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To celebrate our fourth anniversary issue we are delighted to publish this special double Features bill. Our main article provides a panel-by-panel guide to the unique Pricke of Conscience window in the parish church of All Saints, North Street York, and its remarkable imagery charting the last fifteen signs before the final Judgement of humankind. It’s an ideal print out and keep companion for anyone planning to visit this fascinating church. A second article by Stign Alsteens of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York introduces readers to the stained glass designs of the important Netherlandish artist, Jan Gossaert (c. 1478–1532), whose work is the subject of a currently showing highly acclaimed exhibition at the Museum
This article takes a close look at one of the most interesting windows in England: a unique depiction of the fifteen terrifying and unnatural signs, or days, that medieval theologians believed would precede the end of the of the world – the countdown to the Apocalypse or Last Judgement of mankind.
Painted in the early fifteenth century for the parish church of All Saints, North Street, York, it is often called ‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window after a fourteenth-century poem of that name which inspired the inscriptions that once ran below each panel.
The window raises important questions about the sources for such imagery, the inscriptions that accompanied each scene and whether such inscriptions could be ‘read’ by medieval audiences.
The article concludes with a panel-by-panel guide to the window together with extracts from the poem.
The window can be found towards the eastern end of the north aisle of the church (nIII). It consists of three lights with eighteen panels arranged in six equal rows. [Fig. 1]
The bottom row of panels is reserved for some heavily restored donor images. The first of the fifteen signs appears in the bottom left panel (2a) and thereafter the scheme reads left to right upwards through five registers to end with the final sign in the top right panel (6c). The tracery lights above the main scenes continue the judgement theme of the window. A figure of Christ once occupied the central upper tracery light. The figures of St Peter welcoming the elect into Heaven on the western side and devils prodding the damned into Hell on the eastern still survive. [Figs. 1 and 2]
History of the window
The window is thought to have been made c. 1410–20 and to have been given by members of the Henryson and Hessle families who were related by marriage and part of the urban elite of medieval York. (see Further Reading: Barton; Gee).
The window was described and carefully drawn in 1670 by Henry Johnston (c.1652–1723), a local antiquarian, thus providing a valuable record of its appearance several hundred years after its installation. Unfortunately many of the inscriptions he saw below the individual scenes have since been lost. The window was restored by the talented York glazier, John Ward Knowles (1838–1931) in 1861 at the start of his long career, and releaded by him in 1877. It was cleaned in situ in 1966. (see Further Reading: Powell).
The fifteen signs of Doom: background
Sermons, texts and images relating to the fifteen signs of Doom, a medieval word for judgement, exhorted medieval audiences to mediate on the inevitable moment after their deaths when they would come face to face with Christ and learn their fate – salvation or damnation. Fear of spending hundreds of years in Purgatory suffering hideous tortures before they could enter heaven or worst still, endure eternal damnation in Hell, saw generations of worshippers donate money to churches, invest in good works, hire priests to say masses on their behalf and urge well-wishers to pray for their souls. The church also taught that the whole of mankind would eventually face a cataclysmic moment known as the Apocalypse or Last Judgement, a set of beliefs rooted in St John’s New Testament Book of Revelation and his twin visions of the end of the world followed by the creation of a ‘new heaven and earth’.
St John’s ideas were explored and refined by numerous Christian intellectuals over the next thousand years. According to one of the most widely circulated texts of the later Middle Ages, a compendium of saints’ lives and other holy ideas compiled around 1260 and known as the Legenda Aurea, (Golden Legend), fifteen ‘fearful’ signs would precede the fulfilment of St John’s prophesy. For medieval audiences accustomed to terrible events such as famines and devastating plagues, these predictions struck a receptive chord. Significantly the great east window of York Minster, made several years before the All Saints glass and within easy walking distance of the same church, had depicted St John’s vision of the Apocalypse. Nor was such imagery confined to York. A window illustrating the fifteen signs of Doom, dating from around 1388, can be seen in St Martha’s church, Nuremburg, (southern Germany), suggesting a concurrent European appeal. Later examples of the subject in stained glass can also be found in the north transept rose window at Angers Cathedral in western France (c. 1452) and in the choir of the former monastic, now parish, church at Walbourg in Alsace, assigned to the second half of the fifteenth century (Further Reading: Gilmore-House). [Figs. 3 and 4]
Predictions about the fifteen signs and the coming Apocalypse were disseminated widely through sermons, plays, popular literature, and works of art such as tapestries, sculptures, panel paintings, manuscript illuminations, woodcuts and printed block-books. Examples include, ‘a tapytre of aras of xv signes of the doom’, mentioned in an inventory of 1446 listing the contents of Ewelme Manor, the Oxfordshire home of William de la Pole (1396–1450), 1st Duke of Suffolk (see Further Reading: Goodall). Several mid-fifteenth-century carved alabaster panels depicting individual signs, now on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum (London), were probably made for a multi-scene Last Judgement altar reredos (see Further Reading: Cheetham, Nelson).
A textual source – The Pricke of Conscience
Not every version of the fifteen signs was identical and sometimes the order in which the signs were listed differed from the Golden Legend template. One of the best known manuscripts departing from this template was a poem called The Pricke of Conscience, written in English by an anonymous author (not Richard Rolle of Hampole as is sometimes suggested) around 1340. Probably intended for a clerical audience, the work was widely reproduced; over one hundred copies still survive. It comprises nine and half thousand lines in rhyming couplets , divided into seven parts or ‘books’ and ranges over themes such as the sinful nature of man, the wretchedness of the world, death, purgatory, judgement, the agonies of hell, and the bliss of heaven. The fifteen signs are described in the fifth part of the poem alongside warnings about the return of the AntiChrist, and Judgement Day. Experts believe – for the following reasons – that this section was the inspiration for the window, hence its popular name. The poem was originally written in Yorkshire and copies were known to have circulated in medieval York; the order of the signs in the window largely follow those set out in the poem rather than the Golden Legend edition and the inscriptions which accompany the scenes depicted in the window paraphrase the verses in the poem or a close version. A fourth argument cited in some of the older literature about the window, that one of the other donors of other windows to the church is known to have owned a copy of the poem by 1446, is less convincing as it postdates the commissioning of nIII by at least a quarter of a century.
The texts in the window
Apart from its unique iconography, the All Saints window is also interesting because of its once extensive accompanying inscriptions in English. Before the fifteenth century most inscriptions had been usually written in Latin with the earliest yet recorded instance of English used in stained glass a (now lost) memorial inscription to St Hugh Hastings (d. 1347) and his wife, formerly in the east window of the parish church of St Mary at Elsing in Norfolk.
The extensive nature of the All Saints inscriptions may suggest a close affinity between the donors of the window and their spiritual advisor, possibly James Baguley, the vicar of All Saints between 1413–40, and the Pricke of Conscience poem (see Further Reading: Marks).
Whether such lengthy inscriptions could be read by parishioners who viewed the window is a moot point. In some ways the literacy question may be less important than it seems. The legend of the fifteen signs was well known. It was probably preached in the church. It is likely that parishioners would have heard the story many times and would have known what was depicted in the window without being able to read the text.
Although scholars are confident about the textural source for the Pricke of Conscience window, efforts to find visual parallels for the imagery have been less successful. Slight similarities have been noted with some of the images in the lavishly illustrated Holkham ‘picture’ bible, so-named after the stately home in Norfolk where the book was kept until acquired by the British Library in 1952. According to Dr Michelle Brown, Professor of Medieval Manuscript Studies at the University of London, the Holkham manuscript was illustrated by a jobbing London artist sometime in the 1330s, just a few years before the Pricke of Conscience poem was written (see Further Reading: Brown). She has also argued that it may have been made as a model book for artists working in such fields as embroideries, tapestries and wall paintings. Just as we can reasonably assume that the artist who painted the fifteen signs of Doom in this book drew on earlier imagery for his ideas, it is also likely that later artists may have seen, copied and adapted his or similar works as they developed their own versions of the subject. By the time the All Saints window was commissioned, glass-painters in York probably had access to a range of Apocalypse-associated imagery including examples of the fifteen signs of the Doom. At Angers Cathedral a rose window design of the fifteen signs surrounding Christ in Judgement bears strong similarities with some manuscript illuminations of the period (see: Gilmore-House).
The fifteen signs of Doom at All Saints, North Street
There now follows a panel by panel guide to the windows together with the relevant verses from the poem. The text is reproduced from the 1863 publication produced by Richard Morris itself based on a manuscript in the British Library, Cottonian m.s., Galba E.ix (see Further Reading: Morris ). It is not possible to reconstruct the original inscriptions which accompanied the images as too much of the text has been lost. The window inscriptions consisted of one couplet, while those in the poem have between one, two and three. For a discussion about the text of the poem and the inscriptions in the window, together with suggested reconstructions, see Further Reading: Powell. The poem is written in a medieval version of English, known as ‘Middle English’, the name given to different forms of the English language between the late eleventh century and the second half of the fifteenth century. Although the spellings can sometimes be puzzling, a useful tip for first-time readers is to say the words aloud.
nIII, 2a The first sign: the sea rises to the height of mountains. [Fig. 5]
The se sal ryse, als the bukes says
Abouten the heght of ilka mountayne
Fully fourty cubyttes certaybne
And in his stede even upstande
Als an hegte hille dus on the lande.
nIII, 2b The second sign: sea levels fall so low that they can barely be seen. [Fig. 6]
The secunde day, the se sal be swa law
The unnethes men sal it knaw.
nIII 2c The third sign: the sea returns to normal. [Fig. 7]
The thred day the se sal seme playn
And stand even in his cours agayn
Also it stode first at the bygynnyng
With-outen mare rysng or fallyng.
nIII 3a The fourth sign: the fish make a roaring noise. [Fig. 8]
The fierth day, sal swilk a wonder be
The mast wondreful fisshes of the se
Sal com to-gyder and mak swilk roryng
That it sal be hydus til mans heryng
Bot what that roryng sal signify,
Na man whit, bot God almyghty.
nIII 3b The fifth sign: the sea burns. [Fig. 9]
The fift day, the se sal brynne
And alle watters als thai sal rynne;
And that sal last fra the son rysing
Till the tyme of the son doun gangyng.
nIII 3c The sixth sign: plants and trees exude a bloody dew. [Fig.10]
The sext day, sal spryng a blody dewe
On grisse and tres, alss it sal shewe.
nIII 4a The seventh sign: Buildings fall down. [Fig. 11]
The sevend day begynns doun sal falle
And grete castels, and tour with-alle.
nIII 4b The eighth sign: the earthquake continues with rocks and stones striking together all at once. [Fig.12]
The eght day, hard roches and stanes
Sal strik togyder, alle attanes.
An ilkan of tham sal doun cast
And ilkan agayn other hortel fast
Swa that ilka stan, on diverse wyse,
Sal sonder other in thre partyse.
nIII 4c The ninth sign: the earthquake hits every country. [Fig. 13]
The neghend day, gret erthedyn dal be,
Generaly in ilka contré
And swa gret erthdyn als sal be than
Was never hard, sythen the world bygan.
nIII 5a The tenth sign: the earth becomes level and flat. [Fig. 14]
The tend day thar-aftir to neven
The erthe sal be made playn and even,
For hilles and vales sal turned be
In-til playn, and made even to se.
nIII 5b The eleventh sign: traumatised people come out of the caves where they have sought refuge and run about. This is the tenth sign in The Golden Legend which also says that men will wander around like madmen, unable to converse with each other. [Figs. 15 and 16]
The ellevend day men sal com out
Of caves, and holes and wend about,
Als wode men that na witt can;
And nane sal spek til other than.
nIII 5c The twelfth sign: day shall dead men’s bones be set together and rise all at once. In the Pricke of Conscience text the twelfth and thirteenth days are transposed in comparison with the window inscriptions. [Fig. 17]
The thredend day sal dede men banes
Be sett to-gyder, and ryse al attanes,
And aboven on thair graves stand;
This sal byfalle in ilka land.
nIII 6a The thirteenth sign: day in truth shall stars fall from the Heaven. [Fig. 18]
The twelfte day aftir, the sternes alle
And the signes fra the heven sal falle.
nIII 6b The fourteenth sign: The death of all living things. This panel has been partly reconstructed. When Henry Johnston drew the window in 1670 only the figure of the man in the bed was shown. [Fig. 19]
The fourtend day, al that lyves than
Sal dighe, childe man and woman;
For thai shalle with tham rys ogayn
That byfor war dede, outher til ioy or payn.
nIII 6c The fifteenth sign: the end of the world, consumed by fire. [Fig. 20]
The fiftend day thos sal betyde,
Alle the world sal bryn on ilke syde,
And the erthe whar we now duelle,
Until the utter end of all helle.
I am grateful to David O’Connor for his advice. Unless otherwise specified all photographs are © Gordon Plumb.
The Last Fifteen Signs
The Pricke of Conscience window
The fifteen signs in stained glass elsewhere
Gloria Gilmore-House: ‘A Survey of the Iconographical Sources and Themes Used by Andre Robin in his Transept Windows at the Cathedral of Saint-Maurice, Angers’, in Madeline H. Caviness and Timothy B. Husband (eds), Studies on Medieval Stained Glass: Selected Papers from the XIth International Colloquium of the Corpus Vitrearum, New York, 1–6 June 1982, New York, pp.125–137
The Pricke of Conscience poem
The Golden Legend Last Signs
Readers interested in comparing the order of this window with that published in William Caxton’s edition of the Golden Legend printed in 1483 should see the Medieval Sourcebook website.
The Holkham Bible
For the inventory entry listing ’a tapytre of aras of xv signes of the doom’, see: J. A. Goodall, God’s House at Ewelme: Life and Devotion in a Fifteenth-Century Almshouse, Ashgate Publishing, 2001, p. 284
For an online dictionary, see the Middle English Dictionary .
Last month saw the opening of the first major exhibition for forty-five years devoted to the work of the Netherlandish artist Jan Gossaert (c. 1478–1532).
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York’s show, entitled Man, Myth, and Sensual Pleasures: Jan Gossart’s Renaissance, includes fifty of the artist’s sixty-three known paintings, as well as sculptures and prints by his contemporaries. After its closure in January the core of the exhibition will travel to London and open at the National Gallery, 6 February – 30 May 2011.
Among the lesser known works in the exhibition are some of Gossaert’s important designs for stained glass and we are enormously grateful to Stijn Alsteens, one of the curators of the exhibition, for contributing this month’s feature on the work of Jan Gossaert in this medium.
Gossaert (or Gossart) was among the first northern artists who travelled to Rome to make copies of antique sculpture and monuments. He is most often credited with successfully assimilating Italian Renaissance style into northern European art of the early sixteenth century.
In the early 1530s, the Netherlandish artist, Jan Gossaert received a commission from the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1588) to design a monumental glass window for the Buurkerk, the main parish church in Utrecht. Regrettably, the artist’s death in 1532 prevented him from finishing the project, if he started working on it at all. But a design by Gossaert for a similar window is preserved in a drawing at the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi in Florence. Unfortunately it is not known what commission the drawing was made for and if it was ever executed. The window depicts scenes from the life of Saint John the Evangelist – from top to bottom: his exile on Patmos, his martyrdom, and his death in the grave he dug himself – and it can be assumed that the church or chapel the window was intended for was dedicated to that saint, or that its patron was particularly devoted to him. [Fig. 1] The kneeling figure at lower right in Fig. 2 indicates that the patron must have been a cleric, whose coat of arms would have been at lower left. [Fig 2] Attempts to identify this figure as Jean Carondelet (1469–1555), the Burgundian cleric and statesman whose portrait Gossaert painted twice, have foundered as his (and his family’s) devotion appears to have been reserved for John the Baptist. But even if much of the contextual information regarding the drawing is lacking, there can be little doubt that it served as the modello that Gossaert presented for approval, and possibly also the model on which the full-scale cartoon would have been based. The squaring of the drawing in black chalk would have facilitated the transferring of the composition to this cartoon. The red chalk used to indicate the tracery of the window is in keeping with the technique of many other drawn designs for glass windows from the period, and further points to the drawing’s functional purpose. Although the arched top of the design, which probably showed two angels (their toes are still visible in what is now the upper part), is now missing, the drawing is otherwise in excellent condition, and probably is the earliest preserved design of its kind by a known Netherlandish artist.
It is also the sole tangible evidence of Gossaert designing glass on a monumental scale. All other drawings attributed to him, or to artists from his circle, that are thought to be designs for stained glass appear to be for roundels, the round panels made from single sheets of glass that were so popular in the Netherlands in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. The best known of these designs is, undoubtedly, a drawing depicting the beheading of Saint John the Baptist in the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts in Paris [Fig. 3], which has the distinction of being one of only five drawings to bear the artist’s signature or monogram. Here, the artist incorporated his Walloon name and a reference to the town in present-day France where he was born, Maubeuge, in the lintel at upper right. Gossaert had stopped using this form of his name by 1516. Other aspects allow us to date the drawing after his famous trip to Rome in 1508–1509. Gossaert’s study of antique architecture is evident in the loggia at left and parts of the cityscape in the background. Details such as the sandalled foot of Herodias’s daughter, holding a platter to receive the saint’s head, can be traced back to the famous study sheet after Roman sculptures now in the print room of the university library, Leiden. Other influences are noticeable, too. The general composition clearly goes back to a woodcut of the same subject by the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) dated 1510, whereas the figure of the executioner was taken from one of his earlier engravings. The kneeling figure of Saint John, on the other hand, is remarkably close to a silver relief by the Italian sculptor and goldsmith, Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488), made for the Florence baptistry, which Gossaert could have visited on his way to or back from Rome. Gossaert’s knowledge of works of art by his German and Italian predecessors and contemporaries, and his ability to use and combine these sources in an original manner is evident in many of his works, and truly makes him the first Netherlandish artist to introduce many characteristics of modern foreign art in the art of his native land.
The high finish of the Paris sheet has raised doubts that it was ever intended as a design for a glass roundel. Indeed, most Netherlandish roundel designs, like those made by the artist/workshop group known as the Pseudo-Aert Ortkens and the artist Dirck Vellert (active 1511–1544), are done in pen and ink on white paper, in a much more straightforward and less detailed style than Gossaert’s early chiaroscuro masterwork. However, a roundel of Gossaert’s time following part of the composition does exist in the parish church of Saint Oswald Church in Malpas, Cheshire. [Fig. 4]
Because of the differences between this roundel and the earlier design, the glass painter probably based his work on a model derived from Gossaert’s original. Perhaps this is how the function of the drawing should be understood: as a refined workshop model which could be shown to prospective clients and from which Gossaert or an assistant could produce identical or slightly modified cartoons. In the case of at least one composition by Vellert, recorded in two drawings at the British Museum, London, there is evidence that Vellert worked in this way: the chiaroscuro version , of which style, composition and technique reflect Gossaert’s influence, has been shown to precede a slightly larger and modified version in pen and ink, which in its simpler technique is more probable to have served as the direct model for a roundel. [Figs. 5 and 6]
Close in date to the drawing in Paris must be one at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, representing the Judgment of Paris, which has often been thought to be by Gossaert’s hand. [Fig. 7]
Several features tie this drawing to relatively undisputed works by him: the Greek prince’s helmet and sandalled feet seem to be based directly on those of the Leiden study sheet; his armour is akin to those of two drawings of armoured soldiers dressed all’antica (after the antique) in the Kupferstich–Kabinett in Dresden and the Städel Museum in Frankfurt; the somewhat awkward foreshortening of his face has parallels in several of Gossaert’s works around 1510; the face of the bearded magus at left can be compared to that of saint Joseph in a signed chiaroscuro drawing depicting the Holy Family with female saints at the Albertina in Vienna; and the lively ‘net’ of hatching in white gouache is likewise typical for Gossaert’s graphic style. The figures of the three goddesses, in contrast, are rather less refined in execution and type than could be expected from an artist who already before his visit to Italy was an accomplished draughtsman, and whose drawings after antique sculpture show him to have been particularly sensitive to the rendering of the three–dimensionality of nudes. It may therefore be more cautious to attribute the Edinburgh drawing to an artist active in Gossaert’s circle, one keenly aware of his master’s style and sources. Again, the drawing distinguishes itself in its refined technique and finish from other Northern roundel designs of the same subject and similar composition, such as that by an anonymous Netherlandish master in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
At least two other roundel designs are close enough to Gossaert’s style that his authorship has been considered a possibility – an allegory of Fortune in the Hamburger Kunsthalle, and an allegory of Justice at the Albertina. [Figs. 8 and 9]
Although they are often mentioned together, it is more their subject matter which relates them than their style; besides, their size varies considerably. The Hamburg drawing, which is unfortunately quite damaged, is more refined in execution, as still evident in the heightening of the drapery and the landscape. The Albertina drawing is slightly less detailed and more rounded in its style (and for this reason perhaps slightly better adapted to a translation into a glass painting). Notwithstanding these stylistic differences, they relate to Gossaert’s drawing manner –and not, as has also been suggested, to that of the Brussels based painter, Bernard van Orley (c. 1490–1541). Apart from the sixteenth– or seventeenth–century inscription of Gossaert’s name on the sheet in Vienna, the nervous drapery, with strokes ending in small circles indicating the folds, the freely flowing curls, the ornament in the Vienna drawing and, perhaps most importantly, the manner in which the white heightening is applied, are all reminiscent of Gossaert’s drawing style. Because even by the most generous count no more than about fifty drawings can be attributed to Gossaert, rejecting drawings from the corpus of his drawings is all too easy, as our understanding of his draughtmanship is very likely fragmentary. Still, the present author finds it difficult to convince himself that the drawings in Hamburg and Vienna are by the same hand, and by the same hand as other drawings accepted as Gossaert’s. Without daring to completely rule out the possibility that they are autographs, it seems better, as for the drawing in Edinburgh, to situate them in the artist’s circle. In contrast to the latter sheet, they reflect a more mature style, which Gossaert developed in the latter half of his career. They should probably not be dated before the 1520s. If the compositions were used for glass roundels – for which there is no evidence apart from the round format of the drawings – one could imagine them fitting in the interior of one of Gossaert’s humanist patrons.
Finally, a group of four exquisite drawings exists which can be connected closely enough with Gossaert’s late drawing style to warrant an attribution to him. Certainly, they are all by the same hand, were made in very much the same style and technique, and all have the same diameter. Two of these drawings are in the Frits Lugt Collection in Paris [Figs. 10 and 11]; one came to Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, from the collection of the German–born banker, Franz Koenings (1881–1941) [Fig. 12]; and one is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. [Fig. 13]
Even more so than the allegories discussed above, roundels after these designs would have been most fitting for the interiors of the aristocratic and learned circles which Gossaert served as a painter. The subject of only one of the drawings has been identified conclusively: Aegisthus killing Agamemnon in the presence of Clytemnestra. [Fig. 10] Gossaert (or a literary adviser) probably took the story from Giovanni Boccaccio’s book on ‘famous women’, De mulieribus claris. Many propositions have been made for the subject of the three other drawings, none of which can be said to be satisfactory. Given the source of the first Lugt drawing, it seems more likely that it will be found in history or mythology, rather than in the Bible. Moreover, because, as said above, the four drawings are of the same size, style and technique, and because at least three of them share the same provenance, they most likely belonged to one series. In the absence of any roundels after the drawings, it can again only be assumed that they were made with their reproduction on glass in mind. It is equally possible that their finish and beauty was appreciated by collectors with a special interest in drawings. The richly detailed ornamentation of both Gothic and Renaissance inspiration, the figure types and facial features, the inspired compositions and their skilful adaptions to the round form, the precise penmanship and highly effective heightening make these presumed roundel designs, in the words of one art historian, ‘among the finest specimens of the genre’. This refinement can be said to have been greater than the medium of glass painting calls for. Certainly, any reproduction on glass of the drawings discussed above would have meant that the original design would lose some of its detail and beauty, as indeed shown by the roundel in Malpas. But Gossaert’s more ambitious designs seem to have been followed nonetheless by professional glass painters such as Vellert, who had a more practical sense of the possibilities and limitations of their art. Even if Gossaert’s compositions would never have been actually painted on glass, they may have been regarded as an ideal to be followed and emulated.
Stijn Alsteens, Associate Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
More than a book discussing objects shown, the publication accompanying the exhibition in New York and London catalogues all paintings, drawings and prints known to the authors by Gossaert’s hand:
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