Triptych

Triptych left panelTriptych centre panelTriptych right panel

The triptych over the altar in the Chapel is attributed to the unknown Master of the View of Sainte-Gudule. [J.M. Massing, Three panels by the Master of the View of Ste-Gudule in the Chapel of Queens’ College, Cambridge, in The Burlington Magazine 133 (Oct 1991), pp. 690–​3]

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, with the Journey to Emmaus in the background.

The wood panels were probably painted in the 1480s, and are probably the remnants of a much larger altar-piece. There are significant similarities between these panels and panels of an altar-piece at the Bowes Museum: for instance, see the Resurrection there, and the figures in the background of their Agony in the Garden are a mirror-image of the Betrayal at Queens’.

It is not known for certain how and when the triptych panels came to the College. 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 a college inventory of 1717. [QC Old Lib MS75 p. 144]

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.
[Vertue’s note book A.y.y. (British Museum, Add. MS. 23,073); The Volume of the Walpole Society, Vol. 26, Vertue note books: Volume V (1937–​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.
[A Narrative of Three Years’ Residence in France, Vol 2, pp. 341–​2, Anne Plumptre, 1810]

Her speculation was reproduced uncritically by subsequent historians, but unfortunately her conjecture was completely ill-founded: the panels were 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
[A catalogue of the several pictures in the public library and respective colleges, in the University of Cambridge, by Robert Masters, 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 erected as part of a reredos over the altar of the new college chapel by architect George Bodley in 1891.

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

St CatherineSt GeorgeSt Barbara

These can be seen only when the triptych panels are taken down from their frames. They now suffer from considerable loss of paint, but have been stabilised as seen here.

The rear panels represent:

It is probable that these panels were originally part of a larger altar-piece, with the panels hinged, so that, when closed, the saints appeared to be on guard.

Further reading

1988: Le Maître à la vue de Sainte-Gudule: Contribution à l’étude critique de son œuvre, by Hélène Dubois. (OCLC 845084940) [thesis, 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]

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]