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The Ghent Altarpiece
The Ghent Altarpiece or Adoration of the Mystic Lamb is in the St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent. It can be opened and closed like a triptych and contains 20 painted panels. In the centre is God the Father in Heaven and his son Jesus as a sacrificial lamb on Earth, both connected by the rays of the Holy Ghost. An inscription explains that Hubert van Eyck started the altar piece and that his brother, Jan van Eyck (‘the second in the art’) completed it. The only fact we have about Hubert is that he died in 1426. There are, with the exception of the middle panel of the Ghent Altarpiece , no art works that can, with certainty, be attributed to him. The three Mary’s at the Tomb, in the collection of Museum Boijmans, could be by him, although people now believe that the panel was painted after 1426. Hubert’s name does, however, appear on a very exceptional, recently discovered drawing of a crucifixion in silver and gold point. But the inscription is from the 17th century and nobody knows whether or not it is reliable.
The 16th-century historian Marcus van Vaerenwijck believes that the Van Eyck brothers ‘invented something new and valuable in this country’ and immediately brought it ‘to its height’. And Karel van Mander also wrote in his ‘Painters Book’ in 1694 that painting here begins with Jan van Eyck; ‘for I cannot find, either in upper or lower Dutch country any painters who were known earlier, or were mentioned.’ Van Mander and his Italian example Vasari, both write that Jan van Eyck invented oil painting, but that is not true; oil paint was in use in the 12th century. Van Eyck did, however, develop and refine the technique further.
The following paintings can be seen next to Stephan Kemperdick: The Adoration of the Magi with Saint Anthony Abbot, c. 1410; Antwerp-Baltimore Quadriptych, c.1380; Triptych with the Lamentation of Christ, c. 1420-1430; Courtly Feast, c. 1550, after an original from 1430-1431; The Madonna of the Mantle, c. 1410-1420; The Norfolk Triptych, c. 1410-1420.
Chartreuse de Champmol
In 1377, the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, founded a Carthusian monastery in Dijon. The building commenced in 1383 and artists continued to beautify the monastery with paintings and sculptures well into the fifteenth century. The tomb of Philip the Bold, with its realistic funeral procession of so-called ‘pleurants’ is famous, as is the Moses Well; both are by Claes Schluter and Claes de Werve, sculptors who were born in Haarlem. During the French Revolution, many works were destroyed or stolen. The ‘pleurants’ in the exhibition are from Cleveland. The entrance to the monastery and the Moses Well can, however, still be admired at their original site in Dijon.
The model figure can be seen in the exhibition on a quadriptych dating from c. 1380 which was found in Champmol and which was probably made for the Duke of Burgundy. Two panels are kept in Antwerp and two in Baltimore. They show scenes from the life of Jesus: the annunciation, the birth, the crucifixion and the resurrection. The annunciation has a depiction on the outer side of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist; the resurrection has St. Christopher, with in the background the drinking man with his dog. The painting by Petrus Christus, which also shows this figure is called The Birth of Christ and was painted in 1452.
The temptation of St Anthony
The central figure on the painting is the devil, disguised as a beautiful and rich queen, who tries in a variety of ways to tempt Anthony from the Path of Good. Not only does she allow her handmaidens to bath in front of the hermit, she also tempts him with miraculous cures, gold and jewels. All sorts of tiny details show that the Queen is not all she pretends to be: her servants do not have feet but claws, a devil flies away above the door and at the top of the building are depictions of Noah’s drunkenness and the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Both of these scenes are about seduction and sin.
The so-called Turin-Milan Hours
This prayer book once belonged to John of Bavaria and originally had 700 pages. Somewhere between the 16th and 19th century, the book was split in two; one part came into the possession of an aristocratic family in Milan and the other went to the library in Turin. There it was rediscovered in 1902 by a French art historian, who was so enthusiastic that he had all the miniatures in it photographed. In 1904, a fire broke out in the library of Turin and the book was lost. Art historians recognise three or four black-and-white photos from 1902 as miniatures by Jan van Eyck. After the fire and the unfortunate loss of one half of the prayer book, the Turin library purchased the Milanese half. The two miniatures by Jan van Eyck which can be seen in the exhibition are from this part.
According to historic accounts, John of Bavaria was murdered by his niece, Jacoba of Bavaria, who also laid claim to the rule over Holland, Zealand and Hainaut. She is said to have smeared the count’s prayer book with poison in June 1424. The pious John prayed every day and when he did so, he would flick through the pages with a finger he moistened in his mouth. By January 1425, he had consumed so much poison that he died. This story inspired Umberto Eco to write his famous novel The name of the rose.
Philip the Good
The portrait of Philip the Good that is projected next to Stephan Kemperdick was painted after 1450 by Rogier van der Weyden and is housed in the Musée des Beaux Arts in Dijon.
Little is known with certainty about the other trips Jan van Eyck took for Philip the Good. The snow-topped mountains in The Three Mary’s at the Tomb (collection Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen) would however suggest that he had seen the Alps and thus probably travelled to Italy. The fidelity with which he depicts the city of Jerusalem in the same painting could indicate that one of the secret missions took him to Jerusalem. Philip the Good had a dream of freeing the holy city from the Muslims in a crusade and may have sent envoys, including Van Eyck, to assess the situation there.
A catalogue is specially published for The Road to Van Eyck exhibition, containing essays and detailed information about all the works on exhibition.
The revolution that Jan van Eyck released on painting between 1422 and 1441 did not fall out of the blue. From 1380, artists started looking at the reality surrounding them and tried to incorporate what they saw into their works, interweaving it with traditional religious depictions.
In this video, curators Friso Lammertse (Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam) and Stephan Kermperdick (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), give an introduction to the exhibition The Road to Van Eyck. They discuss the innovations achieved by Jan van Eyck and sketch a picture of the art world during his formative years. The magnificent objects in gold and enamel, leather, wood, alabaster or oil paint on panel which the young Jan van Eyck saw, must have encouraged him to unleash his revolution.
This video was made on the occasion of the exhibition The Road to Van Eyck, on show in Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen from October 13, 2012 till February 10, 2013.
direction: Els Hoek
camera & editing: Wouter Schreuder
animation: Wouter Schreuder
music & sound effects: Vincent Beijer & Arthur Bont