A maestro of detail long before Leonardo

How Jan van Eyck changed the trajectory of Western art

Cindy Polemis

The largest van Eyck show to date has opened at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent and it is, with no exaggeration, bedazzling. The exhibition brings together more of the artist’s works than have ever been seen in one place: 13 out of the 22 known van Eycks are being shown, along with workshop examples, contemporary documents and objects. Works by his Italian contemporaries such as Fra Angelico and Masaccio demonstrate that he was far ahead of anything being produced south of the Alps. The exhibition is timed to coincide with the completion of the spectacular six-year restoration of the Ghent Altarpiece at nearby Saint Bavo’s Cathedral which van Eyck completed in 1432, six years after his original collaborator, his brother Hubert, died.

The Ghent Altarpiece has long been viewed as one of the most important works of art in history, primarily because of van Eyck’s trailblazing use of oil and pigments. He may not have invented oil painting, as the 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari suggests (the technique had been around for at least two centuries), but he was certainly “the alchemist” who established its magical potential. According to the curators, he perfected the use of oil paint by expertly adding substances to quicken the drying process. Multiple layers could then be applied, resulting in greater depth and texture. His “optical revolution” was to create glossy prismatic colours and glittering highlights, achieving what E.H. Gombrich called “miracles of accuracy”. No other artist had ever done this before.

The most famous section of the Altarpiece, The Adoration of the Lamb, is now back on view. The muddy overpainting and varnishes of the 16th century are gone, to reveal the work as van Eyck would have intended, pulsating with colours almost humming with electrical charge. The restoration has already caused a stir, with some—mostly on social media—suggesting that the alarmingly humanoid face of the lamb is somehow inappropriate. But that is the whole point. We are meant to be alarmed. This is no demure sheep; this is Christ, as the sacrificial Lamb of God, blood spurting from his heart into a chalice, looking out defiantly with what can only be human eyes.

Van Eyck’s uncanny realism would have propelled his 15th-century viewers into unquestioning faith: seeing is believing. The contemporary Belgian artist Luc Tuymans says van Eyck took things even further: his genius was to create powerful, believable images of the world while working under “the cloak of religion”. His religious painting was so hyper-real, it leaves almost no room for God. He signs his work Als Ich Can: the “Ich” is a pun on “Eyck”—apparently more or less pronounced the same. The artist is in one sense coming across as a humble Christian servant, but he is also telling us “I’ve done as best as I can . . . as only I can”.

The Ghent Altarpiece consists of 24 separate pieces with 12 different panels on view, depending on whether the altar is open or closed. The real treat of this exhibition is that it brings us nose-to-nose with eight of these side panels, which until now could only be seen behind bullet-proof glass, in the chilly dark chapel at St Bavo’s. This is as close to an exclusive experience as you will ever get: not since the man himself painted them, has anyone had the chance to scrutinise such crystalline religious and naturalistic imagery.

Outer panels of the closed altarpiece, c.1432, by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, (Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent. © www.lukasweb.be—Art in Flanders)

Also on show in the exhibition are the two practically life-sized panels depicting Adam and Eve. Adam, with his barely concealed soft downy pubic hair, is depicted with his foreshortened foot jutting out of the frame, connecting his space with ours and producing an intimacy powerful enough to make the viewer blush. We can greet him, touch him and embrace his naked vulnerability.

Van Eyck, born in about 1390, probably trained as a miniaturist, painting tiny yet very precise images in illuminated manuscripts. Strands of hair, eyelashes, and folds of fabric are all created in microscopic exactitude. As you stare at the face of the goldsmith Jan de Leeuw, you cannot help being fascinated by his face stubble. Each hair follicle is individually painted, probably with a single-hair brush: five o’clock shadow circa 1436. Who would have thought it could ever be so hypnotic? Look even closer and you can see a window pane reflected in his eye.

“Portrait of Jan de Leeuw”, 1436, by Jan van Eyck (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wenen, Gemäldegalerie)

Van Eyck painted from life in what the curators describe as “inclusive vision”: he studied the soil and the air and everything in-between. He spent much of his career working in the court of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, at a time when Flanders was the cultural powerhouse of northwest Europe, and attracted the best artisans. He understood buildings like an architect, observed fabrics like a weaver, studied plants like a botanist (so far 75 plant species have been identified in the lower section of the Ghent Altarpiece), and painted jewels like a goldsmith: these were the contemporaries he knew and learned from in the cosmopolitan Burgundian court.

Some 50 years before Leonardo, van Eyck captured the natural with clarity and precision. The snow-laden clouds in the two versions of St Francis Receiving the Stigmata (both painted in about 1435-40) are meteorologically accurate; geologists have identified distinct geological strata in the rocks, and palaeontologists have identified fossils—even if van Eyck had no idea what these strange forms might have signified. The curators ram this home by comparing his paintings of St Francis with a picture of the same subject painted five years earlier by Fra Angelico. I leave you to make up your own mind.

Erwin Panofsky compared van Eyck’s style to “infinitesimal calculus”; a “technique so ineffably minute that the number of details comprised by the total form approaches infinity”. And beyond, one might say. He certainly had a great knowledge of science and theology, and, crucially, optics. Although there is no documented proof, it is hard not to conclude that he must have had the use of glasses and mirrors to achieve such miniscule details, many of which are imperceptible without a magnifying glass. His was indeed an optical revolution, and this exhibition offers truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to observe such artistic ingenuity. Get thee to Ghent!   

“Saint Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata”, 1440, by Jan van Eyck (Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection, 1917. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Van Eyck: An Optical Revolution is at the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent, until April 30

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