Michel Sittow

Michel Sittow (1469–1525)

// the best known Estonian-birth painter in the world //

Michel Sittow's father, Clawes van der Sittow , was a painter and a carpenter of the Nederland 's or German origin, whose (second?) wife was Margarethe Mölnare (Molner), a daughter of a wealthy Finnish-Swedish merchant. Michel was the eldest of their three children, followed by Clawes and Jasper. The wealthy family owned several properties in Tallinn (then Reval). The purchases of two houses on Ritterstrasse were officially registered in 1475 and 1479.

The works of Clawes meler'i could be found on the Lühike Jalg gate tower, at St. Nicholas Church (the small sacrament house) and in the armoury at Rataskaevu street relvakojal (“Veroonika's scarf”). Besides, he has received remuneration for glazing windows, painting the town's flags and the hall of the Guild of Kanut.

Clawes (Claes) van der Sittow (Suttow) was the assessor of the Guild of Kanut from 1479 until his death in 1482. Michel got his first training in arts from his father. In addition, the boy attended school and a theologian Dominicus Sitau at the Dominican Monastery could have been one of his spiritual educators. Hans Ryssenberch, a famous goldsmith was a relative of Michel.

Having seen the works of the German and Netherlands' painters already in his home town, in 1484, Michel travelled to Bruges, the then main arts' centre of the Northern Europe, to study. This town, where one of the most important Hanseactic offices was located, was well-known for its oil paintings already in the times of Jan van Eyck. In the 1480, Hans Memling's (approx. 1430–1494) style was followed here and similar to him Michel Sittow acquired the earlier respectable tradition very well. He might have been deeply influenced by the works of Hugo van der Goes, who passed away in 1482 and worked in Gent and a monastery near Brussels, as well as the oil paintings of other predecessors and the late Gothic miniature painting, which had a strong influence on them. During the several years in Bruges and other parts of the Netherlands , Michel learned to master the fine, somewhat archaic old master's technique, which then prevailed in panel painting and book art. Having most probably already worked as a portrait painter (using the favourite techniques of Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling in the composition of his paintings), he travelled further to the south to visit Italy (as the great master from Brussels, Rogier van der Weyden, had done earlier).

Since 1492, he lived in Spain, serving Queen Isabella. Officially until she died in 1504. In documents, he is usually referred to as Michel, but also Melchior Aleman (“the German”). Isabella of Castilia, called „the Catholic“ (who saw Columbus off) assembled academicians and painters from several countries, the royal collection contained of more than 300 paintings.

According to the queen's order Michel decorated at least one of her books breviary with a miniature and copied an altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden. With Juan de Flandes and Felippe Morrose they made 47 small pictures for the so-called Oratorio.

Only very few of Sittow's works have preserved. The unfinished masterpiece, located in Washington described the Virgin's Assumption and praises her. As a witness to this event, referring to the Revelation, we notice the view of the surroundings of Burgos in the lower corner of the painting – being the only preserved piece of Michel's landscape paintings.

In addition to the sacral art several painters, assembled in Spain, cultivated portrait. The tone of the portrait was serious, even melancholic. Painting the man was viewed as imitating the God's act of creation. Lots of reproductions were made of the head of state's portrait, so that these could indicate her presence at all her possessions. Rulers sent their portraits to their fiancé(é)s to introduce themselves, gave as presents to their favourites and political allies.


As the country did not have a fixed capital, the court moved to the country and other places, taking their property along. Hence Toledo, Avila, Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Burgos, Granada and other Spanish towns became the work places of Michel as the court painter. Having turned back to the South of the Netherlands in 1502, he fulfilled the orders of Isabella's son-in-law, the son of the Emperor Maximilian I, Philippe the Fair. As for the painters, now he was to some extent influenced by Jan Gossaert.

In 1505, Michel might have visited England and paint the sample portrait which later served as a model for Hans Holborn and other painters for painting Henry VII. Recording the Order of the Golden Fleece on the king's chest and the red rose of Lancaster in his hand, the painter pays more attention to the personality of the successful and inventive ruler. Thanks to Henry VII (born 1457, ruled 1485–1509) the War of the Roses finished and overseas trade was developed.

When Philippe the Fair died in 1506, Sittow lost his patron. In late spring the same year, he arrived in his hometown where his stepfather Diderick van Katwijk had seized and sold his parents' houses (Michel's mother had passed away in 1501).

As Tallinn (Reval) did not support Sittow's justified claim for legacy, he had to go to the Court of Higher Instance in Lubeck. He won the case in Lubeck, but could officially register his parents' houses as his property only after his stepfather died in 1518.

As a member of the Guild of Kanut, Master Michel worked in Tallinn for some time. He completed various orders and worked for the Church of Siuntio in Finland. In the same year, 1514, he visited Copenhagen to paint the engagement portrait of Christian, of which probably a reproduction was made. The portrait or its reproduction made by the author laid foundation for the Danish Royal Collection of Art. Archive materials refer to Master Michel as the author.

Then Michel travelled to the Southern Netherlands again where he served the Habsburgs. Margaret of Austria, vice-regent of the Netherlands , surrounded by literary people and painters, was well-known for her spiritual interests. She had bought the major part of Isabella's Oratorio and joined „The Assumption of the Virgin“ and „The Ascension of Christ“ into a diptychon in a silver frame. These small and subtle paintings were kept in boxes as jewels. Albrecht Dürer was fascinated about them during his travels in the Netherlands.

Margaret of Austria especially liked Michel's Virgin Mary reading a book with baby Christ sleeping.

In the Netherlands and later again in Spain , the painter depicted rulers as saints and often expressed his religious contemplation through portraits. The language of form, which is close to the Italian Renaissance, mixes with the faithfulness of the Netherlands in conveying the appearance and material's of the model's clothing; nuances of light have fine and rich colour. According to the old tradition the layer of painting is thinner on the face. So the gentle stripes of the base drawing show through the thin layers of paint which over the years becomes even thinner. The models are painted on greenish, deep blue and blackish backgrounds.

Master Michel's paintings are not signed and dated. As his ideal woman does not get older, it is difficult to determine the precise date of Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon's presumable portrait in Vienna. There is a painting in Detroit on which the same model has been painted as a saint. The attribute of Maria Magdalena – the box of ointment – has changed into an urn, decorated with Tudorian roses. This is considered to hint to Doña Catalina's two unhappy marriages, the first to Prince Arthur and after the death of the latter, to his brother, King Henry VIII.

The known ideal shall be repeated in a later painting of the Mother of God with baby Christ, a painting with glowing colouring (Berlin) which constitutes a diptychon in the spirit of devotio moderna with the Portrait of Diego de Guevara (Washington). The Chancellor, a cavalier of the Order of Calatrava, portrayed in deep awe, served the Habsburgs for 40 years and died in 1520. The Portrait of Don Diego can also be found in the background of “Christ Carrying the Cross“ in Moscow, where Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros, the Archbishop of Toledo, talks to him. This work, as well as the Portrait of King Henry VII in London, is considered to be an early copy of Sittow's painting. The composition shows the knowledge of Dürer's graphics.

For a short period Spanish King Carlos I, the future Emperor Karl V (1500-1558), was the employer of Sittow. When he resigned from power he took Sittow's devotional paintings and a wooden sculpture of the Virgin with him to the monastery.

The successful painter surprised everybody in 1517 when he decided to return to his birth place for good. In 1518, he married Dorothie, a daughter of merchant Allunsze. The life of their son Michel was short.

In 1523, Master became the Aldermann of the Guild of Kanut. On May 24 of the following Year of Reformation, he revised the Dominican Monastery with other important people (including Bertold Bomhower, representative of the Great Guild and Butcher Valentin as representative of the Guild of Olav).

Kindlasti ei pooldanud ta pildirüüstet, mille puhang oli 14. septembril 1524 a .

He certainly was not in favour of the devastation of paintings, which sprouted in Tallinn on Sept 14, 1524. Michel Sittow (Syttow, Sydu, Zittoz, Syttau…) died in Tallinn at the end of 1525.

The works he created in his home town have not been preserved, although there is information about alter pictures (ordered by the goldsmiths of Tartu in 1520), craved statues for the clocks of St. Nicholas Church (1518) and the painting decorating the facade of the Guild of Kanut. Now and again, complicated gilding work was ordered from him, however, sometimes his jobs demanded rather the skills of a decorator.

The Portrait of Man, located in the Hague since 1945 (approx. 1510) has the coat of arms of the Lipharts on the back side and at some point it belonged to Ernst von Liphart's collection in Raadi. The painting was exhibited in St. Petersburg in 1918.

The dendro-chronological analysis of the other paintings' panels shows that the oak they are made of originates from the Baltics, but it was widely used in the Netherlands.


To sum it up we may only be happy that a remarkable painter and a cosmopolite was born in Tallinn. In addition to the subtle sense of colours and the late Gothic realism influenced by pantheism, his paintings reflect the sculptor's training (obtained in Tallinn). In the mature phase of his work he approached the Italian Renaissance Arts.

Nowadays the owners of Michel Sittow's works are the Royal Palace and the Museum of Lázaro Galdiano in Madrid, major art galleries in cities like Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles, London, the Hague, Vienna, Copenhagen, Berlin, Paris, Bucharest, Milan and Moscow.

Pursuant to various archive documents, researches have called him Michiel (1839), Miguel Sithium (1902), in the first decades of the 20th century Master Michel. Since 1939, the name Michel Sittow has been used the most.

The works of the Master have evoked interest in the researchers of different continents. The most well-known of the many of them are Max Friedländer, Paul Johansen, Jazeps Trizna, Martha Wolff, Else Kai Sass, Matthias Weniger and Chiyo Ishikawa.

Legends, including the assumption of Johansen, about the conflict of Sittow with his jealous colleagues in Tallinn, became the topic of a novel by Jaan Kross. Anu Mänd has proved that Michel was recognised as Master at Christmas 1506, without requiring the year of apprenticeship. Other Estonian art researchers who have published articles about Michel Sittow are Mai Lumiste, Rain Rebas and among others, the author,

by Helena Risthein

Tallinnas 2005.