What had to be saved!
Christ and the Samaritan woman at the city of Breda: a fragment of the central panel of a former triptych, 1518/20
Mediation from private Belgian property at Stedelijk Museum Breda, 2013
The heads of Christ and the Samaritan woman at the well are still in the overpainted state, but the cityscape in the background was of such astonishingly refined quality that the search for the history of this fragment had to start there.
This turned out to be more difficult than expected, because assuming that an Antwerp manierist had to be working here on the basis of the fluttering headdress of the Samaritan woman, none of the city profiles in the Southern Netherlands appeared to fit. It certainly was not Antwerp; Mechelen did not and Ghent and Bruges also had to be excluded. Until Laurens Schoemaker stumbled upon the print by B.F. Immink to the Breda architect Pieter de Swart from 1743, entitled 'Breda as the city showed itself about the year 1500', recorded in Thomas Ernst van Goors 'Description of City and Country of Breda' (see image). Here was exactly the same city profile to see and it could not be otherwise than that Pieter de Swart should have based his design for the print on the current fragment. In 1912, Jan Kalf had already suggested this in his description of the monuments in the Baronie van Breda when he remarked: '... probably to a painting that is no longer existing'.
After this 'match', one interesting piece passed over the other. For perhaps the painting was identical with the work that was mentioned in the inventory of the Castle of Breda in 1696/1712 as 'd 'old fortification of Breda'. Perhaps it was there from the Holy Cross chapel in the Grote Kerk after the iconoclasm in damaged form and possibly already cut up. In that Holy Cross chapel, an important relic of the Holy Cross was preserved (see image) from which Breda derived its status as a prominent place of pilgrimage and that attracted many foreign visitors to the city.
This Holy Cross relic was linked to the so-called Denen legend. Danes would once have had a fortress on a hill outside Breda, where they worshipped a tree that would have beneficial powers. After the gentlemen of Breda, because of their wish for an unthreatened survival of the true faith, had driven these Danes out of this tree, a cross was erected in the Grote Kerk, because the wood was not just allowed to work for the construction. And so we see in the painting on this side of the water the Danes Hill, on which believers kneel in the direction of the Great Church, while in the foreground the Samaritan woman in a personal encounter with Christ converts to the Christian faith.
This context and the fact that the fragment could be identified as the earliest reliable painted cityscape in Dutch painting, with much information about the construction history of Breda, made this panel an important museum object, for which the funds rightly went hot.