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Speculations Regarding the Portrait of Cornelia Sandrien.

Studying the evolution of the white kerchief headwear of the Burgundian Netherlands I came across the beautiful portrait of Cornelia Sandrin, painted by Quentin Matsys (fig. 1).

A lady traditionally known as Cornelia Sandrien
Fig. 1. A lady traditionally identified as Cornelia Sandrien, wife of Pieter Gillis. Since 1916 attributed to Quentin Matsys[1], detail with the background removed. Presumed to be from about 1514. Niederländische Landesmuseum Oldenburg, Inv. no. 15.566. © Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte Oldenburg, photo: Sven Adelaide.

[1] The portrait was in 1881 attributed to Christoph Amberger, but in 1916 Friedländer changed the attribution to Quentin Matsys, also know as Quentin Massijs or Quentin Massys, 1456-1530. Matsys was born in Leuwen and by 1495 he had set up a workshop in Antwerp.

I found the headwear quite puzzling in more ways than one. Part of it seems to point to an earlier date compared to the suggested ca. 1514 as given by Niederländische Landesmuseum Oldenburg while other parts could suggest an even later date. This led me to contact the museum to learn more about the reasons for the dating and the identification of the sitter. Dr. Anna Heinze most kindly offered the background for the dating as well as for the identification.

The lady’s identification is based on a pendant portrait of a gentleman (fig. 2). In 1954 Louis van Wachem found this male sitter to have a striking likeness with the sitter in another portrait (fig. 3), also one of a pair.[1] This second pair portrays two humanists and friends, Erasmus of Rotterdam and Pieter Gillis[2] (fig. 3), who had their portraits painted by Quentin Matsys in 1517[3] as a present for their English friend, Sir Thomas More. Having identified the gentleman as Pieter Gillis it would be natural to interpret the pendant lady’s portrait as a portrayal of one his three wives. The choice fell on his first wife, Cornelia Sandrien[4] who gave him six children before she died in 1526. The same year Pieter Gillis married Marie Denis Adriaensdr as his second wife who died in childbirth either late 1529 or early 1530.[5] Pieter Gillis then married Katlyne Draecx as his third wife in 1530.[6] According to Dr. Anna Heinze’s email it is considered to seem very obvious that the portraits of man and wife were painted to commemorate their wedding.

[1] Dr. Anna Heinze, curator at the Niederländische Landesmuseum Oldenburg in an email dated February 19, 2019.

[2] Peter Gillis, also known as Peter Gilles, Peter Giles or Petrus Aegidius, 1486-1533, was a lawyer and magistrate of Antwerp.

[3] These two portraits can be dated from letters. Marcus de Schepper: ‘Sola una totus mundus est Antverpia’: humanism en humanisten te Antwerpen (1470-1648), in Colloquium Neerlandium 12 (1994), p. 190. Viewable at

[4] Her family name was also known as Daneels. Ibid p. 191.

[5] Ibid pp. 191-192.

[6] Ibid p. 192.

Fig. 2. Pieter Gillis, detail from the portyrait matching Cornelia Sandrin's portrait (fig. 1). Painted by Quentin Matsys and traditionally presumed to be from about 1514. Niederländische Landesmuseum Oldenburg, Inv. no. 15.565. Fig. 3. Pieter Gillis on his half of the "friendship Diptych" painted in 1517 by Quentin Matsys. Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome.

As for the dating of the two portraits (figs 1 and 2) the Niederländische Landesmuseum Oldenburg turned to dendrocronology and found that both portraits were painted on wood from the same Baltic oak which was dated to about 1513. This was found to match quite well with the portraits having been painted for Pieter Gillis’ first wedding in 1514.[1]

If, however, this particular oak was felled around 1513 one should add between two and five years for the wood panels to season. The Antwerp guild of St. Luke would in the sixteenth century have strict rules for seasoning the wood panels in order to secure a high quality of the paintings.[2] This would bring the diptych of the married couple forward to about 1515-1518 as the earliest possible date which might still put it earlier than the friendship diptych from 1517. Only when comparing the two male portraits (figs. 2 and 3), both painted by Quentin Matsys and thought to portray the same gentleman, I find the friendship diptych of 1517 (fig. 3) to portray a much younger face than the one in the spousal diptych (fig. 2).

Also the lady’s headwear – apart from the wimple covering her neck which could be interpreted as a somewhat old fashioned style – points to a date later than 1514 unless she was a “first mover”. On the museum’s web site it says that a filigree pattern on the white, starched linen of her headwear is visible only on closer inspection. After eventually performing an experimental reconstruction to my satisfaction I ended up with a different interpretation of the faint diamond pattern; as cloth-of-silver in damask weave shining through the transparent linen head cloth.

[1] Dr. Anna Heinze, curator at the Niederländische Landesmuseum Oldenburg in an email dated February 19, 2019.

[2]Tine Louise Slotsgaard: A 17th Century Netherlandish Panel Painting: Identification of wood, construction and dendrochronology. Wood Structure and Applications, University of Copenhagen 2011, p. 8. Viewable at

inner coif
Fig. 4. The inner coif with a strap under the chin.

My experimental reconstruction finds the headwear to consist of four items. First there would be an inner coif (fig. 4) made from linen. It would cover the hair and protect the next item from any contact with the hair. Linen would wash fairly easily whereas more precious fabrics with interlining for support would be far more difficult to clean. The shape of the coif’s front edge indicates a strap going under the chin as the means for keeping it in place, and this coif would act as a foundation for the remaining items forming the headwear.

The second item would be a “transitional hennin” with a dome shaped top (fig. 5). I find it to have an outside of cloth-of-silver in a damask weave, a white lining which could be silk, and a fairly heavy interlining of buckram between the two. This would be a very expensive item provided that the artist has painted the shine of the damask weave pattern from life and not made use of a stenciling technique to indicate the pattern and thereby give a wealthier look. The diamond shaped pattern looks very flat and does not seem to follow the curve of the transitional hennin which makes me wonder if it was painted from life. The edge of the transitional hennin has been turned up to shorten it a bit whereby it reveals the white lining, and the turned up edge leaves a three-dimensional imprint on the headwear’s silhouette. Pinning the hennin to the inner coif would keep it in place.

transitional hennin
Fig. 5. The transitional hennin with its edge folded up.

The third item is the head cloth itself (fig. 6). It has been cut to a conical shape which is wider at the back than at the front. The movement of the fabric is soft and natural, so I do not find it to be starched, as it says in the description on the museum’s website. I do, however, find it to have a small piece of buckram or starched linen (fig. 7) inserted between the headcloth’s two layers for stiffening the “flares” above the lady’s shoulders. It would take very fine linen to produce a transparency where cloth-of-silver would shine through two layers of fabric, so this is far from cheap linen. The “flare” is created by lifting up the fabric above the shoulder by means of a dart shaped pleat and pinning it to the coif and the transitional hennin at the level of the cheek bone. Another dart shaped pleat is formed and pinned above the “flare”. This pleat points to the crown of the lady’s head as the bottom of the pleat (a dotted line in fig. 6) basically follows the turned up edge of the transitional hennin. At the back the excess width of fabric is folded to an inverted box pleat, and the far ends of the head cloth are folded up and pinned under the “flares”. The conical cut and the styling of the head cloth with lifted up “flares” are not a rare sight from about 1518 and onwards; only in this case we have a general transparency which makes it one of a kind, and I have not found the styling with a dart shaped pleat pointing to the crown in any other portrait.

kerchief headwear kerchief interlining
Fig. 6. The head cloth made from two layers of very fine linen fabric. Fig. 7. The buckram or starched linen inserted to support the "flare" above the shoulder.

The final item is the wimple (fig. 8) which is formed like an upside down rectangular bag of double layered fine linen; the same quality as found in the head cloth. The top corners of the wimple are pinned to the head cloth and the inner coif.

The conclusion must be that it would be interesting to reconsider the deduced dating of the spousal diptych and identification of the couple. There are indeed similarities between the two faces in the male portraits, but still I find the man in the friendship diptych (fig. 3) to be younger than the one in the spousal diptych (fig. 2). If the dating of the spousal diptych should be related to the earliest possible, seasoning of the panels permitting, the gentleman could be interpreted as an elder, close relative to Pieter Gillis. He did have two elder brothers; one, Gillis Gillis, was a man of the cloth while the other, Bartholomeus Gillis, followed in their father’s footsteps and kept the candle shop going after the father died in 1517/18. It would be most likely that Batholomeus had married, but there is no record of such a marriage.

Fig. 8. The wimple.

If the gentleman in the spousal diptych is indeed Pieter Gillis I find it more likely that the portraits should relate to his second marriage in 1526 which would make the lady Marie Denis Adriaensdr as opposed to Cornelia Sandrien. The fact that there would be an earliest possible date for using the panels does not mean that there would be an expiring date as well, so the panels could have been stored for a longer period or even recycled.

None of Pieter Gillis’ three wives seem to have been born into families of high social status judging by the lack of surviving genealogical information about them. This makes me speculate that the lady in question would not have been a first mover in fashion, and it might explain signs of earlier traditions such as the wimple which is surprising for a young lady living in Antwerp and having her portrait painted after the earliest days of the sixteenth century. The wimple would, however, have a long tradition as an item to be worn by a married woman.

Karen Margrethe Høskuldsson

Uploaded 29 March, 2020

The paper above was sent to the Niederländische Landesmuseum Oldenburg, and in an email dated 12 June, 2019 Dr. Anna Heinze replied:

"... thank you very much for sending me your results of your research. I find your interpretation very interesting and convincing. I will discuss with my colleagues if we should consider a new dating of the painting and new identification of the sitter. ..."

Link to the survey of articles concerning late medieval and early modern headwear

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