Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele

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The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, Oil on wood, 141 x 176.5 cm (including frame), 1434-36. Groeningemuseum, Bruges.

The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele is a large oil on oak panel painting by the Early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck. The panel was commissioned as an epitaph for Joris van der Paele, a wealthy clergyman from Bruges. It is one of the earliest known Northern Sacra conversazione.[1] It shows the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus on her lap,[2] seated on an elevated throne decorated with carved representations of Adam and Eve, prefigurations of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus, and figures from Old Testament scenes.[3] Mary is positioned at the center of a tight semicircular and sacred interior space, seemingly modelled on and representing a church interior. Saint Donatian of Reims, patron saint of Bruges' collegiate church, stands to the left, with Saint George (van der Paele's name saint) dressed in the pomp of a medieval knight's armour, to the right. Both are identified in the Latin inscriptions on the lower border of the imitation bronze frame. George is shown lifting his helmet in respect and presenting the elderly Canon to Mary. Van der Paele is dressed in white surplice and is shown piously reading from a book of hours.[4]

The panel is one of van Eyck's late works. It was commissioned in the autumn 1434 and took two years to complete. The commission was intended both to celebrate Van der Paele's dedication to his church, St. Donatian's Cathedral in Bruges, and to serve as his epitaph. The Virgin and Child contains one of the finest extant examples of Oriental carpets in Renaissance painting[1] and shows an obvious debt to manuscript illumination.[5] The painting is characterised by its innovative use of illusionism[4] 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".[2]

The work has an overall sculptural look, while the throne, windows, arches and hanging canvases borrow from the conventions of Romanesque architecture.[6] The panel is still with its original oak frame. Each side bear Latin inscriptions; Donatian is described as having "Enjoy[ed] the Glory of God", while George has "Triumphed over Death".[7] The upper border of the frame contains words from the Book of Wisdom, comparing the Mary to an "unspotted mirror".[3]

Joris van der Paele[edit]

Main article: Joris van der Paele

The panel's donor, 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.[8] There he was appointed to a canonry of the St Donatian's collegiate church, a position which afforded him income from the various parishes under his remit.

Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, c. 1435, Musée du Louvre. Like van der Paele's panel, this work was created as an eventual memorial for the donor's burial church, in this case for Nicolas Rolin's family chapel in Notre Dame-du-Chastel in Autun.[9]

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 that each human soul had to pass through before admission to heaven was at its height.[10] There was a trend towards the sponsorship of requiem masses, often as part of the terms of a will, a practice that van der Paele, in his official capacity, is known to have actively sponsored. With this income he endowed the churches with embroidered cloths and metal accessories such as chalices, plates and candlesticks.[11]

An illness in 1434 left van der Paele unable to fulfill the role and to question both his mortality and position as canon. In response he endowed a chaplainy to the church and commissioned this work from van Eyck. His bequest allowed him a requiem mass, a daily mass and three votive masses a week. A second chaplaincy in 1443[12] centered on prayers for his family,[7] and guaranteed that after his death, the requiem mass would end with readings of the Miserere mei and de Profundis.[13] 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."[3]

The panel was donated to the church either in 1436, or on van der Paele's death in 1443.[7] It remained there until the church was demolished in 1779. Most likely the work was first hung 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 at the main altar after the Iconoclasm of 1566.[3]


Detail showing presumed self-portrait

Van Eyck's mastery at handling oil can be seen in the variety of brush strokes used to create the 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.[14] The Virgin and child can be seen in the reflection of Saint George's helmet, while van Eyck alludes to his artistry by including his reflection on the knight's buckler. The artist depicts himself standing at his easel, dressed in a red turban, similar to that seen in the 1433 possible self-portrait Portrait of a Man, today in the National Gallery, London.[15][16]

Madonna in the Church, 1438, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. This work is considered the apotheosis of van Eyck's idealisations of the Virgin. Here she is portrayed not as "the Madonna in a church, but [as a] metaphor of Mary as the Church."[17]

The painting captures a moment when Joris van der Paele, deep in meditation and prayer, removes his glasses, holding a book of prayers—both items are symbols of wealth and education—as he pauses and reflects on a passage he has just read. At that moment the Virgin, Child and two saints appear before him as embodiments of his prayer.[18] The Virgin sits on an elevated throne situated below a minutely detailed and extravagantly decorated brocade baldachin. 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 .[19] The tapestry behind them is decorated with white roses, symbols of the purity of the Virgin.[20] Mary's robe is embroidered with Latin text that recalls a similar sentiment to van Eyck's Berlin Madonna in the Church and is 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").[21] The throne contains a number of carved figures including representations of Adam and Eve on the upper arms, and on the legs, a number of prefiguring events from the Life of Christ[3] and old testament scenes, including the meeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, and the Sacrifice of Isaac.[13]

van Eyck's small Dresden Triptych of 1437 also contains a donor portrait, with the donor however removed to a side panel. Here the focus is on the detail of the Romanesque and Gothic architecture of the cathedral space.[22]

Canon van der Paele is portrayed as a distracted and somewhat 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.[18]

St. Donatian is positioned to the left of the Virgin, the more significant position in heraldic terms, and reflective of his status of patron saint of the Bruges collegiate. In his left hand he holds a jewelled processional cross,[11] 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.[23] He wears a cope and mitre modelled on vestments known from a contemporary inventories of the church.[13]

To the right St. George stands clad in a helmet and lavishly decorated armour. Seemingly just having entered the room, he raises his helmet and left hand to introduce the donor to the Virgin.[6] George has a double significance in the panel; he is the donor's name saint, while St. Donatian's Cathedral held a relic of him, thought to be one of his arm bones—the Church was originally built c. 950 AD to house a relic of St. Donatian.[24]


The frame is inscribed with van Eyck's signature and lettering identifying each figure, although some are later additions. The words to the right of St. George read "NATUS CAPADOCIA. X[PIST]O MILITAVIT. MVNDI FVG[I]E[N]S OCIA. CESU TRIVMPHAVIT. HIC DRACONEM STRAVIT" (Born in Cappadocia, he was soldier of Christ. Fleeing the idleness / pleasures of the word, he triumphed over death and vanquished the dragon.[12] The letters ANONAI are adorned on George's breastplate.


Style and format[edit]

Details of the carvings found on the wooden throne

van Eyck departs from the conventional format of 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 and contains a number of layers of reality, the latter especially achieved through the figures seemly carved into the wood of the throne; Although the carvings include both old and new testament characters, all seemingly allude to either the Crucifixion -on the left hand side of the panel -or the resurrection- on the right hand side.[3] Compositionally, the panel shares the same type of pyramidal structure as his 1436 Lucca Madonna.[19]

As with his c. 1435 Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, the panel creates an intimate setting between the donor and Virgin. This is most obvious in the donor's physical proximity to 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."[25]

Virgin and Child, with Saints and Donor. Workshop, early 1440s. Frick Collection, NY

van Eyck shows van der Paele on the same scale as the Virgin, a break from the preceding International Gothic style, and the device that most clearly shows the influenced of the Italian sacra conversaziones.[26] The intimacy is further enhanced though small details such as the overlap between the donor and Saint George, who both casts a shadow on van der Paele[27] and seems to have accidentally have stepped on his surplice as he leans forward to introduce the canon to the Virgin.[25] However, in keeping with the conventions of Early Netherlandish art, van der Paele does not look directly at any of the heavenly figures, an observation of element of social and spiritual decorum.[28]

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 positioned. The child's position is arranged in a way so as to represent both the host and Eucharist, a common allusion in Early Netherlandish art[7] again reflecting that the panel was likely intended as an attendant to celebrations of the mass.

Provenance and attribution[edit]

The painting was acquired, along with a great many other Netherlandish and Flemish works, by the Musée du Louvre around 1794 during plundering of the estates of aristocrats during the French revolutionary army's occupation of Southern Netherlands. Other works acquired in this way include the center panels of van Eyck's own Ghent Altarpiece, as well as 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.[29] The return of this panel became entangled in a dispute over control and ownership between the local French and national Dutch speaking officials of Bruges.[30]

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, as well as the evident skill in blending hues.[31] However, Waagen was not especially impressed by the panel, he described it as "difficult to enjoy". Like other critics of his era 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".[32]



  1. ^ a b Pächt (1999), 82
  2. ^ a b Van Der Elst, 65
  3. ^ a b c d e f Borchert (2011), 146
  4. ^ a b Rothstein, 49
  5. ^ Fegley, Susan. "The Contemplative Eye: Early Netherlandish Painting". World and I, August 1998.
  6. ^ a b Borchert (2008), 58
  7. ^ a b c d Smith, 225
  8. ^ Borchert (2008), 56
  9. ^ Smith, 224
  10. ^ MacCulloch, Diarmaid. The Reformation: Europe's House Divided. London: Penguin Books, 2005. 11-13. ISBN 0-14-303538-X
  11. ^ a b Harbison, 60
  12. ^ a b c Rothstein, 211
  13. ^ a b c van Oosterwijk, Anne. "Madonna with Canon Joris Van der Paele". Vlaamse kunstcollectie. Retrieved 18 August 2012.
  14. ^ Huerta, 41
  15. ^ Huerta, 23
  16. ^ Ridderbos et al., 68
  17. ^ Borchert (2008), 63
  18. ^ a b Rothstein, 50
  19. ^ a b Pächt (1999), 84
  20. ^ Harbison 59
  21. ^ Smith, 63
  22. ^ Harbison (1991), 151
  23. ^ Van Der Elst, 66
  24. ^ McDonald, G. Insight Compact Guide: Bruges. Singapore: APA Publications, 2002. 14. ISBN 981-234-705-4
  25. ^ a b Smith, 228
  26. ^ Pächt (1999), 81
  27. ^ Rothstein, 53
  28. ^ Rothstein, 51
  29. ^ Ridderbos et al., 177 & 194
  30. ^ Deam, Lisa. "Flemish versus Netherlandish: A Discourse of Nationalism". Renaissance Quarterly, volume 51, 1998
  31. ^ Ridderbos et al., 224
  32. ^ Ridderbos et al., 260


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