1430 Art Tour, Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck, Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,1430‑1432

A Guided Tour of Philadelphia in 1430

by DoN Brewer

The second stop on our art tour of Philly in the Late Middle Ages is also at The Philadelphia Museum of ArtJan van EyckSaint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,1430‑1432. The Old Masters Now exhibition at the PMA includes the small artwork which presents as a devotional object but is so much more.

Jan van Eyck visited an artist’s guild in Tournai, Belgium, in 1427, under the tutelage of the Master of Flemalle, Robert Campin, the top expert in Flemish miniatures and oil painting at the time, and the entrepreneurial artist, already a masterful miniaturist in his own right, absorbed the breakthroughs in painting, perhaps working alongside fellow student Rogier van der Weyden, and discovered a secret that would change the world. The guild was super powerful, artists came from all over the region to study and become apprentices, uniting workers and connecting creative commerce with the powerful and rich elites who desired the best of everything.

Jan van Eyck studied with the Master and learned an amazing scientific/artistic/expressive oil glazing technique whereby layers of transparent color are applied, with drying time between each layer, creating structural spatial illusion in compartmentalized orthogonal space, 3D space on a 2D plane. Along with his powerful grasp of color, shape, line, and light from making miniatures, and a genius understanding of single point perspective, a vanishing point in deep, circumambient space, an exquisite new tool was commercially invaluable to him and his good friend, Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy.

In the social atmosphere of lavish wealth created by weaving, mining and trade money, Jan van Eyck applied his honed illustrative skills from years of painting manuscript miniatures with the atmospheric deep perspective in a perfect storm of creativity and science. Combining and mixing traditional with modern painting techniques, like oils smeared on a painter’s palette to make a new color, the artist created something new. So incredibly brand new, so incalculably valuable, so communicatively crystal clear, as far as commercial demand, that Jan van Eyck became known as the inventor of oil painting and influenced generations of guilds, universities and academies of artists from that time forward.

Look again at the Robert Campin painting, Christ and the Virgin, notice the fingers of Christ resting on the bottom of the canvas, a spatial illusion, a visual trick that had been seen infrequently before in painting. Dieric Bouts, an Early Netherlandish painter, in an etching, a portrait of a man, shows an arm resting on a window frame, the figure projects out of the picture plane. Campin’s illustrative skill provides atmospheric weightiness, downward pressure and volume to the fingers at the bottom of the picture. Jan van Eyck took this technological breakthrough back to Philip the Good in Burgundy and was immediately sent on a mission to broker a marriage proposal to Queen Isabella of Portugal, the king only required an accurate portrait of the Queen.

The portrait of Isabella, the Queen of Portugal, is exquisite and a stroke of genius; Isabella’s likeness is rendered in restrained detail, the proportions refined, her wardrobe the height of fashion with fur, lace, jewels and jacquard, and as she looks directly in your eyes her hand rests demurely on the enframing window device using a number of illustionistic perspectives. The portrait is a triumph, the marriage is celebrated in January 1430, and Jan van Eyck presents portraits of the royals painted with the breakthrough techniques.

The painting at The Philadelphia Museum of Art by Jan van Eyck, Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,1430‑1432 is located not far from the Robert Campin painting, small in size, oil on vellum on panel, 5 x 5 3/4 inches but packed like a thumb drive with content and virtuosity. Painted on vellum, a prepared animal skin used for writing on, the detail is astounding with a deep perspective, solid, weighty forms of structural color, atmospheric naturalism, and intricate complex forms in a field of interconnected orthogonal lines and planes. Repeating pyramidal constructs, triangular patterns, and variety of descriptive line sets up the geometry of a visual field with ambient space. The palette is somber, umber, gray, ochre, the directional brushwork builds the cliffs with stacked strokes of line, light, and color building, like the rocky landscape of the Rogier van der Weyden alter panels, but tiny, the gradient layers of glaze just as powerful in miniature as made large. Stare at the picture for a while and your eyes can’t stay still, jumping from point to point, activating the serenity of the somber scene with nature elements, dramatic deep, rocky landscape, stunning architecture in dazzling detail, and a peaceful river view at the vanishing point.

Pyramid-like figure forms are wrapped in a lot of fabric, artfully arranged around the figures, confidently painted with close attention to the folds in the robes, explaining qualities of the fabric like smoothness, softness, flexibility, drape, and sturdiness with light, color, and shape. The flesh is painted with tiny orthogonal shapes in subtle gradations of glaze with glimmering sheen, the pose of the dominant figure on the left is stiff like a snapshot, but the eye bounces back and forth within orchestrated color chords like a music score, subtly animating the scene. The aerial perspective raises the view up and far, while the figures remain solid and projected forward, intersecting with the landscape in fractal-like orthogonal planes.

Described as a devotional painting, with stoic angst and mysterious symbols, created for travelers to express their relationship with religion. There certainly is religiosity as part of the subject, but the monk and the mourner are dressed really nice with luxe silver tassels on their belts. The landscape is rugged and rich with minerals like silver and gold, the ground seems dusted with diamonds twinkling into the distant shimmering city, nature is adorned and exotic with perfect blue sky and scudding clouds. The picture is as much an ad for the Burgundy Chamber of Commerce as it is a devotional painting. Jan van Eyck knew how to please his audience.

Link to A Guided Tour of Philadelphia in the Year 1430

Link to Robert Campin, Christ and the Virgin

Link to Blasco de Grañén art tour blog post – click here.

Link to Party Like it’s 1430 blog post – click here

Link to Old Master Now at Philadelphia Museum of Art press release on DoNArTNeWs

Written by DoN Brewer.

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