Jan van Eyck: Artistic Analysis

Aaron R. Ziegler [Zen van Nihil]

Aaron R. Ziegler [Zen van Nihil]Feb 7, 2018

Humanities Thesis

Introduction: Short Biography of Jan van Eyck.

Jan van Eyck (1390-July 9th, 1441 CE) is remembered as one of the most famous and celebrated artists of the 15th Century active in contemporary Netherlands and Belgium who impacted the Humanities in the Early Renaissance era. Jan van Eyck was as a Northern Renaissance artist who made commissioned pieces of his art under the appointment of Valet de chambre as a royal court appointed and commissioned painter under John of Bavaria-Strauberg, ruler of Holland, as well as Philip the Good, who was the Duke of Burgundy. Jan van Eyck also did donor paintings that furthered the Virgin Iconography, he painted with oil on panels from single to polyptychs. He used oil because this allowed him to add more to the design for oil dries slowly allowing him to utilize this to his stylization. He is often miscredited with the creation of using oil as a material for painting, however he is the first to master oil painting and its effects which is a credit to his legacy. His artistic style is based in the International Gothic stylization but within his maturation used blends of naturalism and realism in his work. The subject of his paintings are both religious and secular.

The Ghent Altarpiece, also known as, The Lamb of God, Circa 1432, Saint Bravo Cathedral, Ghent. (Jan van Eyck, Hubert)

The Ghent Altarpiece combines the depiction of the divine in the top portion of panels with the bottom portion of panels depicting the worldly. The top panels are comprised of a row totaling seven panels of biblical depictions which bring the point of focus to God, the divine creator of all that is in the universe and the heavenly patriarch to all of humanity in his benevolency. Adam and Eve at opposing ends, in the top row of panels, the artistic significance is that Adam and Eve were created by God craftsmanship who dwelled with God personally. Adam and Eve, the father and mother to all of humanity as told by the Holy Bible in the book of Genesis. Adam and Eve committed the original sin which brought human suffering to this world and death when Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden thus creating the separation of Humanity and God. Adam and Eve are both nude except for aprons of fig leaves resembling them in the state after they partook in the Forbidden Fruit, their faces are depicted as being downcast in reverence for the center of focus with humility for their error. Adam is on the right, Eve is on the left, stone end archways facing the correct encapsulation for the panels with the possible story of Cain and Abel depicted above in the archways, with men toiling, then men fighting. Cain and Abel is the biblical story of the first murder, Cain and Abel were Adam and Eve’s direct offspring.

The next set of panels on both sides are depictions of angels gathered around an angel playing a musical instrument resembling an organ, the depiction of the angels are that they are singing hymns in complete stoic reverence to the center of focus. The periphery of the center of focus are the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist in the periphery panels directly next to the center of focus. The Virgin Mary and John the Baptist are depicted as dressed aristocratically in robes as the two individuals from both male and female sexes who aided God in the divine as Jesus Christ the most. The Virgin Mary being Jesus Christ’s loving mother who is depicted as reading studiously in the left of center of focus panel and John the Baptist being the man who told many of the coming of Jesus Christ as well as the one who baptized Christ being depicted similarly as uncouth and unkempt in his beard and hair while holding a book and speaking to the center of focus as within the center of focus is Christ dressed in regal red robes, raising his right hand holding up three fingers of the thumb, pointer, and middle in the symbolization of the trinitarian belief of the concept of the three forms of God, his left hand is holding an elegant rod. The center of focus and the periphery panels have golden arches depicting Greek font, where Adam and Eve have stone arches originating from the Hellenic era with turmoil above them, the three middle panels depicting the subjects of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, and the Virgin Mary, have golden arches with Greek font written into them, possibly showing the progress of man in the arts through the power of the divine in the medium of art.

The bottom row panels totaling at five panels, depict this worldliness. The two panels on the left show the traveling or pilgrimage of the nobles by horseback bearing flags symbolizing the monarchy which God had blessed in the divine right of kings. The right two panels depict peasants or possibly the clergy traveling by foot on their pilgrimage. In point of focus in these series of panels is the slightly sanguine stained lamb on the altar surrounded by what appears to be angels, apostles, or various other saints close to Christ in his lifetime. In the foreground directly below this image of the subject of the lamb is a well, the well’s zenith is directing the attention to the lamb. These depictions are of Christ as the Lamb of God with the well representing Christ as the waters of life. In the foreground on the right side is the saints of the New Testament, on the left is what appears to be the saints of the old testament. In the background, on the right we have the emergence of the clergy and peasants, to the left we have the nobles, both emerging from the wooded vale to the meadow where the center of focus are the lamb on the altar and the well both worldly allegories for God.

Virgin Iconography: Madonna of Chancellor Rolin. (1435 CE)

This is oil on wood panel painting, commissioned by Nicolas Rolin as a possible donor painting for his ecclesiastical parish. This painting contains elements Jan van Eyck’s early depictions of realism and naturalism in the structure and depiction with blatant and subtle exceptions. The blatant exception of the supernatural angel hovering over to place a crown upon the point of focus on the right side in the form of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary is depicted in a red garment that covers the majority of her body with a hint of a blue garment to contrast this at her chest while she looks very healthy as was the standard of beauty of the day, an infant representing Christ is upon her knee as she acts as the altar for the infant Christ, as she was the figure whose body acted as an altar for his creation, and a humble throne for which her child sits. This is a symbol which parallels the adoration a parent has for their young offspring in their love for their children which one can relate to seeing in the subject of the Virgin Mary with her Infant Christ, being another subject of the art. The other point of focus is the subject of Chancellor Nicolas Rolin of the Duchy of Burgundy, who had commissioned the painting, he is depicted in very regal indigo blue monastic robes with golden floral designs, a darker blue piece of linen rests upon his lap, his hands are clasped in a praying position yet with his black hair styled into a tonsure, he is looking firmly and reverently as the Virgin Mary as the Virgin Mary is looking down at the Infant Christ who is holding his right hand depicting the Trinitarian symbol while in his left hand he holds a ornately designed metal cross. This is a redirection between the main points of focus to the central focus of Christ. The foreground which these three characters of the point of focus are centered in is a checkered floor which bears contrasting colors of the red of the Virgin Mary’s red garment and the elegant blue of the Chancellor’s, there are also black, white, and ornately designed patterns within the checkered floor which lead to pillars ending up to spacious archways which reveal the midground and background of the painting which is filled with religious symbolism and magnificent detail as there is a balcony where two men are standing with their backs to us but one of them is a subtle nod to the artist Jan van Eyck himself, it is speculated that the man standing on the balcony wears the same red turban-esque garment upon his head in his possible self-portrait, Man in Turban, (1433 CE), this putting the self of the artist into his medium symbolizes the possible wanting or urging of the artist to the viewer to look deeper into the detail beyond the point of focus into the work he had put into the landscape as in the urban area on Chancellor’s side is a humble worldly church and quaint worldly village while on the side of the Virgin Mary and the Infant Christ is a more divine scene with magnificent Gothic cathedral and a heavenly city. The depiction of the between these two urban or worldly realms is the division of a river which separates the two while a beautifully crafted stone bridge connects them. There are depictions of rolling hills in the background which the horizon is cut off by a haze of possibly mountains with a lightly golden shine in the midground while in the scaling upward background reveals a deepening blue azure sky.

Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, (1434 CE)

This painting done by Jan van Eyck has a subject that is contested by many scholars who mostly attribute it to Giovanni Arnolfini’s engagement to the possibility of one of his wives, which may have been undocumented by history as done in speculation to a future household or a memorial piece to his first wife Costanza Trenta. The stylization displays Jan van Eyck’s mastery of oil painting in creating tri-dimensional art with lighting, shading by the photo-realism of the light streaming in through the window along the left side of the painting. The secular designs of the subject are the realistic setting of a man with his pregnant wife in their bedroom without the grandeur of typical aristocrats in depicting them as they are, not as a way to control perception. The religious symbol in the single lit candle in the candelabra chandelier represents the eternal flame which never goes out which many Christian temples always have torch lit in their sanctuary. A common practice of traditionalist churches which still exist in the contemporary era for the metaphor of Christ being the eternal light which shines in the darkness of this world. The common focus is between a man with an oddly surreal yet lucid face adorned in humble brown attire which encompasses him besides his face which draws attention to his face, the depiction of this man’s obviously and somewhat exaggeratedly pregnant wife in a green dress, blue sleeves, the long hanging white fur sleeves of the green dress, the white outline of the garment which matches the material of the dress, she wears a white cowl, her face is a neutral expression looking back at the man who is holding up his open hand as a symbol of power while holding her hand as the dominant member, where her hand is open as the submissive member of the family as are the traditional marriage roles in Christianity. The signature of Jan van Eyck in latin is above a shockingly real mirror which reflects the reverse of the room through the most shocking and masterful real to the point of surreal lucidity. These inclusions of Jan van Eyck of details within the background outside the subject show the center of focus could be ambiguous for his excellent detailing even in the backgrounds of his work. Other notes of realism are in the red furniture in a bed behind the wife, a sofa below the mirror in the background of the painting, and a small dog drawn in a humble brown between the couple’s feet in the foreground.

The Legacy of Jan van Eyck

The legacy of Jan van Eyck is the mastering of three-dimensional illusions with oil in his art which entailed, Virgin Iconography, Biblical and Secular drawings in combining the metaphysical spiritual realm with the physical material world in the Gothic stylization with stunning realism and naturalism with a wondrous progenitating effect of the illusion of three-dimensional art. Although his early works are of a Biblical nature and with later ones being Secular in nature as he matured. The combination of metaphysical and material depictions of those who commissioned paintings of themselves in the many depictions of leaders of renaissance era with the Virgin Mary with the Infant Christ welcomed a bridge between worlds. An Aristotelian concept revived during the renaissance era in philosophy and theology. The history of the in-depth personal biography of Jan van Eyck is shrouded in enigma and uncertainty with basic details but not much else. As he displayed the temporal figures of our world communing with those of the heavenly, the temporal man of Jan van Eyck is made eternal in the Humanities for as long as his art and the art of those he influenced, exists.

Sources Cited:



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