Van Eyck. Visual revolutionist.

The exhibition “Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution” in Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent clearly shows how talented artist was Jan van Eyck. His work combines technical skills and theoretical knowledge, making it an unparalleled model for imitating nature through art. One of his most recognized works is undoubtedly the Ghent Altarpiece (The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb), in parts painted together with his older brother Hubert and completed in 1432. In spite of the conservation work that has been going on since 2012 and reveals many of technical aspects of Jan van Eyck’s work, it is still impossible to clearly distinguish Hubert’s contribution to the composition on the outer sides of the wings.

Ghent altarpiece by Hubert and Jan van Eyck
Jan & Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432, outer panels of the closed altarpiece, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent © www.lukasweb.be – Art in Flanders vzw

The creators of the exhibition used eight newly renovated panels of the Ghent Altarpiece and built a story about Jan van Eyck’s art around them. These are: portraits of the founders Joris Vijd and his wife Elizabeth Borluut, figures in en grisailles of St. Johns, the scene of the Annunciation with Archangel Gabriel and Mary as well as two panels with townscape and lavabo. At the back of the last two there are figures of Adam and Eve from the inside of the altarpiece, those two are only about to get renovation. Exceptionally for this occasion they were borrowed from St. Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. Thanks to this, we have the opportunity to admire them in the context of their contemporary paintings, including Italian, and handicraft products.

Detail of Annunciation by Jan van Eyck
Jan van Eyck, Annunciation, ca. 1434/1436, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection – fragment © MSK Ghent, photography David Levene

The exhibition focuses on artistic practice of Jan van Eyck, which ended with a real optical revolution. By perfecting the medium of oil painting, he was able to render objects in every detail and present materials in an almost tangible way. This was due to his exceptional ability to observe reality and his manual skill in translating what he saw into a painting composition. The creators of the exhibition stress that Van Eyck’s works also reveal an in-depth knowledge of theology and natural sciences, such as optics and alchemy, which further enriches the meaning of his composition.

Adam's foot from Jan & Hubert van  Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece
Adam’s foot. Jan & Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432, outer panels of the closed altarpiece, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent – detail © MSK Ghent, photography David Levene

The exhibition has been divided into several parts, into which we are introduced by individual panels from the Ghent Altar. The most important theme of the artworks in the times of Van Eyck was the history of salvation, including the scenes with the First Parents and from the life of Mary and Christ, with particular emphasis on the Passion. This is also the subject of the room with images of Adam and Eve. Of natural high, naked and very carnal, they seem to enter our space, the audience. It is probably the only time in my life that I have had a chance to see them so closely and admire the incredible precision of details. On a daily basis, these performances are placed in a darkened room in the cathedral, on top of the altar.

windows from Jan & Hubert van  Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece
Cityscape and Lavabo. Jan & Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432, outer panels of the closed altarpiece, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent – detail

On their backs sides we can admire the images of the interior of Maria’s house from the Annunciation scene as close as we can. The eye can enjoy its cool, clean colors, precision of rendering of the objects and the view of the city visible through biforium windows. If you also have a chance to look at them, please pay attention to the frame as well. Van Eyck deceives our eyesight with the art of imitating reality and makes us think that the frame is made of stone and not wood. The master uses this trick in many other works that are on display. It is worth remembering this while walking through individual rooms.

view of the city on Jan & Hubert van  Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece
Townscape. Jan & Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432, outer panels of the closed altarpiece, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent – detail © MSK Ghent, photography David Levene

These two panels introduce us to the next part of the exhibition devoted to space. Van Eyck was appreciated, among other things, for skilfully incorporating views of the cityscapes into the religious scenes. The painter also added imaginary elements, thus creating a credible but fictional landscape. In the main scene of the altar with the Mystical Lamb on the horizon there are the towers of the Dutch churches visible. In the Three Marys at the Tomb presented at the exhibition (the authorship is complicated, but the motifs are typical of Van Eyck), the Holy City of Jerusalem with the Dome on the Rock and the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre is clearly recognisable, even though it is surrounded by typical Flemish houses.

Mary from the Annunciation. Jan & Hubert van  Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece
Mary from the Annunciation. Jan & Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432, outer panels of the closed altarpiece, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent – detail © MSK Ghent, photography David Levene

The interior of the 15th century Netherlandish house is also the setting for the scene of the Annunciation, the most iconographically important representation on the outside of the wings of the Ghent Altarpiece. To show the space, the artist used an intuitive perspective, different from the convergent perspective developed by his contemporaries in Florence, which today is commonly considered to be the only scientifically correct one. It is even more surprising that Bartolomeo Fazio, Van Eyck’s first, Italian biographer, wrote about him as an expert on the principles of optics. This was probably a tribute not so much to his knowledge of the principles of geometry as to his ability to reproduce the effects of light and shadow, which created the illusion of three-dimensionality of the objects shown.

Saints John the Baptist and John Evangelist. Jan & Hubert van  Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece
Saints John the Baptist and John Evangelist. Jan & Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432, outer panels of the closed altarpiece, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent – detail © MSK Ghent, photography David Levene

The creators of the exhibition stress that thanks to his presence at the Burgundian court surrounded by intellectuals and his access to Duke Philippe the Good’s library, Van Eyck was able to develop his knowledge almost on an academic level. Therefore, it seems legitimate to search for sources of his style in the texts by ancient authors. The master was particularly admired for his ability to create illusions and deceiving the eye. As in the figures of two saints John painted in the en grisaille technique (in shades of white and grey). Placed on the pedestals they imitated real sculptures placed in the altar. Thus, Van Eyck refers to a topos known since antiquity about the competition of arts (the so-called paragone) in imitating the reality.

Jan van Eyck, Annunciation Diptych,  Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Jan van Eyck, Annunciation Diptych, ca. 1433-1435, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Another remarcable example of an illusionist trick is the small diptych of the Annunciation from Madrid, in which the figures of Archangel Gabriel and Mary are delusionally reminiscent of small alabaster figures placed against a background of a polished black marble board in which they reflect. The illusion of three-dimensionality is all the greater because the figures seem to balance on the edge of the niche in which they are to be placed. The work has been made in an unusual color combination: in white and yellow ochre in a batch of sculptures, red – painted frame and black – stone background. According to the classic author Pliny the Elder, the works of one of the best painters – Apelles and his contemporaries – was made in these four colours. Perhaps we are witnessing an attempt by a fifteenth-century painter to compete with an ancient legend.

Joos Vijd. Jan & Hubert van  Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece
Joos Vijd. Jan & Hubert van Eyck, The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432, outer panels of the closed altarpiece, Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent – detail © MSK Ghent, photography David Levene

And finally we come to the most important hall as far as the creation of the Ghent Altarpiece is concerned, that is the room with portraits. Among them there are almost full-size representations of the founders of the work – city councillor Joos Vijd, his wife Elisabeth Borluut.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Margareta van Eyck, 1439, Musea Brugge – Groeningemuseum, © Musea Brugge, foto Hugo Maertens

Van Eyck’s portraits are different from any form of idealization. Thus, he probably referred to the aesthetic ideals expressed by Pliny, who was striving for verism in the portrait. He stressed the precise presentation of appearance features, even imperfections, including those related to age. Van Eyck imitated not only the appearance of the face but also the properties of the materials so precisely that Bartolomeo Fazio wrote about them that his portraits lacked only voice.

Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, ca. 1435, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin © KIK-IRPA, Brussel

Although the commision for the Ghent Altarpiece came from a high-ranking town councillor, Jan van Eyck was the court painter in the first place. He worked for Philippe the Good, the Duke of Burgundy, who was an excellent patron of art. In 1425, the Duke appointed him valet de chambre, or chamberlain. This honorary position meant permission to be in the direct vicinity of the ruler. Moreover, Philippe Good and Jan van Eyck developed a unique friendship based on trust. Apart from being appointed as a court painter, Van Eyck also received diplomatic orders, such as a trip to Portugal to paint a portrait of Infanta Isabella, the future fiancée of Philippe the Good. Van Eyck travelled with De Lannoy, a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece, to Portugal in 1428 for the purpose of the impending marriage of Philip the Good with Isabella of Portugal. De Lannoy’s representation is the only surviving portrait that provides us with insight into Van Eyck’s portraits of Burgundian statesmen. Highly characteristic for the portrait painter Van Eyck is the unadorned dermatological realism and the innovating three-quarter profile (as contrary to Italian profile type).

Jan van Eyck, Annunciation, ca. 1434/1436, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

This concludes a brief summary of the Ghent exhibition “Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution”. It does not exhaust all the threads presented on it. I hope, however, that I managed to convey what was most interesting for me – the story of Jan van Eyck’s oeuvre told through the prism of the most important objects – a group of panels from the Ghent Altarpiece.

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