Vivid, exquisitely drawn and soberly mystical, this triptych is one of Rogier van der Weyden’s masterpieces. The theme as indicated by the text around the figures’ heads is Eucharistic; i.e., the redemption of humanity by the physical sacrifice of Christ. However, it may have been commissioned to commemorate a marriage. The outer panels of the wings of the triptych display the coats of arms of a newly married couple, Jacques Braque and his wife, Catherine de Brabant. Both were descendants of French families that had established themselves in Tournai in the early 15th century when the city was under French rule. As the couple married around the same time as the panel was painted it is thought it might have been made for their nuptials. A relatively small work, it would be fairly portable and may have been intended for private worship.
The couple must have been fairly prominent, and wealthy, as the triptych would have been a spectacular gift – Rogier van der Weyden (meaning ‘Roger of the Meadow’), was one of the most celebrated northern European painters of the 15th century. Little is known of his early training but he worked as an apprentice in the workshop of Robert Campin in Tournai for 5 years and later became the city painter of Brussels, the capital of the dukes of Burgundy. There he had a highly successful studio and gained an international reputation, receiving commissions from everyone from kings to dukes to prominent families like the Braque’s and de Brabant’s.
The central panel is the ‘Salvator Mundi’; that is, Christ as the redeemer of the world. With a kind face and sad eyes emphasised by a golden aura-like halo, Christ blesses the world and is presented as the host. Beside him are his mother, the Virgin Mary, and St John the Evangelist who holds the chalice that will hold the blood of Christ. On the left wing of the triptych is St John the Baptist and on the right wing is a beautiful Mary Magdalene, elegantly dressed and holding the ointment jar with which she anointed the feet of Christ. The presentation of the figures at half-length in the foreground before a bucolic landscape that goes far into the distance was something new at the time in northern art. Rogier may have discovered this compositional form during a trip to Italy circa 1450, where he worked for some of the grandest courts of the age.
The work reflects the myriad influences upon Rogier. The crisp linearity and geometric proportion no doubt reflected the influence of Italian artists like Mantegna, whom Rogier had met in Italy. While the naturalism (note the wrinkled faces and sallow complexions), mixed seamlessly with mysticism, reflects the northern-style Realism that he learned from Campin and the work of Jan van Eyck, as does Rogier’s acute attention to detail: note the polished surface of Christ’s orb, the remote but detailed landscape and the lush brocade of Mary Magdalene’s sleeve. To this, Rogier adds his characteristic intense expressions and air of sober propriety. His drawing is meticulous and delicately expressive – no one would doubt the sincere emotion of each figure.
Rogier’s work was much sought after in his own time and beyond: the purchase of this painting by the Louvre via a dealer who had just bought it from the Duke of Westminster was headline news in 1913. The New York Times reported that it sold for a record $130,000 and that until a few days before purchase it had hung in the drawing room of the duke’s daughter.
1449–50 Andrea del Castagno: Assumption of the Virgin with SS Miniato and Julian, Berlin, Gemäldergalerie
c1450 Petrus Christus: The Nativity, Washington, National Gallery of Art
1451 Piero della Francesca: Portrait of Sigismondo Malatesta, Paris, Musée du Louvre