The Belgian city hosts an exhibition that honors the Flemish painter with as many as 10 works, almost half of his known production. In fact, van Eyck completed few paintings and many were lost. However, what remains is truly extraordinary
At the beginning of the 15th century, complex cultural, political and economic events were changing Europe. Naturally, art was also profoundly marked. At the top of this renewal were Florence and Bruges, whose main protagonists were Masaccio and Jan Van Eyck, respectively, opening the doors to the Renaissance.
Madonna and Child at the Fountain, 1439
The exhibition, the largest ever created on the artist, will held at Museum of Fine Arts from the start of February to the end of April 2020. It is a great opportunity to understand the revolutionary scope of the work of the Flemish artist, as well as what led to these fascinating paintings. In his work, reality is represented in its maximum intensity, stretching out before our eyes in an analytical and precise manner, full of details, yet also pervaded by a mystery that is difficult to truly grasp.
It is not by chance that in Bruges the association of mirror makers was the Guild of St. Luke, the same of the painters. These Flemish painters show an extremely high level of observation and detail. They look at the world with an intensity and clarity that had never been seen before. It is likely that they used those lenses for which the city was famous.
The Annunciation, 1434-1436
Numerous details and the miniature images found in bronzes, jewels or mirrors not only required a magnifying glass for their creation – the same tools were needed to appreciate a painting in all its sophisticated details. The glasses, which often recur in Van Eyck’s paintings, had been invented in Italy in the 14th century, but were developed in those years in Bruges. However, we do not know exactly what magnification capacity they had and how the vision was. It was a secret that the painters of Bruges held for themselves, and we can be quite certain that this is not foreign to the optical revolution that we see in the painting of that era. There were too many minute details – something happened that allowed artists to see things more clearly.
Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy, 1435
However, on the one hand Van Eyck’s style of painting amplifies reality by showing it in all the details, at the same time it shows all its artificiality, creating a play on illusions between the fictitious world of painting and the real world of the observer. For example, he plays with materials, making what is actually painted look like a carving, or he creates a drapery or an angel wing that continues on to the lateral side of the panel.
St. Barbara, 1437
This tradition was attributed to Van Eyck through the invention of the oil technique. This is not the case, despite the fact that he was the first to use it in such an incredible manner, representing reality with the meticulousness that only oil allowed. Tempera was rather opaque. It could not define true reflections of light on objects. Moreover, tempera did not allow the use of those thin brushes with which the small details are made.
The Adoration of the Mystic lamb, 1432
The Annunciation Diptych, 1433-1435
Therefore, oil and lenses were the tools of this revolution. Reality represented in such an intense way became a powerful tool of persuasion available to the artist. Van Eyck was able to give reality to anything, even the most unreal things, paving the way for Flemish artists whose imaginative representations appear realer than what we could see with our eyes.
Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon, 1428−1430
Portrait of Jan de Leeuw, 1436
Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata, 1430–1432
The most important piece of the exhibition is Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, which was recently restored. This is a work with a shocking force. Generally, the northern altarpieces were carved, and painting, if any, was found in the side panels. This polyptych, however, reversed the hierarchy of genres. The altarpiece is painted in all its parts, even in the external doors, as if the painting became sculpture. This visual deception is even more evident in another work present in the exhibition, one of the most revolutionary of the Renaissance: the Annunciation from the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. The painted figures look like statues on a pedestal inside niches with a black background, creating an illusory effect in which the “statues” cast a shadow over the frames, also reflected on a background of polished marble. The deception would have been perfect if it weren’t for a small detail: the dove. If it were carved, the bird should have had a foothold.
This was Jan Van Eyck: reality and representation, deception and truth.
Anna Maria Calabretta