Fritz Mayer van den Bergh was a 19th-century art collector with an eye for a bargain. He picked up Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s now-famous “Dulle Griet” (or “Mad Meg” to English speakers) at a Cologne auction for about 500 francs, the same year Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts bought Rubens’ “Prodigal Son” for approximately 45,000 francs.
The obsessed Antwerp art collector who left us thousands of works and bought “Dulle Griet” for a song
The Antwerp-based collector also bought a number of alabaster sculptures, such as "The Arrest of Jesus" from the first quarter of the 14th century, at a time when there was little interest among private collectors for this type of work. The self-taught expert built up an impressive collection of paintings, sculptures and many other artworks, all of which is today kept at Antwerp's Museum Mayer van den Bergh.
The museum, home to about 5,000 pieces, mainly from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, is one of those that you visit and simply wonder why on earth it isn't better known. Every nook and cranny of the house, built in a Gothic Revival style, hides another treasure. Its collection of sculptures is the second most important in Belgium, after that of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels.
Mayer van den Bergh had always wanted to house his entire collection in a museum, but his untimely death in 1901 when he was his early 40s (he is believed to have fallen from a horse and then died from a wound) meant he never achieved this wish during his lifetime. It was his mother Henriëtte who realised the dream, employing an Antwerp architect to design the museum next door to the family residence.
Mayer van den Bergh lived with his mother in this home until his death, prompting speculation as to why he didn't marry. My guide around the museum said he did have a girlfriend in Kortrijk, but she apparently wasn't of a high enough social standing in the eyes of his mother, who was the daughter of a senator and who married into a large pharmaceutical family.
A portrait of Henriëtte Mayer van den Bergh hangs in the ground floor of the museum: It depicts a very stern-looking woman, one who could have easily put off any potential daughter-in-law. The museum's collection is vast, covering many centuries and ranging from paintings to woodcarvings and from tapestries to illuminated manuscripts, so there's no way you can see it all properly in one go. To help visitors navigate their way around, the museum has put together thematic tours concentrating, for example, on portraits or on works depicting saints or angels. It's a useful way to narrow the focus of your visit.
Among my favourite exhibits are the small-scale mediaeval sculptures in marble, ivory and alabaster, each carved in exquisite detail. "The Arrest of Jesus" is one example of how a succession of scenes are related in one small piece, with the apostle Peter cutting off the ear of a man knelt in the foreground, Jesus healing the wound by laying his hand on him and Judas, meanwhile, kissing Jesus' cheek. This piece was one of several hundred that had belonged to Carlo Micheli, a keen collector of mediaeval miniature sculptures who had worked in the Louvre's moulding workshop. When Micheli died, his daughter put the entire collection up for sale.
The "all or nothing" approach meant that the 451 works were beyond Mayer van den Bergh's budget, but he borrowed some money and bought the lot in 1898, facing off competition from the Louvre and the Jubelpark Museum in Brussels. He later sold over half the pieces. The museum, which opened in 1904, claims to be the world's first to have been built around an existing collection. The fact of it being the collection of one man also means that it cannot acquire new works.
That said, the rules were bent in 2006 for a portrait painted by Cornelis de Vos. Four in a series of individual family portraits were already in the Mayer van den Bergh collection, and so when a missing portrait of one of the daughters turned up, it seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. To circumvent the rules, the painting was bought by the King Boudewijn Foundation and loaned to the museum. The series, commissioned by the wealthy Antwerp merchant Joris Vekemans (1590-1625), gives a wonderful insight into the luxurious clothing worn by the parents and children of a well-to-do family at the time.
Another must-see is the Gothic Room, where you find Juan de Flandes' "Herod's Banquet", a recently restored side panel from the artist's Miraflores altarpiece, painted around 1500 for Isabella of Castile. The panel, which is one of five parts, shows the head of John the Baptist being presented by Salome to Herod and Herodias. Despite the title describing the scene as a banquet, there are no other guests or musicians present, and the long white dining table is empty but for the plate bearing the bloody head. The centrepiece of the polyptych is in a private collection in Madrid, while the other side panels are to be found in the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Museum of Art and History in Geneva and the National Museum of Belgrade, the latter only being discovered in 2003 during an inventory.
The four side panels were temporarily reunited at the end of last year during an exhibition at the Museum Mayer van den Bergh focusing on Juan de Flandes and the Miraflores altarpiece. In between such major exhibitions, the museum puts on smaller displays such as its upcoming De Burcht: Verdwenen stadskern van Antwerpen (The Vanished City Centre of Antwerp), objects dug up from this old centre of Antwerp alongside watercolours and drawings of the district.
Entrance tickets for the museum can be bought separately or as part of a combined ticket for the Mayer van den Bergh museum and the Rubens House. www.tinyurl.com/mayervdb
Pictured: One of Belgium's biggest art draws, Pieter Bruegel the Elder's "Dulle Griet" hangs in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh