates 110–​113. (OCLC 7790464)

1983: The College Pictures, by Peter Spufford, in Queens’ College Record 1983, p. 7.

1988: Le Maître à la vue de Sainte-Gudule: Contribution à l’étude critique de son œuvre, by Hélène Dubois, Mémoire de Licence, Université Libre de Bruxelles. (OCLC 845084940) [2 vols] 

1989: Sources d’inspiration du Maître à la Vue de Sainte Gudule et de son atelier, by Hélène Dubois, in Annales d’Histoire de l’Art et d’Archéologie, Vol. XI, pp. 39–​52. (ISSN 0771-2723) [includes chapel triptych] 

1990: The Triptych, by Peter Spufford, in Queens’ College Record 1990, pp. 10–​11.

1991: Three panels by the Master of the View of Ste-Gudule in the Chapel of Queens’ College, Cambridge, by Jean Michel Massing, The Burlington Magazine 133 (Oct 1991), pp. 690–​3. (ISSN 0007-6287)

1993: Splendours of Flanders: Late medieval art in Cambridge collections, by Alain Arnould and Jean Michel Massing, with contributions from Peter Spufford [Fellow] and Mark Alistair Sinclair Blackburn. (ISBN 978-0-521-44157-5, 978-0-521-44692-1) [Catalogue of Fitzwilliam Museum exhibition including Queens’ triptych]

2002: The Pre-Reformation Altarpiece of Long Melford Church, by Kim W. Woods, in The Antiquaries Journal, Vol. 82, Sept. 2002, pp. 93–​104 (ISSN 0003-5815 eISSN 1758-5309) [speculative connection between Long Melford altarpiece and Queens’ triptych] 

2008: The Altarpieces in the College Chapel, by Peter Spufford, in Queens’ College Record 2008, pp. 26–​27.

2016: The Speelman Fellowship and Netherlandish Art in Cambridge, by Jean Michel Massing & Meredith McNeill Hale, in Cambridge and the Study of Netherlandish Art, ed. Meredith McNeill Hale, pp. 15–​45. (ISBN 978-2-503-56634-4)