So if he was alive and kicking in the early 1520s, when did he die for real?
The first clue lies in a painting by a little known artist called Ambrosius Benson, called the Lamentation. It seemingly depicts Christ taken down from the cross, and being prepared for his tomb. But in those days people liked to bring things to life by asking, “what if it were someone in my family that this was happening to?” They brought it up close, and real. That Ambrosius did this too is revealed with abundant clarity by the name on the top of the left sleeve of the lady on the right.
We need to lighten the gloom in the area, but when we do that, and zoom in close, the word slaps us in the face. No camouflage here. It says ‘ARTE’.
So what is the incarnation of Art doing in the Lamentation? We are clearly looking at an allegory, and if so, then everyone and everything in this painting should be annotated with their real meaning. And, although much less overtly, everything is. Everything. First, the person helping Christ down, with the pink turban, is the artist himself, Ambrosius Benson. He has ‘IO’ written on his hat, and he is the same character that turns up through many of his paintings throughout his life. But this is not what he calls himself. He refers to himself as ‘Gouveia’.So what does this mean? Why ‘Gouveia’? Because Ambrosius Benson was the avatar he used when painting. Gouveia was a scholar of huge repute, and vast influence at the court of the Spanish king, Charles 1. He liked to paint, was moderately good at it, but the two personae did not get together, so pen name needed: Ambrosius. His original name, though, and when he was being a courtier, was Diogo de Gouveia. Gouveia was a place in Portugal where the family of Pedro Alvares Cabral (the man credited with having been the first European to visit Brazil) reputedly came from, but I digress. Could it be, though, that Gouveia and Benson were one and the same? Well, yes…
Diogo de Gouveia is significant here because he was the son of someone very famous. No one until now knew, because he was passed to another family on birth, but the name of his mum and dad appear on the portrait of him above, top left.
The clincher is the name the painting gives to Christ. He says the man was his dad, and incredible as it must seem, his father was, in fact…
Leonardo da Vinci. Here he is depicted as he was around the age Ambrosius started painting (he was born in 1471, not as the books suggest, some 20 years later). Too crazy to be true? Let’s challenge it. Were so ridiculous a suggestion to be true, Christ would have ‘Leonardo’ written all over him, no? And obviously he can’t have, can he?
But I said there were two paintings that mentioned his death, no? The other is a Rubens, painted nearly 100 years later: one of his many ‘Adoration of the Magi’ masterpieces, the one painted in 1624.
See him? He’s the one that looks like Father Christmas. Here’s a close up, compared to his self-portrait:
And just to be sure, let’s look for his name… it’s there just beneath his nose…
…along with his year of death.
Game, set and match to Benson and Rubens.