Saint Barbara (van Eyck)

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Saint Barbara, 1437. Oak panel, 41.4 × 27.8 cm. Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium.

Saint Barbara is a 1437 brush stroke drawing on chalk ground laid on an oak panel, signed and dated 1437 by the Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck. Some areas and passages are more detailed than others, and it has long been debated if the panel was left as van Eyck intended or if it is an unfinished painting. If it was intended as extant, it would be the earliest surviving drawing of any artist, although not prepared on paper or parchment. Evidence to support this includes that the work was highly regarded at the time by Flemish aestheticists as a thing in itself.[1] The work was also widely copied, with many near-contemporary lithographs still in good condition.

Saint Barbara was a Christian martyr believed to have lived in the 3rd century, and a popular saint in the late Middle Ages. According to hagiography, her wealthy and pagan father, Dioscorus, sought to preserve her from unwelcome suitors by imprisoning her in a tower. Captive Barbara let in a priest who baptised her, an act for which she was hunted and eventually beheaded by her father.[2] She became a popular subject for artists of van Eyck's generation; another notable contemporary depiction is Robert Campin's 1438 Werl Triptych.[3]

Barbara is shown seated holding a book and palm leaves in front of a large Gothic cathedral still in the process of being built, with many workmen visible on the ground carry stone and on various parts of the tower. The work is set against a sweeping and evocative landscape rendered in browns, whites and blues, although it is only sketchily detailed.[4] The elements of the tower are highly described, and contain many complex architectural details. In a number of respects it resembles the Cologne cathedral, which in 1437 was still under construction. Van Eyck had earlier depicted the cathedral as well as a view of Cologne in the Adoration of the Lamb panel of the Ghent Altarpiece.[1]

The level of detail generally recedes as the eye extends towards the background. The craftsmen on the tower top are far less detailed than those on the ground at Barbara's level, while elements of the landscape are bare sketches. In some areas the line between the preparatory drawing and the underpainting cross over. The lower borders of the original marble frame contain lettering painted in such a manner so as to appear as if chiselled. They read IOHES DE EYCK ME FECIT. 1437. This fact has brought a lot of question to the exact role of van Eyck's signature; if it is taken that the work is unfinished, then the completion refers only to the design of the picture, rather than any completed work which he may have left to members of his workshop.[5]


  1. ^ a b Borchert (2011), 145
  2. ^ Jones, Susan Frances. Van Eyck to Gossaert. National Gallery, 2011. 104. ISBN 1-85709-505-7
  3. ^ Stephan, Kemerdick; Sanders, Jochen. The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden. Städel Museum, Frankfurt, 2009.
  4. ^ Borchert (2008), 64
  5. ^ Borchert (2008), 66


Further reading[edit]