The Presentation in the Temple - Simon Bening (Bruges, 1483/1484-1561), c. 1520-1530
(76 x 45 mm.)
Rendered as an intimate scene and set within a gold bar border, the Presentation takes place in a side-chapel or sanctuary closed off by green curtains. Mary and Simeon appear in the foreground with the Christ Child held over a round altar-like table draped with a cloth. In the foreground is the basket of doves, Joseph is behind Mary and next to Mary is a sombre-faced Anna. At Anna's side stands a double-chinned man wearing a hat while he helps her hold the lit candle. In the background are the partial heads of two women with contemporary headdress and another man. Set within a gold bar border, the miniature is trimmed to the edge of the border and displays light wear.
This extremely accomplished small-scale miniature, previously unknown and unrecorded, is by Simon Bening (1483/4-1561), "the last great illuminator of the Flemish school" (Kren, 2003). Here he provides typically dramatic "close-up views" of the Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple which bear close relation to his rendering of the subjects in masterpieces such as the Chester Beatty Rosarium and the Stein Quadryptich. Judith Testa writes of Bening's "highly refined and personal style," including "figures with emotionally expressive faces" and "the use of compact dramatic, carefully thought-out compositions," all of which is evident here.
The miniature of the Presentation in the Temple compares closely to the Beatty Rosarium miniature of the same subject and also to that of the Circumcision, as well as to the Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum MS 257a and f. 43 in the Morgan Hours MS. M. 451. Close up figures dominate the scene. In our miniature the man next to Anna is the same model as the "dour, double-chinned man" (Testa, 1986) in the Chester Beatty Circumcision miniature. The candle held by Anna and this man refers to the Candlemas procession which was held on the feast of the Presentation. The contemporary turban-like headresses on the two women in the background are found in the Presentation miniatures at the Fitzwilliam miniature and in Morgan Hours MS M. 451. Mary, Simeon, and Anna are very close to the representations in the Stein Quadryptich Circumcision scene. As noted by Testa, Simon Bening follows the basic composition of his father Alexander's rendering of the scene in the Madrid Hastings Hours (Museo Lazaro Galdiano Inv. 15503, f. 122v).
One of Bening's most significant artistic achievements was his development of the "close-up narrative," used in the Chester Beatty Rosarium, the Stein Quadriptych, and miniatures in Books of Hours. He created images that would induce the reader to meditate emphatically upon the lives of Jesus Christ and Mary... to foster not just an intellectual understanding of the events but also a personal and emotional indentification with them (Testa, 1986, p. 68). Often transforming time-worn compositions from earlier Ghent-Bruges illuminations and revitalizing the faces of the actors to convey individual character, these emotionally affective images function as aids to devotion.
Bening completed a number of miniature suites for use in small-scale Books of Hours, Rosariums, and other devotional manuscripts, similar to the one in which this miniature were once inserted, many of these for the Spanish market. Some of these include: Rosary Psalter (87 x 58 mm.; Boston Public Library, MS Med. 35, 12 miniatures; Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 257 a&b, 2 miniatures); two Miniature Books of Hours (74 x 56 and 80 x 60 mm.; New York, Morgan Library M.451 and M. 307); Imhof Prayerbook. (90 x 62 mm.; London, Christie's Arcana sale 6 July 2011, lot 26). No sister leaves of the Nativity (and Presentation) have yet come to light. Compare however the small-scale miniatures, also from an Hours, from the collection of Bernard H. Breslauer in New York (see Voelkle and Wieck, 1992).