Hubert and Jan Van Eyck

The influx of the Renaissance artistic spirit in the art of Flanders during the 15th century wouldn’t have had such transcendental consequences without the school initiated by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Jan van Eyck was a native of Maaseik (then Maaseyck, hence his name), near Maastricht, in the Netherlands. As for Hubert, very little is known of him. Hubert died in 1426 and was buried in Ghent, in the cathedral of Saint Bavo. This circumstance is known by an old copy of the sepulchral inscription, now lost. We know more about his brother Jan, although it is unknown when he was born, probably between 1380-1390.

We know that between 1422 and 1425 Jan held the title of peintre et varlet de chambre of John of Bavaria, count of Holland, for whom he worked in The Hague. When his employer died Jan, under the same title he held before, went on to receive the patronage of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. His entry into the Burgundy ducal house had to coincide with the death of his first patron, since in 1425 he received a payment for a secret commission that he made for the Duke while traveling outside the country. This was the first of several trips he made from Bruges, his habitual residence, as a court artist and diplomat.

In 1432 he finished, together with his brother Hubert, the great polyptych of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, for Ghent, a work that will be described in detail in other essay. However, let’s say before that no work can be attributed with absolute certainty to his brother Hubert and that it hasn’t been possible to clarify which parts he painted in the famous Ghent polyptych, whose execution should have taken many years. In modern times it was attributed to Hubert the Three Marys at the tomb, a painting on panel that today is exhibited in the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam (Nehterlands), this work is today thought to have been painted or begun by Hubert, perhaps between 1410-1420, and completed by another artist (either Jan or a member of Jan’s workshop).

The Three Marys at the Tomb, painted or begun by Hubert van Eyck ca. between 1410 and 1420, and completed by another artist, paint on panel (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands). The painting depicts a scene from the lives of the New Testament Three Marys: The Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary Salome. They are shown grieving at the site of the entombment of Christ, shown to the left of the tomb, under a hill of jagged rock. To the right and center are three soldiers, each carrying weapons, and asleep. The painting is made up of a series of parallel diagonal lines, most dominant are those between the Virgin and the angel, the angel’s pathway, the lengths of the tomb, and the positions of the soldiers. The landscape contains buildings that resembles those in Jerusalem. The sky above the city shows a flock of birds, the earliest such depiction in Flemish painting, although it can be seen again in the “Hermits” panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.

The inscription in Latin verses placed within the frame of the Ghent polyptych is in part illegible and says: “The painter Hubert of Eyck, older than any other, began this work, that Jan, his brother, the second in his art, was responsible for concluding, at the request of Iodocus Vydt… being placed on May 6, of the year 1432“. Exceptionally for the artists of the time, Jan had knowledge of Latin and used the Greek and Hebrew alphabets in his inscriptions, indicating that he was schooled in the classics.

At the time of the French Revolution, the polyptych was taken to Paris but later returned, in 1815, to his home place although incomplete. The shutters were separated from the altarpiece, pawn by the Diocese of Ghent and passed through several owners until they were bought by the king of Prussia for 16000 pounds and for many decades they were exhibited in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Before the war of 1914-1918 they were still in Berlin, but the Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to return the paintings, and in 1920 the polyptych was fully reunited again. Later, in 1934, The Just Judges and Saint John the Baptist panels were stolen. The panel of Saint John the Baptist was returned by the thief as a goodwill gesture, but the Just Judges panel (the panel below the far left when the polyptych is fully open) is still missing and had to be replaced by a faithful copy of the original. In 1940, at the beginning of another German invasion, the altarpiece was sent to the Vatican to keep it safe, but while en route to the Vatican in 1942, Adolf Hitler ordered the altarpiece to be seized from a museum in Pau (France) where it was being stored and it was brought to Germany to be kept in the Schloss Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria and later transferred for safety reasons to the Altaussee salt mines in Austria. The altarpiece was finally recovered by the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program group after the war and finally returned to Belgium. Today, the polypthych is in display in the church of St. Bavo in the cathedral of Ghent, in the place for which it was originally painted. Its original, very ornate, carved outer frame, thought to look similar to the painted tracery in the altarpiece, was destroyed during the Reformation and it probably included some kind of clockwork mechanisms to allow the shutters to move and even to play music.

The twelve interior panels of the Ghent Altarpiece (1432, oil on wood, Cathedral of St. Bavo, Ghent, Belgium). This altarpiece is considered as the most famous work of Jan van Eyck. It is said to have been begun by Jan’s elder brother Hubert and completed by Jan in 1432. Scholars generally agree that the overall conception of the altarpiece is the work of Hubert, along with the execution of certain parts. The Ghent polyptych is mystical, almost esoteric, in intention, and is imbued throughout with both spiritual and intellectual signification.