Society - Art
By: anonymous - at February 7, 2013

The Genius of Jan Van Eyck

According to recorded burial fees in Bruges, Jan Van Eyck died in 1441.  At the time of his death, he was believed to be in his early fifties.  Although his life was short he left an unmistakable mark on the history of art, one in the opinion of many that has never been surpassed.  Among 15th century artists, he created a unique style.  One that is instantly recognizable.  He accomplishes this through taking realism and symbolism to new heights, two subjects with which his work has always been strongly identified.

Painting Technique
In order to analyze his work from a perspective of realism, it is necessary to discuss his technique.  We know Vasari's claim that Van Eyck "invented" oil-painting to be false, although a more plausible interpretation might be that Van Eyck invented a new "technique" of oil painting.  Upon first glance, this hypothesis is easy to believe based on the brilliance of the colors alone.  Vasari's notion was that Van Eyck used clearer oils than his predecessors did, and that he painted layer upon layer of them, sometimes applying a coat of glaze in between to prevent the colors from interfering with each other, resulting in a translucent surface.  In addition, some art restorers believe that Van Eyck used an additional "ingredient x" mixed with his oil and that he took his secret with him to the grave.  Through his technique of using colors, Van Eyck developed the ability to depict light in a naturalistic way, which in turn allowed him to create details such as texture and depth.  Van Eyck's masterly use of light has been credited by some as the "birth of modern painting."

Symbolism is a well-known subject utilized within Van Eyck's work as well.  Whether he worked in conjunction with his patron to this end, or was given artistic autonomy is debatable.  Nevertheless, it is one of the main subjects with which his style of art is identified.

Madonna in a ChurchCareer
Jan Van Eyck began his career as a manuscript illuminator.  This helps to explain his ability to create the small piece, Madonna in a Church, dated 1425-30, with such intricate detail.  The style of setting is said to have been derived from the Limbourg Brother's work. Specifically, the way the viewer's eye is lead into the depth of the church and the fact that atmospheric perspective is used.  The interior of the church is painted with remarkable skill and accuracy, although it is known that this church does not exist.  In fact, it is likely that Van Eyck never painted a "real" scene or interior throughout his career, yet clearly he studied churches in great detail based on his visually realistic portrayal, from the tiles in the floor to the windowpanes above.

As realistic as the interior appears, the size of the Virgin herself is quite unrealistic.  She is super-size.  This is deliberate and suggests a relationship between realism and symbolism, both of which Van Eyck does so well.  She is represented as "The Church" and is symbolically honored repeatedly throughout the painting in Van Eyck's realistic fashion.


Madonna with Chancellor RolinThe Madonna with Chancellor Rolin, dated 1436, again includes the Virgin, although addresses a completely different subject matter using the incorporation of a landscape.  Once again there is symbolism.  Clearly Rolin is conveyed as one who possesses an enormous amount of wealth and therefore power.  During his service under the Duke of Burgundy, he acquired one of the largest fortunes of the day.  A more subtle symbolic interpretation is one of "creation", the painting's central theme reflected in the landscape; simultaneously depicting a country governed and "created" by the powerful chancellor in the very center.  The Christ child's head comes into contact with the landscape, signifying His creation.  Also the chancellor's prayerful hands appear to hold up a church within the landscape depicting his belief of where the importance lies within his own worldly creation.  This again is not a real church or a real landscape.  It is depicted too perfectly to be so because it is symbolic of God's perfect creation.

Another possible analogy to consider is that Rolin is confessing his sins to God Himself via the Christ child, Christ's blessing indicative of absolution.  In doing so, maybe Rolin commissioned Van Eyck with the idea of portraying himself in an autobiographical context.  Coincidentally, the production of confession manuals reached a peak for this time and communication of his piety might have been popularly received.  Another indication supporting a confession is the carved reliefs just above Rolin's head which depict various biblical stories.  The concept of sin appears to be the main focus: the drunkenness of Noah; the expulsion; the sin of Cain slaughtering Abel. Its placement symbolizes that he is "mindful" of sin at this moment.

MargaretaYet another example of Van Eyck's remarkable skill and diversity is representative in his portraiture.  He began a new style of portraiture, most of which are very similar to one another.  This is exemplified in one of the last portraits Van Eyck produced, his wife, Margareta, dated 1439.  Here, he objectifies his subject by painting an expressionless face and placing her upon a plain dark back ground.  Van Eyck adds further interest by having her sit at a diagonal and depicting an illusionary light source coming from her right side, therefore casting a shadow on her left.  This is monumental in Van Eyck's ability to produce such a naturalistic skin tone, as well as every contour of her face.  The result is an extremely naturalistic portrait, without the attempt of interpreting the subject herself.  This style is recognized as having been influential on the work of Hans Holbein.

Final Words
The work of Jan Van Eyck gives us a multitude of skill and artistry to dissect.  One can get aimlessly lost in his work; whether trying to interpret his clever open-ended symbolism or just visually appreciating the realism he creates with his jaw-dropping technique.  Ultimately, I believe Van Eyck's paintings are a reflection of himself and his patrons; both of which are human. Although in his humanness, I personally believe him to be atop a "divine" pedestal.





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