2012: Advent Art History: Naked Baby Jesus, December 03

by on December 3, 2012

Today’s naked Baby Jesus is by one of my very favourite painters, Jan van Eyck, and is a detail from this painting:

The Madonna of Canon van der Paele

Jan van Eyck


Oil on panel

122 x 157 cm

The painting focuses on the Virgin and Child, with St Donatian on the left (he was the patron saint of the church this was commissioned for), and St George presenting the doner, Canon van der Paele, on the right.

This page gives a brief but good analysis of the work, including the details that you can’t see in these images. It’s worth glancing through this, as works of this time are filled with meaningful details that people of the time would have understood, but that we might miss.

You might be wondering why they’re all standing/kneeling around the Virgin like that, and the canon is staring off into space. It’s because this isn’t the representation of a real space or a physical event. This is a painting of the canon’s spiritual vision. This is his hope, for his patron saint to present him to the Virgin and Child, and for Christ to acknowledge and bless him (see how the Christ Child looks at him). Mary is enthroned and richly robed – here, she is the the Queen of Heaven. She and the Christ Child haven’t been transported from the stable in Bethlehem; instead, they’re shown as timeless icons embodying the central promise of the canon’s faith – salvation.

Just forty years after Melchior Broederlam’s International Gothic Dijon Altarpiece (yesterday’s painting), and the style of painting used in Northern Europe has changed enormously. Jan van Eyck was part of the first generation of painters in what is now known as the Northern Renaissance. Works of the Northern Renaissance are characterised by an abandonment of gold leaf, and an intense interest in depicting people and material objects in an illusionistic and naturalistic way.

There has been a change in media too. Where Melchior Broederlam worked in tempera, Jan van Eyck worked in oils, building up translucent glazes in a medium which enables incredible attention to detail.

Contrary to popular belief (spread thanks to Giorgia Vasari), neither Jan van Eyck nor his brother Hubert invented oil painting, but they were among the first to exploit it in this way.

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