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Flemish artist Jan van Eyck (c. 1395-1441) was such an exceptional artist that a century after his death, Italian painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari credited him with the invention of oil paint and wondered if magic had been involved. Actually, oil paint was invented about sixty years before van Eyck was born.
Was magic involved? Take a closer look at his most famous work, The Ghent Altarpiece, and see what oil paint on wood looks like when the artist is Jan van Eyck.
Hubert and Jan van Eyck (brothers); The Ghent Altarpiece (open), 1432; Oil on wood; Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent, Belgium
After the altarpiece’s most recent restoration removed dirt, grime, and overpaint that had been applied after van Eyck’s death to “improve and correct” it, the uncovered details caused such a din that the image of the Lamb of God had its own Twitter account.
The Ghent Altarpiece is one of the world’s greatest and most sought-after art treasures. It’s been pawned, sold, nearly burned by rioting Calvinists, plundered by Napoléon, forged, hunted during World War I (its return to Belgium was included in the Treaty of Versailles), sold by a renegade cleric, stolen repeatedly during World War II, seized by Hitler, and rescued by the Monuments Men in 1945, seen here examining the altarpiece.
The magic wasn’t due a wand; it was a paintbrush. Jan van Eyck’s mastery of oil paint was so groundbreaking and technically perfect that it was already considered to be a turning point of Western art during his lifetime. Yet, only about twenty works have been attributed to him. Of those, two are almost identical except in size. Neither is signed nor dated by the artist and for hundreds of years, there was no trace of them at all.
This is their story. It begins with a journey, a vow of poverty, and, if you’re a believer, a miracle.
According to tradition, in September 1224, two Italian friars and ascetics from Assisi went on a religious pilgrimage to fast and pray in the mountains of northern Italy. While one of them was sleeping, the other, Francis, experienced a vision of a six-winged angel, or seraphim, that bore the image of Jesus crucified on a cross. After the angel departed, stigmata, or the same nail marks through the hands and feet and pierced torso that corresponded to Jesus’s wounds during crucifixion, miraculously appeared on Francis’s body. The wounds, which never healed, became evidence of his religious devotion.
A Franciscan sanctuary was built at the site where Saint Francis is said to have received his stigmata.
The next part of the story also includes a journey; forget the vow of poverty.
Two-hundred years later, in the mid-1420’s, Philip the Good, the Duke of Burgundy and a follower of the now sainted Francis, had just come to power after his father (John the Fearless) was assassinated. As a distinguished patron of the arts and the most powerful ruler in Flanders, Philip was looking for an official painter to join his court in Bruges.
Unknown artist; John the Fearless, c. 1404-1405; Oil on oak; Musée du Louvre, Paris
Timing is everything. Philip the Good’s uncle (John the Pitiless) had just been fatally poisoned and his court painter, Jan van Eyck, was looking for a job.
Artist unknown; John III the Pitiless, Duke of Bavaria-Straubing and Count of Holland-Hainaut, Date of print c. 1578
Unknown artist, made after a lost painting by Rogier van der Weyden; Portrait of Philip the Good, 1400s; Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon
Van Eyck was summoned to Philip’s sumptuous court, where only the best painters, sculptors, weavers, musicians, jewelers, and manuscript makers were retained to paint portraits, decorate palaces and carriages with embroidered tapestries, sculpt tombs, and produce one of the most luxurious collection of books ever assembled. Van Eyck’s appointment came with a title, a guaranteed salary that extended to his wife should he die first, and complete freedom from the restrictions posed by the local painters’ guild. Philip so valued Jan’s artistic abilities that when the salaries of other courtiers were reduced, van Eyck received a 720% raise.
Jan van Eyck also became Philip the Good’s varlet de chambre, an honorific reserved for the courtiers of highest standing. The chambre (room) in this case meant the Throne Room, Privy chamber (private apartment), and access to the ruler’s most important meetings. When the Duke selected an entourage in 1428 to negotiate the hand of Isabella, the daughter of the King of Portugal, he sent van Eyck to paint her portrait to find out what she looked like. Van Eyck painted two. One was sent by land and the other by sea to ensure that at least one of them would make it back to the duke. Once the negotiations were completed, it was Eyck who personally escorted Isabella from Portugal to the waiting Philip.
Both portraits of Isabella are now lost and are only known from a drawing someone made of one of them. Isabella’s direct gaze and coy smile are quite daring for a betrothal portrait.
Copy after van Eyck; Isabella of Portugal, date disputed; Private Collection
The duke tendered another privilege — van Eyck was permitted to accept commissions from other patrons, and, through politics, banking, and trade, the upper echelon of Burgundian society had wealth to spend. Around 1420, two affluent wool merchants and brothers, Pieter and Jacob Adornes, traveled to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. After they returned home to Bruges around 1428, it’s speculated that they commissioned Jan van Eyck to create two paintings of Saint Francis to honor their journey.
Why two identical paintings of different sizes? The smaller one was probably sized to be a portable devotional aide that could be carried on future pilgrimages. It’s also possible that in 1428, the same year that Philip the Good commissioned Eyck to paint two betrothal portraits of Isabella of Portugal, the Adornes brothers ordered duplicate works to emulate the Duke.
The smaller version is now in the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Jan van Eyck; Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, c. 1430–1432; Oil on vellum on panel; 5.0 in × 5.7 in (12.7 cm × 14.6 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art
It’s painted on vellum (calfskin) that’s been glued to a piece of high-quality Baltic oak. (To prevent expansion and contraction of the wood, Eyck only used rift-sawn cuts of oak for his works.)
After the surface had been properly prepared to receive oil paint, the magic began. (To learn more about painting on vellum and manuscript illuminations, click here).
Until the 1430s, artists worked with egg tempera (a pigment mixed with a binder, such as egg white). It’s a difficult medium to master. Its quick drying time means that a color can only be made in small amounts and the smooth blending of tones is very challenging.
Zanobi Strozzi, made in Florence; Annunciation, c. 1453; Tempera and tooled gold on panel with horizontal grain; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Jan van Eyck; The Annunciation, c. 1434 -1436; Oil on canvas transferred from panel; National Gallery of Art, London
At a time when Italians artists still preferred tempera, Jan van Eyck was keeping his formulas for mixing pigments with linseed, walnut, and other oils a secret. Oil paint takes much longer to dry than tempera and can be mixed in amounts that last longer than tempera. It’s also more flexible and easier to blend for smooth color transitions.
It, too, is a difficult technique to learn. Van Eyck didn’t invent oil paint but he was among the very first to master it to an extreme. His patrons and contemporary artists had never seen anything like it before. Six-hundred years later, his expertise is still staggering, legendary.
For Eyck, every detail in nature embodied God and the diffusion of light was a metaphor of the Divine. The oil’s translucency allowed him to portray light, and whether it is reflecting the smallest adornment on a textured gown, penetrating though different types of glass, or adding an almost imperceptible shift of light within a shadow, it is flawless.
Van Eyck’s paintings are composed of meticulously placed, extremely thin levels of pigments that are dispersed in transparent oil (glazes). He manipulated each brushstroke to direct the light in various directions as it passes through each transparent layer. Some of the light is absorbed in pigment particles and is reflected. Some of it bounces up from the base and rises through layers of translucent pigments to illuminate a color from beneath.
By analyzing a microsample that was extracted from the body of the Lamb on The Ghent Altarpiece, conservators can peek under the surface and study Jan van Eyck’s techniques.
For example, when van Eyck applied a yellow glaze over a red opaque base, the light that interacted with, optically mixed, and backlit each color produced an orange that had a complex, luminous depth and brilliance that didn’t exist with the orange pigments that were available to him at the time.
Artists apply glazes discriminately and purposefully, a thinner brushstroke here and a slightly thicker one there. To do it well, the artist must be able to foresee the final result before beginning to paint. Viewers at the time said the Jan van Eyck’s works appeared to be “lit from within by a jewel-like light’. After restoring The Ghent Altarpiece, curators from Belgium’s Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage said of its vividness, richness of detail, and brilliant colors, “There are no words to express the result. … It is overwhelmingly beautiful.”
The same can be said about Jan van Eyck’s image of Saint Francis at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Unlike his large altarpiece, it measures 5.0 in. × 5.7 in. (12.7 cm × 14.6 cm).
Van Eyck depicts the moment when Francis of Assisi experiences a vision and receives the stigmata while in the rocky mountains of northern Italy. The friars’ habits are tied with a belt that’s been knotted three times to symbolize poverty, chastity and obedience. The ends almost touch; after Saint Francis died, Brother Leo became his successor. Each knot and tassel appear to be formed by a touch of light.
According to Christian theology, the seraph that appears before Francis is a “burning one”, a being whose inexhaustible light enlightens others. In the early 1200s, artists represented the miraculous messenger as a six-winged angel. By the 1400s, the image had developed into an angel behind a cross who enveloped the figure of Jesus in its multicolored wings.
Brother Leo has fallen asleep and is unaware of the miracle taking place.
Having spent some time in the wilderness, Saint Francis has grown a stubbly beard. He somewhat oddly stares beyond the seraph unaffected, an Eyckian device to illustrate a mystical experience. The pictorial metaphors in van Eyck’s compositions can be complex and subtle. Art critic Holland Carter suggested that it appeared as if the “mystical vision were somehow aural rather than visual experience, and [Francis] was holding himself absolutely still to catch its distant sound.”
Jan van Eyck; The Virgin of Chancellor Rolin, c. 1430-35; Oil on panel; Musée de Louvre, Paris
Nicolas Rolin, chancellor to Philip the Good, commissioned van Eyck to paint this portrait for his local church. Rolin, who wears a gold brocade jacket trimmed with mink, kneels to receive a blessing from Mary and Jesus.
It’d be unthinkable to portray a patron alone and in an equal position to Mary in her throne room, so this loggia is not in heaven. The composition is split in half; every detail symbolizes the earthly world on the left and the spiritual world on the right. Like Saint Francis, Chancellor Rolin looks beyond his miraculous vision.
The painting of Saint Francis is also divided into two by his hands. On the right, Brother Leo’s space is enclosed by the rocks and he’s turned away from the revelation. To the left, Saint Francis is surrounded by the wonders of nature and mankind.
The position of Saint Francis’s legs and feet have been a matter of scholarly debate. Is he levitating, or, as some wondered, did a less experienced apprentice in van Eyck’s workshop paint them in?
Joseph Rishel, Curator Emeritus of European Painting at the Philadelphia Museum of Art wrote that, “The abstract passivity of Saint Francis, the unnaturalness of his anatomy, … [and] his resigned acceptance of his miraculous bodily torment elevate him [to a level of] saintly piety. The unnatural position of his feet … is crucial to our understanding of the miracle of the stigmatization: both fresh wounds are thus visible on the soles of his feet.”
Every detail, even the blades of grass projecting between the tassels of Saint Francis’s belt, remind the viewer of nature’s beauty.
A flock of birds circles above the tree at the edge of rocky precipice. On the other side of the valley, tiny figures of hunters walk along a road and beyond them, three ravens perched on the top of a rock portend misfortune.
Each plant has meaning. The French name for columbine, ancoli, and its blue color reflect Saint Francis’s melancholy as he sees a vision of the crucifixion. In the context of this painting, the strawberries’ white flowers and red fruit allude to the saint’s purity and bleeding stigmata. Plantains were very common in religious paintings from 1400s; their ability to grow in a variety of environments refers to strong faith.
The placement of rocks in the middle-ground transitions the foreground to a very distant background. Geologists have identified distinct rock types: limestone, stratified sedimentary sandstone, and igneous rock.
Several rocks contain fossils. In the 1400s, fossils were believed to be abandoned works of God or proof of the biblical flood.
Geologists also identified some of the fossils as an ancestor to a type of modern mollusk and determined that their pattern of distribution indicates that some of the boulders have been upturned from their original orientation.
A small brook gushes out between the rocks and tumbles over pebbles.
Farther in the background, two people wearing hats and holding oars row a boat filled with passengers across the water.
A woman wearing white apron walks along the far shore.
Horses with dots for ears bend their necks to drink water.
The various reflections in water lead the eye toward a distant view of a busy city.
To create perspective, van Eyck relies on us to imagine a space that is blocked from our view by the hillside, the section of the river that flows between the cliff and the town. The winding river reappears in the far distance on a path that leads our eye well beyond the town.
There, we find the origin of the river, a panoramic, pale blue mountain range that is capped with snow.
The subject of the painting, a miracle of faith, transpires within the framework of the scope of nature and human life.
How did he do it? — with a two-bristled brush (perhaps mouse whiskers or human eyelashes; at least two bristles are needed to drag the paint across the surface), a magnifying glass, and the mastery to place, conservators estimate, between 107-113 layers of pigment and glaze.
The larger version is now in the collection of the Sabauda Gallery in Turin (11.5 in x 13.1 in; 29.3 x 33.4 cm).
It has a paler tonality, or softer contrast between light and dark. The similarities are remarkably precise. The lichens on the rocks are the same. The flowers have the same petals. The leaves on the trees are the same. The brushstrokes, however, are not. Eyck maneuvered his process so that the final results look the same despite their different scales and levels of perception.
Jan van Eyck; Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, c. 1430; 11.5 in. x 13.1 in. (29.3 x 33.4 cm.); Oil on panel; Galleria Sabauda, Turin
Unlike the Philadelphia version, conservators found a preliminary drawing beneath the paint surface. Perhaps the Turin version was completed first and van Eyck didn’t need to use an underdrawing as a guide to make a second one. In the underdrawing, Saint Francis is wearing sandals, so, at some point, van Eyck changed his mind and painted bare feet. It’s unknown why; maybe it was upon the request of the patrons, Pieter and Jacob Adornes.
After the Adornes brothers returned home around 1428 and commissioned Jan van Eyck to create two paintings, their history of ownership becomes vague. In 1470, Pieter Adornes’s son, Anselm, embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Land on behalf of Philip the Good’s son, Charles the Bold. Before Anselm left, he drafted his will in Bruges. The will describes two paintings by Jan van Eyck that were in his possession and that were portraits of Saint Francis. He bequeathed one painting each to two of his daughters, Margriet and Louise, both of whom were living in different Carthusian convents near Bruges.
Anselm Adornes left Bruges in February 1470 and headed to Italy to pick up son, Jan, who was studying there. Jan’s diary of pilgrimage describes that the route that eventually led them to travel by camel across the desert to Jerusalem. In September 1471, the father and son left Jerusalem for home and made several stops throughout Italy along the way. Art historians believe that at least one of the paintings traveled with them because there are paintings by other artists in Italy and Netherlands that reference elements of van Eyck’s composition.
From top left, clockwise: Master of Hoogstraten; St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 1510; Oil on panel; Museo del Prado. Sandro Botticelli and Filippino Lippi; Adoration of the Magi (detail), c. 1470; Tempera on panel; National Gallery, London. Herri met de Bles; Landscape with Saint John the Baptist, c. 1540; Oil on wood; Cleveland Museum of Art. Giovanni Bellini; Saint Francis in Ecstasy, c. 1480; Oil on panel; Frick Collection, New York. Petrus Christus; Altar Panel with a Portrait of Donor in Scarlet under the Protection of St. Anthony, c. 1450; Oil on panel; National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen
After he returned home, Anselm Adornes became a close friend of King James III of Scotland during troubling times. In 1483, he made a new will but there’s no mention the two paintings by van Eyck. Six weeks later, while in Scotland, Anselm Adornes was assassinated. His first will from 1470 has never been found and is only known by a copy that was made in the 1500s and discovered in the Bruges archives in 1860.
The whereabouts of the Philadelphia version remain unknown for hundreds of years until the mid-1820s, when a British diplomat purchased it in Lisbon. Twenty years later, an inventory of his art collection describes a small painting as “Saint Francis – Albrecht Dürer, from a physician in Lisbon”; of the seventy-eight works in the account, it’s given the lowest estimated value of £8. Believing that the painting was a fake Dürer, the diplomat’s descendants lost interest in the picture and sold it in 1894 to an art dealer in London for £300. A month later, John G. Johnson, a Philadelphia lawyer and art collector, purchased the work for £700 from the art dealer.
Johnson asked Roger Fry, the curator of paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of art, to restore it. Fry noticed that the composition had been altered. There was a “dull, opaque sky … where an extra panel had been added on to satisfy some owner who did not appreciate the compressed composition of the original. The sky had been enlivened with a crowd of small white, cloud-like forms suggesting the presence of a cohort of angels.”
Photograph of the Philadelphia painting in 1906 before the extra panel was removed
When Fry removed the addition, he also discovered that van Eyck had originally painted a brilliant scarlet border on the wood panel to surround the image. The same color was often used in fifteenth-century manuscript illuminations to create the illusion that the viewer was looking through a window into another realm.
Artist/maker unknown, Italian, made in Bologna; Letter O with Apostles (a page from a manuscript), 1300s; Watercolor and gold leaf on vellum; 3 1/8 × 3 inches (7.9 × 7.6 cm); Philadelphia Museum of Art
When Johnson died in 1917, he bequeathed his entire art collection to the City of Philadelphia and the painting by Jan van Eyck became part of the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1932.
Like the Philadelphia painting, the provenance of the Turin version is unknown until the early 1800s when a woman described as “ex-nun living in Casale Monferrato” sold it to a professor who lived in the same city. The professor sold it to the mayor of a small town in Turin, and finally, in 1866, the mayor sold a painting only identified as “of the Flemish School” to the director of the Galleria Sabauda in Turin, where it remains.
Conservators, scientists, and art historians have collaborated to investigate every aspect of the twin paintings – the wooden supports, parchment fibers, paint samples, priming layers, a comparison of brushstrokes, etc., to authenticate each painting. Their findings fill books.
Technical analysis of the Philadelphia painting established that its wood panel came from the same tree as that of other two paintings by van Eyck (Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy); the tree rings, which are as unique as fingerprints, match. X-rays and infrared reflectography confirmed that the underdrawing in the Turin painting was made by van Eyck’s hand.
To sum it up, investigators concluded that both are original paintings by Jan van Eyck.
Studying a work in such minute details reveals his secrets, the vermillion that became a rosy cheek, the layers that gave transparency to a trickle of water or depth to a shadow, the direction of a brushstroke in a horse’s ear, and the colors in the dots that make up the stubble of a beard.
Most artists who came before Jan van Eyck remained anonymous. Painting wasn’t considered to be an art form; it was a craft. In Northern Europe, the tradition changed around the time Jan was appointed to court and he was one of the first to sign his paintings, “JOHANNES DE EYCK”. Sometimes he signed with his personal motto, AΛΣ · IXH · XAN – pseudo-Greek letters that are an abbreviation of a Flemish saying, Als Ich Can, and a pun on his name ‘as I [ich/Eyk] can [but not as I would]’. It can also be translated to “As (best) I can” or “As (only) I can”.
Jan van Eyck; Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?), 1433; Oil on oak; The National Gallery, London
The painting may be a self-portrait; the answer is unknown. His motto, Als Ich Can, is painted on the upper frame. The bottom inscription is in abbreviated Latin and says, ‘Jan van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433’. The sitter’s clothing is that of a prosperous individual. Most striking is his flamboyant red hat – a chaperon, a headdress for men fashionable in the 1400s. The hood, which usually hung down over the wearer’s neck and shoulders, has been piled up on top of the sitter’s head, the long tail wound around it. The strong contrast between the dark shadows in the creases and the bright highlights where the folded fabric catches the light is typical of van Eyck. The National Gallery, London
The story of these two paintings also ends with a journey. If possible, visit a museum that has a work by Jan van Eyck and see it with your own eyes. No image in a book or on the internet can do it justice. The best that I am able to describe them fails miserably compared to the real thing.
There are no words to express the result. … It is overwhelmingly beautiful.
– Meighan Maley
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