At Van Eyck’s Optical Revolution, the Sublime meets the Spiritual

  • Post author:
  • Reading time:38 mins read
Jan van Eyck, "Annunciation", c. 1430-35 | National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
Researching in Flanders can have its own perks, and a few blue skies too. For when you have plodded through your texts all week long and are left wanting with its not too seldom sombre skies, you might think that your weekends could be done (occasionally undone) with some eclectic Belgian beer. However, three years on in this country, I’ve come to imagine how these subdued skies could have in fact been the source of the region’s creative impulse. From the early Netherlandish pioneer Jan van Eyck (c.1390-1441), the Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569), the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) down to the Surrealist artist René Magritte (1898-1967) and the more contemporary artist Luc Tuymans (1958-) whose paintings interrogate historical memory — the country has produced a plethora of cultural icons in the field of painting alone. On 1 February 2020, the Museum voor Schone Kunsten (MSK: Museum of Fine Arts), Ghent opened one its most significant exhibitions in recent times: Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution.1 This is “the largest Jan van Eyck exhibition ever” that brings together over half of his works — from the twenty panel paintings that survive — along with 100 other masterpieces spanning from the late Medieval to the Renaissance period and that include works from Van Eyck’s workshop, copies of his lost works, as also paintings by his contemporaries and followers. This marks an achievement for Flemish art in the manner that it foregrounds Jan Van Eyck and enables a twenty-first century viewer to enter his milieu.
Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution.
Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution.
Born (c.1390) in Maaseik — this was stressed about half a dozen times by my colleague Benjamin (van Maaseik) who accompanied me to the exhibition — Van Eyck established himself as a court painter for the count of Hainaut-Holland, John of Bavaria (1422-24) and later, for the duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good (1425-41). Philip’s patronage for the arts propelled the career of Van Eyck whom he also appointed as diplomat. Van Eyck operated principally in Bruges, where he lived, but also travelled on secret diplomatic missions. His social standing enabled him independence from the artists’ guild in Bruges, while also operating a workshop from that city. By the time he had passed away in 1441, Van Eyck had established himself as one of the outstanding artists of his generation.

The Autumn of the Middle Ages

My introduction to Van Eyck took place at my Jesuit school in Goa where the German Jesuit Reinhold Kiess SJ2 (1939-2015) would afford us students a peek into his collection of artbooks. Over two decades later as I resided at the Jesuit community in Leuven I was delighted to discover in its library Elisabeth Dhanens’ (1915-2014) opus on Van Eyck that I could now pore over at leisure.3 While my engagement with Dhanens’ work was limited by my lack of proficiency in Dutch, her detailed Van Eyck prints made up for my deficiency. Fortunately for me, Van Eyck had also featured in my Masters programme in history, through Johan Huizinga’s classic, The Autumn of the Middle Ages. In characterising the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries of the Low Countries “as the end of the Middle Ages, as the age of medieval thought in its last phase of life, as a tree with overripe fruits, fully unfolded and developed” in contrast to the birth of the Renaissance in Italy and southern Europe,4 Huizinga opened up the mentalities of the Burgundian court within which Van Eyck operated. Interestingly it was the 1902 Les Primitifs flamands (now better known as the Early Netherlandish painters) exhibition that spurred Huizinga to examine the work of Van Eyck and his contemporaries5 — which runs across two chapters in the book — as products of an elaborate Burgundian courtly culture that were partly governed by norms of chivalric honour and which in turn signified its power and prestige through the patronage of its artistic productions. Moreover, this period was also marked by the rise of urban commercial centres like Bruges, Ghent, Brussels and Tournai within the Burgundian Netherlands. Their increasing financial capital acquired through international trade financed the artistic production of luxury goods and crafts like tapestries, illuminated manuscripts and decorative objects; that was in turn, well regulated through a network of artistic guilds.
Tournai Workshop, "Tapestry with scenes from the Passion of Christ: Christ Carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection," c. 1445-55 | Art & History Museum, Brussels
Tournai Workshop, “Tapestry with scenes from the Passion of Christ: Christ Carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection,” c. 1445-55 | Art & History Museum, Brussels
Huizinga’s views on the Early Netherlandish art were also influenced by Jacob Burckhardt’s influential work, Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien (1860),6 which viewed the Italian Renaissance as the highpoint of European civilisation as also the birth of the modern world. Huizinga’s response to Burckhardt was that the Burgundian late Middle Ages were the medieval endpoint in which Early Netherlandish art flourished. Huizinga’s “attempt to better understand the work of the van Eycks and that of their successors, and to understand it within the context of the entire life of that age”7 remains a remarkable contribution to the cultural history of the fifteenth century Low Countries and the Burgundian court. However, his exploration of Van Eyck makes no major contribution to art historical thinking, though it has stimulated interest in the field.8 Even Elisabeth Dhanens’ extensive work on Van Eyck makes no reference to Huizinga; neither does the bibliography within the catalogue of this present exhibition.9 Moreover, and surprisingly, Huizinga downplays Van Eyck’s penchant for detail; and the fifteenth century that he suggests to be “the end of the Middle Ages” is generally regarded by art historians to be the Northern Renaissance.10

Holanda’s Roman Dialogues

Periodisation within history is the subject of much debate that generally arises from patterns of continuity and discontinuity across time and place. Within art history it usually centres around stylistic movements within art. Consider, for example, the popular and oft-quoted discourse on the difference between Flemish and Italian painting. This conversation purportedly took place in Rome between the Marchioness of Pescara, Senhora Vittoria Colonna and the Italian artist, Michaelangelo Buonarroti and was recorded by the Portuguese painter Francisco de Holanda in his untitled second book within Da pintura antiga (c. 1548):
And she, smiling: “I very much wish to know, as we are dealing with this subject, what you think of the painting of Flanders and whom it will satisfy, because it appears to me more devout than the Italian style.” “The painting of Flanders, Madam,” answered the artist slowly, “will generally satisfy any devout person more than the painting of Italy, which will never cause him to drop a single tear, but that of Flanders will cause him to shed many; this is not owing to the vigour and goodness of that painting, but to the goodness of such devout person; women will like it, especially very old ones, or very young ones. It will please likewise friars and nuns, and also some noble persons who have no ear for true harmony. They paint in Flanders, only to deceive the external eye, things that gladden you and of which you cannot speak ill, and saints and prophets. Their painting is of stuffs, bricks and mortar, the grass of the fields, the shadows of trees, and bridges and rivers, which they call landscapes, and little figures here and there; and all this, although it may appear good to some eyes, is in truth done without reasonableness or art, without symmetry or proportion, without care in selecting or rejecting, and finally without any substance or verve, and in spite of all this, painting in some other parts is worse than it is in Flanders”. […] “Only works which are done in Italy can be called true painting, and therefore we call good painting Italian, for if it were done so well in another country, we should give it the name of that country or province.”11
Fra Angelico, "Scenes from the Life of Saint Nicholas of Bari," c. 1437 | Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City
Fra Angelico, “Scenes from the Life of Saint Nicholas of Bari,” c. 1437 | Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City
The nature of this discourse appears to at once polarise the debate in favour of Italian painting; and given voice through the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo, it claims authority. Laura Agoston dissects the ‘mythography’12 present in such a discourse and how it is legitimised in the face of cultural difference.13 Apart from the anachronism of a unified Italy in the sixteenth century — and considering that Holanda’s Roman dialogues were first printed only in 1846, in French — Agoston points to how such a discourse was deployed in the context of nineteenth-century nationalist ideologies of the Risorgimento and a shared cultural identity. The misogynist stereotyping of Flemish painting attendant in such a discourse fed into a readership that utilised highly gendered stereotypes for endorsing their own national identity. Agoston illustrates how nineteenth-century nationalist debates realigned the sixteenth-century map of Europe, with all of Italy coalescing with Michelangelo whereas Flemish painting with Germany. Interestingly, Huizinga employed Holanda’s voice of Michelangelo as it enabled him to enshrine a medieval mentality on Flemish painting that he argued was removed from the emergent Renaissance in the south of Europe. Mythographies — like that of Holanda’s Roman dialogues — have over the years helped propagate the pre-eminence of the Italian Renaissance which in turn need to be seen within their historical contexts. Until the cusp of the fifteenth century, European art of this period — now known as the International Gothic style — had flourished under courtly patronage and was characterised by detailed visual naturalism with delicate flowing curves and patterns set within religious themes. However the emergence of new urban centres across Europe would later give rise to new styles within European art. In Florence, artists like Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Donatello (1386-1466) and Masaccio (1401-1428) sought to draw inspiration from the Roman ruins of classical antiquity and apply these forms to art and architecture. Their idea of beauty was shaped by mathematical proportions that enhanced perspective and brought about a sense of poetic unity to its form. They were guided by Renaissance humanism and now tended to borrow their themes more from mythology and history, apart from religion. Unlike the artists of the Italian Renaissance, in Northern Europe the Early Netherlandish artists like Robert Campin (c. 1378-1444), Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden (1400-1464) did not totally break away from the International Gothic style but rather innovated from it. They continued to employ religious themes and experimented with realism and colour. Van Eyck particularly reinvented the technique of oil painting that allowed him to add detail upon detail to his painting as though he was holding a mirror to reality.14 Over the years, the Early Netherlandish and Italian schools of painting did borrow stylistic influences from each other. Hugo van der Goes’ (c. 1440-1482) Portinari Altarpiece (c. 1477-1478) depicting the adoration of the child Jesus travelled from Bruges to Florence in 1483 where it was admired by Italian artists for its realistic depiction of the landscape and persons within it. Similarly, Jan Gossaert (c. 1478-1532) visited Rome between 1508-09 and incorporated influences of the Italian Renaissance into Northern paintings. Gossaert’s Saint Luke painting the Madonna (c. 1520) is reminiscent of Italian influences in Northern art that would come to be known as Romanism. Art has generally been shaped by cross-cultural influences, but also marked by cultural difference which in turn have been enshrined by their own mythographies. The Italian return (or rebirth) to classical antiquity was meant to recover the classicism that was overrun by the Nordic tribes; the latter’s architecture was characterised by the Florentine historian Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) as Gothic.15 Notions of debasement and barbarism that were ascribed to the medieval Gothic style by the Italian Renaissance continued to shape perceptions of medieval and Northern art.
Jan van Eyck, "Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata," c. 1430-1432 | Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Jan van Eyck, “Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata,” c. 1430-1432 | Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia
Similarly, as seen earlier, these mythographies had also been enabled by their own subtle nationalisms. In this regard, the 1902 exhibition was also a conscious attempt by the nascent Belgian state to reclaim its cultural patrimony. One might only add that the influence wielded by certain cultural institutions in Bruges to shift the exhibition from Brussels to Bruges helped establish its own Flemish heritage. Bruges would later inspire the 1904 Les Primitifs français exhibition in Paris.16 The present exhibition does not seek to address this debate between Early Netherlandish and Italian Renaissance painting; it rather focuses on Jan van Eyck and embeds him within his artistic milieu. However the incorporation of works by contemporary Italian masters like Fra Angelico (c. 1387-1455), Pisanello (c. 1395-1455), Masaccio (1401-1428) and Benozzo Gozzoli (c. 1421-1497) within the exhibition in a way alludes to this discussion while also cementing the legacy of Jan van Eyck and his optical revolution.

Van Eyck’s Optical Revolution

That Jan Van Eyck — one of the foremost early Netherlandish painters of the fifteenth century — is also one of world’s most brilliant artists, should only be meant as a footnote when you are left astonished by his works exhibited at ‘Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution.’ Van Eyck had earned his reputation in his own lifetime when he served as court painter to Philip the Good. In 1435, when the Treasury of Lille delayed payments to the painter, the Duke stepped in for “nous ne trouverions point le pareil à nostre gré ne si excellent en son art et science17 — the artist was exceptional. But Van Eyck did possess a more self-assured sensibility to his artistic virtuosity which he stamped on his works: ALC IXH XAN, implying “As best as I can possibly paint.” This is clearly visible in one of his later paintings, Madonna at the Fountain (1439), that he signed and dated. In another of his more celebrated works, the Arnolfini Portrait (1434),18 he inscribed his name in the painting — “Johannes de eyck fuit hic 1434” (Jan van Eyck was here 1434) — thus validating his status as one of the period’s preeminent artists.
Jan van Eyck, "The Madonna at the Fountain," 1439 | Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
Jan van Eyck, “The Madonna at the Fountain,” 1439 | Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
Van Eyck’s most celebrated work, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432), also known as the Ghent Altarpiece, and which has been under restoration since 2012, now occupies centre stage at the exhibition. Its closed panels are on display at the the MSK, while its interior panels featuring the Mystic Lamb can be viewed at St Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent. Astonishing as they are, the panels of the Altarpiece do not take away focus from Van Eyck’s other masterpieces which have been arranged in nine themes: Original Sin and Salvation, Space, Saints in a Landscape, Mother and Child, the Word of God, Architecture, Painted Sculpture, the Individual, and the Divine Portrait. What is distinctive about Van Eyck’s artistic oeuvre is the detail he rendered on his canvas in order to achieve a great degree of realism. Consider that botanists can identify over 75 different flora and fauna along with their medieval symbolism in the Ghent Altarpiece;19 geologists can make geologic analysis of the exposures of natural rock in Van Eyck’s Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata (1430-1432);20 and that medical professionals can diagnose Canon Van der Paele’s medical condition as “polymyalgia rheumatica with temporal arteritis” by examining Van Eyck’s Madonna with Canon Van der Paele (1436).21 Van Eyck combined a keen sense of observation of the nature and people he painted along with an intuitive understanding of the optics of light. He further innovated on the technique of oil painting. Since oil took longer to dry — as compared to the prevalent medium of egg tempera that dried out quickly — Van Eyck was able to blend layers upon layers of glazes within the wet-still oils to bring luminosity to the painting. Besides allowing light to radiate through the canvas, the glazes also added depth to the painting. As the noted art historian E H Gombrich (1909-2001) would note: “He achieved the illusion of nature by patiently adding detail upon detail till his whole picture became like a mirror of the visible world.”22
Jan van Eyck, "Portrait of Jan de Leeuw," 1436 | Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna
Jan van Eyck, “Portrait of Jan de Leeuw,” 1436 | Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna
Moreover, Van Eyck’s illusion wasn’t meant to deceive but to make his subject real. This is remarkably achieved in his portraits. With the near-photographic realism of the Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (1436), Van Eyck brings a fifteenth-century goldsmith back to life — and as much as I try to look at him, I find him staring at me in my face! There is no way one could escape him, nor his golden ring encrusted with a red jewel. Van Eyck’s more reticent Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon (c. 1430) that details even his stubble, as well as the contemporary chic and rather intimate portrait of his wife, Portrait of Margaret Van Eyck (1439) are achievements in portraiture that any studio artist would want to achieve. While Van Eyck sits his portraits within his studio, he takes his saints and God out into the Burgundian countryside and paints them within a religious mise-en-scène. These scenes are then replete with religious symbolism that bring a composite unity to the painting. Religious symbolism or iconography was a vehicle that enabled a medieval viewer to enter the sacred sphere; and religious art was intimately connected to its spiritual experience and theological understanding. Themes of original sin, salvation and Christ as redeemer abound within this imagery. For instance, in Van Eyck’s Saint Jerome in His Study (c. 1435), art historian Ingvar Bergström (1993-1996) explored the medieval idea of medicina contained in the jar of ‘Tyriaca’ (theriaca) and the apple representing original sin.23 Bergström points to how the theriaca needs to be interpreted as “a disguised symbol expressing the remedy against original sin, acquired sin, disease, and death, the only remedy for which is Christ.” The theriaca was a potent antidote against snakebite. Next to the jar of ‘Tyriaca’ is another disguised symbol of a glass carafe with aqua vitae (water of life) which by alluding to a biblical passage in the Song of Songs (4:12, 15), is in fact a fifteenth-century reference to the Virgin Mary: “You are a garden fountain, a well of flowing water streaming down from Lebanon.” This same fountain with all its artistic realism and theological meaning is present in Van Eyck’s Madonna at the Fountain (1439). Still, this symbolism, especially in its disguised form, is not always obvious to the casual viewer today.
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, "Saint Jerome in his Study," c. 1442 | The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, “Saint Jerome in his Study,” c. 1442 | The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit
Symbolism and its interpretation can be a contested terrain, and art historian Erwin Panofsky’s (1892-1968) influential concept of “disguised symbolism” which he developed in the context of his work on Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434)24 and Early Netherlandish painting25 has been disputed by scholars. While Panofsky proposed symbols and their interpretation as a key hermeneutic lens in understanding Early Netherlandish art, scholars contended that the religious information and spiritual effects these works of art produced for the viewer were in themselves constituent of their meaning.26 Apart from what the artist intended to represent, the meanings of these works of art were also constituted by the viewer, by the effects it had produced in her or him. Furthermore, the core of this debate centred around the contention of symbols being “disguised” or concealed; for whom and to what end.27 Nonetheless, I prefer a more nuanced approach proffered by John Ward who views the disguised symbolism within Van Eyck’s paintings as enactive symbolism. Ward suggests that
“the visual effect and the symbolic meanings were designed by Van Eyck to be as inseparable as possible and that disguising symbols was a deliberate strategy to create an experience of spiritual revelation. This was achieved by using certain configurations of symbols that, when their significance is discovered, appear to enact the meanings they symbolize.”28
Viewing the crucifixion series at the exhibition, one could experience this enactment. There is a sense of pathos as one encounters The Crucifixion (c. 1430), while also being overawed by the emotion of the crucified Jesus mourned by his mother Mary and his beloved apostle John. Set against a highly detailed landscape of Golgotha and the city of Jerusalem that then further recede into a horizon of mountain peaks, the grief within the picture is heightened by the three protagonists that fill up the entire canvas. Compare this to the even more detailed goldpoint and silverpoint drawing of The Crucifixion (c. 1445) which bears striking compositional similarities to the crucifixion panel within the diptych of The Crucifixion and the Last Judgment (c. 1440).29 Here the grief of the moment is not at once apparent, until one contrasts the sorrow of Jesus’ family and friends to the more dominant scene of the jeering party around the crucifixion; and then, the emotion grips you more. These works lead you to a spiritual contemplation; but you would best leave that moment of prayerful ecstasy for later. Move on, the viewers usher. In comparison to the crucifixion paintings, the Annunciation (c. 1430-35) — the announcement of the archangel Gabriel to Mary that she would become the mother of the saviour Jesus — makes for a very contrasting mood: joy! Yet, both the Annunciation and the Crucifixion are intimately connected to Christian soteriology — the mystery of salvation brought about through the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is manifested through the strong religious iconography — informed through the work of Panofsky and Ward — contained within the Annunciation which also reveals Van Eyck as pictor doctus (learned artist). The transition from the Romanesque to the Gothic arches in the church architecture that allude to the transition from the Old to the New Testament; the biblical scenes from the Old Testament in the floor tiles that prefigure the salvific act of the Messiah; Mary’s upraised hands that imitate the expansis manibus rubrics of a priest during the Eucharist and further signify her role as mediatrix (mediator) between God and man — all reveal a complex iconography that demands a certain degree of theological understanding on the part of the viewer. Nevertheless, one could also begin with the archangel Gabriel, be enchanted by his cheerful persona as much as his exquisitely detailed robe and wonder if those jewels were for real, and move on to Mary who in her blue robe is a personification of solitude. To be drawn by these two contrasting moods reconciled on one canvas is nothing short of a spiritual experience.
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, "Interior panels of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb," 1432 | Saint Bavo's Cathedral, Ghent
Hubert and Jan van Eyck, “Interior panels of the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” 1432 | Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent
Soteriology takes on a new form as you walk down to St. Bavo’s Cathedral and come face to face with Van Eyck’s magnum opus — Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (1432) aka the Ghent Altarpiece.30 Commissioned for the Cathedral by the city’s mayor Jodocus Vijd and his wife Lysbette, the work is arranged in two registers with foldable wings that include several panels within it. The outer panels (currently on display at the MSK) are executed in a toned-down and subdued palette and depict the Annunciation in the centre along with panels portraying the patrons and grisaille sculptured paintings of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. However when the wings open, the inner panels bring on a rich exuberance of colour that’s meant to transport the viewer to a heavenly vision of salvation. The upper register presents an ornate Byzantine deësis with Christ the King seated in the centre and accompanied on either side by the mediatrix, the Virgin Mary and the forerunner of Christ, St. John the Baptist who both implore Christ for the salvation of humanity. They are flanked by a polyphonic choir of angels whose strained expressions of singing with musical accompaniment bring a liturgical solemnity to the polyptych. But in this moment of solemnity what catches the eye are the stark naked — save for the proverbial fig leaf — first sinners, Adam and Eve. (At the Cathedral, only grey sketches of the panels are visible; the originals are on display at the MSK.) Viewed individually, and more so at eye level, these nudes almost emerging out from their niches are fascinating for their size and their attention to detail. From Adam’s robust physique that detail his body hair, his wrinkles and even a kind of shamed anxiety on his face to Eve’s realistic yet idealised “bulb-like” Gothic frame, we are left quite in awe at Van Eyck’s abilities as a painter.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Revelation 22:1-2)
The lower register of the Altarpiece, Van Eyck invites the viewer to a liturgy where the Mystic Lamb of God symbolising Jesus Christ enacts His salvific sacrifice. The blood that pours from the chest of the Lamb into a chalice is reminiscent of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection that is in turn commemorated during the Eucharist. The water fountain in the foreground signifies the Water of Life that brings eternal life to its faithful believers. The liturgy is set in the background of the apocalyptic New Jerusalem (Revelation 21-22) in which the faithful church would be reconstituted as the bride of the Lamb — the church being considered the bride of Christ. The liturgy is attended by a multitude of peoples that range from angels and apostles to saints and hermits to popes and rulers to just judges, pilgrims and faithful believers. Set across a lush and verdant landscape in the backdrop of the new city of Jerusalem, the entire register is lit by rays emanating from the Holy Spirit, here represented by a dove. The sheer realism and detail of this scene — as though by a miniaturist who has expanded his canvas — that comes to life with Eyckian lighting is breathtaking and one can easily be overawed by its beauty. However, its immense popularity currently does not allow one the space to enjoy this masterpiece within the relatively small chamber in the Cathedral; one might well return a few months later to view it again. Much before the restored Altarpiece was thrown open to the public, there was much buzz regarding the “humanoid” features of the Mystic Lamb that have now resurfaced after its restoration. However, after having viewed Van Eyck’s works at the exhibition there is reason to believe that this was the intended gaze of the Mystic Lamb that Van Eyck wanted to enact for the viewer. Hélène Dubois, who headed the conservation project, offers better insight:
“Of course, it’s more intense than I expected. It actually moved me. You’re just used to this demure, passive lamb and then you’re confronted with this very strong vision of the religious symbol of Christ being sacrificed on the altar. Here, Christ is aware of his sacrifice.”31
The Mystic Lamb takes me back to the Divine Portraits at the MSK. Among the last paintings one views at the exhibition, the Vera Icon — a seventeenth century copy of a now lost Van Eyck painting — bears a similar penetrating gaze as the Mystic Lamb. The Vera Icon (true image) recreates the imprint of Christ when Veronica wiped His face with a cloth while He was on His was to His crucifixion. With eyes wide open that look straight at you, fully conscious of Himself while also drawing you to behold that moment, the Vera Icon (true image) invites the viewer to a moment of spiritual encounter. This spiritual encounter is also the point you encounter the sublime; yes, the Sublime too.
After Jan van Eyck, " Vera Icon," 17th century | Groeningenmuseum, Bruges
After Jan van Eyck, ” Vera Icon,” 17th century | Groeningenmuseum, Bruges
The religious sensibility of the medieval viewer is not necessarily part of our worldview today, and the symbolism contained in Van Eyck’s paintings could possibly enact very different responses today. Our own theological or art-historical insights can often become anachronisms that we read onto the past. Yet, there is no denying that the symbolism contained in an Eyckian painting engages the viewer to move beyond oneself. It verges on the point of a spiritual experience that enables the viewer to gradually encounter the Mystery or the Sublime. What enabled Van Eyck to achieve this sublime aesthetic in his work was his brand of realism that paid keen attention to his surroundings and patiently render detail upon detail on his canvas till it took on a life of its own. This brilliance was also facilitated by his learning, his innovations in oil painting and his ability to imitate the optics of light that enabled him to refashion the divine. But there’s more than meets the eye. The exhibition is also about the making of Jan Van Eyck. In a sense, this exhibition does for Van Eyck what the 1902 Les Primitifs flamands exhibition in Bruges did for the Early Netherlandish painters. For all the Renaissance privileging of the idea of beauty, and in the midst of his own contemporaries and in his own land, we can now revere the master for who he is — Van Eyck! This is indeed a homecoming. And one should consider oneself privileged to be able to witness this spectacle.

  1. Van Eyck. An Optical Revolution runs from 1 February to 30 April 2020 at the MSK Ghent. (The exhibition also occurs in the context of the Flemish Masters 2018-2020 programme initiated by Visit Flanders that celebrates the life and works of Peter Paul Rubens (2018), Pieter Bruegel the Elder (2019) and Jan van Eyck (2020).) 
  2. Gregory Naik, “Abschied von P. Reinhold Kiess SJ,” trans. Ludwig Wiedemann, Jesuiten Weltweit, 2015, 
  3. Elisabeth Dhanens, Hubert en Jan van Eyck (Antwerpen: Mercatorfonds, 1980). Dhanens has been a prominent Belgian art historian that has researched on Early Netherlandish painting. 
  4. Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, trans. Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1996), xix. This work was originally published in Dutch in 1919 as Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen. Historians have generally been critical of Huizinga’s casual narrative style as well as his selective use of courtly documents. Nevertheless, the work remains a classic and is widely translated. 
  5. The cultural zone of the Early Netherlandish painters of the fifteenth-century Burgundian Netherlands comprised of the present-day Low Countries (Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg) and northern France. 
  6. Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, ed. Irene Gordon, trans. S. G. C. Middlemore (New York: The New American Library, 1961). 
  7. Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, xx. 
  8. Diane Wolfthal, “Art History and Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages,” in Rereading Huizinga: Autumn of the Middle Ages, a Century Later, ed. Peter Arnade, Martha Howell, and Anton van der Lem (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019), 123–41. 
  9. Matthias Depoorter and Lieven Van den Abeele, Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution, trans. Robert Fulton (Ghent: Museum voor Schone Kunsten, 2020), 98. 
  10. James Snyder, “Introduction,” in The Renaissance in the North (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987), 6–17. 
  11. Charles Holroyd, Michael Angelo Buonarroti … With Translations of the Life of the Master by His Scholar, Ascanio Condivi, and Three Dialogues from the Portuguese by Francisco d’Ollanda (London: Duckworth and Co., 1903), 279–80. 
  12. Kurt W. Forster, “Critical History of Art, or Transfiguration of Values?,” New Literary History 3, no. 3 (1972): 459–70, Agoston uses Forster’s understanding of mythography where questions related to art history “tend to be defined, and legitimized, through the idiosyncrasies of the great scholars, rather than by the requirements of the problems themselves.” 
  13. Laura Camille Agoston, “Holanda’s Michelangelo and the Drama of Cultural Difference,” Word & Image 22, no. 1 (January 2006): 54–67, 
  14. E. H. Gombrich, The Story of Art (New York: Phadion Publishers, 1951), 161–208. 
  15. Julien Chapuis, “Gothic Art,” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, October 2002, 
  16. Andrée Hayum, “The 1902 Exhibition, Les Primitifs Flamands: Scholarly Fallout and Art Historical Reflections,” Journal of Art Historiography 11 (December 2014): 1–20. 
  17. “We will never find his equal to our pleasure, who thus excels in his art and science,” quoted in: Annick Born and Maximiliaan P. J. Martens, Van Eyck in Detail (Brussels: Ludion, 2020), 10. 
  18. The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) is not part of this exhibition. 
  19. Paul Van den Bremt and Hilde Van Crombrugge, Een Wonderbaarlijke Tuin: Flora op het Lam Gods (Gent: Provincie Oost-Vlaanderen, 2016). 
  20. Scott L. Montgomery, “The Eye and the Rock: Art, Observation and the Naturalistic Drawing of Earth Strata,” Earth Sciences History 15, no. 1 (1996): 3–24. 
  21. J. V. Dequeker, “Polymyalgia Rheumatica with Temporal Arteritis, as Painted by Jan van Eyck in 1436.,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 124, no. 12 (June 15, 1981): 1597–98. 
  22. Gombrich, The Story of Art, 172. 
  23. Ingvar Bergström, “Medicina, Fons et Scrinium: A Study in Van Eyckean Symbolism and Its Influence in Italian Art,” Konsthistorisk Tidskrift/Journal of Art History 26, no. 1–4 (January 1957): 1–20, 
  24. Erwin Panofsky, “Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs 64, no. 372 (1934): 117–27. 
  25. Panofsky; Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953). Panofsky proposed the notion of “disguised symbolism” as a way to “reconcile the new naturalism with a thousand years of Christian tradition.” He further elaborated: “In Early Flemish painting, on the other hand, the method of disguised symbolism was applied to each and every object, man-made or natural. It was employed as a general principle instead of only occasionally just as was the case with the method of naturalism. In fact, these two methods were genuine correlates. The more the painters rejoiced in the discovery and reproduction of the visible world, the more intensely did they feel the need to saturate all of its elements with meaning. Conversely, the harder they strove to express new subtleties and complexities of thought and imagination, the more eagerly did they explore new areas of reality.” (141-142) 
  26. James H. Marrow, “Symbol and Meaning in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 16, no. 2/3 (1986): 150, 
  27. Jan Baptist Bedaux, “The Reality of Symbols: The Question of Disguised Symbolism in Jan van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait,’” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art 16, no. 1 (1986): 5, 
  28. John L. Ward, “Disguised Symbolism as Enactive Symbolism in Van Eyck’s Paintings,” Artibus et Historiae 15, no. 29 (1994): 9–53, 
  29. Maryan W. Ainsworth, “The Relationship Between the Rotterdam Drawing and the New York Painting,” in An Eyckian Crucifixion Explored: Ten Essays on a Drawing, ed. Friso Lammertse and Albert J. Elen, Boijmans Studies (Exhibition A new look at a Van Eyck masterpiece, Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, 2016), 116–33. The diptych is not part of this exhibition. 
  30. The Altarpiece is understood to have been begun by Jan van Eyck’s brother Humbert (c. 1385-1426) in the mid-1420s, and is largely ascertained to have been painted by Jan himself. 
  31. Nina Siegal, “Up Close, There’s More to the Ghent Altarpiece Than the Lamb,” The New York Times, January 27, 2020, sec. Arts, 

Rinald D'Souza

Rinald D'Souza is a historian of religion and society in modern South Asia. He specialises on twentieth-century Christianity and the history of the Jesuits in India. He is presently pursuing a PhD in history at the Department of History at KU Leuven, Belgium. His current research explores the self-fashioning of Adivasi Jesuits through the missionary periodical press. Read more.

Leave a Reply