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Discovering the Magnificence of Jan van Eyck at Gemäldegalerie

"The founding father of all Netherlandish painting and the inventor of the oil technique" was the title bestowed upon Jan van Hyke by Giorgio Vasari, an Italian art theorist, in 1550. Such praises shaped the maestro’s image until at least the inception of modern art historical research. 

Born in an unknown decade of the 14th century, Jan van Hyke made his debut in the annals of art history in 1422 as a court painter in The Hague. After various adventures – of artistic and diplomatic nature – he finally put his roots down in Bruges in Belgium in 1432. 

It was in this year and in this city that he laid the foundational work of Early Netherlandish paintings. He created 20 individual panels in a monumental retable called the Ghent Altarpiece

Ghent Alterpiece, completed in 1432. Started by Jan van Hyke's brother Hubert van Hyke.

Despite being meticulous in signing and dating his paintings, today around only 20 paintings remain which are either signed or can be attributed to him. His only mistake was to inscribe his signature mostly on the frames of the works, and hence once the frames were lost to time and mismanagement, so did his attributions. 

In total, only nine works dated authentically by him are extant now – made between 1432 to 1439. In this article, we will go through all of them.

Unravelling the Genius of Jan van Eyck: Beauty is in the Details

Shining gold, transparent glass, and shimmering fabrics – such are the magnificent depictions that can be found in Jan van Eyck’s paintings. From capturing the atmospheric depth of a landscape to the minutest of realistic details to accurately depicting the chiaroscuro interior of a church, he captured it all with the masterstroke of his brush. 

The Zoom exhibition at Gemäldegalerie in Berlin compiled the paintings by Jan van Eyck into two sections: on one side, the exhibition explained the technological and art historical research that had been carried out; on the other side, you could see the results of this research and the eventual restoration of Eyck’s works. 

Magnifiers were placed attached to the nine paintings, so that visitors could see the inexhaustible wealth of detail themselves.

A section of the exhibition was reserved for the visitors to admire the details of the paintings through an interactive projection by zooming into them and comparing recurring motifs through all his works. After seeing the minute details – from the veins on the hands of the portraits to the expressions of the populace peering at Mother Mary in the Church – people could marvel at the works in high resolution and wall-size format. 

During this interactive experience through the entire oeuvre of Jan van Eyck, twenty works were displayed, in which 300 details had been pre-selected, but you could choose the details you wanted to see enlarged yourself. Every painting became a unique exploration experience in itself allowing the visitor to see features invisible to the naked eye.  

The ability to create an artwork consisting of so many minute details (from the delicate strands of hair to the subtle sparkle in their eyes) is an achievement that has captivated admirers for centuries. 

"The Madonna in the Church" and "The Crucifixion"

In the technological and art historical section of the exhibition, conservators had to go through the great pains to bring out the original colours and individual details in front. The appearances of the paintings were deeply affected by the older varnishing and retouching, but after using condition photos and micrographs, this damage was successfully reversed. 

It is especially visible in the two paintings of "The Madonna in the Church", ca. 1437/40, and "The Crucifixion", ca. 1430/40. 

In 1887, "The Madonna in the Church" was stolen from the Altes Museum and was returned after 12 days but without its frame. The current frame had to be added later. The details, however, remain the highlight of the painting. The golden crown on the Virgin Mary’s head is created exclusively with paint, and the scratched lines on the tile floor while the paint was wet with a non-staining style, covering up with pencil and ruler. 

In this setting of a Gothic cathedral where sunlight streams inside through the windows, the dance of light and shadow is marvelous to see. No other painting in this period can boast of such light effects. The next painting to date which uses this effect comes out only in the 17th century in the Netherlands. 

Between a weeping Mary and John covered in blood, hangs Jesus. The richly detailed background landscape with a moon at the top-right (one of the earliest depictions of the celestial body) attempts to show the fantasy view of Jerusalem. 

Interestingly, the painting of "The Crucifixion of Christ" is regarded as the only surviving canvas painting by Jan van Eyck. His signature of extensive underdrawing with metal points and various fine brushes makes it crystal clear that it is his and his alone work of art. 

Painting the People of the High and Middle Class

Jan van Eyck painted people not only of aristocratic backgrounds but also middle-class people. The two paintings in this exhibition are a shining example of this dichotomy and his talent: "Portrait of Baudouin de Lannoy", ca. 1435/40, and "Portrait of a Man with a Red Chaperon", ca. 1435/40.

"Baudouin de Lannoy" is said to have belonged to a high nobility family and was said to have been a knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, the most exclusive knightly order that could be bestowed upon a knight. He was part of the Burgundian delegation alongside Jan van Eyck where they both courted the Portugal king’s daughter on behalf of their king, Duke Philip. In this painting, the stoic aristocrat has been depicted with utmost precision, from every wrinkle and every scar. 

The damage on this painting was done over the years by the movement of wooden panels due to changes in humidity and temperature. 

The painting "Portrait of a Man with a Red Chaperon" is an example of such a man estimated to be in his 40s. He wears plain, unadorned clothing which is a symbol of simplicity, and perhaps Jan van Eyck found his features quite remarkable as he is said to have painted him with his wife a year before painting his portrait (1434, Arnolfini Double Portrait).

The restoration of the painting was done very meticulously by removing the age-related formations which were discolouring the fine details, the essence of the paintings. After taking great pains to bring them out in an amazing feat, now even the fingerprints of Jan van Eyck, which were left behind when dabbing the green glaze on the robe, are visible to the visitors. 

The Man, The Old Man in Love, and The Forgotten Consort 

In the series of non-religious paintings, three portraits stood the test of time, and are now part of the 9 surviving Jan van Eyck’s works. 

The Man with the Pinks ca. 1520

This painting by Jan van Eyck is considered as one of the greatest portraits in European painting as a whole, and one of the most outstanding works of the artist by the end of the 19th century. However, after 1900, this painting lost its status completely. 

The man in this painting is said to represent the satirical depiction of an "old man in love", as the man is given a bouquet of flowers, which is the familiar symbol of love affairs. 

Portrait of a Man ca. 1425/40

The original painter of this portrait is still up for debate – whether it was Jan or his brother Hubert, but it is for certain that it was a product from the same workshop. This man was used again as a secondary figure in the large panel of the painting "Fountain of Life" painted by Van Eyck himself.

Bonne d’Artois ca. 2nd Half of the 16th Century

This painting depicts the second wife of Duke Philip of Burgandy who was Jan van Eyek’s employer. 

She had died in the first year of her marriage, and when in the 16th century, a wide-spread series of portraits of rulers had to be created, there was no authentic likeness of the consort available. Hence, this fantasy portrait was created using motifs from Jan’s previous works.

"The Mother" and "The Son of God"

In the final round of paintings, we arrive back to the religious subjects: Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ. 

The Madonna at the Fountain ca. 1460/70 

This painting at Gemäldegalerie in Berlin is an enlarged free copy that was created probably by a South German painter who had worked in Jan van Eyke’s workshop or perhaps even a successor. 

The halo upon Virgin Mary’s head and the veil are believed to have been added in modern times to make it appear like an early Italian Renaissance work.

The Holy Face of Christ ca. 1500

Jan van Eyck marked this painting with the date January 31st, 1438 and his signature. However, it is still unknown whether it was his original creation or it was painted in his style by his successors later on.

However, this painting attempts to show the image of Christ which is supposed to have been common in the High Middle Ages.

Legacy of Jan van Eyck

Jan van Eyck's impact on art is immense. He changed painting forever by perfecting oil techniques, making artworks more vibrant and detailed. His attention to detail, especially in portraying light and shadow, was groundbreaking.

His paintings reflect both religious devotion and the lives of his contemporaries, offering a window into 15th-century Europe. His influence extended beyond his time, inspiring artists for centuries. As visitors of the Gemäldegalerie were lingering before each painting, they were not merely admiring artworks, but were also bearing witness to a legacy that continues to shape the course of art history. 


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