Jan MASSYS, “Allegory of Charity”


(Antwerp, 1509 - 1575)

Allegory of Charity

Oil on panel, 140.5 x 111.5 cm


Jan Massys had particular interest in depicting the female figure. He is perhaps best known for his semi-nude, often heavily bejewelled women impersonating Susanna, Judith, Venus, the daughters of Lot or, in this painting, the personification of Charity. The artist’s characters often sit or stand in a setting with palaces, balustrades or exotic luxurious locations in the background, like the figure of Charity in front of a palm tree.

The theme of Charity allowed Massys to explore the Mannerist maxim of dynamic intertwining of forms, though he never fully overcame the stiff poses of the prior generation and his smooth, enamel-like technique is forever rooted in the style of his father. The present depiction of Charity is seen as inspired by Italian classical forms, such as the “Madonna and child” by Andrea Solario, a copy of which is held in the National Gallery, London, England; or the slightly smaller but very similar Charity in the Palazzo Bianco in Genoa, Italy that has been associated with Raphael’s “Madonna dell’Impannata” in Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Italy.

The Christian Charity is part of Christian iconography, at least since the Renaissance. In the focus of this allegory are the contrasting aspects of human love versus divine love; the former is intended to illustrate the fragility of human love, and the latter the immortal love of the human soul.

During the Counter Reformation the theme of a beautiful woman nursing her child was undoubtedly considered to be an allegory of Charity or Love. However, a woman could also represent a personification of the Roman Catholic Church, her children representing the human soul hungry for spiritual nourishment provided only by the Church’s sacraments. That was an undeniably powerful Catholic doctrine rejected by most Protestant denominations.


Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 14-15 June 1920;

Important private collection, Zürich, Switzerland.


U. Thieme and F. Becker, Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. 37, Leipzig, 1930, vol XXIV, p. 227;

M. J. Friedländer, Die altniederländische Malerei, Berlin/Leiden 1936, vol XIII, p. 144, no. 39;

M. J. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, Leiden/Brussels 1975, vol XIII, p.77, no. 39, reproduced plate 20;

L. Buijnsters-Smets, Jan Massys een Antwerps schilder uit de zestiende eeuw, Zwolle 1995, pp.180-1, cat. no. 26, reproduced in colour p. 121;

The Exhibition “Art Rules” organized by Art-Life Project in Tallinn Town Hall, 5 June 2015 – 5 October 2015, Estonia


Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 14-15 June 1920;

The Exhibition “Art Rules” organized by Art-Life Project in Tallinn Town Hall, 5 June 2015 – 5 October 2015, Estonia.

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