Text by Deanna MacDonald
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Jan Vos (d. 1462), a Carthusian monk and prior of the Charterhouse of Genadedal near Bruges, commissioned this painting around 1441 from van Eyck. Though it is thought to be one of van Eyck’s last paintings and may have been finished by his workshop, it nonetheless demonstrates the painterly skills that made van Eyck famous.
Vos had himself included in the picture kneeling in worship before the Virgin and Child. He wears a white monk’s robe and his piercing gaze meets the Virgin’s, a sign to all viewers of his privileged relationship with the holy family, reinforced by the blessing he receives from the long-limbed, naked Christ Child. The Virgin and Child are both blonde, as they are in most northern European art, and Mary is regally attired standing beneath a brocade canopy – inscribed AVE GRA[TIA] PLE[N]A (Hail [Mary] full of grace) – and on an imported carpet laid on a decorative tile floor. This sumptuous detail reflects both the material wealth of 15th-century Netherlandish society and van Eyck’s exceptional mimetic skill.
Famed for his pictorial illusionism, van Eyck is often credited with the invention of oil painting; i.e. using oil to bind pigment as opposed to the less versatile tempera, or egg. However, oil was in fact used as early as the 12th century; but it was van Eyck’s virtuoso usage of the medium that helped to popularize it. He loved to amaze the viewer with details of microscopic verisimilitude and with a startling naturalism that conveyed the experience of everyday life – note, for example, the fine pattern of the carpet or the lines of Vos’ face. Playing with the effects of light on various surfaces – note the jewels on the Virgin’s hem – van Eyck tried to break the barrier between the pictorial space and the viewer’s, inviting the onlooker into the image.
The inclusion of popular saints also appealed to a contemporary audience. It is a pretty St Barbara who presents Vos to the Virgin and Child. She holds a martyr’s palm and her attribute, the tower where she was imprisoned for her Christianity, rises behind her. A statue of the god Mars stands in the tower window; a reference to Barbara as the patron saint of soldiers. On the other side is St Elizabeth of Hungary who holds the crown she gave up to be a nun. Why were these two particular saints included? The saints chosen for such a donor painting were usually associated somehow with the donor. St Elizabeth may be included because she was the patron saint of the Duchess of Burgundy, a supporter of Carthusian monasteries, and St Barbara could be connected with Vos’s youthful membership in the Teutonic Order, a religious foundation with military ties.
All figures are framed before an ornate arcade which opens to a detailed background, which allowed van Eyck to show off his mastery of perspective and insert an element of genre: note the figures sitting in the cart and boat. Though many scholars have tried to identify the city represented, this view, like most of van Eyck’s panoramas, is almost certainly imaginary, a composite of van Eyck’s notion of an ideal city.
Images such as this were often used as aids in private devotion. Van Eyck’s mix of naturalism and precision creates a sense of absolute stillness – you could hear a pin drop – that at the same time crackles with an energy which was no doubt a potent inspiration for the worshipper.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1435–40 Rogier van der Weyden: St Luke Portraying the Virgin, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
1444 Konrad Witz: Miraculous Draught of Fishes, Geneva, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
c1445 Domenico Veneziano: Santa Lucia Altarpiece (Virgin and Child with Saints), Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi