Flemish painters from the next generation after Jan Van Eyck. Rogier van der Weyden.

It was Vasari who erroneously said that Jan van Eyck had “invented” the oil painting and since then this has been sometimes repeated. Oil painting (that is, linseed oil) was already in use long before. In the contract signed by the Catalan Ferrer Bassa to make the wall paintings of the Monastery of Pedralbes, in Barcelona, he promised to use this technique. This happened a century earlier than the paintings of Van Eyck, exactly in 1341. What Jan Van Eyck achieved, though, was a profound development of the oil painting technique by solely using it and by developing new techniques in handling both oil paint and transparent glazes.

One of the painters of that first Flemish generation that also mastered the use of oil paint was Robert Campin (ca. 1375 – 26 April 1444). This great artist was first called the Master of Flémalle, by the small town of Flémalle near Liège (currently in Belgium) where one of his works comes from, or the Master of Mérode, because of a portentous triptych attributed to Campin and his workshop, representing the intimacy of the Holy Family which belonged to the noble Belgian lineage of Mérode and that today is in the Cloisters Museum in New York.

The Mérode Altarpiece, oil on oak panel triptych, (The Cloisters, New York City). The three panels represent, from left to right, the donors kneeling in prayer in a garden, the moment of the Annunciation to Mary (which is set in a contemporary, domestic setting), and Saint Joseph, a carpenter with the tools of his trade. The wing panels contain views of the city of Liège, in today’s Belgium. This triptych is unsigned and undated, but has been attributed to Robert Campin and an assistant. An earlier version of the central panel with the scene of the Annunciation is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and could probably be the original panel painted by Campin (see picture below). It is believed that the central panel was completed after 1422, likely between 1425 and 1428, by a member of Campin’s workshop. The outer wing panels are later additions by a workshop member, probably on request by the donor.
The Annunciation (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brussels). This is other version of the central panel of the Mérode altarpiece (see picture above) and may be the original. It is thought to be of Campin’s authorship.

Campin worked in Tournai (Belgium) from 1404 to 1444, and therefore was rather a predecessor (or in any case contemporary) than a successor to the Van Eycks. The excellence of Campin’s work and his independence prove that the development of the Flemish school of painting was something inevitable. Robert Campin also painted a beautiful panel for the Burgundy Court called the “Adoration of the Child” or “Nativity” (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, France). Here we see again the phenomenon of technical perfection accumulated through centuries by medieval French painting; but, in addition, we perceive in the myriad of precious domestic details and aristocratic local backgrounds something that was exclusively Flemish. This panel from the Dijon Museum, painted around 1420, is one of the most charming and beautiful works of the 15th century.

Nativity, 1420, oil on panel, by Robert Campin (Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon, France). The painting represents the adoration of the shepherds highlighting the poverty of the Holy Family. Child Jesus and his parents are shown in poverty accompanied by two midwives (Salome facing towards the viewer), and the figures appeared crowded in a small structure, with broken-down walls and a thatched roof with a hole, the donkey and cow are also present. Four angels hover above them, holding gifts. The background is filled with a highly detailed landscape.

His “Virgin and Child before a fire screen” (National Gallery, London) was painted later, perhaps around 1440. The holy figures appear human to excess and give us a taste for the fidelity and cordiality of the home. In these works and in the “Santa Barbara reading” panel (Prado Museum) from the Werl Triptych, the characters portrayed offer us one of the highest visions of inner peace because of the predilection they show for the interiors of their houses or landscapes of the Flanders region, where they have descended to live as mere mortals. They are mired in mystical anointing, but always reveal earthly characters.

The Virgin and Child before a Firescreen, 1440, by Robert Campin or one of his followers (National Gallery, London).
Saint Barbara reading, right wing panel of the Werl Triptych, completed in Cologne in 1438, oil on panel, by the Master of Flémalle or Robert Campin (Museo del Prado, Madrid). The painting depicts a seated, pious Saint Barbara, who is reading a bound and gilded holy book. She is shown seated in front of a warm open fire which lights the room with a golden glow. Saint Barbara is supposed to be imprisoned in her tower. It has been noticed that Barbara’s figure was weakly rendered: her shoulders and knees are anatomically unrealistic and she seems boneless. The panel’s strength though comes from her well-described clothing and the highly detailed objects placed around her, most of which are shaped and contrasted by the two sources of light falling on their golden and polished surfaces. The ledge of the fireplace holds a glass flask while the chimney place contains a sconce holding an extinguished candle holder. A highly detailed sculpture of the Trinity is shown above the fireplace. The depiction of the room was obviously based on a contemporary middle-class rather than biblical setting, and contains many of the same details found in the center panel of the Mérode Altarpiece like the latticed and shuttered window, the reading Virgin seated on a long bench, and the tilted iris in a vase on a table to her side. The painting contains a number of vanishing points stretching from the lower right hand to the open window thus emphasizing the panel’s depth.
The surviving outer panels of the Werl Triptych (Museo del Prado, Madrid), the center panel has been lost. The left wing panel shows the portrait of donor Heinrich von Werl (provincial head of Cologne) while kneeling in prayer in the company of John the Baptist. The figures appear facing the missing devotional center-panel scene. These two panels are renowned for their complex treatment of both light and form. The panels became influential on other artists from the mid-15th until the early 16th century. The left panel includes a number of elements influenced by Jan van Eyck painting, most obvious in the presence of the convex mirror in the midground, which as with the 1434 Arnolfini Portrait, reflects the hidden scene from the opposite side of the room back at the viewer; another influences from Van Eyck include the fall of light, the sharp attention to detail, and the idea of the intermediary saint presenting the donor to the holy figure.
Details from the Saint Barbara panel from the Werl Triptych. Top left: the gilded pot on the cupboard ledge to Barbara’s left. Bottom left: a sculpture of the Trinity placed above the fireplace. Right: a tower seen through the open window, this was the tiny detail that ultimately identifies the seating woman with the legend of Saint Barbara who was a Christian martyr believed to have lived in the 3rd century and who was imprisoned by her pagan father inside a tower. Saint Barbara was a popular subject for artists of Campin’s generation.
Usage of convex mirrors as a way to open the pictorial space to the viewer. Left: convex mirror from “A Goldsmith in his Shop” (1449, by Petrus Christus) linking the interior of the goldsmith’s shop to the street outside by showing two young passersby with a falcon. Center: convex mirror from the Arnolfini Portrait (1434, by Jan van Eyck) showing the opposite side of the room where the portrayed couple stands. Right: convex mirror from the donor panel of the Werl Triptych (1438, by Robert Campin) clearly influenced by the convex mirror of the Arnolfini Portrait.

The generation following the Van Eycks and Campin was gloriously represented by another artist: Rogier van der Weyden (or Roger de la Pasture, in the French version of his name, 1399 or 1400 – 18 June 1464). He was born in Tournai (a then Flemish region were French was spoken), but Rogier literally translated his name into Flemish making it Van der Weyden. It is known that he did his apprenticeship with Campin and that was accepted in the Tournai painters’ guild in 1432. He then moved to Brussels, where he acquired great reputation, and died in 1464. Van der Weyden also traveled: of the visit he made to Italy in 1449 and his contact with Leonello de Este, in Ferrara, scholars have always made special mention. Italians showed great admiration for his works, and Van der Weyden in turn, wanted to imitate them, but the two artistic spirits never merged: neither Italy deviated from its efforts to produce the resurrection of the Classical spirit, nor did the Lower Countries reach, until many years later, to part with its Gothic humanism and hence adopting the Classical forms shown by the Italy of the Renaissance. This is why Rogier van der Weyden is the best example of what the contact between northern and southern Europe could then produce. His altarpiece with the “Descent from the Cross” (Prado Museum) is a tragic composition showing drama even in the profusely angled folds of the clothing of its figures, in deep sorrow and pain, who wear big cloaks and turbans. It was painted in the form of a triptych (but its lateral panels are now lost) and was commissioned by the Greater Guild of Crossbowmen of Leuven and it should have caused great sensation at the time because several copies are preserved, thanks to which we can appreciate, despite their inferior quality, the monumentality of the original painting.

The Descent from the Cross, ca. 1435, oil on oak panel, by Rogier van der Weyden (Museo del Prado, Madrid). It was painted early in van der Weyden’s career, shortly after he completed his apprenticeship with Robert Campin and shows his influence, particularly in the hard sculpted surfaces, realistic facial features and vivid primary colors, mostly reds, whites and blues. The painting shows the crucified Christ being lowered from the cross, while Joseph of Arimathea (in field-of-cloth-of-gold robes, the most sumptuous costume in the painting) and Nicodemus (with a red hat) hold his lifeless body. Christ’s body was intentionally positioned by Van der Weyden in the T-shape of a crossbow to reflect the commission from the Leuven guild of archers for their chapel Onze-Lieve-Vrouw-van-Ginderbuiten (Notre-Dame-hors-les-Murs). At the left holding a handkerchief in grief is Mary Cleophas (half-sister to the Virgin Mary), next to her in a red robe is John the Evangelist and Mary Salome in green (another half-sister of the Virgin Mary) both holding the Virgin Mary dressed in blue and swooning at the foot of the cross, on the ladder is a young man either a servant of Nicodemus or of Joseph of Arimathea, the bearded man behind Joseph holds a jar and is probably another servant, while a contorted Mary Magdalene stands to the right in a dramatic pose. There is though disagreement between art historians as to which figures represent Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. This painting was unique in the period because of the novel portrayal of Mary’s swoon; her collapse echoes the pose of her son. This pose was entirely new for Early Netherlandish art.
Detail from the Descent from the Cross by van der Weyden showing Mary Magdalene.
Mary Cleofas’ tears, detail from the Descent from the Cross by van der Weyden.
Interior panels of the Braque Triptych. ca. 1452, oil on oak panel, by Rogier van der Weyden (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The panels represent, from left to right, John the Baptist, The Virgin Mary with Jesus and Saint John the Evangelist, and on the right, Mary Magdalene. This triptych is the only surviving devotional work by van der Weyden known to be painted for private rather than public display. The altarpiece was probably commissioned by either Jehan Braque of Tournai or, more likely, his wife Catherine de Brabant. Each interior panel contains Latin inscriptions serving as either speech bubbles or commentary. They are echoed by the words inscribed on the cross of the left exterior panel (see picture below). The left panel with John the Baptist, includes a background showing a scene from the baptism of Christ. The right hand panel depicts Mary Magdalene dressed in sumptuous and highly detailed dress.
The closed panels of the Braque Triptych. When the wings are closed, the work shows a vanitas motif of a skull and cross decorated with Latin inscriptions. The skull is likely intended as both a memento mori and a memorial for the patron. The outer left wing shows a yellow-brown skull leaning against a broken brick or stone fragment alongside the coat of arms of the Braque family, a sheaf of wheat. This is one of the earliest known examples of a skull used in a vanitas, while the broken brick probably symbolize ruin, either of buildings or dynasties. The right outer panel contains a cross with a Latin inscription based on Ecclesiasticus.
Detail of the Saint John the Baptist panel from the Braque Triptych with the scene of the Baptism of Christ within a contemporary landscape.
The interior view of the Beaune Altarpiece, ca. 1445–1450, oil on oak panel with parts later transferred to canvas, by Rogier van der Weyden (Hospices de Beaune, Beaune, France). The polyptych includes 15 paintings on nine panels, of which six are painted on both sides. The inner panels contain scenes from the Last Judgement arranged across two registers. The large central panel spans both registers and shows Christ seated on a rainbow in judgement, while below him, the Archangel Michael holds scales to weigh souls. The lower register panels form a continuous landscape, with the panel on the far left (right of Christ) showing the gates of Heaven, while the entrance to Hell is on the far right (left of Christ). Between these, the dead rise from their graves, and are depicted moving from the central panel to their final destinations after receiving judgement. The presentation of the resurrected dead across the five lower panels is reminiscent of a Gothic tympanum, specifically that at Autun Cathedral. The altarpiece was commissioned in 1443 for the Hospices de Beaune in eastern France, by Nicolas Rolin, Chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, and his wife Guigone de Salins, who donated a large portion of their fortune for the foundation of the hospice. The triptych was intended as the centerpiece for the chapel. The altarpiece was ready by 1451, the year the chapel was consecrated. Some art historians think that the panels indicate a deeply pessimistic view of humanity, with the damned far outnumbering the saved.
When the outer wings (or shutters) are folded, the exterior view of the Beaune altarpiece shows saints and donors. The exterior panels serve as a funerary monument for the donors. When closed the polyptych resembles the upper portion of a cross, and even this T-shape echoes the typical configurations of Gothic churches, where the naves often extended past the aisles into the apse. The scenes in the outer panels are set in the earthly realm with the donors (wings) kneeling in front of their prayer books and the saints painted in grisaille to imitate sculpture. The saints include two panels with Gabriel presenting himself to Mary (a conventional Annunciation scene), and St. Sebastian (pierced by an arrow) and St. Anthony. Sebastian was the saint of plagues and an intercessory against epidemics, Anthony the patron saint of skin diseases. Like many mid-15th century polyptychs, the exterior panels show strong influences from the Ghent Altarpiece.
Details from the Beaune altarpiece. Left: the Virgin Mary and some of the Apostles with the souls of the saved (left lower register of the open polyptych). Center: In the central main inner panel, Christ sits in judgement holding a lily in his right hand and a sword by his left, while sitting on a rainbow with his feet resting on a sphere. His right hand is raised in the act of benediction, and his left hand is lowered. These positions indicate the act of judgement; he is deciding if souls are to be sent to Heaven or Hell in a gesture that echoes the direction and positioning of the scales held by the Archangel Michael beneath him. Christ’s face is identical to that in the Braque Triptych, completed just a few years later in 1452. The Archangel Michael, as the embodiment and conduit of divine justice, is positioned directly below Christ. He holds a set of scales to weigh souls. Unusually for Christian art, the damned outweigh the blessed. Michael was a plague saint and his image would have been visible to patients through the openings of the pierced screen as they lay in their beds. He is surrounded by four cherubs playing trumpets to call the dead to their final destination. Beneath Michael, souls scurry left and right, the blessed look towards Christ, the banished look downwards. Right: The right lower open panel shows a dramatic view of the damned tumbling helplessly into Hell, screaming and crying; the sinners were showing entering Hell with heads mostly bowed, dragging each other along as they go.
Portrait of a Lady, ca. 1460, oil on oak panel, by Rogier van der Weyden (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). This portrait follows upon the Gothic ideal of feminine beauty with narrow shoulders, tightly pinned hair, high forehead and the elaborate frame set by the headdress. Although the portrait is autographed by van der Weyden, the sitter’s identity is not recorded and he did not title the work. The woman, who was probably in her late teens or early twenties, is shown half-length and in three-quarters profile, set against a two-dimensional interior background of deep blue-green. Like Jan van Eyck, when working in portraiture, he used dark planes to focus attention on the sitter. It was not until Hans Memling (ca. 1435–1494), a pupil of van der Weyden, that a Netherlandish artist set a portrait against an exterior or landscape. The woman’s hands are crossed tightly as if in prayer, and positioned so low in the painting as to appear to be resting on the frame. Van der Weyden worked in the same tradition of portraiture as contemporaries Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin. During the early to middle 15th century, these three artists were the first northern Europeans to portray members of the middle and upper classes naturalistically rather than in a medieval Christian idealized form.

The genius of van der Weyden, less ambitious in originality and invention than that of Van Eyck, wasn’t fully revealed in theatrical compositions such as the “Descent,” but in paintings with the Virgin and the divine Child. The Virgins of Jan van Eyck were maidens dressed in large red cloaks strolling inside cathedrals or sitting on a throne of gray stone. Those of Van der Weyden are ladies covered at most with a transparent veil. These Madonnas were very admired especially in Spain. Saint Teresa, in her book The Foundations, said that a gentleman lord from Cinco Villas “had built a church for an image of Our Lady, indeed worthy of veneration. His father sent it from Flanders to her grandmother or mother (I don’t remember which one) by a merchant, and he became so fond of it that he had it for many years and then, at the time of his death, he sent it to be placed in a large altarpiece that is such one of the nicest things I have seen in my life (and many people say the same)”. The testimony of this Saint is of high value, but the same should be said by Queen Isabel, who placed a triptych of Van der Weyden in her royal chapel in Granada (the Miraflores Altarpiece). It is appropriate to note here that a good number of the capital works of Flemish art come from Spain, where they were transferred before the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands.

The Miraflores Altarpiece, ca. 1442-1445, oil on oak wood panel, by Rogier van der Weyden (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). It includes three panels that show, from left to right, a portrait of the Holy Family, a Pietà (the Virgin cradling the dead body of Jesus) and Christ’s appearance to Mary all symbolizing a chronological reading of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Each panel is framed by a rounded arch with Gothic decorations in open tracery below and in the spandrel and seems to be positioned within church portals in interior spaces that give the appearance of taking place on a stage.

 

The Crucifixion Triptych, ca. 1440-1445, by Rogier Van der Weyden (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
The crucified Christ between the mourning Mary and Saint John, 1457-1464, oil on oak panel, by Rogier van der Weyden (Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain).

Some of the Virgins of Van der Weyden were only panels from a diptych that are now divided, with the portrait of the owner represented praying in one of the panels. Those portrayed were usually dressed in black, but their faces reflect the only thing they want to show: their strong personality. Rarely these Flemish knights praying to the Virgin were portrayed with a landscape background or an open window, in general, they are identified by their coat of arms or nicknames.

Seven Sacraments altarpiece, 1445-1450, oil on panel, by Rogier van der Weyden and workshop (Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium). This is a fixed-wing triptych probably painted for a church in Poligny. The panels depict the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. On the left panel are baptism, confirmation and confession and on the right panel the ordination of a priest, marriage and the last rites. The central panel is dominated by a crucifixion in the foreground, with the sacrament of the Eucharist in the background. Angels hover over each sacrament with scrolls, with clothes color-matched to the sacraments, from white for baptism to black for the last rites.

In his commissioned portraits, van der Weyden typically flattered his sitters. He often idealized or softened their facial features, allowing them a handsomeness or beauty, or interest or intelligence they might not have in real life. He often enlarged their eyes, better defined the contours of the face, and gave a much stronger jaw than the subject may have possessed. Among his most celebrated portraits are those of Philip the Good, his third wife Isabella of Portugal and their son Charles the Bold.

Portraits after van der Weyden’s originals painted by his workshop. Left: A copy of the lost Portrait of Philip the Good, oil on wood panel, ca. mid 1440s- after 1450 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon). This copy is probably attributed to his workshop. Philip is pictured aged around 50, in three-quarter profile. As was van der Weyden’s habit, the sitter’s face has been elongated. He wears a black gown and black chaperon, and a jeweled collar of fire-steels in the shape of the letter “B”, representing the Duchy of Burgundy, ending in the insignia of the Order of the Golden Fleece. He holds a folded paper in his joined hands. Center: Portrait of Isabella of Portugal, ca. 1450, oil on oak, also believed to be painted by a member of van der Weyden’s workshop (Getty Center, Los Angeles, California). The Duchess of Burgundy, the third wife of Philip the Good, is dressed in an ornately decorated red and gold brocade dress, tightly pulled below at her waist by a green sash. The high butterfly hennin and the rings on her fingers denote nobility. Right: Portrait of Charles the Bold, ca. 1460, oil on oak panel (Staatliche Museen, Berlin). This painting was painted by the workshop of van der Weyden. Charles wears the emblem of the Order of the Golden Fleece, of which he became a member at birth.

 

Portrait of a woman with a wingedbonnet (left), ca. 1435, oil on oak wood, by Rogier van der Weyden (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin). The sitter wears a wide, white hennin over a brown dress, which features a black-lined, v-shaped neckline. As is usual of van der Weyden’s female portraits, her hands are clasped tightly in prayer, while her expression is generally humble. Unusually for a van der Weyden painting, she looks directly at the viewer, creating an intimate relationship between sitter, viewer and artist. The model was likely a member of the middle class, given her relatively plain dress, matronly features and accentuated breasts. Compare it with Portrait of a Woman (right), ca. 1435, oil and egg tempera on oak panel, by Robert Campin (National Gallery, London). The middle class sitter’s identity is unknown.  This portrait is very similar to that by Rogier van der Weyden (left) and in fact, the similarity between the two portraits is so strong that they were sometimes mis-attributed to either one of both artists.

Rogier van der Weyden was highly influential not only in France and Germany, but also in Italy and Spain.  In sum, with the exception of Petrus Christus who was a disciple of Jan van Eyck, traces of Rogier van der Weyden’s art can be found in all 15th century artists, to varying degrees.

__________

Memento Mori: (From the Latin, meaning “remember death” or “remember that you will die”). The term refers to an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. The expression ‘memento mori‘ developed with the growth of Christianity, which emphasized Heaven, Hell, and salvation of the soul in the afterlife.

 

Vanitas: (From the Latin adjective vanus meaning “empty” and referring specifically to “emptiness”, “futility”, or “worthlessness”, the traditional Christian view being that earthly goods and pursuits are transient and worthless). A symbolic work of art showing the transience of life, the futility of pleasure, and the certainty of death, often contrasting symbols of wealth and symbols of ephemerality and death. Best-known are vanitas still lifes, a common genre in Netherlandish art of the 16th and 17th centuries.

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