From the 13th
century onwards, Bruges developed into a trading metropolis which attracted people from far and wide. The Burgundian court established itself in the city, as did many international trading houses. This led to a thriving market for luxury goods, which served as a breeding ground for the creation of a new movement in painting: the Flemish Primitives.
Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden were its founders. Their style is characterised by intricate realism, a pronounced focus on the depiction of materials and landscapes, and a vivid colour palette. The meticulous details and sumptuous textures still have the power to take our breath away.
The artists were able to achieve this effect through the use of oil paint. This technique had been known for some time, but the talent of these masters ensured that it reached new and unprecedented heights. As a result, they achieved worldwide fame during their Iifetimes.
This corbel was part of the Gothic facade of Bruges’ town hall. It was fashioned between 1376 and 1379 in the studio of Jean de Valenciennes, a gifted sculptor from Hainaut. Following restoration work in the 19th century, twenty-six original corbels entered the museum collection. Since then, copies have been used to decorate the town hall facade. The iconographic programme of the corbels is varied and alludes to religious and mythical figures, legends and vernacular depictions.
This Virgin and Child is a copy after a lost composition by the Master of Flémalle (Robert Campin) from Tournai. The panel was probably made by a Brussels-based painter in the late 15th century. The red cloth with crisp pleats behind the Madonna and the cushion in gold brocade are additions by the copyist. The fruit in the hands of the Child symbolises the vanquishing of original sin.
In 15th-century artists’ workshops, it was customary to amalgamate existing motifs within new works. This painting is a combination of elements from two compositions by Rogier van der Weyden. It is one of at least five Madonnas that were attributed to the so-called Master of the Embroidered Foliage. His eponym is derived from the repetitive way in which he painted the leaves and the gold brocade, which is comparable to stitches in embroidery.
The Duke of Burgundy is adorned with his characteristic black chaperon. Above his velvet jerkin with its fur collar, he wears the chain of the Golden Fleece, the knight’s order that he founded in 1430. The prototype of this official portrait, of which there are multiple versions in existence, was probably painted by Rogier van der Weyden. These official portraits circulated in the kingdom and were given as gifts.
There are multiple versions of this composition in existence. Van der Weyden probably created the original for the chapel of St Luke’s Guild in Brussels. The evangelist Luke, patron saint of painters, draws Mary and Jesus’ portrait in silverpoint. In his workshop to the right are the following attributes: a book and an ox. The beautiful river landscape owes much to Van Eyck and is an early example of Flemish landscape painting.
Painting is an elevated art. One that comes close to the divine: this appears to be the message communicated by this panel. Van der Weyden devised the composition. Together with Jan van Eyck, he is one of the greatest of the Flemish Primitives. Van der Weyden created the original version of this work for the chapel of the Guild of Saint Luke in the cathedral in Brussels, the city in which he lived and worked. Saint Luke is the patron saint of painters.
We now come to the figures in the painting. The man in red is Luke, a physician and the author of one of the four gospels. He is kneeling before Mary and drawing her portrait in silverpoint. At the same time, Mary is nursing Jesus. Notice her beautiful robe. On the far right, we see Luke’s study containing a book and an ox, the attributes with which he is typically depicted in artworks.
It seems incredibly realistic, partly because of the scene in the background: a courtyard garden from which two figures admire the river landscape. But of course, this scene is not realistic at all. It depicts a legend from the 6th century, in which Mary is said to have appeared to Luke, who subsequently drew her portrait. This is why Luke became the patron saint of painters. Certain representations of Mary have even been attributed to him…
Because it was such an immediate success, multiple versions of this important painting can be found throughout the world.
The Bruges canon Joris van der Paele commissioned this work for a place beside his grave in St Donatian’s Cathedral, where he also asked for masses to be read. His patron saint, Joris (George), commends the sick canon to Mary and Jesus. Opposite them stands St Donatian, the patron saint of the church. Van Eyck’s detailed realism and rendering of material are astonishing, as are the reflections on saint George’s armor and helmet. The church interior is possibly based on St Donatian’s Cathedral, which no longer survives.
Jan van Eyck is known for his astonishing realism – and with just reason. After the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent, this panel is his second largest work. The closer you look, the more you will discover. The frame with its text is also original!
It is 1434. Joris van der Paele, the old man kneeling in his white surplice, is seriously ill. This Bruges-based canon of Saint Donatian’s Church has enjoyed a long career at the Vatican. He makes a gift to Saint Donation’s Church: Masses will be said, and Jan van Eyck will paint this work to hang beside Van der Paele’s grave. In this way, he will always be remembered.
The canon has removed his reading glasses – you can look through the lenses! Behind him, his patron saint, Saint George, commends him to Mary and Jesus. Look at the reflections on Saint George’s armour and helmet! Standing opposite them is Saint Donatian, the patron saint of Saint Donatian’s Church, which, incidentally, was demolished in around 1800. Note Donatian’s sublime cope in gold brocade that depicts figures of the apostles. In the centre, Mary and Jesus are seated on a throne before a brocade canopy. The oriental carpet in front of them has fringed edges.
We are in a church, and Mary is sitting where the altar would be found: the place where Jesus’ death and resurrection are relived during the Eucharist. Through this act of salvation, Christ redeemed mankind from the original sin of Adam and Eve. You can see these two figures on Mary’s throne, beneath representations of Cane and Abel, and of Samson and the lion. Scenes from the Old Testament are also depicted on the capitals of the columns.
We marvel at Van Eyck’s astonishing realism. At the same time, we are looking at the work of an intellectual believer. And at a vision. The canon sees Mary, Jesus and the two saints in his mind’s eye. Jan van Eyck’s painterly gaze has turned this scene into a world-famous masterpiece.
From 4 to 18 January 2021, the University of Antwerp is conducting an in-situ examination of Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele by Jan van Eyck. Crystal structures can be determined using Macroscopic X-ray Powder Diffraction Scanning, or MA-XRPD for short. It enables us to identify the precise pigments that Van Eyck used in his work, for example.
The adjacent film shows how this research is conducted.
‘My husband Johannes completed me in the year 1439 on 15 June / I was thirtythree years old’, we read in Latin on the frame. This is followed by Jan van Eyck’s motto: ‘Als ich can’ (to the best of my ability). Van Eyck’s wife fixes us with a penetrating stare. Her clothing is trimmed with squirrel fur, while her horned hairstyle decorated with lace. After Jan’s death, she continued to run his Bruges workshop for a number of years.
‘My husband Jan completed me on 15 June 1439. I was 33.’
Witten in Latin, these are the words that can be read on the frame, both above and below this portrait. Followed by ‘Als ich can’, the unwavering motto of the painter Jan van Eyck, which translates as ‘to the best of my ability’. This is his wife, Margareta. It is the oldest known portrait of an artist’s spouse. In all likelihood, it was one of a pair of linked paintings, with Jan van Eyck himself on the right.
It is hardly necessary to point out the lifelike quality of Margareta’s portrait. Because of the dark background, our full attention is trained on the sitter. She is gazing out of the portrait, but is also staring back at us, the viewers. In Van Eyck’s time, portrait painting was still in its infancy. With a work such as this, he is leading the way. Later European painters were familiar with Van Eyck’s portraits.
Margareta poses in an elegant woollen dress, offset with squirrel fur. Her hair is coiled into ‘horns’ and decorated with lace. This was undoubtedly Van Eyck’s way of signalling her social status, and therefore also his own. The elegant Latin creates the same impression. Consequently, it is unlikely that this was an intimate birthday or wedding gift.
1439. Jan van Eyck dies two years later. His widow Margareta continues to run his Bruges workshop for several years, probably with the help of Jan’s brother, Lambert.
The Calvary scene is compressed within the narrow proportion of the panel. The golden background and accumulation of trailing gold aureoles lends the scene a precious and solemn character. The man looking up is directly inspired by the right-hand panel of the lost 'Descent from the Cross' by the Master of Flémalle -Robert Campin- (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt). Also indebted to Flémalle is the heavy contrast between the spaceless golden plane of the background and the sculptural-realist figures and objects in the foreground.
The anonymous painter was named after a votive painting commissioned by Abbot Wolfhard Strauß, for his monastery St Emmeran in Regensburg (Germany).
This small panel can be linked to the workshop of Jan van Eyck. Dendrochronological research (based on measuring the rings in wood) dates the oak support to 1387. The work was painted either during Van Eyck’s lifetime, or shortly after his death in 1441. The composition is based on several works by Van Eyck, including the Madonna with Canon Joris van der Paele. The anonymous artist, who probably hails from Germany, must therefore have had access to drawings from Van Eyck’s workshop, or haveworked there for a time.