Museum of Bruges
In trying to capture the impact of great visual art with a quick stroke of the brush, I would certainly say, "never underestimate the power of seeing a painting from life."
I was amazingly reminded of this truth when I stood in front of a Jan Van Eyck at the Groeningemuseum, the summer of 2010. Museums have and always will have much cultural and esthetic value to offer to our lives and must not be cast aside for the convenience of YouTube and the allure of the digital age.
For viewing a fine painting, there is no other way than to be standing quietly in front of the elevated energy level and visual bravado of a masterpiece in any genre and any time.
While being purposely led to this rather famous example of Jan Van Eyck's " The Madonna of Canon Van der Paele" by my Belgian host, I still wasn't prepared for the immense impact it would have on me.
Jan Van Eyck, born around 1390, was younger brother to the famous Hubert Van Eyck. He studied painting under and collaborated with Hubert in cathedrals in Bruges and Belgium as a young man. While Hubert was very celebrated in his day, it is Jan Van Eyck who is remembered by history. Jan was considered the founder of oil painting, and for sure his oil, which was called the varnish of Van Eyck, has been carried forward by great artists in the old master tradition. As a life long student of Old Masters and their techniques, this is the granddaddy of all and is referenced in scholarly books covering Flemish art materials and secret formulas. In Van Eyck's innovations of working with tempera and oils, he was able to discover how to work with wet glazes of unsurpassable quality. To this day, we are not quite sure how he did it. Isn't it always true that when a person needs a way to express his vision or do something differently, he is the one to uncover new paths and methods for that advancement in his field? Van Eyck's pupils carried on his tradition of glazing as all great Master's techniques were passed on through their students. The layers of wet glazes of pure color technique was even introduced to the Italian masters. A master from Venice who was influenced by Van Eyck's technique and took painting further into completely oils was the 15th Century Venetian painter, Antonella Da Messina.
Setting aside this remarkable technical and historical importance of the advancement of oil painting as we know it, there needs to be an honoring of Van Eyck the master painter as an artist who was able to express the spiritual qualities of his mind and heart and place them powerfully upon his images, forms, symbolic icons, and environments. In this painting of the Madonna and male figures, who were arranged in their places of importance according to role, one can only begin to take in the enormous abilities in this artist's hands and gradually absorb them into the whole composition. The painting feels as if he painted it yesterday with its pure glazed colors and atmosphere, and in some ways the painting feels very modern. It's super realism is just that, Real, and from Life with the aid of the artist's private and extraordinary accuracy to details. This is not mere rendering and a copying of outlines to be filled in. There is a principle of form with light and shadows that always remains paramount to the inclusion of detail, surface and textures to be described on top. Painting was created from life and the artist mind's eye, thus he was true to a brevity and unity of expression. All the architecture and players in the scene, and there is a lot, fall into their places in the grand play. The rhythms, designs, story, and details remain coherent within the very complex architecture, rich and intricate materials, and soft blending of forms even within the portraits and figure of the baby Christ upon the throne of his mother's lap. They embody throne consciousness for a reason and Van Eyck royally exudes their presence in the holy and earthly environment. If you look at the portrait of the older clergyman, you see his character, etched with fine lines and forms that describe his personality. To paint such detail and know how to make it work within the larger form of the portrait is a characteristic of a brilliant portraitist and allows the viewer to really get absorbed into the individual personality and yet larger divine essence.
In depicting the story of the Virgin Birth, Jan Van Eyck has focused on the very essence of man's spiritual life and the glory and meaning of God's presence in the world. The Spiritual world transformed into the earthly world by his way of using and depicting light, forms, archetypes, and symbols. His map is an illustrious journey of description that makes the viewer pause and meditate upon the grand vision and story that he illuminates. Was he like a Mozart, born with an extraordinary gift that only few titans are granted? For me, he certainly was.
Another piece of interesting information about the importance of Jan Van Eyck in his lifetime, was his role as ambassador for the Duke of Burgundy- Philip the Good around 1425. The court artist was invaluable when he could travel in place of the king to another country and even visit a potential wife. He was known to make a picture- painting of Isabella, the eldest daughter of John I of Portugal, and send it along to Philip so he could see what she really looked like. Meanwhile, upon the Duke's approval, Van Eyck helped to negotiate the terms of the wedding and union of two countries. In this case, Van Eyck accompanied his bride back to Bruges for the union of their marriage. Jan Van Eyck was employed by the Duke of Burgundy and they shared a mutual respect and fondness of great importance to both men.
In the 15th Century, under Philip the Good, Bruges was in its heyday and a center for artists and bankers, establishing its importance in Europe. It's medieval architecture is a wonderful attraction to be viewed on foot and by boat ride around its canal. Other highlights are the Church of Our Lady which houses "The Madonna and Child" by Michaelangelo, thought to be the only example by the artist outside of Italy.
Jan Van Eyck is most known for his Ghent Altarpiece in Brussels which was begun by Hubert. Many of us have seen images of the wedding portrait of " Gionvanni Arnolfini and his Wife" at the National Gallery in London. Van Eyck is considered a portraitist and his work has had enormous influence in art history. The "Madonna of Canon van der Paele" of 1436, is held as an important painting in the overall canon of art history.
I encourage anyone to include a visit to the Bruges Museum and experience an unique moment with one of the world's greatest Flemish masters and a true genius of the art world.