The Madonnas of Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck traveled with relative frequency, completing confidential commissions for his lord and friend Philip III, Duke of Burgundy. We have already referred to the first of such trips. He was a prodigious portraitist very skilled in representing human nature. Perhaps because of this circumstance the Duke of Burgundy wanted Jan to engage in so many secret travels.

During 1428-1429 he was in the Iberian Peninsula and went to Lisbon to arrange the marriage of the Duke with Isabella of Portugal. From this embassy there are two very detailed descriptions of the entire trip, in which he made a portrait of the Infanta (today lost) which was immediately sent to the Duke. Pending the Duke’s response, the ambassadors, and with them Jan, went on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Galicia and visited the court of the kings of Castile. One of the first to show interest in Van Eyck’s painting was King Alfonso V of Aragon. Alfonso had in Naples one triptych painted by Jan that he had in great regard, and in one of the royal letters to his agent in Valencia he asked him to send him a painting by Juan de Brujas (which was Jan van Eyck) with the figure of St. George.

However, the fondness for the works of the Van Eycks and their disciples was not reduced to the Levantine region; the Duke of Uceda had a Virgin, painted by Jan, made with extreme tenderness and subtlety, and the famous altar of the monastery of El Parral near Segovia is now kept in the Prado Museum (known as The Fountain of Life), this is thought to be the work of an imitator (or perhaps an old copy of one of Jan’s lost works). In this painting, which was in El Parral in 1454, we find the themes and style of the Ghent altarpiece.

“The Fountain of Life”, oil on panel, ca. 1432 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The work is unsigned though stylistically and thematically is related to the work of Jan van Eyck or his workshop. This painting closely resembles scenes of the Ghent Altarpiece. The painting is structured into three levels. The top terrace shows a Deësis with God (center), the Virgin Mary (left) and St. John the Evangelist (right). The middle section shows four groups of angels, while the lower level has two groups of holy men: Christians led by a Pope and princes to the left, and Jews led by blindfolded high priests to the right. Water flows from the top to the lower levels to The Fountain of Life in the lower center.

The trip to Portugal was the last Jan made. Upon his return, he bought a house in Bruges in the Rue de la Main d’Or and shortly afterwards he finished the polyptych of the Mystic Lamb (1432). The following year he married Margaret, of which he painted a prodigious portrait dated 1439 on the painting’s frame, with the declaration that his wife was then 33 years old. Sometimes Jan signed and dated his paintings on their frame, which explains why in many cases when the original frame was destroyed, the date of the painting was lost with it. He often signed and dated his frames, and for single head portraits himself designed and painted them to make them look like imitation stone, with the signature or other inscriptions giving the impression that they had been chiseled into the stone. Sometimes his frames serve illusionistic purposes extending the presence of the person portrayed out of the pictorial space and into that of the viewer. Today, many of these original frames are lost and known only through copies or inventory records.

The Annunciation, oil transferred from wood to canvas, ca. 1434, by Jan van Eyck (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC).

We know several religious paintings signed by Jan van Eyck. These paintings generally represent Virgins inside churches or sitting with the Child in her lap, sometimes with a worshiper in front plunged into devoted contemplation. The “Annunciation”, ca. 1434–1436 (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.), thought to be the left (inner) wing of a triptych, depicts the Archangel Gabriel in the moment he announces to the Virgin Mary that she will bear the son of God. This oil painting is filled with iconography as typical of Jan’s works. The Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit descend to Mary as seven rays of light from the upper window to the left, and led by the dove of the Holy Spirit. As was believed during the Middle Ages, Mary was pictured as a studious girl and so in this painting she appears reading a large Book in what appears to be a part of a temple. The architectural setting in which the figures were placed includes older, round Romanesque arches above, to (slightly) pointed Gothic arches below. The timber roof is in poor condition, with planks seen out of place and some missing. The use of parts of Romanesque architectural settings to identify Jewish rather than Christian settings was a regular feature of van Eyck’s paintings and his followers. The floor tiles represent David slaying of Goliath (center front), behind this, Samson pulls down the Temple of the Philistines, to the left, Delilah is cutting Samson’s hair, and behind he slays the Philistines. Astrological symbols were also represented in the round border tiles. The top of the rear wall has a single stained glass window (Jehovah) above triple plain-glazed windows below (perhaps suggesting the Christian trinity). On either side of the single stained glass are faded wall-paintings of the Finding of Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter (left), and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments (right). Below them and the small colonnaded-niches are roundels with Isaac and Jacob. The lilies in the front right corner are a traditional attribute of Mary, representing her purity. The empty stool (also in the front, next to the lilies) may represent an “empty throne”, a symbol for Christ going back to early Byzantine art. Mary, as usual, wears a blue robe, which is trimmed in ermine, and thus reserved for royalty. As was usual, especially in Flemish painting, Mary’s facial features are less attractive than those of sexless angel Gabriel. Neither figure has a halo as these feature was not represented in Early Netherlandish art in the sake of realism.

Detail from The Annunciation with the Archangel Gabriel and Mary.
Detail from The Annunciation with the tiled floor, the empty stool and the lilies.
Detail of the decorative floor tiles from The Annunciation: in first plane David slays Goliath, and in the back Samson pulls down the Philistines’ Temple.
Detail of the rear wall of The Annunciation, to the left Moses is found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, and next to it the stained glass with Jehovah and Seraphim above.


The closed view (outer wings) of the Dresden Triptych with an Annunciation scene imitating statues of the Archangel Gabriel and Mary (oil on oak panel, 1437, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden).

The “Dresden Triptych”, 1437 (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) is a very small (33 x 27.5 cm including the original frame) hinged-triptych altarpiece consisting of five individual panel paintings: a central inner panel, and two double-sided and painted wings. Due to its small size, it is believed that this work may have been intended for private devotion, perhaps as a portable altarpiece. This is the only extant triptych attributed to van Eyck, and the only non-portrait signed with his personal motto, ALC IXH XAN (“I Do as I Can”). In this triptych, Jan shows off his increasing talent in representing depth of space and established the iconographic elements associated with the Virgin Mary that were to become a standard during the second half of the 15th century. The paintings on the two outer wings visible when the triptych is closed show the Annunciation with the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel painted in grisaille, thus giving the impression that they are sculptures. The three inner panels are set inside a church and represent a typical sacra conversazione, an iconographic form established in Italy in the last half of the 14th century that included a patron saint presenting the donor, usually kneeling, to an enthroned “Deity or Mother of God”. In the central inner panel Mary is seated and holds the Christ Child on her lap, they are enthroned inside a church nave within two colonnades running on either side and defining lateral aisles. The columns were painted as if they were built of different colors of marble: pink, red and purple. The throne rests on a lavishly detailed oriental carpet lying on a geometrically designed tiled floor. The arms of the canopied throne and the arches to either side of the colonnades contain carved or sculptured figures, including tiny representations of biblical figures. Mary wears a richly embroidered red robe over a blue dress edged with a jeweled border. The Christ Child is naked and holds towards the donor an inscribed ribbon adorned with a phrase from the Gospel of Matthew. Mary’s presence in the church is symbolic: she and the child occupy the area where the altar would normally be situated. On the left wing the Archangel Michael presents the kneeling donor who commissioned the triptych and whose identity is unknown, while on the right wing St. Catherine of Alexandria stands reading a prayer book, they appear to stand in either the aisles. These aisles imply spaciousness by the spaces out of view and are filled with light streaming through the windows. On the right panel St. Catherine is presented as resembling a Gothic princess, she stands reading a book and wears an elaborate jeweled crown and a rich blue and white gown. The attributes associated with her are included: in her right hand, she holds the sword used for her beheading and at her feet lies the breaking wheel on which she was tortured. A landscape can be seen through the window behind St. Catherine and includes a number of highly detailed buildings and hills before snow capped mountains. In the left panel stands a youthful-looking St. Michael dressed in elaborately jeweled and colored armor, a lance rests against his right shoulder and with his left hand he holds his helmet, his right hand rests on the shoulder of the donor as he presents him to Mary. The architectural setting is inside a church of Romanesque style mixed with Gothic elements. Each of the capitals is decorated with faux carvings, some showing representations of the 12 apostles under a small baldachin. The church’s vault is visible in the aisles but not in the central nave. There are several implied spaces not visible to the viewer.


Open view of the Dresden Triptych, oil on oak panel, 1437, by Jan van Eyck (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden).
Detail of the right panel of the Dresden Triptych showing St. Catherine.
Detail of the left panel of the Dresden Triptych with the Archangel Michael presenting the donor.

The so-called “Lucca Madonna” (Städel Museum, Frankfurt), painted ca. 1437, shows Mary sitting on a wooden throne under a damask canopy, with four small lion statues made of brass. This canopy, the frontal position and the predominance of vertical lines of this painting, give the Virgin a hieratic air of a religious rite and place her in a supernatural space different from the one we live in our every day experiences. Here Mary is shown breastfeeding the infant Christ. The Virgin’s likeness has been identified as a portrait of the painter’s wife, Margaret. As in other paintings by van Eyck, Mary is depicted similar to an altar, as she supports the Child Christ on her lap and she appears over-sized and flattened. The unusual shape of the room in which they sit, very narrow for such a large chair, suggests it is a small chapel. The two fruits on the windowsill to the left have been identified as either apples or oranges, both of which would be allusions to paradise. The right side wall includes a niche similar in shape to the window to the left and contains an empty candlestick and a half-filled glass carafe; there’s also a large bowl with water on the lower ledge. The floor tiles are of blue and white geometrical patterns. This painting is known as Lucca Madonna because it belonged to Charles II, Duke of Parma and Lucca in the early 19th century.

The Lucca Madonna, oil on panel, 1436, by Jan van Eyck (Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, Germany).

The “Madonna in the church”, ca. 1438-1440 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) exemplifies the characteristics that were typical of the Virgins painted by Jan: a sweetly inclined face seen in three quarters, high and bulging forehead, aristocratic hands, and Flemish feminine beauty. The painting depicts Mary holding the Child Jesus inside a Gothic cathedral. Mary is here represented as Queen of Heaven wearing a jewel-studded crown, cradling a playful child Christ who gazes at her while grips the neckline of her red dress. The Gothic tracery in the arch at the rear of the nave includes wooden carvings depicting episodes from Mary’s life, while a sculpture inside a niche shows her holding the child in a similar pose. In a doorway to the right, we can see two angels singing psalms from a hymn book. Like other of his Marian paintings and Byzantine depictions of the Madonna, van Eyck depicts a monumental Mary, unrealistically large compared to her surroundings. The way in which Jan depicted light coming to the pictorial space is astonishing: beams of light flood through the cathedral’s windows bathing the interior space with a bright and ethereal luminosity to finally culminate in two pools of light reflected on the floor. Most art historians believe this panel was originally the left wing of a dismantled diptych, with the opposite wing presumably being a votive portrait. Today the Madonna in the Church is widely considered as a work with an unsurpassed depiction of light in Western art.

The Madonna in the Church, oil on oak panel, ca. 1438-1440, by Jan van Eyck (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).
Detail of The Madonna in the Church with the Madonna and infant Christ in first plane, a statue of the Madonna and Child inside a niche behind, and to the rear right two angels singing psalms.
Detail of The Madonna in the Church showing the first stained-glass window at the top left. Notice Jan’s fabulous rendering of light.

The last Virgin of this series is the “Madonna at the Fountain” (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp), signed and dated 1439, which due to its small format (19 x 12 cm, a little larger than a postcard) and precision in detail can be taken as a miniature executed on wood; here the Virgin, before a bronze fountain, embraces the Child who seems scared while holding prayer beads in his left hand suggesting (along with the rose bush behind the figures) the Rosary, while behind her two angels hold a red brocade with the aim to place her in an environment of supernatural greatness. This was Jan’s last signed and dated painting. It retains its original frame, which bears the inscription; “ALS IXH CAN”, “JOHES DE EYCK ME FECIT + [COM]PLEVIT ANNO 1439. It is set in an enclosed garden, with a fountain representing the fountain of life. This depiction is unusual in Jan’s works since the Madonna wears a blue robe instead of a red. The use of red for the clothes of sacred figures was characteristic of 15th century Netherlandish painting, as cochineal was among the most expensive pigments available for dying textiles. In contrast to this, Italian painters used ultramarine for the robes of Madonnas. Thus here van Eyck’s choice of blue has been seen by art historians as evidence of Italian influence.

The Madonna at the Fountain, oil on panel, 1439, by Jan van Eyck (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp).

Two extraordinary paintings by Van Eyck place the Virgin sitting before a devotee on his knees: the “Madonna of Chancellor Rolin”, 1435 (Louvre) and the “Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele”, 1436 (Groeningemuseum, Bruges). The first was commissioned to Jan by Nicolas Rolin who in 1422 had been appointed as Chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy by Philip the Good. At the bottom of the room that seems to be a spacious loggia with a rich decoration of columns and bas-reliefs, three Romanesque arches open onto a realistic landscape. The landscapes in the Ghent polyptych, compared to those of this painting, can be called “interior visions” and not images portrayed by direct observation. Mary is being crowned by a hovering Angel while she presents the Infant Jesus to Rolin. The loggia opens into a landscape with a city on a river, probably Autun in Burgundy, Rolin’s hometown. This wide landscape includes detailed depictions of palaces, churches, an island, a towered bridge, hills and fields, all bathe with a uniform light. A haze is also seen covering a mountain range in the far distance. The small garden with many flowers identifiable (including lilies, irises, peonies and roses), visible just outside the columns, symbolizes Mary’s virtues. Beyond in the middle ground, two male figures wearing chaperons are looking through the crenelations of what seems to be a fortified balcony or bridge. Near to these figures are two magpies and two peacocks, symbols both either of immortality and pride, or of Jesus Christ and evil. The interior of the room is illuminated from the light coming from the central portico and the side windows. Chancellor Rolin, whose portrait is well rendered by van Eyck, is wearing a fur-lined, elegant garment; the Virgin, the same size as Rolin (rather a novelty in comparison to the Gothic painting tradition and with other Marian representations by van Eyck), is covered by a red mantle. The Child Jesus holds a cross in his left hand.

Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, oil on panel, ca. 1435 (Musée du Louvre, Paris).
Detail of the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin showing an open landscape with a church to the left right over Rolin’s hands, and a cathedral right over Christ, the detailed flowers in the garden (center), the peacocks to the left, two passersby at the center, and beyond the river, a bridge, and a mountainous landscape.
Portrait of Nicolas Rolin, detail of the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin.
Detail of the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin showing the carved column capitals above Rolin’s portrait.

Shortly after, Jan painted the “Virgin and Child with Canon Van der Paele”, dated 1436, in which the Virgin and Child are shown facing the viewer, with a prodigious and unforgettable portrait of the donor Joris van der Paele, accompanied by the holy bishop St. Donatian and St. George. Here the architecture without openings and with Romanesque arches describing a circular floor plan determines a closed and autonomous space full of numerous details in which the scene unfolds. It has been said that this painting is the culmination of Van Eyck’s authentic religious painting. The Virgin Mary appears again enthroned at the center of the semicircular space (which most likely represents a church interior) with the Christ Child on her lap. St. Donatian stands to her right, Saint George (as the donor’s name saint) to her left. This panel was commissioned by Canon van der Paele as an altarpiece. Van der Paele is dressed as a medieval canon with a white surplice, and he piously reads from a book of hours. He is presented to Mary by Saint George, who holds aloft his metal helmet in respect. Saint Donatian, dressed in brightly colored garments, stands to Mary’s right. As typical of Jan’s work, the finery of clothing, furs, silks and brocades was exquisitely represented as well as the inclusion of elaborate and detailed religious iconography. The Virgin’s throne is decorated with carved representations of Adam and Eve, pre-figurations of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, and scenes from the Old Testament. This throne is situated beneath a minutely detailed and extravagantly decorated brocade baldachin containing white rose patterns, symbolizing Mary’s purity. The steps leading to Mary’s throne are covered with an oriental carpet. The Child Christ reaches for what seems to be a parrot perched on the Virgin’s lap (a parrot was sometimes used as an emblem for the Virgin). The Child sits on a white cloth draped over Mary’s red robe, which may represent veiled host during celebration of the Eucharist: a reference to Christ’s death and resurrection. Mary holds a stem that appears to grow from the parrot’s feathers, culminating in a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers. The parrot and plant emphasize the floral background, symbolizing the Garden of Eden, accentuated by the figures of Adam and Eve carved in Mary’s throne. The architectural space in which the scene unfolds represents a church with side ambulatories, with Mary and the Child occupying the area where the altarpiece would usually be placed. St. Donatian is positioned to the right of the Virgin and wears a cope and mitre, his blue and gold brocade cope is embroidered with images of St. Paul and St. Peter. Donatian stands in front of a set of windows that are just outside the pictorial space. He holds a jeweled processional cross in his left hand, and a wheel (his usual attribute) containing five lit tapered candles in his right. St. George stands in lavishly decorated armor, and is raising his helmet and left hand to introduce van der Paele. Van der Paele kneels to the left of the Virgin and Child and seems a somewhat distracted and absent-minded figure. In keeping with the conventions of late medieval art, van der Paele does not look directly at any of the heavenly figures, but stares into the middle distance. Van Eyck does not fall short when showing the physical effects of the canon’s illness, including worn, crevasses and tired skin, weak vision, enlarged temporal arteries and swollen fingers. The painting is in its original oak frame painted imitating bronze, which contains several Latin inscriptions, including van Eyck’s signature, the date of completion, the donor’s name, and texts related to St. George and St. Donatian. After the “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, this is van Eyck’s second largest extant painting. This work is widely considered as one of van Eyck’s most ambitious works and as a “masterpiece of masterpieces” with an innovative use of illusionism and complex spatial composition, and also showing van Eyck’s mastery at handling oil painting as seen in the differing breadths of brush strokes and in the precision of the detail achieved especially noticeable in the rendering of threads of St. Donatian’s blue and golden embroidered cope and mitre, in the weave of the oriental carpet, and in the stubble and veins on van der Paele’s aging face. It is possible that this painting served as inspiration for the Valencian painter Lluís Dalmau when he painted his “Virgin of the Consellers” (ca. 1443-1445) for the city of Barcelona. It is known that he had made a trip to Flanders shortly before painting this famous work.

The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, oil on wood, 1434–36, by Jan van Eyck (Groeningemuseum, Bruges).
Detail of the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele. Mary and baby Jesus hold a flower bunch, while a parrot-like bird rests on Mary’s lap.
Portrait of Joris van der Paele, detail of the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele.
Detail of Canon Van der Paele’s hands, prayer book and spectacles.
St. Donatian, detail from the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele.
St. George in armor, detail from the Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele.
Detail of the carved arm chair to Mary’s left: Samson opening the Lion’s jaws.
Detail of the carved arm chair to Mary’s right: Cain beats Abel to death with a club.
Detail of the carved arm chair to Mary’s left with the figure of Eve.
Virgin of the Consellers, by Lluís Dalmau, between 1443–1445, oil on oak wood (Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona). The influence of Jan van Eyck’s paintings is obvious, particularly in the overall structure of the scene, the detail with which Mary’s throne and all clothing and jewels were painted, the landscape and cityscapes at the background, and the groups of singing angels to the left and right of Mary who closely resemble those from the Angel panels of Van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece.


Chaperon: A form of hood or, later, highly versatile hat worn in all parts of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Initially a utilitarian garment, it first grew a long partly decorative tail behind called a liripipe, and then developed into a complex, versatile and expensive headgear. It was especially fashionable in mid-15th century Burgundy, before gradually falling out of fashion in the late 15th century and returning to its utilitarian status. It is the most commonly worn male headgear in Early Netherlandish painting.

Cochineal: A small insect from which the natural dye carmine is derived. The insect produces carminic acid that deters predation by other insects. Carminic acid, typically 17-24% of dried insects’ weight, can be extracted from the body and eggs, then mixed with aluminium or calcium salts to make carmine dye, also known as cochineal.

Cope: A liturgical vestment, more precisely a long mantle or cloak, open in front and fastened at the breast with a band or clasp. A cope may be worn by any rank of the clergy, and also by lay ministers in certain circumstances. If worn by a bishop, it is generally accompanied by a mitre. The clasp, which is often highly ornamented, is called a morse. In art, angels are often shown wearing copes, especially in Early Netherlandish painting.

Mitre: (From the Greek: μίτρα, meaning “headband” or “turban”). A type of headgear now known as the traditional, ceremonial headdress of bishops and certain abbots in traditional Christianity. Mitres are worn in the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, as well as in the Anglican Communion, some Lutheran churches, and also by bishops and certain other clergy in the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Sacra conversazione: In art it refers to a genre developed in Italian Renaissance painting, with a depiction of the Virgin and Child amidst a group of saints in a relatively informal grouping, as opposed to the more rigid and hierarchical compositions of earlier periods. Donor portraits may also be included, generally kneeling, often their patron saint is presenting them to the Virgin, and angels are frequently in attendance.

Surplice: (From the Latin superpelliceum, from super, “over” and pellicia, “fur garment”). A liturgical vestment of the Western Christian Church. The surplice is in the form of a tunic of white linen or cotton fabric, reaching to the knees, with wide or moderately wide sleeves.


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