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Christ on the Knees of his Mother

Charles Le Brun (1619-1690). Musée du Louvre – Paris. Around 1643-1645.

Pietà de Luco

Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530). Galleria Pallatina, Palazzo Pitti – Florence. 1523-1524.

The Descent of the Cross

Rogier Van Der Weyden (1399-1464). Metropolitan Museum – New York. Around 1435.

Pietà pictures are among the most widespread of Christian paintings and sculptures. The best-known sculpture is probably Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Pietà in Saint Peter’s cathedral of the Vatican. The best-known paintings are without doubt Rogier Van Der Weyden’s various versions of the theme. The Gospels do not mention the scene in particular, but nevertheless the theme gained high popularity because it showed the suffering of Jesus’ mother at her dead son. Many sculptures and paintings have only Jesus and Mary, but many others also show the same figures that can be found in pictures of the ‘Descent of the Cross’: Mary Magdalene may be anointing Jesus’ feet whereas Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea may be supporting Jesus. John the Evangelist is also often witness to the scene, often supporting Mary. In the theme the first pictures showed Jesus lying over the knees of Mary. Later paintings may show Mary holding the head of her son.

One such a later depiction of the Pietà is Charles Le Brun’s painting made around 1643 to 1645.

Charles Le Brun was a true Parisian, born there in 1619. He was a pupil of François Perrier, of Le Bourguigon, somewhat also of Simon Vouet. In 1642 he went to Italy, spent there four years and was a pupil of Nicolas Poussin. Poussin had remained long in Italy before, was called to Paris in 1640 but soon left again for Rome in 1642. Le Brun was much influenced by the strict classicism of Poussin. At Le Brun’s return to France in 1646, he obtained an order of Fouquet, the superintendent of Louis XIV, to decorate the castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte. Louis XIV, who recognised in him not just a painter but also an administrator, agreed to draw him to the court. Colbert, Louis XIV’s main Minister, and Le Brun soon centralised the art industry in Paris. Le Brun became one of the founders in 1648 of the ‘Académie Royale de Peinture’, for which he also gave the very first lecture. He was only twenty-nine years old when he gave this first course. It must have been interesting to hear Le Brun’s lessons in the Académie defining the first immutable rules of the theory of Classic and Baroque French art.

Le Brun became the first director also of the Manufactory of the Gobelin tapestries. In 1668 he was nominated to the position of First Painter of the King. Le Brun was very famous at the court; he was even promoted to nobility. He was the most important artist of Louis XIV. Le Brun’s life work was of course the Palace of Versailles, the decorations of which were made mostly according to his plans and under his direction. The splendour of the Gallery of the Mirrors of Versailles, the ‘Galerie des Glaces’, is of Charles Le Brun. He painted many themes of classic antiquity and he designed cartoons for these scenes to be manufactured as tapestries. But he was also a religious painter, emphasising in some of the scenes the link between the French royalty and the kingdom of the heavens. Louis XIV was King of France by the grace of God and Le Brun was not going to say the contrary. Le Brun was a great painter with a fecund imagination. Some of his pictures are surprising when viewed against the background of court life in that they are truthful, earnest, sincere and original. Such is the case of his Pietà or as it now called ‘The dead Christ on the Knees of the Virgin’. It was made for Le Brun’s patron at the court, the Chancellor Séguier. Séguier had paid for Le Brun’s stay in Rome and the picture was probably made there, in Rome. It was given by one of Séguier’s descendants to the church of Saint Elisabeth in Paris, where Séguier’s daughter Marie was entombed in 1704.

Le Brun who introduced academism in the French Academy had to go back to the sources of the images of the Pietà. Mary is sitting on the ground and the head of Jesus lies on the knee of an outstretched leg. Le Brun has taken a classic image but changed it to a novel view. He favoured diagonals as he might have seen in the pictures made some decades ago by Caravaggio and Rubens. Jesus thus lies along one diagonal and Mary along the other. Le Brun departed from the strong vertical lines of the Flemish Primitives and the Italians of the early Renaissance. The colours he used also are not conventional. Jesus’ body is so pale as to almost radiate brightness. The body becomes very livid but heavenly, more transcended by this effect. It is as if sculptured in white marble, with blue translucent veins showing through the delicate skin. Mary is dressed in a pure blue maphorion, of which the cap is lowered over her head in grief. She holds the white shroud under Jesus.

Le Brun’s painting is cold. The whites of the shroud and the brightness of Jesus contrast with the very deep blue. These are cold colours; there are no warm browns or red colours. The background remains uncommitted, impersonal and dark, almost black. Mary is shown arranging the shroud. But there is no external show of emotions. At most there is a tender arrangement of cloth around Jesus. There is almost no movement in the image. This lack of gesture is combined with a very strong pyramidal structure formed by Mary and Jesus. The scene is frozen in time in a static pose.

Le Brun knew the new structures of diagonals and pyramids as assembled by Caravaggio, but whereas Caravaggio used this to enhance the dynamism of his figures, Le Brun showed that these techniques could as well be used to emphasise the static of a picture. The question one will probably always ask is whether this picture was an exercise in style to demonstrate particular techniques of the pictorial arts, as Le Brun taught them in his Academy. The picture may however also have been painted naturally out of Le Brun’s own vision of a Pietà. Le Brun was the French courtier who always had to keep up strict protocol and appearances. His cool view may have been the expression of his own detached vision, of his distant feelings of respect for the two figures. Le Brun may have felt that the direct representation of private emotions was not the academic way of painting. The most sympathetic view on his picture is however that Le Brun was indeed very respectful in his view of the suffering of a mother over her dead son. Maybe because of this sympathy he has only shown Mary rearranging desperately, again and again, the shroud in which Jesus would soon be entombed. Whatever the concept that has gone through Le Brun’s mind, his ‘The dead Christ on the Knees of the Virgin’ is one of the most still images of a Pietà that were ever painted. It is a rare picture in the period when Baroque exuberant art was at his height. Paris and Le Brun were indicating yet another road.

Andrea del Sarto

Andrea del Sarto painted his version of the Pietà around 1523 to 1524, over a century earlier than Le Brun’s picture. Del Sarto was one of the most important masters of the late Florentine Renaissance. He was formed in the workshop of Piero di Cosimo but also could not but look at the other masters of Florence, who were his contemporaries and competitors for commissions. He saw the works of Leonardo da Vinci, of Michelangelo and of Fra Bartolommeo. He saw Michelangelo’s new drive in the depiction of nudes and outright depiction of emotions, which would lead to Mannerism. His own pupils Rosso Fiorentino and Jacopo Pontormo would follow this trend fully.

But Andrea del Sarto was also permeated by the stricter images of the early Renaissance artists of his town. Florence was yet a merchant town, given to a more austere character. Del Sarto understood both trends and blended some of the newer directions of representation with the strong rationality of Florence. In that way he was immensely popular in Florence. He had his own workshop, which he held together with Franciabigio. The output by this workshop of religious scenes was very large so that today one can hardly go in any building of Florence without finding somewhere an Andrea del Sarto picture.

Andrea del Sarto’s painting ‘Suffering for the Dead Christ’ is called the Pietà de Luco because it was commissioned for the main altar of the church of San Pietro de Luco, in the Mugello region. Del Sarto had taken refuge there when an epidemic of the plague had once more broken out in Florence. I3

We certainly recognise Michelangelo’s influence in this painting of Andrea del Sarto. The painter has used very pure, bright colours as if this were a fresco painting. He has applied some shadow to give much relief to the figures so that they resemble sculptures. The scene is almost static; all the figures are in poses of still gestures. John, Mary, Joseph of Arimathea do have a gesture in their arms, but they are touching Jesus in a silent slow position that they could hold for quite a time. The picture is very restful in these poses of the figures, so that it is peaceful to look at.

Del Sarto also innovated the theme. Jesus is sitting on a stone, just a little supported by John and the Virgin Mary. Mary Magdalene is at Jesus’ feet but does not clench Jesus’ body. Mary Magdalene also is without movement, in silent respect. She holds her hands in prayer and in a gesture of disbelieve at what has happened. Joseph of Arimathea stands behind Mary in a manner that could make him a Saint Peter commanding the church. But the gesture is merely a tender touch to Mary. Mary herself is not painted in the blue colours but in warm red and in a slightly purple and white cap. Del Sarto certainly favoured the warm colours in this picture. He used various shades of red and rose and only tries some green and blue on the outer sides of the frame in the figures of John and the third Mary. Mary’s head forms the centre of the picture. Around this head Andrea del Sarto has made a composition of symmetries. The composition is strongly symmetrical around the centre. And the painter has given predominance to the diagonals. The heads of John, Jesus, Mary and Joseph thus form one diagonal. The other diagonal goes over the heads of Mary Magdalene, Mary and Nicodemus on the left. The strong use of diagonals was not so common in pictures. After Andrea del Sarto, the great Caravaggio would make this feature the main superb structure of his works. Here we see the technique applied long before Caravaggio, but not yet as the basis of simulation of motion. The structure of del Sarto’s picture is in various other ways very strict since many stable triangles can be found.

The result of the austere geometric structure, the static induced by del Sarto in the figures and the sculpture-like build-up of the personages has turned his picture into one of the most peaceful, agreeable images to look at of his time. Andrea del Sarto added a beautiful landscape with rock formations on the left and he gave a wide perspective on the right. The artists added symbols, like a pot of balm on the lower right, which is always associated with Mary Magdalene, and a chalice in the lower middle representing the Eucharist that would be offered on the altar against which stood the panel. Del Sarto knew how to please and yet offer a picture of innovation that was not just the repetition of conventions. It must have been nice to sit during mass in this little church of Luco and ponder at this still picture of intimate, private tragedy. For del Sarto also showed the tenderness and loss of a mother at her dead son and the compassion of the friends around her. By the strong symmetries centred on Mary del Sarto gave this main message. The Virgin Mary was not alone in her grief, just as few people in the days of glory of Florence were seldom left alone. These were the kind of pictures Charles Le Brun had in mind when he founded academism in France and from which he could deduce the rules he taught.

Rogier Van Der Weyden

We present in this book, in several places, paintings of masters from the Belgian town of Tournai dating from the early fifteenth century. Robert Campin was the first master of Tournai. We present further in this text an ‘Entombment’ of him. Jacques Daret and Rogier Van Der Weyden were together his apprentices from 1427 to 1432 F20 .

Rogier Van Der Weyden was the greatest of the three and where the two former painters, Campin and Daret, were the excellent craftsmen, Rogier was the greater artist. Born likewise in Tournai around 1400, he died in Brussels in 1464. He became the town painter of Brussels around 1430 and remained in that Brabant city until his death. We know he travelled to Italy between 1450 and 1455. He made for instance a Madonna with the weapons of the Medici in Florence. He has also visited Ferrara. Brussels and Brabant had become a part of the Duchy of Burgundy. So naturally, Rogier also worked in Burgundy, for instance for the Hospital of Beaune near Dijon, the capital of Burgundy. And of course, he worked for rich commissioners of Bruges.

Van Der Weyden, but also Campin and Daret, have been called Flemish Primitives, in the same line of painters as Jan Van Eyck, Hans Memling, and so many others. They are assimilated with the Flemish painters of Bruges. It is certainly true that these painters had style, form, colours, realism, and subjects in common. By right one can call these painters as belonging to the same general school. They worked and lived in towns close by: Bruges mostly, because the most wealthy, but also Brussels, Tournai, Gent, Antwerp and a little further Lille, Arras and still more south then the towns of Burgundy. All these towns were rich from various industries, mostly linen, wool cloth, tapestries, and trade. The region lay at the centre of trade between France, England, Holland, Germany and still farther the Italian city-states of Genoa, Venice, Florence, Pisa as well as the Scandinavian and the Baltic states.

The towns of Northern France, Flanders and Brabant were also the near theatres of the Hundred Year War between the French and the English Kings. The rich and powerful Dukes of Burgundy were third party, once allies of England and then of France, as suited their interests. Yet, although the painters lived approximately in the same region, there is quite a difference in temperament between them. Campin, Daret and Van Der Weyden came from Tournai, where French was spoken. Contrary to the towns of Bruges, Brussels, and Gent, where Dutch was the language. Van Der Weyden is how he was called in Flanders. His real name was Roger de le Pasture. Campin and Daret are French names. So, Campin, Daret and de le Pasture are in modern Belgium hailed as the foremost Walloon painters, after the name of the French-speaking region of Belgium in which Tournai is situated, now called Wallony.

Tournai is one of those towns with a horrendously complicated history. It was a border town between Flanders and France. The town is almost two thousand years old. It was a Gallo-Roman town, conquered by the Merovingian Franks. It became the capital of the Frankish Kings Childeric and Clovis, who have been called the first Kings of France. Then it was French, English (for a short period under Henry VIII, a round fortified tower still commemorates this period), Spanish, Dutch, then again French (the town received its contemporary structure under Louis XIV), Austrian, French once again (after the French Revolution), Dutch and finally Belgian. Belgium has become a federation recently; Tournai is now in the Belgian French speaking region of Wallony. The town has twelve churches and chapels. Tournai was in the centre of the northern French Gothic building activity. The Notre-Dame cathedral is an imposing church, dating from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, built both in Roman and gothic style, one of the largest in western European architecture with five towers of over 80 meters high. Tournai today has seven museums, remarkable for a town of about 20.000 people. Its Fine Arts Museum was built in 1928 by the famous Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta: still in that period Tournai could find rich maecenasses willing to add to the glory of their town.

In the 1430s, when our three painters worked, Tournai was under the direct sovereignty of the Kings of France. Almost all of the Tournai surroundings, however, belonged to the Duke of Burgundy. In 1433, around the time when the most famous Daret painting, an altarpiece for the abbey of Saint Vaast in Arras, was made, Jean de Thoisi the bishop of Tournai and former Chancellor of Burgundy had died. The Duke of Burgundy wanted to pass the bishopric to his own advisor, Jean Chevrot, who was an archdiacre in the Normandy town of Rouen. However, Jean de Harcourt, the bishop of Amiens, acted secretly with Pope Eugene IV, supported by the King of France, to become bishop of Tournai. De Harcourt was appointed by Rome and took up his office immediately. When the Duke of Burgundy heard of this, he became very angry with the Pope, who transferred the archbishopric of Narbonne in an act of conciliation to de Harcourt. But Tournai was much richer than Narbonne, so a much better price for the bishops of the fifteenth century, who lived as princes do with a large court of servants, with horses, dogs and mistresses. De Harcourt refused and stayed in Tournai. The Duke of Burgundy then sent an armed delegation for Chevrot to Tournai to take possession of the bishopric. The people of Tournai were more inclined to France, had already liked de Harcourt during his short office. So they attacked Etienne Vivian, the grand vicar of Chevrot during the ceremony of possession. De Harcourt could only at the brink save Vivian. The Duke of Burgundy could not let this offence pass, so he confiscated all the possessions of the inhabitants of Tournai in his Duchy and he forbade anyone in Burgundy to trade with Tournai. De Harcourt was forced to go to Narbonne. The dispute with Tournai lasted five years. The incident shows some of the power of the enclave-town, how it was situated between the powers of the time, how it could be envy to Kings and Dukes. Rogier Van Der Weyden would paint the ‘Triptych of the Seven Sacraments’, now in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Antwerp, for Jean Chevrot, bishop of Tournai B2 .

Daret and Campin painted pictures that could be admired for their craft. We see their paintings as lovely images. We look in astonishment to all the details that have been meticulously shown. We admire the time and the effort that the craftsman has dedicated. And so these men were considered remarkable professionals who needed to please and astonish their commissioners by the extraordinary gift of talent they had. Campin and Daret continued the tradition of the anonymous architects and builders of the gothic era. We truly admire. But something is missing. Painters were aware that the pure spirituality remained cold. The pictures of old did not appeal anymore to the public as before. A form of innovation, a sense of need for evolution was in the air. Jan Van Eyck tried to find a solution of his own: he tried to astonish by arousing interest and curiosity. He introduced strange settings, rooms that are too small, symbols, and hidden meanings. The viewer suspects that something is wrong in his paintings, so he is tempted to look further and discover in delight unexpected surprises.

Van Eyck’s paintings and the Tournai paintings of Campin and Daret are very easy to admire, but difficult to love. Van Der Weyden would offer us just that in northern painting. The craft of colouring, drawing, the intelligence of the lines, of Rogier’s ‘Descent of the Cross’ are even more important in all their details than those of Campin and Daret. But there is a lot more. The scene is a deliberate assemblage of bodies set in particular shapes so as to convey waves of emotions. The corpse of Jesus is a wave, as is the fainting Mary, the weeping Mary Magdalene, the helping John and the grieving Nicodemus. Van Der Weyden was one of the first Flemish painters to depict lyrical images. He presented emotions on a canvas of Gothic imagery.

First: Jesus. His corpse is lowered from the cross. His arms are still outstretched, so that the cross remains the central theme of the painting. One arm is supported by the apostle or angel who comes from the ladder; the other arm hangs down in a quite natural way. Yet, the arms do form the sign of the cross. Joseph of Arimathea supports Jesus’ shoulders, Nicodemus his feet. The result is a curved body that brings us emotions of pity, helplessness, and defeat. We feel inclined to jump into the scene and help to support the body. The colours sustain the effect: Jesus is naked, glassy white, and white linen is behind him.

The wave of Jesus continues to Mary Magdalene. She is as if stricken by the line of Jesus’ body, curved almost around Jesus’ feet. Her body also is a wave, but where Jesus’ wave is horizontal, hers is vertical. The curve of Mary Magdalene closes the picture on the right: it makes the scene intimate, interiorised. Look at how her arms continue the curve, also her head. The same closing curve can be found on the left, where Saint John holds Mary. The same bending of legs, the same play of folds of the robes. Both are slender figures. The wave of John however is somewhat different because the viewer has to be drawn to the second tragedy of the painting.

Mary has fainted. She has a magnificent blue robe and the same white headdress we can find in other of Van Der Weyden’s paintings and also in the Campin paintings. She likewise has one arm supported, one hanging down in a natural poise. The wave of her body exactly fits Jesus’: same movement of arms, same direction of body. The mother feels the same passion as the son. The colours of her robe are as light as Jesus’, but here it is an unworldly blue. She also has her eyes closed, just as her son.

For the rest of the painting, we find Nicodemus on the right in a marvellously decorated brown and gold robe. The two women on the left, Mary and Mary Salome match these colours. Nicodemus is a wealthy man, but we can see in his face that he is a man who has gone through many hardships. He might be a rich burgher, a manager of a tapestry factory, a carriage maker of Brussels, but he is a man full of devotion and sincere grievance. He represents the people. Joseph of Arimathea on the other hand, is depicted as a wise man with the small head cape of a scholar and the white beard of a learned man. He represents the clergy, the doctors, and the theoretical intelligence of a city. The one that has let it happen. Is that why this man has his eyes directed to the ground? The heads of all the figures are inclined as signs of grief. The apostle or angel who is still on the ladder emphasises the cross with a living body. The figure’s body is equally in the form of a cross, again turned in a way as the other bodies of the painting.

The lines of the painting are curves, just as emotions are not straight lines but curves. The body of Jesus is mirrored in Mary; Mary Magdalene is mirrored in Saint John. The set of three figures on the right is in symmetry with equally three figures on the left. These lines and symmetries once more stress the deliberate setting of Rogier, his formidable knowledge of balance and harmony.

The painting of Rogier Van Der Weyden thus indeed is a dynamic emotion, not a picture. We are drawn into the feeling. And yet, everything is under control and spiritualised. This is not a painting to admire, but a painting to be in, to take part in, and to enter. Very few artists but Rogier have been able to do this. It is why we love him more than any other northern painter of the early fifteenth century.

The paintings of Van Der Weyden mark the evolution from Gothic art to newer times. In the Gothic period we find more miniaturists than painters in the North. Even the early painters learned their craft as miniaturists. They were indeed craftsmen, dedicated to cold detail. They were to decorate. However, they were supposed to decorate in such a way as to show all the splendour and power of the spirituality of Roman Catholic faith. The Church consoled. It was the guardian of the higher values. In times when war, murder and rape by roaming hirelings soared and in times when the luxurious lives of the rich contrasted so scandalously with the dark poverty of the peasants, it was necessary to provide hope. The only hope could be for a better life after death. So, the paintings had to show the splendour of after-life, the lives of the Saints and of the Holy Family. The Clergy hoped thus to inspire also the nobility to a more virtuous life.

Van Der Weyden used the occasions that were presented to him by rich commissioners, to use this craft and turn it into a very personal art. From now on, painters became aware that they could express their own personal emotions into the paintings and still receive commissions for pictures. In time, they would claim not only the right to do so, but they would be admired by the way in which they did just that. Still later, in our times, only the immediate expression and the formless impression of feelings would remain.

Van Der Weyden’s picture is history reversed. Here was one of the first painters to bring true emotion in his pictures. Andrea del Sarto stylised his emotions, reconciling the strictness of Florentine tradition with the depiction of pathos. And Charles Le Brun held emotions entirely in the ban of academism. Trend induces counter-trends. The reaction to French academism would later be the unbridled show of emotions in Romantic art.

Other paintings:

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