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The Virgin with Saints and Donors

The Virgin with the Canon Van der Paele

Jan Van Eyck (ca. 1390-1441). Groeninge Museum - Bruges. 1436.

The Virgin with Canon Van der Paele is a truly medieval late Gothic painting. It seems a cool painting, a photograph, with very clear lines, well-delineated areas and straight colours. This is all very realistic and accurate, shown in meticulous detail. It looks splendid and grand. The decorations are rich. The subject is religious, very much as one would expect of a Flemish Primitive, as these painters were called, of the fifteenth century. The Virgin is seated in the normal ‘Sedes Sapientiae’ way with the Child on her lap, in all glory like a queen. The red robe is splendid. The Canon Van der Paele, who donated the picture, is being presented by two Saints to the Virgin, as an ambassador to the court of a queen. The whole is in a rich and stately surrounding, accentuating the solemnity of the ceremony.

But is it all so serious?

To the right of the Virgin stands Saint George, clad in the armour of a medieval knight. It is a truly marvellous armour, a parade armour, more fit to be worn at a feast than at a religious ceremony. Saint George wears a staff and a flag with a cross, but this is hardly a dreadful weapon to kill dragons. Yet George is a dragon-killer, the most famous dragon killer of history and legends. He seems very cheerful and in gallantry he salutes with his helmet, that resembles however more to a snail hat than to a fierce battle helmet. A daring plume tops his hat.

George was a tribune in the Roman army of Diocletian. He disagreed with the emperor and was martyred. He is always represented as a young and beautiful knight. Many medieval knight orders were called after him. That was because George had come to the rescue of a beautiful girl in a tale of the ‘Golden Legend’. George had travelled to the city of Silena in a province of Lybia and he came to a place where a plague-bearing dragon lurked. This dragon used to come to the city walls so that everybody upon whom fell the dragon’s breadth would be poisoned. The city dwellers offered maidens to the dragon and once the lot fell upon the king’s daughter. But George saw the cortege of the girl, asked what happened and confronted the dragon. He dealt the beast a grievous wound, whereupon the dragon followed the girl ‘like a little dog on a leash’. George asked everyone to be baptised, then drew his sword and put an end to the beast. Thus Saint George is the gallant knight and the proper guardian of the Virgin. He was always called the most loyal soldier of Christ. Saint George seems to laugh a little with the Canon, who is so sternly knelt before the Virgin.

Saint George presents the man who ordered the painting: the Canon Van der Paele. Van der Paele’s first name was George, so Saint George is the Canon’s patron saint.

The Canon looks very serious and impressed by it all. This is his day. He has finally made it, to be presented at the court of the Holy Virgin. He has to show that he is a scholar, that he is a man of substance and no fool, so he holds a thick academic prayer book and he wears the spectacles of the intellectual. Although the Canon was rich, he is dressed in a white penitential robe. A Canon is a priest and white is the colour of purity. But with the happy looking, completely relaxed George next to him, one feels that the simplicity of the Canon is strained. He looks a bit silly here. George has dressed up as if to make a fool of the Canon.

On the other side of the painting stands Saint Donatian. He is dressed for the ceremony in a marvellous blue and gold bishop’s cope. His figure is an element of symmetry in the painting. On the right side Van der Paele and Saint George form a mass that is matched on the left by Saint Donatian who keeps his left arm so that his robe opens to the same form of area as on the right. Donatian holds a staff with a cross, which is also in symmetry with the flag and the cross of George. The blue of Donatian‘s robe matches the steel blue of George’ armour. The blue shirt of the Virgin makes the equilibrium and the connection. Donatian’s face is all rosy and fresh. He does not really look like a stern bishop. His face is all one can see of him, stuffed as he is in his robe. Donatian is also here to underscore the worldly riches of the church. Donatian holds the wooden crown with the candles, an iconography of light. Saint Donatian is prayed to even this day in Belgium. He is invoked when lightning storms occur. He is believed to have the power to deviate lightning strokes. But there is a large difference between a powerful saint able to curb lightning and the Donatian holding some candles in our painting.

Why is Donatian in this picture? The painting was destined for the Saint Donatian church of Bruges, in which George Van der Paele was buried. It was made to commemorate the founding of two chapels in that church by Van der Paele. Saint Donatian was a bishop of Reims who lived in the fourth century. A legend tells that he was thrown in the river Tiber in Rome. His body had to be found, so his persecutors lowered into the river a wheel on which were stuck five lighted candles. The wheel stopped over the spot of the riverbed where Donatian lay peacefully. He was recovered and restored to life by prayers G41 . This is why Donatian is represented holding a wheel, the rim of which is set with candles. The wheel represents his martyrdom. Donatian’s relics came to Bruges in 863, where the cathedral and the diocese of Bruges were dedicated to him. The Saint Donatian cathedral was thus the most important church of the town during the life of Jan Van Eyck. At the occupation of Flanders by the French Revolutionary Armies, the cathedral was first confiscated, then sold in 1799, and subsequently demolished. The Holy Saviour church, or Salvador church, then became the cathedral of Bruges.

The Virgin looks benevolently at the Canon. The Child sits joyfully on her lap; he plays with the flower that the Virgin holds up. Both Child and Mother hold the same flower. This represents the passionflower, indicating Christ’s own later passion, the stage to his destiny. With his other hand, the Child holds a pigeon, always a representation of the Holy Spirit. But the child has a strange face; doesn’t he look remarkably like a baby Van der Paele?

The Virgin sits on a wooden chair with stiles ending in woodcarvings. These woodcarvings represent violent scenes, such as one would not expect at all in this painting, and certainly not surrounding the Blessed Virgin. On the right is a small woodcarving of a man killing a beast. Now, George was a dragon killer. He is remembered as such, and in the nearby town of Mons in Belgium there is each year still a big folklore feast on Saint George. The whole town participates in the fight of the dragon and the culminating moment of the day is when George finally kills the enormous dragon that has harassed the people of Mons since the beginning of the festivities. But the beast in Van Eyck’s picture is not a dragon; at best it is a wild dog or a boar. George attacked the dragon with a lance, not with a short sword or knife. And the George of the painting is a nice youth in parading colours, hardly a violent killer.

The left woodcarving is a warrior slaying a man, representing maybe the slaughtering of Christians by the Donatists. These were followers of the fourth century Carthaginian bishop Donatus the Great. The Donatists wanted strict moral discipline, they did not follow the commands of Rome anymore, allied themselves with peasants and wandered through North Africa plundering churches and killing Roman Catholic priests. Their greatest adversary was Saint Augustine, who was widely read in medieval times. This Donatist episode has nothing to do with the Saint Donatian of the painting. Maybe Jan van Eyck has been playing. Maybe that is also why Donatian is looking not altogether happy. Under these small wooden sculptures are two other woodcarvings in the seat: one of Adam on the left, Eve on the right. They are nude, contrasting with the richly clad figures of Donatian and George. Thus humankind participates in this picture.

The room is half church or chapel, half stateroom. There is a tradition of showing the Madonna in a church, and particularly Jan Van Eyck made several pictures of Mary inside Gothic chapels or cathedrals. The setting was quite natural for medieval Flanders, as the mother of Jesus Christ was described as a ‘templum’ or a ‘Domus Dei’ since Jesus, during her incarnation, lived in Mary as in a temple. And devotion was of course in Jan Van Eyck’s times very much focused on the cathedrals and churches, the largest and tallest buildings in Flanders’ cities.

There are sculptured columns in Van Eyck’s chapel, but so many as one would never expect in a small and humble one. A heavy glass window is behind the seat of the Virgin. Not the kind of glass one would expect in a chapel. All is much too crowded; the ceiling is too low to be a realistic surrounding. This technique was used elsewhere, in other paintings of Jan Van Eyck, like the Arnolfini marriage. Look at the wonderful tapestry at the feet of the Virgin: tapestries were much woven and used in Flanders. Bruges and Arras were well known for their tapestries. At the disaster of the Battle of Nikopolis in 1396, the Turkish Sultan Bajazed captured many French and Burgundian knights. The French had been called to help the Hungarian King in his fight against the Muslims, but the knights had gone further and laid siege to Nikopolis, then been beaten. After this, one of the last Crusades and the least successful, the French court sent an embassy to Bajazed to negotiate for the recuperation of the knights. The embassy brought presents and among these were wonderful tapestries of the deeds of Alexander the Great made in Arras. The King of Hungary did not object to the other gifts, for instance rare hunting birds, to go to Bajazed, but he did thought the beautiful tapestries too beautiful a gift for a barbarian like Bajazed.

In Van Eyck’s painting the tiles on the floor compare favourably to the tapestry, but small tiles like this are never used in churches. They are one of the first features that show fleeing lines in perspective: the Flemish Jan Van Eyck must have known the basic principles of perspective. His contemporary Paolo Uccello of Florence applies all the sophistication of complex geometry.

So: the painting is maybe not that serious after all. Jan Van Eyck has again been playing with the viewer, as he did in other paintings. He plays with the scene: he presents to the viewer an impossible and strange surrounding with all the columns and tiles, much overloaded. He plays with the ceremoniousness and joyfulness of George and Donatian, who make somewhat a fool out of the stately Canon. It is as if their friend the Canon has asked them to come, partly because he is afraid to go alone to the queenly Virgin, partly to add to his importance. He cramps to a book as if he needed something well known to him to pass the scene. And George and Donatian, who know the Virgin since long, are not taking all this too serious. They have decided to play a farce on their friend and have dressed up for a feast. Maybe George alone orchestrated this, because Donatian seems a bit scornful. So, the moment of grace and triumph of the Canon Van der Paele was stolen from him and turned into derision by George. Isn’t George the young, dashing courtier of the queen, always ready for a diversion and always prepared to succour a lady?

Jan Van Eyck has played with the Canon. One wonders whether the Canon has understood that when the painting was delivered. My guess is yes, the Canon must have been truly an intelligent and learned man. I suppose that the Canon has had a good laugh too and only held up a scorning finger to the master-painter. So: are we here in front of the first satiric, comical painting in the history of oil paintings? Then so early, this can only mean that Van Eyck was not only a genius but also one who dared to use his own imagination as far as he could. Van Eyck has certainly understood, at the very beginning of oil painting in Western Europe, that a painting had to be interesting, even more than beautiful, to capture the attention of the viewer. How many people have remained puzzled, in Van Eyck’s grip, in front of this painting since the fifteenth century? So, Jan Van Eyck is a very modern man, from whatever century you look at his pictures. And he may well have diverted a religious scene to quite another purpose than one of depiction of spirituality.

One may wonder how such a genius as Jan Van Eyck appeared so suddenly in Flanders: no paintings of comparable high quality earlier than Van Eyck’s have been found. One can only suppose that earlier panels leading to this genius were destroyed. Two other elements contributed to the sudden splendid appearance. First of all, yes, there is a continuance in tradition. Jan Van Eyck was a manuscript illuminator. Pages of manuscripts made by him have been found. Knowing that, and knowing the style of minuscule details in medieval manuscripts, one can see the continuance of that style in Van Eyck’s paintings. Secondly, Van Eyck perfected the technique of oil painting. Oils were already used before him, since oils were used in the varnish that protected the egg-yoke tempera paintings G9 . Van Eyck used these natural oils, nut and linseed oils, instead of the egg tempera to mix with his colour pigments. The result was marvellous as can be seen till this day. The pigments and the oil brought on canvas were magnificently translucent; they gave a brightness to the colours that was resplendent.

Jan Van Eyck was born around 1390 in Maaseik, a town in Limburg, then part of the Bishopric of Liège, in Belgium, which was in its turn part of the German Holy Roman Empire. As mentioned, Van Eyck was at first a manuscript illuminator, then a painter. Most of his oil paintings date from after 1420. In 1425 he was appointed to the court of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. He was not only a painter, but also a courtier who took part in ambassadorial missions for Philip. He died in 1441.

Van Eyck worked in Bruges. Bruges was a very rich town in the first half of the fifteenth century. It was richer than Venice, Paris and London. There lived more than 150,000 people in Bruges, three times more than in the Bruges of today. Bruges was a seaport then and it was situated strategically in the hearth of Europe, much as the ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam today. Its wealth came from that fact: much of the trading of the continent passed through Bruges. It had also its wool and weaving industry. Painters of all the Southern Netherlands flocked to Bruges where they could find rich patrons. Bruges has much remained today, as it was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, tourists crowd the town today.

One can see the cities of Europe and take a walk through history. Take Athens for the Before Christ centuries, Rome for the first Anno Domine centuries and especially for the seventeenth century. The centre of Florence has remained much as it was in the early fifteenth century. Venice would represent the late sixteenth, Paris the eighteenth, London the nineteenth century. Berlin may be the town representing best the twentieth century, although that century definitely belongs to the North Americans. And go to Bruges to see the fourteenth century. See its small Flemish brick houses, visit its picturesque beguinage and the loveliness of its interior canal: take a boat on the small canals called the ‘Minnewater’, or water of love, discover its stately communal halls and bell-tower. Bruges was also a religious centre: Diederich of the Alsace had brought from the crusades the Holy Blood to Bruges. This relic was kept from the twelfth century to this day. The Holy Blood procession is still a marvellous feast, where the members of the associations of Bruges go through the city, dressed as knights and fair ladies of medieval times.

The times of Jan Van Eyck were the period when the Dukes of Burgundy ruled the country. The Dukes of Burgundy emerged out of the horrors of the first half of fourteenth century Europe, when the black plague killed one third of the population around 1350 and when the Hundred-Year War raged between France and England. Remember that the English King was a descendant of William of Normandy, who came from France, and thus could make claims on the throne of France. When the last Capet died, the house of Valois was chosen to reign in France, much to the distaste of Edward III of England, who then started the war. Edward’s son, the Black Prince, won the battle of Poitiers in 1356, where also a son of the king of France fought. This son was Philip the Bold, who received Burgundy from the French King, his father, in 1363, to become its first Valois Duke. The previous lineage of Burgundian Dukes had died out.

The Dukes of Burgundy of the family of Valois would reign until 1477, for a little above hundred years. They would successively by marriage and heritage expand their territories with the Northern and Southern Netherlands among which Flanders and Bruges. In 1435, Burgundy would even temporarily become independent from France. This was the price the King of France had to pay to keep Burgundy out of the war with England. The Dukes had first supported the Kings of France, their close relatives, but then they had sided with England. The end of the dynasty over Burgundy came when Charles the Bold was defeated and killed at Nancy by a Swiss army. Charles only left a daughter amidst the ruins of his defeat. The French King Louis XI thereupon invaded Burgundy. The Netherlands however continued to be reigned by Mary of Burgundy. She married Maximilian I, the German emperor, and from that day on Flanders became part of the Holy Roman Empire of Germany. The empire would be ruled in the sixteenth century by the very wealthy and very Catholic Charles V. He ruled over a vast empire ‘where the sun never went down’ because he also possessed vast territories in South America. Mary of Burgundy and her knight Maximilian were much-loved figures in Bruges; their marriage is commemorated to this day during the Holy Blood procession.

The Dukes of Burgundy most of the time supported the English against the French, in part because they liked wealth and did not want the English again to block their wool exports to Bruges, as the English King had done just before the Hundred Year War started. And, of course, they wanted their independence from France’s king emphasised. Around the 1420s the English occupied vast parts of France and they beleaguered even the city of Orléans, close to Burgundy. This became also a problem for the Dukes of Burgundy, but luckily for France Joan of Arc entered the city and defeated the attackers in 1429. Of course, somewhat later, in 1431, Joan of Arc was captured by the English and burned at the stake in the city of Rouen. This happened just five years before Jan Van Eyck painted the Virgin and the Canon Van der Paele. The Dukes of Burgundy could guarantee peace for the Southern Netherlands so that their riches grew, in stark contrast to the devastations that ravaged France.

Not all was so idyllic in Bruges, though. Around 1430, just after the marriage of Duke Philip the Good with Princess Isabella of Portugal, the Bruges guilds rose against their Duke. The Duchess could escape from the town in the last moments and join her husband, who was at nearby Gent. The troubles ended without too much violence: in 1436 peace was sealed between the town and the Duke. But the hostilities would soon begin anew. In 1437, Philip the Good entered the town with an army among which 4,000 Picardian soldiers who started to pillage the town, killing women and children. The whole town joined the fight then and Philip had to retreat outside the town. He beleaguered Bruges again however, and the town surrendered. Its main burghers were humiliated, hung, imprisoned or tortured. Bruges was punished. Van Eyck must have been torn between his allegiance to Duke Philip and the town that had brought him fame and wealth. He knew the Duke very well, belonged to his court; he had been to Portugal to paint the Duke’s future wife Isabella. He had been to Dijon, the capital of Burgundy. But he also paid allegiance to the guild of painters of Bruges. Jan Van Eyck thus was an immediate witness of these revolts and must have painted his ‘Virgin and Canon Van der Paele’ in the midst of these.

Duke Philip of Burgundy and Bruges lived in peace after the revolts. The Duke died in 1457 and was buried with much ceremony in the same church Saint Donatian for which Van Eyck made his painting and in which the painting hung by that time, close to the tomb of the Canon Van der Paele.

Jan Van Eyck’s picture is an example of a theme that was quite popular with commissioners of religious pictures. The church clergy wanted to console, to show that one of its roles was to intercede between heaven and man. Every saint could be prayed to and asked for help. Saints were asked to intercede with God for relief of sufferings, of sicknesses, for help in unlucky trade and to avoid catastrophes. The religious figure closest to Jesus was his mother, so the combination of the Virgin and saints made immediate sense. But Jan Van Eyck with his ‘Virgin and Canon Van der Paele’ used a religious theme to play with the viewers. Van Eyck did not just do this in this particular picture. The ‘Arnolfini Marriage’ is likewise a somewhat mysterious picture that concentrated the attention of art historians for decades and that has still not yielded all its secrets. So, we find in Van Eyck a very early example of playful irreverence for the seriousness and spirituality that was so sacrosanct for the Flemish Primitives. Van Eyck was not just a marvellous painter. He showed character and mockery, two very modern qualities in any century.

Other paintings:

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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