Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele
The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele is a large c. 1434–36 oil-on-oak panel painting by the Early Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck. It was commissioned by Joris van der Paele, a wealthy clergyman from Bruges who was then gravely ill, and intended the work to be both the front piece for an altar and serve as his epitaph.
The panel is noted for the finery of the sitter's dress, and contains exquisite representations of furs, silks and brocades. It is filled with elaborate and detailed iconography. The main figures are identifiable from the Latin inscriptions lining the borders of the imitation bronze frame. The Virgin Mary sits enthroned at the center of the semicircular space, intended to represent a church interior. Van der Paele kneels to the right, dressed in a white surplice, reading from a book of hours. St. George stands beside him, presenting the elderly priest to Mary, with his hat raised in respect. Saint Donatian, dressed in brightly coloured vestments, stands to the left.
Joris van der Paele was born in Bruges around 1370, and spent his early career as a papal scribe in Rome before returning to his native city in 1425 as a wealthy man. He was appointed to a canonry of St. Donatian's collegiate church, a position which afforded him income from the various parishes under his remit, and allowed him to commission the best painter in the region.
An illness around 1431 left van der Paele unable to fulfill the function and to reflect upon his position as canon and his mortality. In response he endowed a chaplaincy to the church and commissioned this work from van Eyck. In return for his bequest, the church granted him a requiem mass, a daily mass and three votive masses a week, meant to intercede with the divine on his behalf. A second chaplaincy in 1443 centered on prayers for his family, and guaranteed that after his death, the requiem mass would end with readings of the Miserere mei and De profundis.
An inscription on the lower imitation frame refers to the donation: "Joris van der Paele, canon of this church, had this work made by painter Jan van Eyck. And he founded two chaplaincies here in the choir of the Lord. 1434. He only completed it in 1436, however."
In the early 15th century Mary grew in importance as an intercessor between the divine and members of the Christian faith. The concept of purgatory as an intermediary state before admission to heaven was at its height. In his capacity as canon, van der Paele paid for masses, and the provision of embroidered cloths and precious metal objects such as chalices, plates and candlesticks. Van der Paele may have kept the panel in his private chambers or as a church altar. It was donated to the church either in 1436 or on his death in 1443. It remained there until the church was demolished in 1779. Most likely the work was placed in the church nave as an accompaniment to an altar for Saints Peter and Paul and used for memorial masses for van der Paele and his family. It was installed on the main altar after the Iconoclasm of 1566.
The Virgin and Child is one of the earliest known sacra conversazione (the Virgin and Child shown with a group of saints in a relatively informal grouping) paintings of the Northern Renaissance. The work has an overall sculptural look; the throne, windows, arches and hanging canvases borrow from the conventions of Romanesque architecture. It is in its original oak frame, and contains a number of Latin inscriptions; Donatian is described as having "Enjoy[ed] the Glory of God", while George has "Triumphed over Death". The upper border of the frame contains phrases from the Book of Wisdom, comparing Mary to an "unspotted mirror".
The painting contains one of the finest extant depictions of an Oriental carpet in Renaissance painting and seems influenced by manuscript illumination. It is characterised by its innovative use of illusionism and complex spatial composition, and incorporates rich and detailed symbolism and allegory. It is widely considered one of van Eyck's most fully realised and ambitious works and has been described as a "masterpiece of masterpieces".
After from the center panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, the painting is van Eyck's second largest, and the only one in a horizontal format. It is set in a rounded church with side ambulatories, in what Elisabeth Dhanens describes as a balanced, symmetrical composition. It is a departure from conventional and contemporary central and northern European epitaphs. He abandons the strict symmetry and clear theological basis of the typical Italian sacra conversazione to create a work that stands up to a variety of interpretations. The carved figures on the throne and on the capitals behind include Old and New Testament characters, and may allude to either the Crucifixion – to the left of the Virgin and Child – or the Resurrection – to the right of the two figures. The scene seems to be illuminated from invisible windows, with light spilling in from the left foreground and from above, as well as from the leaded windows behind the Virgin's throne. The figures are in a church, surrounded by an arcade of semi-circular arches, which suggests it might be a choir. Dhanens explains that van Eyck never painted churches that exist in reality, instead using an amalgam for a setting. The church might resemble St. Donatian's, which has since been demolished; it seems to share similarities with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and evidence the influence of Romanesque architecture.
The Virgin sits on an elevated throne below a minutely detailed and extravagantly decorated brocade baldachin. The steps leading up to it are covered with an oriental carpet. The overhanging tapestry contains white rose patterns, symbolizing the Virgin's purity. The carved figures on the upper arms of the throne are representations of Adam and Eve, and those on the legs are prefiguring events from the Life of Christ, as well as Old Testament scenes, including the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek and the Sacrifice of Isaac.
The Child has curly blond hair and sits animated and upright at the side of her lap, perched on a white cloth. He is shown frontally, with his head in three quarters view reaching for the parrot on her lap.
Canon van der Paele kneels to the right of the Virgin and Child and is depicted as a somewhat distracted and absent-minded figure. This is intentional, an indication that he is, in the words of art historian Bret Rothstein, "disconnected from the perceptible world", and fully absorbed in the spiritual realm. This notion is reinforced by his glasses which, although they imply education, wealth and learning, also allude to fallibility of the human, earthly senses. Van Eyck realistically captured the effects of the canon's illness, which has been diagnosed by modern doctors as with Polymyalgia rheumatica and temporal arteritis. His weak vision, enlarged temporal arteries, and swollen fingers are rendered accurately.[a]
St Donatian is positioned to the left of the Virgin, the more significant position in heraldic terms, and reflective of his status as patron saint of the Bruges collegiate. He appears to stand in front of a set of windows that are just outside of the pictorial space. In his left hand he holds a jewelled processional cross, in his right a wheel holding five lit tapered candles. The wheel refers to an incident when he nearly drowned after being thrown into the Tiber, but was saved after Pope Dionysius threw him a carriage wheel he was able to use as a float. He wears a cope and mitre resembling vestments known from contemporary inventories of the church. The vestments are of rich blue brocade, embroidered with images of the saints.
St George stands in lavishly decorated armour. He raises his helmet and left hand to introduce the donor. He appears relaxed and nonchalant. According to Pächt, he "almost seems to step forward as he doffs his helmet and stretches out his left hand to present his kneeling protege to the Madonna and Child: an unusually spontaneous gesture for Jan." George has a double significance in the panel; he is the donor's name saint, while St. Donatian's Cathedral was built c. 950 to house a relic of him, thought to be one of his arm bones. His armour is similar to St Michael's in van Eyck's Dresden Triptych, and his metal shield resembles those in the Knights of Christ panel of the Ghent altarpiece.
The frame is inscribed with van Eyck's signature and lettering identifying each figure. Mary's robe is embroidered with Latin text, taken from the Wisdom of Solomon 7:29: Est enim haec speciosior sole et super omnem stellarum dispositionem. Luci conparata invenitur prior ("For she is more beautiful than the sun, and excels every constellation of the stars. Compared with the light she is found to be superior"). Van Eyck used a similar device in his later Berlin Madonna in the Church.
The Inscription beside St. Donatian reads "SOLO P[AR]TV NON[VS] FR[ATRV]M. MERS[VS] REDIT[VR]. RENAT[VS] ARCH[IEPISC]O[PVS] PR[I]M[VS]. REMIS CONSTITVITVR. QVI NV[N]C DEO FRVITVR." (He was the youngest of nine brothers; thrown into the water, he returned to life and became the first archbishop of Reims. He enjoys now the glory of God).
The words to the right of St. George read "NATUS CAPADOCIA. X[PIST]O MILITAVIT. MVNDI FVG[I]E[N]S OTIA. CESU TRIVMPHAVIT. HIC DRACONEM STRAVIT" (Born in Cappadocia, he was soldier of Christ. Fleeing the idleness / pleasures of the world, he triumphed over death and vanquished the dragon. The letters ADONAI are inscribed on George's breastplate.
Van Eyck incorporated a wide variety of iconographic elements. The symbols are meant to blend into the scene unobtrusively, and their placement "was a deliberate strategy to create an experience of spiritual revelation." Virgin and Child is rich with iconography placed symmetrically throughout its two halves – the left references Christ's death, the right his resurrection. According to Borchert, van Eyck was meticulous in "assigning them in formal terms to St. Donatian on the left and St. George on the right". The painting displays van Eyck's habit of presenting the viewer "with a transfigured view of visible reality", according to art historian Craig Harbison, by placing small details unobtrusively which "illustrated not earthly existence but what he considered supernatural truth". They would have been easy to discern for a medieval viewer, whereas modern audiences are often confused.
The parrot and plant on Mary's lap are such symbols. According to Ward it is odd; although not "spatially ambiguous it must ultimately be recognized as either curiously incoherent or deliberately designed to enact a complex symbolic message." Mary delicately holds the stem that appears to grow from the parrot's feathers, culminating in a bouquet of red, white and blue four-petalled flowers. A parrot was sometimes used as an emblem for the Virgin, but its juxtaposition with the plant is incongruous, according to Ward. He explains that the parrot and plant give emphasis to the floral background, symbolising the Garden of Eden, accented by the figures of Adam of Eve. The flowers' colors represent purity, love and humility; its petals are a symbol of the cross and Christ's sacrifice. The narrative of original sin, the expulsion and redemption is thus captured in a single realistic device.
Style and format
The panel shares the same compositional pyramid structure as his earlier Lucca Madonna, but is more successful in resolving the space between the earthly and heavenly figures. According to Pächt, the supremacy of the divine is "maintained throughout by the use of the elevated throne or other devices to assure a dominant position." Unlike Robert Campin, who typically placed the Virgin in a domestic setting, van Eyck "set the scene in God's House, thus ensuring that it retained all the solemnity of sacred space, as manifested in the terrestrial enclaves of the Divine."
Although the Madonna's throne is in the mid-ground, her head is level with the standing figures in the foreground, who are closer in perspective. The apse in which she sits adds to the illusion of depth and almost appears as an expanded throne niche, with the top of the canopy its upper edge, adding to the sense that the space is self-contained. A similar approach is evident in the later Dresden Triptych, but that work shows a better handling of spatial depth; Mary's throne is moved back, and the donors and saints are moved to wing panels, resulting in an illusion that smaller figures are set in a soaring and exalted space. The figures in Canon van der Paele have less space, are somewhat cramped and appear more massive.
As with his c. 1435 Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, the panel creates an intimate setting between the donor and Virgin. This is emphasised by the donor's physical proximity to the Virgin which, according to art historian Jeffrey Chipps Smith, "mentally and pictorially [breaches] the barriers between heaven and earth" and implies the "patrons are visually immortalized as meriting the Virgin and Child's personal attention." The intimacy is further enhanced though small details such as the overlap between the donor and Saint George, who casts a shadow on van der Paele and seems to have accidentally stepped on his surplice as he leans forward to introduce the canon to the Virgin. In keeping with the conventions of Early Netherlandish art, van der Paele does not look directly at any of the heavenly figures, observing social and spiritual decorum.
The figures, the minutely detailed clothes and the architecture of the room and windows are depicted with a high degree of realism. Yet the setting is carefully composed and arranged to flatter the donor. The painting's pictorial space imitates that of a church, with Mary occupying the area where the altarpiece would usually be. The Child is positioned to represent both the host and Eucharist, a common allusion in Early Netherlandish art again reflecting that the panel was likely intended as an attendant to celebrations of the mass.
Van Eyck's mastery at handling oil can be seen in the differing breadths of brush strokes, creating a high degree of realism and minute details. The precise detail is especially noticeable in the rendering of threads of St. Donatian's golden and blue embroidered cope and mitre, in the weave of the Oriental carpet and in the stubble and veins visible on van der Paele's aging head. The Virgin and Child can be seen in the reflection of Saint George's helmet, while van Eyck alludes to his own artistry by including his reflection on the knight's shield. The artist depicts himself standing at his easel, in a red turban similar to that seen in the possible self-portrait Portrait of a Man (1433), today in the National Gallery, London.
Provenance and attribution
The painting was acquired, along with many other Netherlandish and Flemish works, by the Musée du Louvre around 1794, during plundering of the estates of aristocrats in the years of the French revolutionary army's occupation of the Southern Netherlands. Other works acquired in this way include the center panels of van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, Hans Memling's Moreel Triptych and Gerard David's Judgement of Cambyses. Many, including the van der Paele panel, were returned to Bruges in 1816. The return of this panel became entangled in a dispute over control and ownership between the French and Dutch-speaking officials of Bruges.
The panel was first attributed to van Eyck in 1847 by the German art historian Gustav Friedrich Waagen. Netherlandish art had been unfashionable for centuries, and while it was in the mid-19th century going through a process of rediscovery, there was scant historical record available to link painters to the works. Waagen based his assessment of the inscriptions on the frame, the "explicitly realistic" style he had come to associate with van Eyck, and the evident skill in blending hues. Nevertheless, Waagen was not especially impressed by the panel, which he described as "difficult to enjoy". Like other critics of his era, he was more inclined towards the understated and chaste style of Memling. He wrote that he found the Virgin "of a rare ugliness", while Saint George appeared to him to be a "by no means saintly character".
- Van der Paele probably suffered acute arm and shoulder pain, consistent with his disease and borne out by church records documenting that in the early 1430s he was excused from duties in the mornings, and all day by 1434. The awkwardness with which he clutches his breviary suggests weakness in his left arm. It is possible to determine that he was near-sighted.
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