Summary of Jan van Eyck
Part artist, part alchemist and some might claim part magician, the legacy of artist Jan van Eyck is shrouded in both mystery and legend. In his work, he achieved an astonishingly sophisticated level of realism, heretofore unknown in the art of painting. Glimmering jewels, reflective metals, lush satins and velvets, and even human flesh were each rendered with their own distinctive qualities with such a high degree of naturalism it seemed he had conjured a new artistic medium. A century after his death, this notion was put in writing as the 16th-century Florentine painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari credited the Netherlandish painter with the very invention of oil painting, a myth that continued well into the 19th century. But even as this legend was extinguished he reserves the title "Father of Oil Painting" and is credited with inventing the modern portrait, with his enigmatic Man in a Red Turban and confounding genre scene, The Arnolfini Portrait. Moreover, the search for his miraculous, and notoriously secretive, recipe for paint has continued through centuries, withstanding the scrutiny of connoisseurs, conservation, and the ever-changing developments in x-radiograph technology seeking the true formula of his lustrous, and enduring, oil medium. Questions once answered, lead only to more questions. The artist and his paintings remain an enticing enigma. As Max J. Friedländer, renowned early 20th century specialist in Early Netherlandish painting, once described: "Here as there - and indeed, in every old reference, the first name is van Eyck."
- The vast majority of artists working during the medieval era remained anonymous. In Northern Europe, this tradition changes in the early 15th century, around the time of Jan van Eyck's appointment to the court of Philip the Bold. The artist, who held a high position and seemed to have also served the duke in a diplomatic role, was among the first to sign his paintings, with his name "JOHANNES DE EYCK," sometimes followed by what has been described as his personal motto, Als ich kan (As well as I can), painted to look as though etched in the wood. His high status and fame throughout Europe, set the stage for the elevation of the painter from an anonymous craftsman to a celebrated figure.
- Art historian Erwin Panofsky coined the term "disguised symbolism" to describe early Northern Renaissance paintings in which everyday objects were theorized to hold symbolic meaning that required decoding by the viewer. This theory was born in his analysis of The Arnolfini Portrait as a wedding scene, in which nearly every object in the room provided clues to the sacred nature of the event underway. Although Panofsky's interpretation of this painting is largely disregarded today, his focus on iconography remains a key element in the interpretation of Flemish painting.
- The level of technical sophistication achieved in Jan van Eyck's paintings was unprecedented, leading to speculative theories about the superiority of his materials, tools and techniques ever since. Recently, the major British Pop artist David Hockney published an investigation of such matters in his book titled, Secret Knowledge, in which he contends that Jan van Eyck and others of his time used optical devices, such as concave mirrors, to project images onto the working surface of his canvas. This would allow the artist to capture the nuanced forms of complex objects, such as the gold-toned chandelier in The Arnolfini Portrait, to the viewer's astonishment. Although no written evidence from the time supports Hockney's theories, the British artist points to the concave mirror in the very painting itself as evidence of this advancement in the painter's knowledge.
- Jan van Eyck is a leading figure of early Netherlandish painting and considered, along with artists Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden, one of the "Flemish Primitives." This term was first used in the early decades of the 19th century replacing the previous designation as peintures gothiques (gothic painters) as interest in this period was revived during the Romantic era. Far from pejorative, Vanessa Paumen of The Flemish Research Centre for the Arts describes the term: "primitive stood for a sentiment, for frailty and a Christian softness that was embedded in the paintings." The Flemish Primitives are defined by geography, realistic artistic style and distinguished by their refinement of oil painting techniques.
Important Art by Jan van Eyck
Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata
Jan van Eyck is known as an innovator of veristic realism, not only for his meticulous portraiture but also for his stunning panoramic landscapes that appear to recede far into the distance. Predating the naturalistic landscapes of Leonardo da Vinci by over 50 years, paintings such as Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata demonstrate the Eyckian use of atmospheric perspective, and anticipate the later genre of the Baroque Dutch landscape tradition. Jan van Eyck positioned this scene in the rocky mountains of the legend, yet also included a miniature bustling Netherlandish city in the distance using his microscopic painting technique, a common trait of early Netherlandish book illumination and religious paintings. The style of the city's rendering lends credence to the theory of the artist's early career as a miniaturist, as the anonymous "Hand G" of the Turin-Milan hours.
This small 5-by-7 inch painting depicts an important moment during the saint's 40-day fast in the wilderness of Mount Penna (La Verna), when Francis of Assisi experienced a vision and received the stigmata, or wounds of the crucified Christ. The stigmata, which never heals, became the living proof of his holiness. Witness to the event is the crucified figure of Christ, who overlooks the monks, Francis and Leo, clad in the brown and grey habits that identify them as Franciscan. The depiction of the exhausted figures, however, has been described as anatomically awkward, and the two monks are not well integrated within the landscape (these may have been completed by assistants in the artist's workshop).
Small paintings such as this one were sometimes made to commemorate a successful pilgrimage, or as a portable devotional piece to accompany the devotee on a journey. Although van Eyck's representation of this legend follows the original Franciscan text quite literally, as Joseph J. Rishel of the Philadelphia Museum of Art writes, "the scene is presented as a miracle being witnessed within the context of the whole sweep of nature and human life." This painting is among the earliest in Northern Renaissance art depicting the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. It was first re-attributed to van Eyck in 1857, a few years before it was discovered to have been mentioned in the will of Anselm Adornes, dated 1470. Adornes was a wealthy cloth merchant, part of the lively textile economy in Bruges, reportedly owned two paintings by van Eyck and left one to each of his daughters who resided at a Carthusian convent near Bruges. Dr. Katherine Luber, former curator of European paintings at the Philadelphia museum wrote about the influence of this early work, stating: "Most Netherlandish copies are indirect quotations of the Saint Francis paintings. Many are by artists who were close to van Eyck's workshop, or who lived and worked in Bruges after [van Eyck's] death." She also cites how the influence went beyond Northern Europe to "Florence at least briefly in the early 1470s, as a distinguished group of Florentine artists, including Botticelli, Verrocchio, and Filippino Lippi, copied elements of the rocky landscape and incorporated the motif of the small rock fountain in the foreground into compositions of their own."
Oil on Parchment or Vellum on Wooden Panel - John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia Museum, PA
Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon
This small oil painting provides an early example of the elements typical in van Eyck's secular portraits: the innovative three-quarters pose against a dark, flat background, a strong sense of light highlighting the identifying characteristics of the sitter's features, and the artist's amazing ability to capture the various textures of different fabrics. The sitter's gaze is unwavering, yet meditative, staring straight ahead and seemingly unaware of the viewer's presence. Most striking, perhaps, is van Eyck's careful attention to the nuance of flesh tones of the man's hands and facial features, including the light beard of one or two days' growth, a reoccurring feature in van Eyck's early male portraits. German art historian Till-Holger Borchert describes, "The man's left hand appears to be resting on a parapet that originally coincided with a painted frame. In his right he holds up a ring, which projects out of the panel into the world of the viewer." The missing frame is where the artist would typically sign and date his work, leaving this example as a highly possible but not unquestionable example of his early painting style. The slightly oversized head of the sitter wears the highly fashionable, if only for a short period, cerulean blue chaperon which helps to date the painting to approximately 1430.
Portraits such as these were commissioned for a variety of purposes, from commemorating an event, occupation or in memoriam. This work, originally thought to depict a goldsmith is now widely believed to, in Borchert's analysis, "[to] represent a type of painting circulated to propose a marriage." The intimate scale of the work, just over seven-by-five inches, supports this idea as it could be packed and taken to the family of the bride. This minuteness of detail and unusually fine differentiation between the qualities of texture and atmospheric light made Jan's work impossible to imitate. The careful delineation of every detail of life has been thought to reflect the glory of God's creation.
Oil on Wooden Panels - Muzeul National de Certa, Bucharest
The Ghent Altarpiece
The Ghent Altarpiece is a monumental polyptych painting centered on themes of Redemption and Salvation. As the most stolen artwork in history, it is also a work with a troubled history. Additionally, after nearly 400 years of being the assumed masterpiece of Jan van Eyck, a discovery in 1823 cast doubts on this attribution. Ironically, it was Jan's own writing that put this into question with an inscription stating: "The painter Hubert van Eyck, greater than whom no one is to be found, began [the work]; Jan, the second brother, with art completed it." This last phrase has also been translated as, "Jan, his second in art, completed it." In 2016, the inscription was authenticated to Jan van Eyck, and records later discovered tie Hubert to two preliminary drawings submitted to the Ghent council and thereby confirm that he began the commission in the early 1420s. Following Hubert's death in 1426, work on the altarpiece continued under the supervision of Jan van Eyck until, as the inscription continues, "the work was paid for by Joos Vijd. By this verse on the 6th day of May you are invited to contemplate this work." Most scholars agree that the credit for this major work ought to be shared between the two brothers; exactly where the line is drawn between their respective contributions remains a source of debate.
The combination of infinite detail and epic scale in The Ghent Altarpiece marks an extraordinary achievement by the van Eycks. The altarpiece consists of 24 separate panels, with 12 different panels on view whether the altar is open or closed. The central theme of the closed altar is the Annunciation, taking place across multiple panels in the middle tier, within a relatively austere room, sometimes described as a chapel. The angel Gabriel has just spoken the phrase painted in gold on the panel, which translates from Latin to, "Hail who art full of grace, the Lord is with you," and the Virgin Mary's reply, written upside as if to be viewed from heaven reads, "Behold the handmaiden of the Lord." The action is accompanied by everyday objects laden with symbolic meaning, such as white lilies held by Gabriel symbolic of Mary's purity, with a radiant dove above Mary - a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Through the windows the artist depicts a modern view of Ghent, connecting the sacred moment to the current day. Overseeing the event are Old Testament prophets Zacharias and Micah, and a pair of Sibyls, pagan seers associated with visions of the messiah; directly below is a pair of statues depicting Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Evangelist painted in the grisaille technique. Breaking the monochromatic palette of the closed altar are the donor portraits of Jodocus Vijd and his wife, Elizabeth Borluut cloaked in red and green.
When the polyptych is open, the full impact of van Eyck's achievement is clear. The Communion of Saints is portrayed, which, as described in the Revelation of St. John takes place in "the new heaven and the new earth." In comparison to the spare coloration of the closed altar, the interior scene is exuberantly rendered in brilliant coloration. The central panel of the lower tier depicts a crowd symbolizing the Eight Beatitudes (those described in the Sermon on the Mount) gathered around the altar where the sacrifice of the Lamb takes place in the heavenly garden. On the left, prophets are followed by patriarchs of the Old Testament; to the right the apostles of the New Testament kneel before the sacrifice followed by leading figures of the Church dressed in regal finery. The two end panels portray the knights of Christ on the left, such as Emperor Charlemagne and Louis IX (now a painted replica of the lost original), and the Just Judges on the far right.
The central panel of the open altarpiece, titled The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, established the Flemish characteristic of using symbols as a means to communicate theological concerns. The Holy Trinity is symbolized by the dove of the Holy Spirit, within a glowing halo, an aniconic symbol of God, hovering in the sky over the lamb on the sacrificial altar, a symbol long associated with Christ. The blood from the lamb flows into a chalice, evoking the Eucharist, in the foreground an octagonal fountain represents eternal life, as the eight-sided polygon represents the intersection of heaven and earth. The elevated horizon is defined by thick groves of trees and a graceful Gothic cityscape. For van Eyck, this architectural style was often symbolic of the New Testament's promise of salvation.
Overseeing the gathering of the masses, on the top tier of the altar piece are three seated figures, Christ in majesty with St. John the Baptist on his right and the Virgin as Queen of Heaven on his left. This trio, known as the Deesis, shows Mary and St. John as intercessors between the faithful and Christ. A choir of angels flanks the figures, singing and playing instruments. The individuality of features and emotions betrayed by the singing angels is in stark contrast to idealization of Medieval art. Poignantly, the stark realism in the rendering of the first couple, the nude figures of Adam and Eve, marks a new ethos in religious painting. And yet, even this realism in loaded with symbolic meaning suggesting the toil of Adam after the Expulsion from the Garden. Over each figure is a scene from the Old Testament rendered in grisaille, the first sacrifice and first murder, linking the fall from grace to the hope for salvation, represented here as the sacrifice of the lamb and the Eucharist offering.
Charney, who also authored "Stealing the Mystic Lamb," describes The Ghent Altarpiece as "the first large-scale oil painting to gain international renown." Although the grandeur suggests the influence of Byzantine icons, the realism and exactitude of details was something altogether new. In 1794, the central panels of the altarpiece were stolen by Napoleon's army and soon after put on display in the Louvre where they would inspire a generation of French artists; most famously, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres' portrait depicting Napoleon I on His Imperial Throne (1806). Charney continues, "The international reputation of the painting and its painter, particularly taking into account its establishment of a new artistic medium that would become the universal choice for centuries, makes for a strong argument that The Ghent Altarpiece is the most important painting in history."
Oil on Wooden Panels (open) - The Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent, Belgium
Man in a Red Turban
Van Eyck was among the first artists to produce a substantial body of secular portraiture of aristocratic and middle-class patrons in Northern Europe, a genre formerly reserved for the ruling members of society. Not only was van Eyck's portraiture highly detailed, but he also innovated a posture now taken for granted, the three-quarter view. In religious painting and images of royalty, it was common for the figure to directly face the viewer. In Italy, the humanist climate of the burgeoning Renaissance period also saw an increase in the secular portrait; it was most common for the patrons to be depicted in profile, perhaps a nod to classical antiquity. Of his extant portraits, this painting is the most prized and there is a general consensus that it represents another new genre: the self-portrait.
It is not only the position, but also the frame that lends credence to this argument. The wooden frame itself is a work of trompe-l'œil, painted to look as if gilded with gold and with an inscription on the bottom reading "Jan van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433" and along the top his personal motto, "Als ich Kan" meaning "As I can." Alistair Smith explains this "refers to a proverb of the time which ran 'As I can, but not as I would.' Thus the inscription combines pride in achievement with a certain modesty." The use of a personal motto is a trait normally associated with the aristocratic and ruling classes, and further implies the artist's elevated status. Smith continues "Jan van Eyck added his motto to only a few of his paintings, one of which is a portrait of his wife. This might suggest that this portrait is of a close relative, or even the artist himself." In addition to the nuanced detail, the gaze directly at the viewer suggests the artist's intent focus as he creates a work in his own image, with his hands, out of view, busy with the task at hand. The genre of the self-portrait has been a calling card for artists since the time of the Renaissance, providing a means to showcase their talent and artistic style. The complex arrangement of the red chaperon, arguably a trait through which the artist can be identified in other paintings, provides a means for the artist to flaunt his impeccable technique.
Oil on Panel - The National Gallery, London
The Arnolfini Portrait
The Arnolfini Portrait is, quite literally, one of the single most famous paintings in the history of European art. Unlike The Ghent Altarpiece, which was internationally famous in its own time, this painting was not well known until over a century after it was first made. The full-length double portrait, itself an anomaly, depicts a wealthy man and young woman in a darkened interior holding hands. The man's right hand is raised up, as if in greeting or taking an oath, as he looks slightly to his left. The woman, with her head slightly downcast, looks directly at him. The subtle interplay of light and shadow creates an atmosphere of serene intimacy. The controlled source of light, such as that coming through the window to the viewer's left, and shadows helped to unify the composition, a characteristic of the signature naturalism of early Flemish painting. The extreme virtuosity of draftsmanship, most prominently on display in the golden chandelier and convex mirror against the back wall, confirm the nomination given to Jan van Eyck as the "father of oil painting."
The full-length portrait was quite rare in the early Renaissance, and later proved an important influence to multiple generations of artists. However, it also serves as a point of contention among scholars and historians as to who, what and why this painting was commissioned. An identification of the male figure was made based on a written inventory of Margaret of Hungary's collection in 1516, which noted: "A large picture which is called Hernoult le Fin [translating to "Arnolfini"] with his wife in a bedchamber done by Johannes the painter." However, which member of the Arnolfini family and the identity of the woman long remained a puzzle. Like the numerous bust portraits van Eyck painted, it serves to illustrate the growing wealth and autonomy of the middle class in Flemish society. Staging the portraits as if engaged in an activity, however, is something new.
In 1934, art historian and iconologist Erwin Panofsky set the stage for decades of debate when he put forth the theory that this painting depicted the vows of a marriage ceremony between the wealthy Arnolfini and his young wife. According to Panofsky's theory of "disguised symbolism" every object in the scene was laden with iconographic significance. The notion of a "disguise" was not meant to infer that the meaning was hidden from its contemporary viewers. Quite the opposite, it was expected they would understand the double-entendre of the imagery, but that in place of traditional or classical symbolism, the artist employed everyday objects to illustrate meanings based on commonly held knowledge of certain metaphors. The small dog, for example, was not a beloved pet but a symbol of fidelity, and quite fitting for what the historian believed was a marriage scene. Additional images to support the notion of a marriage include the single burning candle in the hanging candelabra symbolizing the presence of God at this sacred event, the man's cast aside clogs indicate that this event is taking place on holy ground, while the oranges on the chest under the window may refer to fertility. Although Panofsky found it was not required by canon law for a priest to perform a wedding, it was required for the event to have witnesses, which van Eyck provides in this portrait. Against the back wall of the room, there is a small convex mirror reflecting the back of the couple and two individuals who appear to watch the ceremony, one who appears to wear an elaborate red turban, or chaperon. On the wall above the mirror the artist has written an inscription in elaborate script that says "Johannes de Eyck fuit hic 1434" (Jan van Eyck was here in 1434). This marks the only known example where the artist's signature was on the actual painting rather than the picture frame. The elaborate red turban in the reflection, along with the distinctive signature, leads many to believe it is van Eyck in the mirror.
Although first widely accepted, over time an increasing onslaught of challenges to Panofsky's interpretation brought new light on the subject of this painting. Not all objections were taken with equal authority, and ranged from slight amendments, such as an announcement of their betrothal, to a legal swearing giving power of attorney to the wife during Giovanni's travels, to boastful narratives, reading the scene as a display of the merchant's wealth, and finally, to the nearly blasphemous, claiming the subject was a mockery of the notion of fidelity and marriage, an interpretation somewhat predicated on the notoriously unfaithful behavior of the original Giovanni Arnolfini believed to be the main subject. However, all these theories were literally nullified in the early 1990s, when historian Jacques Paviot, while researching naval history, happened across a notation describing a gift from the Duke of Burgundy on the event of Giovanni's wedding. The problem was the event took place in 1447 - thirteen years after the painting was complete, and, perhaps more to the point, six years after the artist's death.
This discovery brought attention to another member of the family, the lesser-known Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini, who also happened to have his portrait painted by the artist. Borchert explains the impact of this discovery that "made it possible to re-evaluate the painting, which is now considered to have served a memorial function." It commemorates the young wife of Giovanni di Nicolao, Costanza Trenta, who died (possibly during childbirth) just one year before the painting was complete. The dog, Borchert explains, remained a pivotal symbol of fidelity, but it was tied to a cultural phenomenon, "a reference to carvings on late medieval tombs, where it is a familiar motif." The symbols of marriage, fertility and childbirth are equally applicable, though now quite melancholy, in this interpretation.
Oil on Oak Panel - The National Gallery, London
The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin
Jan van Eyck produced numerous religious paintings throughout his career. This depiction of a donor seeming to greet the Madonna and Christ child was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, a powerful figure and patron of the arts in the Netherlands. Rolin owned many vineyards in Autun and served as Chancellor to Philip the Good. This painting is an example of the "holy conversation" genre, known as sacra conversazione in Italy where the subject would become very popular. It might also be seen as a donor portrait of Nicolas Rolin. The painting is nearly square, at 2-feet-2-inches high by 2-feet wide, split vertically with the votive portrait on the left and the "Throne of Wisdom," echoing the Byzantine representation of Mary as Theotokos, or "Mother of God," on the right. The formal frontality of the medieval tradition, however, was replaced by van Eyck's engaging realism rendered in a three-quarter, full-length portrait. It was commissioned to hang in the chancellor's parish church, Notre-Dame-du-Chastel in Autun, where it remained until the church burned down in 1793. After a period of time in the Autun Cathedral, it was moved to the Louvre in 1805.
The iconography of The Rolin Madonna is as complex as The Arnolfini Portrait, and the notion of "disguised symbolism" can equally be applied here. There are overt and personal references to both the Old and New Testaments, which create additional layers of meaning between the figures. The solemn chancellor, dressed in a gold brocade garment trimmed with mink fur, is shown kneeling to worship the Infant Jesus and Virgin Mary. The central position of Mary, mother of Christ, is emphasized by her heavily decorated velvet robe, with embroidery quoting the glories of creation, and elaborate bejeweled royal crown carried by an angel with rainbow colored wings, symbolic of the link between the earth and heaven. Jesus blesses Rolin, with the gesture of the benediction while holding a silver orb symbolizing the world with a gold cross as a sign of his earthly and spiritual power over all Creation. A trio of Romanesque arches visually links the figures while providing an overt reference to the Holy Trinity. Carved figures on the column capitals depict scenes beginning with Genesis and continue through the fall of man and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Therefore, the narrative reads, from left to right, from the earthly sin, epitomized by Nicolas Rolin, to spiritual grace and salvation, represented by the holy figures.
Yet, despite all of these details, the figures do not directly gaze at, nor interact, with one another. In a 1968 article for The Art Journal, art historians Marvin Felheim and F.W. Brownlow discuss this small, but significant, detail. They write: "One is bound to notice, sooner or later, that the Chancellor's lightly frowning gaze is directed not quite to the Virgin, but - it seems - towards the source of the light that illuminates her face. ... He cannot see them. He and they belong to, and exist in, different kinds of reality; they share the same place, but not the same modes of being." He is of the earthly realm and physically present, while the divine figures are of the heavenly realm and represent the focus of his prayers. As Erwin Panofsky noted, "In Jan van Eyck, then, all meaning has assumed the shape of reality; or, to put in the other way, all reality is saturated with meaning."
The imaginary architectural space, a common feature of van Eyck's religious paintings, is set within an expansive, and equally fictional, landscape. While the architectural style of the distant town suggests the Netherlands, the topography, while suggestive of Burgundy or the green, hilly countryside of Meuse, is not true to any known location. The scenery in the background suggests bustling activity, but upon close inspection a similar division of secular and spiritual populates each side of the river. Behind the Chancellor is a village set against lush, rolling hills, perhaps indicative of Rolin's properties, while the other side of what some scholars describe as the "river of life" is an ornate Gothic cathedral. A common strategy of van Eyck was to use the Romanesque architectural style to denote both the Old Testament and the mundane, earthly world while the Gothic represented the New Testament and the glory of Heaven.
In his 1961 book, "All The Paintings of Jan van Eyck," Valentin Denis noted the "...almost incredible love for detail brought by van Eyck to this work - note the comings-and-goings of the townspeople and the structure of the buildings - surpasses even the tour de force of The Ghent Altarpiece." The arches frame the view into the landscape, literally creating a picture within a picture, a common motif of Flemish art. The enchanting small enclosed garden, full of birds and flowers, each with notable symbolic content: lilies of purity, peonies to represent Paradise and wild roses to symbolize suffering of the Virgin. Striking the viewer is van Eyck's differentiation between interior and exterior light, with sophistication on par with the later works of the English Romantics or Impressionist artists. The golden-rose light of the rising sun contrasts the cooler-toned light of the interior space. Strolling on the bridge, near a small group of peacocks, medieval symbols of immortality and the all-seeing eye of God, two figures look out at the expansive vista. Notably, one of these figures wears a striking red chaperon, leading many to wonder if the artist has again inserted himself within the composition.
Oil on Wooden Panel - Musée du Louvre, Paris
Saint Barbara is a late work by Jan van Eyck, and quite unusual among his known pieces. It is not a finished painting, but a drawing in silverpoint, with light color in oil and black pigment on a chalk and animal glue ground. Silverpoint is a traditional medium, used since the medieval period and popular during the Renaissance. It is also quite difficult to master, as no line can be erased and no true black can be achieved. As such, it was not a sketching medium but used for fine drawings and as an under drawing medium for paintings. Although it seems incomplete, as some regions are painted and others only drawn, van Eyck had already signed the work, creating yet another quandary in his oeuvre: Is this a finished or unfinished drawing ... or painting? In either case, it proves another first for the artist as the earliest surviving drawing not on paper or parchment, or the earliest incomplete painting on panel still extant. Evidence does prove that the Flemish considered the work an important object by itself. It may be the work that Karel van Mander, a Flemish painter, art writer and some say the Northern equivalent of Giorgio Vasari, praised in the early seventeenth century as "more exactly and precisely done than the finished works of other masters ever could be." The 20th century German art historian Friedrich Winkler argues it represents a finished work as no preliminary drawing would contain so much minute detail and cites two 15th century drawings of Mary, unarguably unfinished, at the time of Jan's death.
The composition depicts the young Saint Barbara, a woman of Syrian descent who lived during the reign of emperor Maximian (305 - 311) just before Christianity was adopted by Rome under the rule of Constantine. According to legend, her beauty was so great, her father locked her away to keep her safe allowing only he and those under his discretion to visit her. After years of isolation, followed by her refusal of all suitors, her father allowed her to leave the tower. Soon thereafter, she encounters Christianity and secretly converts to the fledgling, and then illegal, religion. Throughout being attacked, starved and later tortured by her pagan father and city officials she remains true to her new faith. After being paraded through the town with another tortured martyr, she was beheaded by her father, who was, in turn, struck by lighting. Saint Barbara became a popular subject for artists of van Eyck's generation; another notable contemporary depiction is by fellow Flemish painter Robert Campin in his Werl Triptych (1438).
The composition is filled with iconography to illustrate the story of Saint Barbara's martyrdom. As an icon of beauty, she has the narrow shoulders typical of the female figure in a van Eyck portrait, and is dressed in a houppelande, a garment similar to an academic robe with wide sleeves, over her gown, which is gathered at the waist. The opening in her bodice rises to a deep v-neck, while the trim rises to form a collar made of fur. The three women behind her and to the viewer's right are seen viewing the construction, each wearing a similar houppelande. Since she is a maiden, she is bare headed. Saint Barbara is posed reading with a palm branch in her left hand to symbolize her triumph over death. While the figure of Saint Barbara dominates the lower half of the 2-foot-tall, vertically oriented composition, the upper regions depict a magnificent Gothic cathedral under construction. This alludes to part of the Saint's legend, where she orders workmen to alter her father's construction project to include three windows to symbolize the Holy Trinity. Van Eyck again uses the Gothic style to allude to the heavenly sphere. In this case, the building might also reflect the artist's contemporary time, in many respects it resembles the Cologne Cathedral, which in 1437, and after more than 200 years, was still under construction. Van Eyck had earlier depicted the cathedral as well as a view of Cologne in the "Adoration of the Lamb panel" scene of the famous Ghent Altarpiece.
Drawing on Oak Panel - Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium
The Virgin in a Church
Light floods the interior of a magnificent Gothic cathedral where a spectacular vision of the Virgin and Child holds court. Most art historians see this panel as the left wing of a dismantled, and once stolen, diptych; presumably its opposite wing was a votive portrait. In the remaining panel, the Madonna is depicted as the Queen of Heaven, wearing a regal jewel-studded crown, dressed in royal finery, a red dress symbolic of Christ's future sacrifice covered with a dark blue robe edged with golden embroidery. She cradles the Christ child, who acts simply as a child in the arms of his mother, similar to the 13th-century Byzantine tradition of the Eleusa icon (Virgin of Tenderness). At first glance, it might even appear that van Eyck has transformed a religious genre, Madonna and Child, into a nearly secular, albeit regal, image. However, closer inspection reveals much about van Eyck's process.
Discussion of Jan van Eyck's painting style invariably focus on the impressively high degree of realism he achieved, heretofore unattained in the art of painting. However, as Craig Harbison describes in his article, 'Realism and Symbolism in Early Flemish Painting,' all is not what it appears in these compositions. In fact, despite their convincing sense of structure, most of the church interiors depicted in his religious works are completely fictional. He writes, "Van Eyck uses visible reality to suit his ends. Realistic objects are not shown independent of symbolism. His faithful description is all carefully distilled; ultimately, it is not faithfully descriptive at all." The abundance of symbolic details in the architectural décor van Eyck invents, such as carved scenes of the life of the Virgin on the choir screen, the wooden statue of the Madonna and Child, and in a doorway to the viewer's right, two angels sing psalms from a hymn book.
This becomes evident when one notices the unusual details of The Virgin in a Church. For example, the scale of the Virgin and Child is out of proportion to her surroundings, she stands taller than even the archways of the grand arcade. Less obvious are the spots of light, which, knowing that traditionally the churches would be oriented toward the east, and the light source is shown streaming in from the North, are a physical impossibility. The light, therefore, is not of the mundane world, but in Panofsky's view symbolized Mary as the source of a spiritual light. As Borchert describes the exquisite hem of her attire is more than an indication of her status, but "sings her praise as the supernatural light." Additionally, he describes the symbolic meaning of the church interior: "it functions as a symbolic attribute of the Virgin whom medieval theology regarded as a personification of the church... van Eyck is literally portraying not the Madonna in a Church, but the Madonna as the Church."
Some scholars point to specific traits aligned with the International Gothic style, such as the style of the church interior or the exaggerated S-curve of the Madonna figure, to argue that van Eyck represents a pinnacle achievement but remains firmly within the Gothic tradition. However, others point to the artist's techniques of perspective and attention to realistic details, as a decided move beyond the religious art of the earlier medieval period. Harbison explains, "Van Eyck did not portray earthly reality per se: he was not interested in simply recording what he saw. Rather, descriptive data were re-arranged in all of van Eyck's religious works, so that they illustrated not earthly existence but what he considered supernatural truth."
Oil on Oak Panel - Gemaldegallerie, Berlin
Biography of Jan van Eyck
Childhood and Education
Jan van Eyck was born in the small town of Maaseyck, then known as Eyck, near a bend of the river Maas about 14 miles from Maastricht, the provincial capital of modern-day Limburg. The history of the region can be traced back to the Roman Empire era, and later grew into a religious center during the early medieval period. Notably, the nearby district of Aldeneik traces its history back to the early eighth century, with the founding of the Aldeneik Abbey by two sisters from a noble landowning family who had been educated at a Benedictine Abbey in Valenciennes.
Few details are known of van Eyck's childhood, including the artist's exact year of birth, which most scholars date between the years 1385 and 1395. He is commonly believed to be the younger brother of Hubert (also: Huybrecht), with additional siblings Lambert (or Lambrecht) and Margaret, all of whom are identified as painters. Hubert is theorized to have taken charge of Jan's artistic education and made him his younger "disciple" at his home in Ghent. Because little was written of Hubert during his life, he died in 1426 before the completion of the Ghent Altarpiece, his role as an artist and relationship with Jan remains a point of contention among historians. The younger brother, Lambert, is mentioned in later court documents and believed by some to have taken charge of Jan van Eyck's workshop after the death of his brother.
Although van Eyck is considered among the greatest masters of European art history, continued debate around the biography of the artist and even the authorship of some of his works abounds. The few works attributed as van Eyck's earliest paintings are among those works in contention. The best-known examples are the miniatures in the Turin-Milan Book of Hours, an illuminated manuscript with an astonishing history of its own. The book was commissioned c. 1380, soon thereafter the most famous section of the book, Tres Belles Heures de Nortre Dame painted by Jean d'Orléans, Maelwael brothers, and Limbourg Brothers was produced under the commission of Jean, duc du Berry, whom Friedländer describes as "a passionate bibliophile." The book came into the possession of John of Bavaria, aka "John III the Pitiless, Count of Holland and Hainaut," in the early 1420s around the same time Jan van Eyck came into his service, leading scholars to believe that a selection of illuminations created by an anonymous artist, known simply as "Hand G," were created by the hand of Jan van Eyck. In addition, "Hand H" is theorized to demonstrate the work of Hubert van Eyck. The book later came into the possession of Philip the Good, leading to further speculation of the artist's involvement. Lacking specific documentation, and with the added misfortune of a fire in 1904 that destroyed much of the prayer book in question, leaves these attributions far from certain.
The early 1420s did, however, prove a pivotal time for both Hubert and Jan van Eyck, as the former received the commission for what would become the Ghent Altarpiece in 1420 and the latter, earned the rank of court painter to John of Bavaria. Two of the four surviving documents naming Hubert relate to the altarpiece itself. Jan's court position is first documented with payments dating to 1424, though the position presumably began earlier. With a formal painting studio and hired assistants to assist and copy his paintings, as was the custom of the time period, van Eyck's reputation began to spread throughout Europe. His innovative technique of layering thin glazes of oil paint brought an astonishing realism to viewers of the time. Nearly a century later, the 16th century painter, architect, writer and historian Giorgio Vasari went so far as to credit the artist with the invention of the medium, writing: "It was a very beautiful invention and a great convenience to the art of painting, the discovery of oil coloring." This legendary history ascribed to the artist was widely believed until the early 19th century. In his own time, Jan van Eyck was internationally recognized for the exquisite details in both his religious paintings and secular portraiture; he was entrusted with painting the portraits of some of Europe's most influential people during his career.
After John of Bavaria's death in January of 1425, Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, incorporated Holland under his rule, as well as many of the former duke's possessions and court appointees. Friedländer notes, "As soon as possible after the death of his Dutch-Bavarian cousin, the duke appointed the painter to his own court, taking pride in the fact that the master, whom he honored and esteemed so highly, was at least formally, a member of his entourage." Court records document that Jan van Eyck was appointed both court painter and valet de chambre on May 19, 1425, and was compensated for the expenses of a journey from Bruges to Lille in August of that year. In addition to his duties as court painter, the position of valet was a title of distinction that gave him official standing in the court, an unusually high status to an artist in the early 15th century. His emergence as a collectable painter generally followed this appointment, and from this point on his activity in the court is comparatively well documented.
With his exceptionally well-paid court employment and social standing, van Eyck maintained independence from the painters' guild of Bruges while also maintaining his own commissions beyond his court duties. In 1427, the artist traveled to Tournai to attend a banquet on the feast of St. Lucas, with other leading artists Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden in attendance. Some write that he was named a senior member of the guild at this time. Van Eyck visits again the following year, though the reason is not known. Philip the Good also sent Jan on missions of extreme trust, described in records as "certain distant and secret journeys," possibly including a pilgrimage for Philip into the Holy Land, and extensive travels to Italy, where he met Florentine artists, Masaccio in particular, to England, and perhaps to Prague between 1427 and 1436. His strong visual memory allowed him to recall many people and historic scenes that were forever useful in his paintings. Better-known is the well-documented diplomatic voyage to Lisbon in 1428, where he painted two portraits of Princess Isabella of Portugal who was to be Philip's third wife. The paintings were sent back to the duke separately, one by land and the other by sea. Unfortunately, although both betrothal portraits were received by Philip, they are now lost and only copies remain.
The trust placed in van Eyck on these travels representing the duke suggests the closeness and even admiration Philip held for the artist. Although not formally educated, van Eyck could read and write, demonstrating his knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew through inscriptions on his paintings and their distinctive frames. A well-known incident transcribed in Wolfgang Stechow's Northern Renaissance Art: Sources and Documents highlights the respect Philip held for the artist. When the exchequer withheld payment from the artist, the duke rebuked this decision, writing: "We have heard that you do not readily verify certain of our letters granting life pension to our well-beloved equerry painter, Jan van Eyck, whereby he cannot be paid said pension; and for this reason, he will find it necessary to leave our service, which would cause us great displeasure, for we would retain him for certain great works with which we intend henceforth to occupy him and we would not find his like more to our taste, one so excellent in his art and science." Subsequently, van Eyck received his annual payments without fail.
An unusual, and perhaps less documented, achievement of van Eyck is pointed out by author and lecturer of science and humanities, Scott L. Montgomery who credits van Eyck with creating the earliest known naturalistic representations of the moon in Western art, predating the drawings of the same subject by Leonardo da Vinci by 85 years. He credits this achievement to "the Flemish artist Jan van Eyck, possibly in partial collaboration with his brother, Hubert" as occurring between 1420 and 1437. "These images, which portray the Moon in daytime, appear in the following paintings: the Crucifixion (1420-25), St. Barbara (1437) and the Knights of Christ panel of the renowned Ghent Altarpiece (1426-1432)." He contrasts this with the allegorical rendering usually given to celestial objects, or "personification of a religious of mythic figure," by concluding, "Such realism is undeniably the result of careful, direct study of individual objects in the natural environment."
Art historian Jelte Dijkstra who wrote on the technical aspects of the early Netherlandish artists singled out the artist from his peers, writing: "Jan van Eyck seems to be exceptional: if any of the early Netherlandish painters could be said to have produced 'authentic' works, it is this artist. Eight signed and dated paintings survive, not including the Ghent Altarpiece with its contended inscription." The technical analysis continues a multi-century probe into the exquisite surfaces of Netherlandish painting, most notably van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. The search has sought both to understand the type of oil and other pigment binders used by the artist and a secure level of connoisseurship to accurately determine authorship. Describing the initial results of these tests, Dijkstra continues, "The technical data on the panels published so far create a very consistent impression of the style of under drawing, the working method, and the application of the paint. This consistency and the small size of the majority of these panels suggest the Jan van Eyck did all of the painting himself, though that is by no means certain."
By the end of his career, van Eyck and his contemporaries established portraiture as a major art form. The artist held an international roster of wealthy patrons who commissioned him to have their likenesses recorded or create devotional paintings. In his more complicated compositions, Jan was able to construct a convincingly unified and logical pictorial world with absolute physical stillness and filled with spiritual energy. His international fame is best documented in Italy, as Susie Nash, professor of Renaissance Art, notes in her book titled, Northern Renaissance Art, in which she documents humanist writers, "such as Cyriacus d'Ancona (1449), Bartolommeo Fazio (1456), Francesco Florio (1477) and Giovanni Santi (1482)...[who provide] a testimony to the fame of Netherlandish painters." D'Ancona, for example, wrote that van Eyck's paintings seemed "not by the artifice of human hands but by all-bearing nature herself." Bartolommeo Fazio, who described van Eyck as "the leading painter" of his day in his De viris illustribus, also noted: "He is not unlettered, particularly in geometry and such arts as contribute to the enrichment of painting, and he is thought for this reason to have discovered many things about the properties of colors recorded by the ancients and learned by him from reading Pliny and other authors."
In 1431, after his many extended journeys for the Duke, Jan purchased a house with a stone-gabled front in Bruges. He married a much younger woman named Margareta, from a lower but still noble class, who bore him ten children. In 1434, Duke Philip was the godfather at the christening of their first child, named Philip or Philippina, increased Jan's salary and gave him six silver goblets made by a goldsmith in Bruges especially for the baptism of the child. Two years later is the last documented "secret journey" van Eyck would make on behalf of the duke. Philip continued to support the van Eyck family, even after the esteemed artist's death in 1441. He helped one of the artist's daughters purchase entrance to a convent and extended the artist's payments to his widow. Upon Jan's death, his younger brother, Lambert, is said to have settled the estate, taken over the artist workshop with its many unfinished commissions, and then oversaw its closing. Lambert was also responsible for exhuming the body of his brother for reburial inside St. Donatian's Cathedral in Bruges.
The Legacy of Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck was a leading force in 15th-century Flemish painting, due to his innovations in the use of optical perspective and handling of oil paint. Gradual transitions between color areas were now possible due to the slower drying time of the oil paint which, as compared to egg tempera, allowed the colors to be used more specifically to depict perspective, deep space and realistic modeling. Although the specter of his brother, Hubert, raised by Jan's own dedication found on the Ghent Altarpiece, has stirred doubts to the true authorship of this and other early works, what remains clear is the sheer amount of documentation and praise accorded to Jan during, and after, his life eclipses the dearth of materials in regards to Hubert's career.
Alistair Smith, former curator of Flemish and German painting at the National Gallery in London described, "In terms both of the development of the oil medium, and of naturalism, Jan van Eyck is one of the founders of modern painting." Indeed, van Eyck's reach has far outlived his own time, when he was a major influence to other northern painters, such as contemporaries Rogier van der Weyden and even the later works of Robert Campin, and his successors, including Petrus Christus and later, Hans Memling. Notably, on a trip to Ghent in April of 1521, the famous German Renaissance painter and engraver Albrecht Dürer was taken to view the Ghent Altarpiece where he described, "... I had just been taken for something great. Then I saw Jan van Eyck's picture; it is a most precious painting, full of thought. The Eve, Mary, and God the Father are especially good." Dürer absorbed many facet's of van Eyck's style, in addition to the precise nature of his naturalism, also evoking his three-quarter portraiture, creating a stylized signature, and noted by art historians Jeroen Stumpel and Jolein van Kregten, his "Eyckian contrast between the very near and the very far."
The influence of the later-named Flemish Primitives seemed to weaken as the Classical revival of Italian painting gradually moved into the northern regions of Europe. However, as collections of important Netherlandish works moved into new hands, notably in 1516 to Margaret of Austria, Habsburg Regent of the Netherlands, whose artwork was later inherited, via Mary of Hungary by the King Philip II of Spain where it was first noted in a 1558 inventory. Here, a minor painting of Philip's daughters may have been influenced by the postures in van Eyck's famous Arnolfini Portrait. What is more widely recognized is the influence of this painting on the famous Las Meninas by Philip IV's prized court painter and leading figure of the Spanish Baroque, Diego Velázquez. In the latter work, the Spanish painter's similar use of a mirror to complete the visual and conceptual narrative of the painting has proved as confounding to scholars as van Eyck's earlier work. Velazquez's Las Meninas would, in turn, influence the Romantic painter Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes, as is evident in etchings made of the Velazquez's masterpiece along with Goya's own depiction of the royal family, albeit with a sense of irony. During the Romantic period, interest in the Northern Renaissance was revived, along with a rising interest in the accomplishments of the artists and architects working in the Gothic era.
The seemingly small and unassuming Arnolfini Portrait would turn heads once again after coming into the possession of the National Gallery of London in 1842, over 400 years after it was first commissioned by the wealthy merchant. It was at this time, a group of rebellious young artists at the British Royal Academy sought to overturn the influence of founding president Sir Joshua Reynolds, on whom they bestowed the condescension Sir "Sloshua" Reynolds, and centuries of what they described as mimicry of the Renaissance masters, Raphael above all others. For the Pre-Raphaelites, as they were collectively called, the striking veracity of this small painting echoed the fine details seen in early photographs, a process recently invented. This painting was almost prescient in its modernity. A recent exhibition at the National Gallery in London, titled Reflections: van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites (2017-2018) continued the exploration of this relationship focusing closely on the use of the mirror by the latter group of artists. The style of van Eyck and the Flemish Primitives is also credited as a key element of Grant Wood's move away from his early Impressionistic canvases, both of which he viewed during his early travels through Europe. More recently, artists associated with the contemporary Pop Surrealist movement, including leading figures such as husband and wife Mark Ryden and Marion Peck, count the Flemish masters and Jan van Eyck as a key early influence.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Jan van Eyck
- The Van Eycks and Their Art [ 1912 ]By W. H. James (William Henry James) Weale
- The Complete Paintings of the Van EycksBy Robert Hughes
- All the Paintings of Jan Van EyckOur PickBy Valentin Denis, translated by Paul Colacicchi
- Northern Renaissance Art, 1400-1600: Sources and DocumentsBy Wolfgang Stechow
- From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting (1956)By Max J. Friedänder
- Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old MastersBy David Hockney