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The Three Marys at the Tomb
This panel was made in Flanders between 1425 and 1435. It surfaced at the end of the nineteenth century in Belgium, it was recognised as a Jan van Eyck and shortly thereafter became part of the famous Cook Collection in Richmond. The work was not supposed to leave England, but the Rotterdam harbour baron and art collector D.G. Van Beuningen considerably outbid London’s National Gallery and 'The Three Marys at the Tomb' arrived by air in Rotterdam on 8 May 1940. It was just six days before the city was razed to the ground by German bombers. The painting literally went underground, survived the war and became part of the collection of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in 1958.
When the painting was discovered at the end of the nineteenth century, connoisseurs recognised it as a Jan van Eyck. Since the Second World War, however, various other ideas have been put forward. The painting could be by Jan’s brother, Hubert van Eyck, or perhaps the brothers painted it together. Military experts do not attribute the arms borne by the soldiers to the early fifteenth century. Based on this, some suggest that The Three Marys at the Tomb was painted by a disciple of Van Eyck.
The subject - three women who visit Christ’s tomb on Easter Sunday, find the tomb empty and are told by an angel of the resurrection - features regularly in the art of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. What makes this painting so special is the urban landscape in the background, which is supposed to depict Jerusalem. The Dome of the Rock and several other Eastern buildings can be seen amidst the Flemish architecture. Since the city takes such an important place, it is thought that the painting may have been commissioned by a pilgrim to the Holy Land.
The clothing worn by the three Marys suggests that the painting was made in the first half of the fifteenth century. Military experts, however, claim that the armour and the weapons of the soldiers date from the second half of the fifteenth century. Dendrochronological studies, in which the rings of the wood in the panel are counted, indicate that the oak was cut down around 1423. This means that the wood could have been used for painting around 1433.
What did it look like?
The painting was cleaned and studied in 1947. This revealed that small changes to the composition had been made to the right side of the painting: the horizon on the right is placed somewhat lower and a rock that was planned at the bottom right has been replaced by grass. The cleaning also revealed a number of golden rays. These could suggest that there was at one time a panel to the right with the resurrection of Christ. The coat of arms in grey, with the chain of the Order of St Michael around it, was a later addition to the painting. That could have been shortly after 1469, when the order was founded, but it could also have been later, in the seventeenth century.
The Three Marys at the Tomb (1425-1435) restored
In October 2012, The Three Marys at the Tomb will be on show as part of the The path to Van Eyck exhibition at Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. This panel is colourful, exceptional and refined, and to allow it to be shown at its best, it has been removed from its frame and will now be cleaned, studied and restored. A video is being made about the restoration, exposing the unusual history of the painting. This teaser highlights some of the questions being asked by experts.
This restoration has been made possible with the support of Nedspice.
Camera & editing: Mostafa Heravi
Sound: Ali Eskandarzadeh
Music: Faarjam Saidi