Progression of Art
Descent from the Cross
Considered to be Van der Weyden's masterpiece, Descent from the Cross depicts the crucified Christ being lowered from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Packed into the shallow composition are several other figures, including Mary Cleophas, John the Evangelist, Mary Salome, the Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalene. The work was probably commissioned by the Leuven guild of crossbowmen for their chapel Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Ginderbuiten (Our Lady Outside the Walls). Later, Mary of Hungary, governess of the Netherlands, installed it at her castle in Binche, south of Brussels, and the painting was then acquired by her nephew, King Philip II of Spain, from whose collection it was eventually placed in the Prado museum.
This work was created in the same period that Van der Weyden was completing his apprenticeship with Robert Campin, whose influence can be felt, for instance, in the hard surfaces, precise details, and taut linearity of the figures. Indeed, there is a fragment depicting the Bad Thief (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt) that once belonged to a large Descent from the Cross triptych and is usually attributed to Campin or the Master of Flémalle, that bears striking stylistic similarities to Rogier's panel. This underscores the exchange of ideas and techniques that occurred in the workshop context.
All the elements of this painting are intended to affect the viewer in an immediate, viscerally emotional way. This includes the gestures and expressions of grief each of the figures displays and the parallels between Mary's body as she swoons and the lifeless body of her son. These details exemplify the concept of the "imitation of Christ" central to the Modern Devotion movement of the period that encouraged followers to feel and identify directly with Christ's suffering. Even the tightly compressed space and spatial and conceptual ambiguities in the image enhance the immediacy and presence of the figures. Art historian Dirk de Vos suggests that Van der Weyden aimed to evoke two ideas simultaneously, of a life sized, carved altarpiece with polychromed figures, its corners filled with carved, gilded tracery, and of a tableau vivant with living actors on an illusionistic stage. Art historian Lorne Campbell asserts that the composition was meant to create a sense of unease in the viewer, as evidenced by such details as the way the ladder appears behind the cross at the top, and in front of it at the bottom.
The Descent from the Cross also had an immediate impact on other artists, many of whom in subsequent years emulated or directly copied the composition or its figures. The first copy, known as the Edelheere triptych (Museum M, Leuven), was made by an unknown artist as early as 1435, and de Vos lists fifteen other existing versions or interpretations in paintings and prints, among only the most important examples.
Oil on oak panel - Museo del Prado, Madrid
The Magdalen Reading
This work is one of three surviving fragments of a large altarpiece that probably depicted the Virgin and Child with Saints, as evidenced by a later drawing that seems to record a more complete portion of the altarpiece. The Magdalen would have been in the lower right corner of the composition, flanking the seated Virgin and child. Most scholars consider this an early work of the mid-1430s, when Rogier’s connections with Robert Campin may still have been close.
Mary Magdalene is accompanied by her characteristic attribute, the jar of ointment with which she is said to have anointed Christ's feet. She is richly dressed in a fur-lined overdress and a cloth of gold underdress, and reads a volume, probably a Bible, held in a cloth cover used to protect valuable books. Mary's absorption in her reading indicates her pious devotion. The two partially visible figures beside her are most likely Saint John the Evangelist in red, kneeling before the Christ Child, and Saint Joseph in a blue cloak, standing behind the Magdalene.
Van der Weyden executed this painting with a remarkable level of detail, including the jewels adorning the hem of Mary's dress, the legible letters in her book, and the tiny figures in the distant landscape outside the window. Mary's elegant and slightly stylized and simplified features and hands are also characteristic of Rogier's work, although some writers find other aspects of the painting, such as the cabinet and the floor, to be less skillfully handled, indicating that they may have been painted by Rogier's assistants.
Oil on mahogany - National Gallery, London
Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin
Although the condition of this painting has deteriorated, it is one of Van der Weyden's most significant works, probably painted for the Brussels guild of painters - whose patron saint was Luke - in just the period when Van der Weyden moved to that city. The Gospel of Saint Luke covered Mary's life in some detail and therefore the saint came to be considered the first to portray her. This work may be the earliest known example to depict Saint Luke creating a portrait in the presence of his sacred models. He is shown kneeling before the Virgin and Child in a richly appointed room, drawing with a metalpoint on a small sheet; beyond them is an enclosed garden, which alludes to Mary's virginity, and two small figures looking out over a parapet at the river lined with urban buildings. The scene underscores the humble, earthly nature of the figures; Mary has no halo or crown, but sits at the foot of the throne, embodying her humility, and breastfeeds the child to highlight their physical connection. The cityscape in the background consists of typical Flemish buildings, suggesting that the scene takes place in surroundings like the viewer's own.
Saint Luke is compositionally very similar to Jan van Eyck's Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (c. 1435, Musée du Louvre, Paris), which was completed in virtually the same period. Presumably, Van der Weyden could have seen Van Eyck's panel in Bruges, before it was sent to Autun in Burgundy, Chancellor Rolin's hometown. Both scenes take place in similarly elegant rooms with tiled floors, tripartite doorways, and two background figures observing a river view. The similarities point to both the inspiration that Rogier seems to have drawn from Van Eyck's work and the innumerable variations he introduced to arrive at his own original composition.
The probable initial location of Van der Weyden's painting in the Brussels painters' guildhouse, or in their chapel in the Cathedral of Saint Gudule (where Van der Weyden was later buried) may account for the three close copies of the work (now in the Hermitage, Saint Petersburg; the Alte Pinakothek, Munich; and the Groenigemuseum, Bruges) that were made in later decades, as well as numerous repetitions or interpretations of individual figures, particularly that of the Madonna and Child. One example of a direct copy of the background cityscape and the two figures observing it can be found in a painting that dates to about 1500 by an unknown Brussels artist labelled the Master of the Embroidered Foliage (Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA), demonstrating the long-lasting popularity of Rogier's composition and the persistence of workshop patterns and practices. The Boston Saint Luke is also likely to have been the work that Albrecht Dürer described as a "Sanct Lucas Tafel" (Saint Luke panel) when he saw it on his 1520 visit to Brussels, further demonstrating the international renown of the painting.
Oil and tempera on oak panel - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Miraflores Altarpiece (Triptych of the Virgin)
According to a source that cites the monastery's registry of documents, King Juan II of Castile donated this painting, by "Master Rogel," to the Carthusian charterhouse of Miraflores, near Burgos, Spain, in 1445. This makes it one of the most securely attributed of Rogier's existing works and demonstrates the international scope of his patronage. The three panels of the altarpiece feature, on the left, the birth of Christ, with Mary and Joseph, in the center, a Pietà in which Mary mourns the dead Christ, and on the right, Christ appearing to Mary after his resurrection (which is depicted in the background landscape), thereby forming a chronological account of significant moments in Mary's life. The banderoles held by angels floating above each scene describe the Virgin receiving a crown for her virtues. Each panel is framed by a painted round archway featuring fictive Gothic sculptural decorations that narrate additional moments of both Jesus' and Mary's life. As in his Descent from the Cross of 1430-35, Van der Weyden's placement of religious scenes in clearly defined interior spaces gives the sense of the figures being on a stage. The front edge of each panel features a step that seems almost to project toward the viewer, a device that art historian Jeffrey Chipps Smith suggests increases "the viewer's proximity to, and potential for imaginatively entering into, the divine stage."
The detailed scriptural program is appropriate for the altarpiece's location in a convent; King Juan II may have also commissioned it as a memorial for his wife and chosen the Marian theme as a tribute to her. Juan's daughter, Isabella I of Castile, probably commissioned a later, slightly smaller copy of the altarpiece - once considered the original - and bequeathed it to the Capilla Real in Granada, Spain, her burial site. Technical study by Maryan Ainsworth at the Metropolitan Museum has now conclusively attributed this version to Juan de Flandes, one of Isabella's court artists, who trained in Bruges.
The Miraflores Altarpiece is exemplary of Van der Weyden's style in details like the symbolic use of color in Mary's robes, where the white, red, and blue represent her purity, compassion and suffering, and faith, respectively. The tension between surface and depth is also characteristic, as is the play with trompe-l'oeil and "real" elements. In this period the artist also developed somewhat lighter, more delicate figures and greater simplification of their features.
Oil on oak panel - Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
The Crucifixion Triptych was probably originally painted on a single panel, with painted trompe-l'oeil frames around each section, and only later cut into three separate pieces. The painted frames are still partially visible around the two side panels. The central panel depicts the Crucifixion, with Mary and Saint John at the left, and the painting's donors at the right, separated only slightly from the main scene by a fissure in the earth. Scholars have suggested that this may be the first time in European painting that donors were placed in such close and virtually undifferentiated proximity to sacred figures. The left panel features Mary Magdalene, who carries a jar of ointment, and the right panel depicts Saint Veronica, who holds up the cloth that she used to wipe the face of the suffering Christ, and which still bears his image. Above the scene, against the blue sky, are four darkly colored, grieving angels.
As was typical of early Netherlandish religious painting, the landscape setting, with its verdant, softly rolling hills, resembles Northern Europe more than the environs of Jerusalem, where the Crucifixion is said to have occurred in the biblical narrative. The city in the background does, however, feature several onion-dome shaped towers among other typically northern building styles, lending a degree of exoticism to the setting. In this way, viewers could more easily envision themselves within the biblical scene represented, and more easily identify with the suffering of the figures. Once again, the focus of this work remains on the intensity of the figures' emotions: the two Marys weep with grief, Saint John is open-mouthed in shock and horror, and the two donors along with Saint Veronica are deeply absorbed in pious worship, whether outwardly or inwardly focused.
Oil on panel - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Philippe de Croÿ
An inscription and coat of arms on the reverse of this panel identify the sitter as Philippe de Croÿ (1434-1482), a member of the court of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He held several noble titles, including Lord of Sempy, Lord of Quiévrain, and Count of Chimay, and while there is little agreement over the interpretation of the monogram in the upper left of this image, it probably incorporates some or most of the letters of his name, or of the title Sempy. He is portrayed in prayer, holding a rosary, with the round hilt of a sword or dagger at his waist just visible at the bottom of the image. His pose indicates that this panel was half of a devotional diptych; he was most likely facing an image of the Virgin and Child, although again, there is disagreement over the identity of the companion panel (it may have been the version at the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, CA, or a different, lost, version).
This work exemplifies the highly refined style of court portraiture in which Van der Weyden specialized. The artist seems to have captured a faithful likeness of the sitter, but at the same time he has simplified and probably slightly elongated his features to make them more elegant. The fingers are very slender and not quite anatomically accurate (with the left thumb, for example, in strict profile), and the planes and volumes of his face are perfectly smooth and regular. Even his hair falls in precisely measured strips framing his face. The image also displays Van der Weyden's characteristic exploration of illusionistic conventions. The dagger hilt seems almost to protrude into the viewer's space, and suggests that the image continues below the frame, while the background - which initially appears to be a uniform, abstract color, in keeping with earlier styles of portraiture - is actually a fabric backdrop, with creases from having been folded becoming visible on careful inspection.
Oil on oak panel - Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp
This large, starkly dramatic work picks up many of the themes and approaches that Van der Weyden used throughout his career, giving equal weight to Christ's suffering and to the anguish of the witnesses to his death. The scene is set before a blank stone wall over which are draped two bright red cloths of honor, below a dark blue-black sky. In the left panel, a swooning Virgin Mary is supported by Saint John the Evangelist, both weeping and both dressed in unusually pale robes. In the right panel, Christ hangs heavily from the cross, the blood running down his forehead echoed by the tears of Mary and John. Despite the shallow space and limited setting, the skull and bone on the ground mark the site as Golgotha, or Calvary, where Christ was crucified, and where Adam, the first man, is said to have been buried, while the dark sky corresponds to the biblical description of the moment of Christ's death.
Van der Weyden's Crucifixion Diptych was made toward the end of his life, and may have been the last major work he painted. While the Philadelphia Museum dates it c. 1460, Dirk de Vos suggests an even later date, around 1463-64.
The original configuration of these two panels - which were certainly paired, as the continuation of Mary's robe from the left to the right panel clearly indicates - has been the subject of research and debate. The asymmetry of the composition differs from Rogier's other works, suggesting that they were not designed as a diptych, but were part of a multi-panel altarpiece. Technical examination and research by Christopher D. M. Atkins and Mark Tucker suggests that they served as the central outer two of four shutters covering a carved and painted wooden altarpiece. This placement helps to explain Rogier's highly simplified composition, as such outward-facing covers often featured figures in shallow, niche-like spaces, although his choice of a Crucifixion scene is unconventional. The extreme simplicity of Van der Weyden's design might indicate that the altarpiece was commissioned for a monastery; it would in any case have been a major project, one of the largest sculpted and painted examples of the period.
Oil on oak panels - Philadelphia Museum of Art