Jan Gossaert's Renaissance, National Gallery, London

The man who brought the Renaissance to Flanders was drawn to Eden, yet there is something of Mickey Duck about his work

Jan Gossaert's Adam and Eve, on loan to the National Gallery from the Thyssen museum in Madrid, is odd in a number of ways, not the least being how Northern it is.

If there is one thing everyone knows about Gossaert, it is that he brought the Italian Renaissance to Flanders, a view left to posterity by the Dutch painter and art historian, Karel van Mander. Van Mander says that Gossaert, also known as Jan Mabuse, accompanied Philip of Burgundy on a diplomatic mission to Rome in October 1508, and that while there he sketched Roman vedute, or vistas: the chalk View of the Colosseum is the only one known to survive. He also drew various of the antique sculptures in Roman collections, including the Spinario and Apollo Belvedere. These deeply un-Dutch things he took home to Antwerp, at a stroke suffusing Netherlandish painting with a beaker full of the warm South. Or so Van Mander says, although you wouldn't know it from Adam and Eve.

If historians are right, then the Madrid panel was painted in 1510 or thereabouts, within a couple of years of Gossaert's return from Rome. Sure enough, Adam looks like the Apollo Belvedere. But the sculpture's pose is reversed, its left hand raised and right one dropped rather than the other way around. Gossaert hasn't taken his Apollo from the flesh, but from a famous engraving of Adam and Eve made in 1504 by Albrecht Dürer. Whether Dürer actually went to Rome on his two trips to Italy is a matter of hot debate in art history. The general conclusion is that he did not. Thus Gossaert, who had seen the Apollo Belvedere, chose to copy his Adam from someone who hadn't; an artist who, like him, wasn't even Italian.

Why he did such a perverse thing isn't easy to say. The story of the Fall – one to which Gossaert returned again and again in his 30-year career – is all about the dangers of knowledge, a paradise lost by listening to foreign voices. Perhaps Gossaert saw Italy in this way, as something seductive but finally wicked. At any rate, this early Adam and Eve seems like a declaration of Dutchness, its hero and heroine modelled with that emphasis on light hitting a surface for which the art of the cold North is famed. Gossaert seems to have gone to Rome and come back with ... well, Dürer, and maybe the older Cranach.

Fast forward a decade, though, and things are quite different. The Adam and Eve we're looking at now, lent by the Queen, was made around 1520. Gossaert has clearly been studying Dürer again, but he has also cast his eye on another Adam and Eve, this time by the Bolognese engraver, Marcantonio Raimondi. Raimondi echoes Dürer in placing Adam to the left of his composition and Eve to the right, and in giving each of the pair a tree. There the similarities end.

If Dürer was all about surface, Raimondi's interests are in emotional intensity and erotic charge. To put a not too fine a point on it, Adam seems to be offering Eve his testicles: the phrase "ball-breaker" springs to mind. Gossaert certainly doesn't go that far, but this new painting is both far more animated than the earlier one, and far more expressive. Something has happened to the rendering of flesh, too, a softening and warming-up, as though Gossaert were Pygmalion working in paint.

By 1530 – the end-date for a third Adam and Eve, from the Berlin state museum this time – the Italian serpent has well and truly entered the garden. Dürer's sculpted surface has been replaced by the heavy cast shadows and torqued postures of Michelangelo; Adam and Eve seem to dance out their drama in a masque. Although they are not embracing, their postures beg the eye to fit them together in a sexual knot puzzle. That decadent decline from the High Renaissance which had swept Italy was taking hold in the North as well: Gossaert would be a leading light in the Antwerp Mannerism movement.

For all that, he remains too weird to be lovable in the way that, say, Van Eyck is lovable. I'm reminded of the Heath cartoon in which two men look pityingly across a Hollywood street at a tramp-like figure with a beak and big, round ears. "Poor old Mickey Duck," says one. "He never quite made it, did he?" It is, of course, a simplification to see Gossaert as the victim of a clash of cultures. All the same, there is something odd and unresolved about his work – the strange, North-South Virgin and Child from the Prado, for instance – that makes you wonder if geography isn't partly to blame for his not being more loved than he is. Maybe this show will convert you. Then again, maybe not.

(020-7747 2885) to 30 May

Next Week:

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