Monday, September 10, 2012

Jan Van Eyck Research Paper

The works of Jan Van Eyck – Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, Lucca Madonna, Arnolfini Portrait

Jan van Eyck, one of the most famous painters of the Middle Ages, lived in the fifteenth century in the Netherlands. As a court painter, he was very famous and extremely well-paid if compared with other painters in Netherlands. He was at the court of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy where he was very respected and appreciated. It is known that the Duke was a godfather of one of the painter’s children and supported his family after Jan van Eyck’s death. All these facts prove van Eyck’s exceptional status at court, which was gained by his extraordinary gift for painting. Moreover, the Duke often sent the painter on different missions, which might have included not only painting, but also some other affairs. However, except two portraits painted at that time, we know nothing particular about these missions.

Jan van Eyck was a learned person – he knew Latin and was experienced in the classics of painting. The masterpieces that he created made him a prominent person not only in his time but also throughout the centuries. Except painting at court, van Eyck also worked for private clients.


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Among the most famous van Eyck’s paintings there are Ghent Altarpiece, Madonna with the Child Reading, Madonna in the Church, Arnolfini Portrait, Lucca Madonna, Madonna of Chancellor Rolin etc. These masterpieces became classical in the art history and brought fame to the Netherlandian School of painters, being at the center of attention throughout six centuries. The talent and unsurpassed skill of Jan van Eyck is proved by the numerous disputes around his paintings. Again and again, scientists focus their attention on van Eyck’s works, discussing the play of colors, the perspective and the three-dimensional character of the masterpieces. For a long time Jan van Eyck was considered the inventor of oil paining. In fact, it was not he, but this delusion indicates the painter’s contribution to the art. He created such amazing oil paintings that everybody thought he invented something new. However, he just managed to use them so skillfully that opened a new era in painting. Likewise, analyzing his painting The Arnofilini Portrait, modern researchers argue whether this picture was painted with the help of a convex mirror, so that the painter gained such a perfect perspective; others tried to find out whether it was a kind of a document attesting a marriage; not mentioning a large number of symbols, which are found and tried to be interpreted in the work.

To begin with, it is necessary to describe the picture The Arnofilini Portrait. Being the oldest picture, painted in oils, this canvas is thought the most complex work in the whole history of the Western art. It abounds in various symbols and astonishes with its accuracy. The painting depicts a couple standing in a room, perhaps in their house in Bruges, a Flemish city. There are different opinions concerning the depicted people. For a long time it was thought that it was a portrait of Giovanni di Arrigo Arnolfini and his wife. However, having found out that, in fact, they were married several years after van Eyck’s death, scholars have come to a conclusion that the portrait depicts Giovanni di Arrigo’s cousin Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife. Moreover, he might have been the artist’ friend as he was also depicted in later van Eyck’s works.

With the help of different details, Jan van Eyck shows the family’s prosperity: rich clothes made of expensive cloth and embellished with fur; the jewelries, which seem rather plain, but would have been valued as very expensive by contemporary people; a large brass chandelier and extremely expensive at that time oranges, which lay casually on a table. All these details make the impression of a very wealthy family.

As it has already been mentioned, the portrait abounds in symbols, very often disguised, yet very significant. The way van Eyck places the figures in the picture is not accidental. The man stands near the window, which symbolizes his connection with the outer world, while his wife is near the bed, which shows her responsibility for the family. While the man looks directly in front of him and is the head of the family, the woman’s status is easily guessed by her dutiful look at her husband. The colors used in the painting are also symbolistic. The green color of the woman’s clothes might symbolize the hope to be a mother and the white color of her headgear means her purity. The dog by their side symbolizes fidelity in the marriage. However, a more significant place in the composition of the picture is occupied by more hidden symbols, which are mostly connected with the combination of divine and mortal worlds.

The frame of a convex mirror on the opposite wall is decorated with small medallions that represent scenes from the Passion of Christ, which increases the symbolism of the mirror as of God’s eye watching the sacrament of matrimony. The mirror is surrounded by beads from the one side and by a brush, meaning the care about the house, from the other. Scholars attribute presence of these objects to the painter’ wish to mention the Christian dispensation “ora et labora”. The oranges symbolize the immaculacy and chastity that were in the Eden before the Fall from grace. Thus we see that all symbols show the essential unity of the worldly act of marriage and its blessing by Heavens.

Basing on the theory, claiming that when the painting was painted the wife had already died, we can interpret another detail, which seems rather symbolic. There is one burning candle in the chandelier that is situated on the side of the man, while on the side of the woman there is a candle snuff. It shows that man is alive and his wife is dead. On the other hand, one may see the candle, lit in daytime as a symbol of the presence of the light of God.

Besides such profusion of symbols that can be interpreted in different ways and that show the method of disguised symbolism used by Jan van Eyck, there are other stumbling blocks that caused many disputes. For example, the chandelier painted with perfect perspective led researchers to the idea that it was painted with the help of a convex mirror. Numerous experiments were made in order to find out whether it was possible for a painter to depict it so perfectly. As it turned out, it was.

Therefore, it proves that Jan van Eyck was a true talented painter. The convex mirror, which he painted on the back wall, also plays an important role in the perspective of the picture. There we can see Jan van Eyck and his companion reflected. It adds some air of mystery and seems to lead us to another world, besides it expands the space.

To continue the topic of divine world depiction in Jan van Eyck’s paintings, it is worth mentioning such his works as Madonna of Chancellor Rolin and Lucca Madonna. They are considered icons as there van Eyck used many Christian motifs and depicted saints.

The painting Madonna of Chancellor Rolin depicts the Blessed Virgin showing the child Jesus to the Chancellor Rolin. The scene takes place in a large decorated with columns balcony, which affords a fine view on a city and a river. As in The Arnofilini Portrait, all the textures and details are perfectly executed and claim special attention. The crown held by the angel, the upper parts of columns, the Virgin’s mantle are depicted in details. The range of colors occupies a particular place in van Eyck’s icons. Color is to a certain degree the outward sign of individual objects of the real and the imag­inary world, which catches your eye first of all. It is a mark of identification of the objects depicted. Though, the representational, figurative, identifying role of color is the first, it is not the main thing, by any means. The second importance of color is the moral or spiritual signifi­cance. Here the theological basis of icon painting reveals itself. Colors in icons express not so much the emotions of man: joy or sorrow, peace or excite­ment— above all they express man’s spiritual uplift.

In the painting, van Eyck again depicts the meeting of two worlds – mortal and divine. Rolin is surrounded by the objects from the world where he lives. We can see different symbols around him, which we cannot find near the Virgin. For example, the reliefs that depict Seven deadly sins and the tiny figures of rabbits at the base of a column that symbolize lust. You won’t find these elements on the side of the Virgin and Christ. On their side, there is an angel and flowers in blossom. Again, as in the above-mentioned picture the Virgin and Rolin are not alone. At the back of the painting, there are two people. Some scholars attribute their presence to the portraying of people reflected in the mirror in The Arnofilini Portrait and suggest that one of them can be van Eyck. In this painting, van Eyck also used the perspective by depicting the view onto the city and thus, expands the space.

A traditional motif so characteristic of icons and used in many van Eyck’s works is so called the Throne of Wisdom. It is the depiction of sitting Saint Mary who holds the Child on her knees. This image is further elaborated in Lucca Madonna where it is painted with even more attention to the details.

The picture Lucca Madonna is one of the latest painter’s works. It also depicts the Virgin, holding the Infant Jesus on her knees and breastfeeding him. It is necessary to mention that the prototype for the Virgin is believed to be the painter’s wife, Margaretha. As it has been already mentioned, the Virgin is compared to an altar. Jan van Eyck intensifies the comparison by the white cloth, on which the Child is sitting and the piscine that is situated near the throne where the Virgin sits. The throne has also a symbolic meaning. Due to four statues of lions, it can be associated with Solomon’s throne that had twelve lions. Moreover, we can draw an analogy with The Arnofilini Portrait, as both there and in this picture we can see oranges as a symbol of purity. Lucca Madonna differs from already analyzed paintings as it presents a rather small chapel, where even the throne seems to be too big.

The problems that have worried scholars for a long time concern the perspective that Jan van Eyck used in his works. There are a lot of arguments about the accuracy of his paintings and a new type of perspective. Thus, Karl Doehlemann considered “Jan was an experimenter whose “errors” led from medieval parallel perspective to a kind of empirical vanishing-area perspective”, while another scholar James Elkins thought that “an attentive observer can discern something more than a single “vanishing area” even without drawing lines on reproductions” (Elkins, 1991).

To conclude, it is necessary to state that the unsurpassed talent of Jan van Eyck is out of discussion. Being the greatest artist in his time, he made a considerable contribution into Western art history. Despite being created in the fifteenth century, all his works are in the center of attention throughout centuries and astonish scholars with their accuracy and style. The perspective of this works, despite all disputes that it caused, the magnificent depiction of mortal and divine words, the three-dimensional nature of all objects, and of course great symbolism and attention to the details, which is so characteristic of Jan van Eyck, make his works incomparable. The interplay of colors occupies a particular place in van Eyck’s paintings and, especially in his icons. Independent of subjects, independent of the feelings they are able to express or awaken, they comprise a singu­lar entity in every icon, an entity which, while having no direct connection with man or his impres­sions, is of enormous value to him, attracted him, captivated him and revealed to him the innermost meaning of life.
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